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WHY ADVERTISING’s GONE TO SH*T

Jul 11, 2024

If you knew who I was before opening this then it’s probably because of YouTube.

YouTube videos are what I’ve worked most at for the last decade – and where I’ve done my best work. I’m not saying this to be arrogant, but because if you do know me from YouTube, you might not know how long I spent in traditional advertising. That’s where I started out, way before I was CCO for MrBeast or Building 368 with Casey Neistat – and I still spend a lot of time making ads.

I’ve spoken before about the leap of faith I took in joining YouTube. When I did, YouTube wasn’t the phenomenon that it is today, it was still quite new and very much an unknown quantity. Plus, I had a comfortable job as a TV ad director, and I was seeing success in that space through what mattered to me then – like winning craft awards for best director at Cannes a few times (ok yes brag there, but needed to add some kind of weight to the words you are reading). I also thought of YouTube as being ‘lesser’ at that time – that traditional film, traditional advertising was the serious stuff, and joining YouTube would be selling out. Of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong. Pivoting to YouTube was the best career decision I ever made. 

Except what I haven’t spoken about before, is the other side of things. Not why I joined YouTube, but why I left traditional advertising. 

After I finished high school, I was desperate to be behind the camera. I didn’t know much about myself at 18, but I did know what I loved, which was film. I had this all-consuming desire to make films, a complete obsession. As I’ve gotten older, that hasn’t gone away. If anything, it’s grown. Anyway, I went off to film school. I hated film school and I dropped out after a few months. As to why – that’s a story for another day. 

I still obviously had the desire. I was still determined to be a filmmaker. So I posted a photo of myself on Facebook, holding a piece of cardboard that said, ‘Will Film for Travel.’ That worked, probably too well. I was flown around the world for a year to film things – the travel was my payment. I learnt a lot, but there was also so much that went wrong. Because of what I’d offered, and because I was young, I got taken advantage of. Then I got burnt out. I had to take time off. And with no source of income, and only being 20 or so, a hiatus to consider my next move was not an option. 

HOWEVER, I now had a body of work. A big one – a year’s worth of making films around the globe. It was good enough to land me in a directors chair in advertising, and off I went… 

So, at 22, I’d become a film director.  I was the youngest director by 15 years at the first production company that signed me, Ground Glass. It was great at first. Not many people get opportunities like that in their early 20s, and I seized it with both hands. I thought I’d achieved my dream – making a living from filmmaking. I honestly can’t tell you how many ads I directed. I would make ads for anything – mobile networks, banks, beers – a LOT of beer ads. 

But then I started to realize something was wrong. 

I had gotten into advertising because of the great ads I’d grown up watching. Adverts that entertained people, made them laugh, even transformed the way they think. Adverts like Sony Bravia’s famous ‘Bouncy Balls.’

The brilliance of this advert is in the simplicity of the spectacle: Rather than trying to explain how good the color is on a Sony Bravia TV, Sony dropped ¼ million bright rubber balls down a hill in San Francisco. This is a perfect example of the storytelling principle: not just ‘show, don’t tell’, but do so in a way that people have to watch twice, three times, more. This is the kind of thing MrBeast would do in order to create a viral video. 

But what Sony did so well is combining the spectacle with the message. The ad isn’t trying to be something it’s not. The attention to detail is masterful, like that quick shot where the frog is jumping. It’s the sort of advert that makes people smile, that doesn’t for a second even feel like a brand selling you a product – an advert. 

That’s the sort of ads I wanted to make. And always strived to make. 

But that’s not what happened. 

Instead, I was helping to sell beers in bulk. (These were my more notable ads). 

While I was proud of the craft of this ad, and great as the idea for the campaign was – I come from South Africa, where there are huge rates of alcoholism, alcohol-related violence, fetal alcohol syndrome, and drunk driving accidents. And there I was, selling a dream that if you drink this beer, you’ll have an unforgettable time, connect with incredible people from different walks of life, make lifelong friends, and hook up the girl/boy of your dreams. 

Eventually they weren’t even good adverts. I made ads for big banks. I sat in meetings with execs where they talked openly about f*cking people over through loans and interest rates – whilst South Africa had one of the highest poverty rates in the world. Advertising was just part of the game to them. Eventually to numb the pain of selling out to this corporate system, I became one of the biggest consumers of the product I was marketing: Beer. This led to much more than just beer and a very vicious downward spiral. 

In short, working in traditional advertising wasn’t at all what I had romanticized over. So when I packed my bags for New York 7 years later, to go try YouTube with Casey Neisat, it wasn’t only that I was moving towards something, but also away from something. 

Of course, you could say I’d been naive. I probably was. Big business has never been known for being kind. But I believe that something changed in advertising. I’m not sure exactly when, though I’d guess around the mid 2010s. This lines up quite neatly with ‘Late-Stage Capitalism,’ and I’m sure that has something to do with it – the way that business has become even more cutthroat has definitely been reflected in advertising. 

But when I say that traditional advertising’s gone to shit, I’m not only talking about that. I’m also talking about the adverts themselves – that the ads coming out today are usually, well, shit. I’m convinced that the average advert that was coming out in, say, 2009, is way better than the average self-proclaimed or awarded ‘great’ ad coming out today. I find most ads today completely unrelatable, uncreative, and unashamedly salesy. I mean, when was the last time you really remembered the brand being advertised? 

And from a business perspective, companies are clinging onto current demand and they aren’t selling future demand. 

So what?

