With Apple Watch Ads and Apps, the Key for Marketers Will Be Restraint

Agency leaders warn against treating it as a smaller smartphone

Agency leaders say brands must start from scratch when it comes to thinking about Apple Watch content.

And you thought making a killer ad for a smartphone was tough.

With today's unveiling of the Apple Watch, marketers are facing the realistic possibility of a looming smartwatch era that will force brands to devise effective messages on the tiniest of screens.

"If there are eyeballs on [the screens], there will be ads," said Mike Kisseberth, chief revenue officer at Purch. "The question is, what form they will take to create an experience that delivers real value for both the user and the marketer."

Indeed, the Apple Watch creates a marketing niche that will require testing formats that squeeze into the wearable's 38-millimeter and 42-millimeter screen options. So we asked a handful of agency leads to weigh in on the new dilemmas posed by the device.

"The challenge marketers will face will be one of using adequate restraint," said Ben Parker, Naked Communications' head of stategy. "The temptation will be to try to rush onto people's wrists with the kind of content that is currently served on their phones. This will be a mistake."

Push notifications could viewed as bad news to smartwatch wearers, added Dan LaCivita, CEO of Firstborn.

"Because the Apple Watch is largely notification-based, and it will be tempting to tap into that, there is a huge risk of being irritating when marketing to users—a constantly vibrating wrist will get old fast," he said. "So marketers are going to have to be very edited in terms of frequency and value when it comes to creating Watch-based alerts."

Brands are going to have to be concise to not only fit their messages onto the screen but to also work in harmony with consumers' ever-shortening attention spans. Mike McKenna, managing partner at McKenna and Partners in Boston, said the copy will have to be headline-driven.

"Challenges via the wrist are similar to old-fashioned, out-of-home communications like billboards—where you need to get the whole story out at 55 miles an hour," McKenna said.

Sophie Kleber, director, product and innovation at Huge, advised industry peers to "make it legible and immediately useful."

Kleber continued, "People look at their watches continuously throughout the day, for about 0.5 seconds each time. With that in mind, designers should focus on only providing messaging and functionality that is timely, of high contextual importance, and immediately actionable. If you have to take out your phone to complete an action initiated on the watch, then it's not a true watch use case."

Tara Greer, EVP, executive creative director, platforms, at Deutsch LA, predicted that brand presences on Apple Watch will likely be utility based, similarly to apps on smartphones.

"Marketers will have to work harder to earn a place on our bodies," she said. "Sports marketers are probably going to have the easiest time of this; there's a natural fit between tracking physical data and creating great products and services for the [Apple Watch], that don't feel invasive, but rather, like a natural extension of the brand."

Whether Apple Watch ads and marketing actually work will be worth observing in the coming months.

"At some point, there is only so small a screen can get before it is not an effective visual medium, regardless of the age demographic," said McKenna.

At the same time, Tom Bash, senior manager of product strategy and operations for Exponential, addressed the elephant in the room: Will enough people actually buy Apple Watch to warrant marketers' time and money? Preorders become available April 10, starting at $349.

It's unclear, he said, "if Apple can convince non-watch people—and consumers who wear watches primarily for fashion reasons—that they need a smartwatch in addition to their iPhone."

To find out, set the calendar app on your smartwatch (if you have one, that is) to the end of April—or the next time Apple CEO Tim Cook and company take center stage while revealing their quarterly earnings. That's when we'll find out about the demand for the tech giant's latest invention. 

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