I’m on a mission to find out why. In theory, it shouldn’t be the case that ads are worse today. Why should the people making ads in 2024 be any less talented than the people in 2009? In fact, there’s way more access to information on filmmaking than there was back then – mainly because of YouTube, and e-books. 

So, I want to know what changed. How does new media (YouTube, TikTok, etc) work differently from traditional/old media? How do you produce great adverts in the current landscape, when it seems like traditional advertising is woefully out of touch? I’ve interviewed three of the best ‘ad people’ I know to find out. They market huge brands like Nike, Samsung, Porsche, Instagram and many more, and each have their own unique strategies for creating brand awareness, community and DEMAND (sales). 

One of the reasons I’m so interested in these questions is that I have my own product now, BRU BAR, a caffeinated, super healthy macadamia nut bar. It’s great, but don’t take my word for it, try it for yourself.

I’ve worked in advertising – whether new or old – for 15 years, and so I’ve built strategies for a million different things. Except, no matter how much I’ve cared about whatever it was I was promoting, it wasn’t my OWN product. Now it is. Sales are important and any brand that says otherwise is deemed to fail. Branding and building a community that really trusts you, which we will get into later, is also highly important, but don’t underestimate the need to sell. Shit becomes very expensive very quickly. 

I called BRU BAR what I did for a reason. ‘Bru’ is a term of endearment in South Africa – and I didn’t want to build some dull product that no one needs and force it down customers’ throats. The BRU brand represents community, lifestyle, collective – I want to work with people who are doing f*cking cool stuff. And to state the obvious, the connection between BRU and BREW (coffee). It’s still early days and even though we are breaking record sales in retail and are at high volume online, we haven’t really advertised yet, only leveraged off of my YouTube channel. This will end as soon as we have BUILT THE BRAND. 

But because of what I’ve said about traditional advertising being shit, I need to be very careful, and prepared. I need the advertising to reflect what I want for the brand. That is why we are focusing on developing the brand equity right now and defining what BRU means to people. 

Marketing vs Advertising

Before we get into the interviews, it’s crucial we get the terminology straight. 

I’m guessing that not everyone reading this post has a marketing or advertising background. Or, even if you do, it’s important that we’re on the same page about this: What do I mean when I talk about advertising?

I said that advertising has gone to shit, not that marketing has gone to shit. Many people use these terms interchangeably – but there’s a big difference. 

In the simplest terms possible, marketing is the big thing, and advertising is the small thing. If marketing is a whole art gallery, the specific painting of a dog in room five would be the advert. 

Let’s start with marketing. 

Marketing is the whole process of making your product compelling to your potential customer, within a competitive market. It’s about making your potential customers familiar with what your brand is, and what it promises the customer, by nurturing these customers through a variety of strategies. If you succeed in marketing, it should be easy for a customer to answer the question: ‘What does this product give you?’ Think about the obvious, Red Bull – it gives you wings (energy – essentially, makes you high). 

That competitive part is also crucial. Unless you have a complete monopoly, someone else will be selling a similar product to you. These are like moats around a castle. What have you done to protect your brand and keep others out from stealing your X factor? Even if you think you have the most innovative, most new product that the world has ever seen. Remember, when Thomas Edison invented the light bulb, he still had to compete with candle manufacturers.

For example, even though there aren’t other macadamia nut bars with caffeine on the market, BRU BAR still has to compete with things like protein and energy bars and all other nuts (Which, if you haven’t done your research, are all really bad for you, besides macadamias of course – this is NOT a lie – it is the world’s healthiest nut).

Any good marketing strategy will look at how a product can be distinguished from its competitors. In my work, this is especially true – with the advent of AI technology, and with everyone wanting to be a content creator – the world of filmmaking is more saturated than ever. 

So, marketing involves the macro-level thinking: How are our product and brand going to be communicated to our customers? In the book Ogilvy on Advertising, marketing gets defined as objectivity. I like this definition – marketing is about how our product exists as an object in the world, and how it interacts with it. 

For example, identifying the specific customer needs that a product is trying to solve, and how a product is going to be priced – is the demand likely to be elastic, or inelastic, is this a mature product, or are we entering the market for the first time? Where can a potential customer find our product? Who is our potential customer? The way we relate to a customer can vary a lot based on demographics – are they young, or old, for example? Is this the sort of thing that sells better in gas stations or boutique stores? 

Of course, another big question is: How will the product be promoted to consumers? This is where advertising comes in. So advertising is a part of marketing. An important part, yes, but not the same thing. 

Advertising is about the specific medium through which a product or brand is promoted. The choice to position Nike as being about taking the risk, just doing it, is a marketing decision – but that billboard you passed for the new Vapor Maxes, that’s advertising. Naturally advertising must reflect marketing strategy.

Typically, advertising is defined as the paid promotion of a product. Traditionally, this looks like TV and newspaper ads (much less effective these days) and in the digital age – social media ads, search ads, and brand integrations. There are some gray areas here – like organic social media, which isn’t paid but could still be called a form of advertising.  

While marketing has one core purpose – making the product attractive to consumers – advertising can have a variety of specific purposes, serving that overarching one. For example, increasing brand equity, shifting brand image, promoting specific products or collections, publicizing sales or discounts. 

In terms of these purposes, digital advertising offers special advantages over old-school advertising. Things like tracking conversions, gathering customer data, knowing exactly how many people watched your ad. That’s all much harder with a TV advert – you’ll only really know how many people were watching the particular sports match at that time, but not who watched the ad and who didn’t, or how many conversions were due to it. 

In short, if marketing tells the story of what a brand stands for, advertising is what puts that story in front of people. 

The Interviews 

An advantage of working in advertising and filmmaking for so long is that I’ve met some really f*cking wise and just downright awesome people. I’ve interviewed three of them here – each of them are incredible at what they do. But they are also from different kinds of advertising, and in different roles, which is another reason I chose them. 

Kyle Duckitt: Head of Cultural Strategy for BBH

The first person I went to was Kyle

If there’s anyone to understand the advertising landscape, it’s him. In 2021, the One Club for Creativity named Kyle one of the top 3 strategists in the world. He’s won a ludicrous number of awards – the man has enough Cannes Lions to start a zoo. 

Once a professional swimmer, he’s worked as a strategist across four continents, and with some of the biggest brands that exist. His current role is Head of Cultural Strategy for BBH (Bartle Bogle Hegarty). His day-to-day mainly involves looking after two clients – Samsung Galaxy, and Nike. 

(BBH, if you’re not familiar with them, are a f*cking massive legacy agency. Aside from Samsung and Nike, typical client names are ‘Google’ and ‘Absolut.’)

One reason I went to Kyle is that he’s involved in the meta-level decision making about advertising. He’s involved in the marketing side of things too, to return to our earlier distinction – so he sees all the puzzle parts:

“As a strategist, I’m trying to figure out what the brand should say. Then the creative department figures out how to say it.”

Kyle made a great distinction about working with new versus old brands. Strategy is easier for a new brand, because then you’re deciding everything for the first time. Conversely, when he works with a big brand like Nike, everyone already knows what the brand means. You can’t suddenly change direction and decide Nike is about, I don’t know, being beautiful. 

“‘Brand’ is the associations that arise in people’s mind, what they say when it comes up in conversation. A big part of brand building is to ensure the same kind of associations arise in people’s minds. If you have everyone disagreeing about what your brand is, you’re nowhere. 

But building those associations takes time. Many brands get this wrong by changing what they stand for every few years and then people don’t have a clear picture of that brand. This is something Nike’s done very well – it’s been the same thing for more than forty years, all about athletic performance. The idea that, if you have a body, you’re an athlete. That’s on every slide of every deck. The associations are very clear. 

So strategy’s role is safeguarding that consistency, but also looking at what’s going on in culture right now that Nike can attach to. For example, we recently did Nike’s Basketball World Cup campaign in the Philippines. The question was, how do we do what Nike does in this specific context – how do we inspire athletes in the Philippines?

Case study: FIBA Basketball World Cup 2023

Kyle’s favorite part of the Nike account is their research approach:

“Nike doesn’t want a million consumer surveys because that’s not where they think the truth is. They sent me and a team of researchers to the Philippines for two weeks and we spent time with anyone who was connected to basketball. We spoke to pro players, young kids playing on their local court, sneaker-shop owners, everyone. We wanted to understand what the landscape was, and then we came back. 

Then it was going – well, Nike is about this, and this is all the stuff we learnt in the Philippines, how do we connect this? For example, we found a lot of problems. 

There was a period where every kid in the Philippines believed they were going to make it in basketball. Basketball in the Philippines is like football in Brazil – after the US, they watch more NBA than any other country in the world. Except there’s been a lot of corruption. A lot of people had given up on the national team. 

So we decided that was our route, trying to bring back hope in the national team. We found stories about players who had made it despite terrible odds – and that was the campaign we went with: ‘Defy Today, Define Tomorrow.’ We told 8 different people’s stories to make up the campaign.”

A fascinating aspect of this campaign was the choice of media. While they used various kinds of paid and out-of-home media, Kyle says the most important part was Facebook:

“Facebook IS the internet in the Philippines. It’s free there, and everyone has Facebook groups for everything. Like instead of having a Whatsapp group with your family, people have Facebook groups. Everyone talks in those groups, everyone’s involved. 

So this made it very hard to do research. In the Philippines, if something’s on a website, it’s old news. We had to get inside of those Facebook groups. 

Then we also leveraged the individual platforms of the people whose stories we were telling, as well as the official Nike Basketball channel. We also ran a lot of ads on the basketball streaming platforms and in stadiums.”

One of my biggest questions in advertising is always about metrics. How do you measure the success of a campaign like that? What is the expectation? What is more important between organic and paid? Kyle had such an awesome answer to this:

“There’s a lot of research that’s shown views, click-through rates, and so on – don’t actually correlate to sales. Those are vanity metrics. We don’t worry about those. For this particular campaign, there were a few different things to look at.

For example, we built a new basketball court. We looked at how many people came to that. We measured sales at all the different Nike points during the tournament, but also 3-4 months afterwards. That longer measuring span was really important. Someone might’ve seen a product they liked during the tournament, but then didn’t have the money for it at the time. When you do a big campaign like that, you can’t expect to see all the results in a month. 

The way I like to think of it – some campaigns can do both, but a campaign is either capturing existing demand – people that are in the market and want to buy shoes right now – or you’re generating more future demand. 

In a few months, a year – when someone has that need, to buy shoes or whatever it is, they will remember you because of your past communication, and because you’re constantly showing up in communication to them. You need to be one of the two or three brands that they think of to go compare.”

The Current Advertising Landscape

I loved what Kyle said about ‘vanity metrics.’ It’s a great way to put it – views are definitely not everything. I wanted to get Kyle to speak more about this, about how the advertising landscape has changed in recent years, and what brands are doing wrong. 

He’s been involved in advertising almost exactly the same time as me – 14 f*cking years now (I still feel like it’s only been 5). He also grew up with both his parents in advertising – and has been in agencies the whole time, so he can see right into the belly of the beast. He didn’t disappoint. 

“The biggest thing that’s changed: There are very few brands that are actually single-minded. As in, brands that do one, clear thing – and just stick to it. If you want to succeed, you have to stick to one thing for three or four years, and then the effects will compound. This is the main thing brands are getting wrong. 

This isn’t necessarily marketers’ fault. Their bosses will tell them something isn’t selling, or being downloaded – and then there’s pressure. And the response is, ‘We need a new message.’ But the thing about memory structures – whether it’s a brand or a person – is that opinions aren’t formed in a single instance. It takes many exposures to form an opinion. 

Another problem is how the function of advertising has changed within companies. 20 years ago, people cared much more about the full product experience. It’s like the four Ps thing – Price, Product, Place, Promotion. While advertising is about promotion, marketing used to have a role in the others. Now all those things are siloed. Marketing is now this one department responsible for billboards and TV ads.

Many companies see branding as purely advertising. But actually advertising is the weakest part of branding. There are so many other things that affect your brand – no customer thinks of your brand as only its adverts. If you have the sickest ads ever but your store display is crap, and there are boxes everywhere and you can’t find anything – that’s what the customer is going to remember. No one will remember your adverts for the next five years. 

Branding is much broader. It’s about the complete experience. What was the store like, what were the employees like, how good was the box that the product came in? This is something companies were much better at twenty years ago. 

Apple still does this fantastically well. They are the classic example. Every part of the Apple brand is as good as the next – how clean and organized the iStore looks, how the Mac Bar Geniuses are all so well trained, the way the box opens, and of course, the product itself. So branding, really, is everything. Everything you do, every function of your operation, is a part of the brand – a company like Apple sees that.”

I asked Kyle about the connection between these problems and vanity metrics. I’ve noticed that most new brands are bypassing holistic brand building and just focussing on ROAS (Return on Advertising Spend). 

The economic landscape definitely has a lot to do with this – the way that today’s companies are simply way more profit focussed than before. ROAS-obsession could also be a side-effect of new media. Since it’s far easier to measure eyeballs on Instagram than on TV ads, companies fixate on those eyeballs. 

Kyle tied this all back to the question of current and future demand. 

“ROAS-obsessed companies grow super fast because anyone who has that pain point right now, you’ve captured their demand. But you haven’t built any future demand. You need both. You have to be building a brand over time. As soon as you’re solving a problem in a new way, other companies will see you, and they will copy you and sell it cheaper. 

The only way to protect yourself is the more emotional, less converting kind of communication – showing your world-view, basically. That doesn’t have to look like tear-jerker short films, but you have to establish your identity, and it has to be consistent from the beginning. Otherwise things will spike and plateau, and customers will have nothing holding them to you – they’ll just go to your cheaper competitor. Then it becomes a race to the bottom. You start discounting to try and compete, and then discount more…”

Then Kyle came out with this gem:

“The most powerful thing about a brand is not that it will get you more sales but that it enables you to charge more for your product. Even if it’s the same thing.”

For anyone in branding, paste that up on your wall!

Fame

Given what Kyle had said about vanity metrics, I wanted to know how he approached concepts like virality. If views aren’t the thing to care about, how should you approach the fame of an ad or brand? How much does it really matter?

“People always talk about things being ‘viral.’ But I’ve heard it approached as ‘Share-Worthy.’ I’m not just talking about sharing an advert on Facebook, but would this advert be worth telling someone about? 

As humans, we all want status. It’s a very basic drive. The reason we share things with other people is because it builds status. When you share information about a common interest, you’re creating bonds within your network. An advert has to make doing that possible. It’s a very good litmus test when you see an advert – who would you tell about it? 

There’s been a lot of research on which kind of advertising is the highest converting, and every time, word-of-mouth comes out on top. So this is really the question, how do you make an advert that gets actual people actually talking about it? Getting on the news is a big part of that. 

This guy who researched fame in advertising said that the best way to do this, is have the audience make up their own mind. You can’t tell them what to think, otherwise there’s no reason to talk about it, there’s nothing to be gained from a discussion. Something like Liquid Death is a great example – it’s so ridiculous that you want to tell people about it. Like, ‘Dude, this is f*cking crazy.’ It becomes a conversation starter. 

But that’s harder these days with TV ads – to make an advert resonate with everyone. Because of the filter bubbles on the internet, everyone is so enmeshed in their own interests.

One of the ads I’m proudest of is one we did for the World Wild Fund in Germany. We got a scientist who’s an expert at finding new species in the Mariana Trench – and we asked him to find us something. We had no idea what he was going to come up with, but he found this new species of shrimp. And the shrimp had plastic in its stomach. Now the way that you’re allowed to name a species is either about where it’s found, or what it eats – so we called the shrimp Eurythenes plasticus. We didn’t use any media spend but that ad was covered in like 112 countries on every news channel.

These days it’s so easy to buy views, but it’s so hard to get people to organically talk about something. So, that’s how I think of something being truly famous, that as soon as you hear about it, you have to go and tell someone else about it.”

Mike Sharman: Chief Creative Officer and founder of Retroviral

The next person I sat down with was Mike Sharman. If you live in South Africa, you’ve seen his work. The Sixty60 Swindler? My Kreepy Teacher? Nando’s Last Dictator Standing? Mike’s responsible for all of that. 

He was a finalist for South Africa’s Entrepreneur of the Year in 2018, and one of the Mail & Guardian’s top 200 young South Africans in 2013. He’s also secured more than 100,000 pairs of school shoes for children in Southern Africa, through his Put Foot Foundation. 

Retroviral is a very exciting hybrid agency (meaning they work across new and old media. I thought Mike was a great person to speak to after Kyle, since the MO of Retroviral is very different from BBH. What’s true for Nike may not be true for CheckersSixty60. 

Plus, Mike is a mastermind at campaign-based work. What’s so impressive about Retroviral is the speed with which they jump on trends. In the traditional advertising world, it takes eons to do that – and by the time it happens, the trend is no longer a trend. But because Retroviral is small and agile, as Mike describes them, they move much more quickly, especially in new media. 

I started by asking Mike about his unique approach to advertising, and whether he has a formula he uses for campaigns. Where would he start, for example, with my product, BRU BAR?

“The major thing that differentiates me from other ad guys, is that I’ve never worked in a traditional ad agency. I see this as my biggest advantage. I didn’t start out wanting to be in advertising, I wanted to be an actor. 

I’ve always been more fascinated with the performance and the delivery than the crafting of a picture. When I’m, say, assistant-directing for a TV commercial, I work extremely closely with the director. Of course I still respect that boundary – between director and agency – but I obsess over the performance. 

Because of my background in acting, I pick things up in the performance that an ad director might miss. This lets me marry those two worlds – ad directing and performance. I believe that a great performance is the biggest factor in an ad’s success – much more than how well it’s shot. Also, because of the evolving agility of new media, done is better than perfect.

I’d rather have my ad well performed and poorly shot than the other way around. 

So the performance side is a big part of things. But what I’m thinking about on the broader level, is always how a concept can make it onto the news, how does it become PR-able, how does it infiltrate pop culture and social conversations? I try to figure that out and then I work backwards. 

But to answer your question about where I start – I love to start broad. It’s like the warm up for a run. The first thing I do is to ask what the product is, then I go through references of similar products, and try to find the best existing content. 

Say with BRU BAR. That’s close enough to protein bars, but also energy drinks because of the caffeine. I might also look at Jungle Oats cereal, because they’re selling that on an energy promise. So I go through the primary and ancillary industries. 

I also always like to ask brands: ‘If your brand was a celebrity, who would they be?’ 

This way I can get an understanding of how the brand talks, how they walk, how they look, whether they’re risque or conservative and so on. Ultimately, I’m figuring out what tonality the brand is trying to land. For BRU BAR, that could be a sort of Liquid Death approach [This seems to be the brand everyone is referencing at the moment] – very aggressive, ironic, in your face – but because of the health pitch, you could also go a medicinal route. It’s crucial to understand all of those elements first. Then it’s a matter of letting them percolate. 

After that, well, stand-up comedy and marketing are cousins. In marketing, you’re looking for an insight about what the target market really thinks about the product. But in stand up, you’re looking for a truth to which the whole audience can nod their head. In marketing, you have so many diverse people, with very different backgrounds, who you have to try and appeal to – it’s exactly the same in a comedy club. 

Once you tap into this truth or insight, you can start thinking about layers of creativity. So the approach is – truth first, then funny. The humor can be smart, or serious, or silly. But it all depends on the truth. 

The next question is competition. How do you cut through the clutter? You don’t want to be the same as everyone else. So how can you differentiate? Is it an ambassadorial play? What kind of ambassador? A skateboarder, a surfer, a singer? The permutations of what you can associate a product with are immense. 

Ultimately, this gives you a starting point for telling a story. It is a mini film, a short film. How does your product become product placement within that world?”

Returns

The next thing I asked Mike about was how he measures ROAS.  In advertising, people talk a lot about ROAS. A LOT. But it’s notoriously hard to measure. Let’s say I put a BRU BAR ad out on TV during a rugby game. There’s no way of knowing how many BRU BARS were sold because of that ad. And that’s only sales. What if I was trying to shift our brand image, for example? How do we measure that? Is there a specific ROAS that Retroviral aims for? 

“We made this fun ad for a solar market place, Hohm, where we used the tropes of festival commercials. Advertisers are very good at that in the Northern Hemisphere – where they use snow, Santa and so on. Except that here, in the Southern Hemisphere, advertisers are less good at that. We don’t have white Hollywood Christmases. In December, it’s summer.

So we used the premise of kids waking up pumped for Christmas, except the reprieve was, instead of Santa, it was a solar man coming to install solar. The solar man gets a letter, thanking him for lighting up our lives, and so on. 

Hohm’s main purpose was lead generation, selling more solar panels, so some metrics we focussed on were SO (sales orders) and returns. For example, on Tiktok, we generated something like 33 thousand click-throughs to their sales funnel. That’s one of the biggest advantages of digital advertising. You can measure stuff like that. But the way we measure things is very multi-faceted.

Whenever we make an ad, we’re thinking about virality, and virality is made up of two things – 1) Awareness for the brand, and 2) Impact for the brand. So it’s not only click-throughs, but also eyeballs, engagement. 

There are two decision trees. One is to do with getting on the news, prime time segments, having people speak about the ad or product, making sure that when that ad gets sent on Whatsapp, it says ‘forwarded many times.’ Then the other tree is click-throughs, downloads, building your database, importing customers to your CRM software. These are more than just vanity metrics. 

The average advertiser only obsesses over vanity metrics – likes, views – but not over actual performance. They just want beautiful awareness and they make the performance the media company’s problem. 

We are obsessed with performance and we attack it directly. Because we’re small and agile, but also hybrid, we’re able to think about all of it – strategy, concept, performance, and ultimately what the piece does in the market. 

As to a specific number, we’re always aiming for 2.5-3 times ROAS. Then the client has made money on what they’ve done with us. Tiktok has given us the best ROI. The platform wants more eyeballs, more virality – it wants people to feel like they’re gaining fame. Even if you have to do a bit of paid media, the spend to eyeball ratio is insane. 

Then once that story goes viral on Tiktok, it can get to news sites that way. Most news outlets have media these days, and you want to be on that. Once you are, this supports organic reach. You start to rank higher in search because you have increased link credibility. This way you hit all the touch points – paid, owned, shared. 

Basically, we’re looking to create a searchability monster.”

Mike isn’t just talking the talk here. He has an exceptional record when it comes to returns. 

Something I’ve also been impressed by is the way Retroviral’s comedic spots live on longer, and become evergreen content. Like his My Kreepy Teacher advert. So I asked him how important ROAS is compared to brand awareness, and if Retroviral guarantees both. 

“There are different extremes. Some clients want always-on social content, and for us to deal with reports and queries. But then we experience big spikes with campaign work, which is what I really get obsessed over. 

Like with Kreepy Krauly, or CheckersSIXTY60. Those are the BIG campaigns that come around a couple times a year. It really drives your cortisol and energy, seeing how people respond to your work at scale. I’m sure it’s the same for you when you post to YouTube. 

But for every client we meet, we have very detailed conversations over what success looks like for them. There’s no templated formula for success. It can differ widely. Some clients are only concerned with brand awareness. So then we look at what we can do to create talkability, and get the brand on everybody’s lips. 

In other instances, there’s more of a sales requirement. How do you make a typically boring offer, like, get this for 99.99, more interesting? So people can click through to an app, download the app, and so on. Of course you’re reliant on the clients’ UX and UI – you can make a great campaign, but if that’s shit, people will only try it once.

We live in an age of hyperconsumerism. You have to make sure all the touchpoints are working – otherwise a brand can blast off, but then end up with only fifteen minutes of fame.”

Case Studies: The Springboks and Kreepy Krawly

Mike’s precise focus on metrics, and his attention to trends, is something that’s been lacking in traditional media. When you deal with most old-school agencies, there’s a ton of red tape, meeting after meeting for client service, whatever idea you have has to be run past five new copywriters who all think they’re hot shit, and then there are ridiculous overheads – it often costs around 2 million dollars for one TV spot. So I asked Mike what he’d do with this money instead, rather than creating a straightforward TV ad. 

“We have avoided fighting with big agencies about their budgets. Instead, we’ve deliberately positioned ourselves in the earned media space. PR in general, has been terrible at PRing itself. It hasn’t earned in the landscape – and that’s supposed to be PR’s territory, earned media. Because of that, PR has missed out on earning opportunities across other touchpoints. 

Traditional advertising has forgotten about earning because it doesn’t know how to get on the news. It just says to PR, ‘Hey, PR this ad.’ So this is the middle ground that we play in – between agency and PR. This circumvents the need for procurement and the sign-off of other agencies, and lets us get right to the heart of our client’s needs. 

For example, during the Rugby World Cup, we worked with Castle, who are a sponsor of the Springboks. All of the other Springbok sponsors were using the players in their adverts. They were doing it to death – the players eating this food, drinking this drink, driving this bakkie. 

But what is one thing all South Africans can resonate with? Based on the stats, South Africans are raised by their grandmothers more than any other nation. There’s a whole history behind that, but it’s something like 6 or 7 million South Africans. 

So, instead of going to the Springboks, we went to their grannies, their oumas, their gogos. We had the premise, and the insight – these grannies are people we can trust. This is aligned with the brand – Castle is the beer you can trust. We made a sort of social documentary series on the grannies; it was three 90 second films. It was so awesome. We had the grannies as the spokespeople for the brand, had them pouring beers on Toks & Tjops, that kind of thing. We reached about 50 million people, so we really maximized the marketing budget. 

And then Castle could track the sales, and when measured against the other Springbok sponsors, Castle was the most spoken about brand. We were really proud of that campaign.”

I asked Mike if that was his favorite campaign he’d worked on, or if he has another favorite piece of content.

“We got a lot of love for My Kreepy Teacher. When we made it, everyone was in lock down, and in South Africa, we had very hard restrictions. It was a time when people were saying they had their hands tied, and they were blaming the government for everything. We were hearing a lot of ‘I can’t’. 

And we said, fuck that. We can do anything. It wasn’t about making content on a shoestring, but about the fact that people can always be entertained, at any point in history. That’s our job, we’re not doctors without borders. What we do is fun, it’s what we want to do. If we want, we can pack it up and go wear a suit and tie. 

Anyway, that ad was super successful. Most of the customers for Kreepy Krauly are wholesalers, stores like Builder’s Warehouse. And there’s a ton of competition in that space, especially from China. Before the ad, Kreepy Krauly had become generic. People called pool cleaners a Kreepy Krauly even if it was a Zodiac or some other brand. Like that thing where everyone calls tissues Kleenex. 

But that can really hurt a brand. So we did well to make people order the OG. Buyer’s requests spiked. People were calling in and saying, ‘We want a Kreepy Krauly, the original.’ The timing was perfect with spring too – people were just getting their pools ready. Everything aligned perfectly.”

Advice to Advertisers

To close, I asked Mike if he could share some wisdom on the changing landscape of media. Everyone in the marketing and content space is talking about the evolution of media, and it seems like no one knows how to market properly anymore. What’s next? Have we plateaued? Clearly, the things Retroviral does are working – but are they planning on staying on the same path? Where is the future of advertising?

“Platforms will continue to grow, change, and die. So it is better to be concerned about the story, not the platform. Good stories will always travel.

In the last three or four years, as shorter form content has exploded, I’ve gotten obsessed with longer form content. I can say that I love Tiktok for its short term benefit, but in the same breath, that I love what streaming services can provide. 

We recently made our first featured documentary, which is about Makazole Mapimpi. Now we’re working on an amazing story about four South African Olympians who are going to be swimming in Paris. 

An ad is no longer than 30 or 60 seconds, but with longform content, you can have a four part series of 48 minute episodes. That’s what I’m most excited about right now. Longform content allows you to craft and flex a story that simply can’t exist in a 30 second world.”

Darren Margolias: Executive Director of Beast Philanthropy 

After sitting down with Mike, I felt simultaneously excited about the potential of new media, and even more skeptical about old-school advertising agencies. But an important distinction is that most new media is (relatively) small scale. 

If you’re a small-to-medium sized company, it’s all well-and-good to commit 90% of your efforts to new media. But what if we’re talking about a huge company, or trying to reach literally millions of people? It seems like, until very recently, old-school agencies have had a monopoly on that kind of crazy reach. I wanted to know how new media could solve problems at extreme scale. 

I work beside Darren as the CCO of Beast Philanthropy as well as directing all the films for the channel. Together we have grown it to 26 million subscribers. 

Darren is the Executive Director of Beast Philanthropy. He used to be a commercial real estate investor. When he started working with MrBeast, everyone told him he was ‘nuts’, and that charity-focused content was simply unappealing. Of course those people were wrong. 

He’s been there right from the beginning with MrBeast, and they’ve been able to reach over half-a-billion people in 12 different languages. The work they do is honestly amazing – they generate an insane amount of revenue and yet 100% of the proceeds go back into the charity.

But the fact that Beast Philanthropy is a charity – doesn’t mean it has nothing to offer for advertising. It’s quite the opposite. MrBeast gets more views on a single video than the Superbowl. I asked Darren about his approach to modern advertising and what Beast Philanthropy can offer potential sponsors:

“To answer the first question, it depends on the target audience. If you’re trying to target Millennials and Gen-Zs, and to some extent, Gen-Alphas – you have to know that they don’t engage with old media like Gen-X and Boomers do. The latter watch TV. They watch CNN and Oprah and Dr Phil. If you want to engage with a younger audience, you have to use social media. That’s non-negotiable. 

But these younger generations are smart. Compared to previous generations, they’re a lot more cynical about big corporations. They’re angry about the state of the world that’s been left to them, and justifiably so. They’re angry about the lack of opportunities available to them, and they’re angry about the destruction of the environment. What they want is a better world and a better future. 

When I was younger, people would advertise cigarettes – and you’d see the actors getting into private jets, helicopters, getting out of Ferraris with supermodel girlfriends. But that sort of thing doesn’t work anymore. Young people see through that crap. They’re a much more authentic audience. 

They want to see corporations sharing their money. This authenticity has to be real, not acted. If you want to connect with them you actually have to do something. 

Another important factor is how inundated with adverts we all are. People see an advert coming from a mile away and just shut off. On average, from print to digital, we see something like six thousand adverts a day. Six thousand! Most of those ads are just viewed as interruptions. 

So, something I find amazing about what we do, is that people actually watch the adverts on Beast Philanthropy. They know that if they can’t donate to the charity, they can watch the ads, and it’s in effect the same thing. 

What we do is not about the facade. We don’t build a set that just looks like a house when there’s actually nothing behind it. We build the houses – and people respond to that. 

You see it a lot in the comments on our videos – we have a compilation of them which we show to potential sponsors. People say things like – ‘This is the only channel where I watch the ads through,’ or, ‘This is the only channel I turn adblock off for.’ And these people realize that the companies supporting us are the ones giving back. So there are also lots of comments about how people buy the product that we advertise, because they want to support companies that are actually changing things. This is huge.

And big corporations are starting to realize this. The stuff they’ve done for decades is no longer resonating. 

Typically, if you work with an ad agency, you only pay for exposure, or number of views. But if you promote via a Beast Philanthropy video, we can offer so much more than that. First of all, we offer way more views. The views we get kick the butt off TV commercials. 

More than that, all of the proceeds from our videos go into projects that improve the world. 100% of our proceeds go back into charity – the money isn’t used to buy Porsche 911s or mansions in LA – it’s used for wells, hospitals, schools, libraries, to protect the Masai Mara. 

And because we contribute to every video – because of company X, we are able to build these schools etc. They come out looking better. They show themselves as a socially responsible company, and there’s a halo effect from what we’re doing. They’re paying for the exposure but get the credit and halo effect as a bonus.

We give companies a three-for-one – helping the world, more views, and higher conversions per view. But it’s the same price. I’m only surprised it’s taken so long to get to this place. Three years. But now because companies are on-board, it makes it much easier for us to do what we want. 

And yes, we are expensive, because our views are so high. It’s traditionally difficult to spend this much on YouTube. I spoke to someone very plugged in on the brand-side of things. Generally, only 3% of companies that advertise on YouTube can afford our ads now – we’re talking hundreds of thousands of dollars. For most, this is a yearly advertising budget, so we only really deal with the big fish. 

But even so, we are still way cheaper than big TV advertising. For a company like Nike, it can cost 2 million dollars to produce a single TV advert, and then they can easily spend 3 million on the campaign. And it’s the same amount of time! 30-40 seconds long.”

Why go New School?

I really liked what Darren said about offering companies a ‘three-for-one.’ It’s especially impressive considering that, even though Beast Philanthropy is very expensive for YouTube, it only costs about one-tenth of traditional TV advertising, So I asked him to explain a bit more about what they can offer over old-school media. 

“Well, when you make a TV commercial, you aren’t really accomplishing anything except making an ad. You’re building a facade, a story, a fantasy. But with us it’s a reality, and big brands have finally woken up to what that means. We’ve been getting recognition from major national and international brands – who would normally be the people spending millions on a TV ad. 

We also have the demographic that everyone wants. We’re great with kids, yes, but also adults beyond millennial territory. Anywhere from age 10 to 44 we’re extremely strong. 

The thing is, even with companies who seem to be doing something good, they’re not taking the action that they could. 

For example with Dove, their adverts about redefining beauty are really powerful. Like they did this one where they got a woman to explain how she views herself to one of those detectives who draws victim and suspect sketches. Then they got a loved one to explain how they view the woman, and they compared those sketches. There was a huge difference. Dove is a great brand at communicating a message. 

But how much would that message resonate, if it was with one of our projects? For example, we’re building a burn unit in Ukraine later this year. If you’re Dove, you could really emphasize your brand message there, by doing something about how even though these people have awful burns, they’re still beautiful. And then the money they paid us, would go into helping those people. That’s something tangible, it isn’t just words. 

Except most companies are really cynical. Like, if you’re an oral hygiene company, an obvious thing to do is attach to surgeries for kids with cleft palettes. But when we reached out to a big oral hygiene company, they told us they didn’t want to get involved because they had their own charity – and what did this charity do? It encouraged kids to buy toothpaste. 

So I think this is the biggest problem with the advertising landscape. The intent is ultimately to make money. Of course, people have always wanted to make money, but the extent today is unparalleled. 

What the younger audience wants to see is real follow through. That’s what the companies who work with us understand. Not only do they get better results, but they get to do the right thing too.”

Conclusion 

There’s a lot to sit with there. I can see myself going back over these interviews for weeks… Kyle, Darren, Mike, thank you so much for your time, and for those amazing insights.

But the question I began with was, ‘Why has traditional advertising gone to shit?’ And it has. After these interviews, I have a much clearer understanding as to why – but that doesn’t change the fact. 

Except, what Kyle, Darren, and Mike are a testament to – is that there are some still phenomenal innovators in advertising, and that amidst the shit, there are still opportunities. Something Kyle and I discussed after the tape stopped running, is the immense value that constraints can have for creativity. 

After all, I’m a filmmaker. So what I’m going to leave you with, instead of words, is my favorite advert of all time. 

It comes from a campaign that Nike did for the 2012 Olympics. For me, it’s the perfect model for an advert. It’s not showy or over the top, there are no cheap value propositions. It takes a simple concept, and executes it beautifully. To begin with, all you hear are the sounds of shoes running on a road. Then the monologue begins. The camera shows only the road, with the runner – who is not Usain Bolt or Cristiano Ronaldo – but an overweight kid, coming closer into view… 

Except Nike didn’t come up with this advert by choice. 

They invented it by necessity. Adidas beat them out to be the official Olympic sponsor, and barred any other brand from using a single Olympic athlete, Olympic location, or even Olympic keyword in their adverts. So Nike found a normal kid, a normal road, and wrote an epic monologue that had nothing to do with the Olympics. 

Constraint. That’s what I encourage you to see the shitness of current advertising as. Nothing more than a stimulant to your creativity. 

Here’s the ad. It’s called Find Your Greatness.

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24 Comments

  1. This is Dope 🚀

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  2. Love it!!

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  3. So insightful!

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  4. So insightful!

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    • Flipping awesome piece. Great work, Dan.

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  5. I can read this again and again!!!

    very insighful💪

    Thanks Dan

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  6. So insightful!

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    • A short thank you for this incredible thoughtful piece actually doesn’t feel enough. There is so much good stuff in it! And it’s almost weird because just last week I thought again myself, why are all of these ads on TV so shit lol. In contrast, the WWF one gave me goosebumps.. absolutely fantastic!! Thanks again for not holding back as always and for reflecting on this otherwise also super well done Tusker ad. That’s just one reason why I appreciate this blog/you!

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  7. This offers so much valuable insight! So many key takeaways. Thank you for this!!

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  8. Dan thank you for giving so much value to your audience for free it just shows how you aim to inspire and educate the future generation of filmmakers and creatives.

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    • Keep doing the most Dan.
      Knowlage is power.

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  9. Never in my life have I come across such an in-depth & knowledgeable blog. This is phenomenal! What an engaging and valuable read. Thanks for this one, Dan.

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  10. What a great read! so insightful. Thanks Dan.

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  11. Great blog post once again Mr Mace! Your knowledge and insight is profound and I appreciate you sharing this with your audience for free. Thanks bru <3

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  12. Beautiful peace to read, very insightful thanks for sharing Dan

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    • Fantastic Blog very informative

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  13. Brilliant. Thanks for all these free lessons. This blog is such a find!

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  14. an amazing read, thank you so much!

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  15. I love what Kyle Duckit had to say. He sounds like an incredibly wise person!

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    • Keep doing the most Dan.
      Knowlage is power.

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    • Kyle is the GOAT

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  16. amazing. insightful. keep them coming Bru Bar

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  17. Insanely interesting and insightful article BRU

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  18. Wonderful insight and perspective.
    Thoughtfully written. Great work.

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