6 Ways to Make Six-Second Ads Slay

By Guest 

This is a guest post by Grey New York creative director Bevan Mahaney.

A client brief gets dropped on your desk. The requested deliverable? Six-second ads. Wait, what? What’re you supposed to do with that? You can barely make a first impression in that time, never mind tell a story.

Don’t worry … six-second ads are sexier than you think.

Consider how much fun the human mind has with a text message. While the sender can intend a response, it’s up to the receiver to give it context. “Sounds good,” can be interpreted in a hundred different ways. It can be read as a reassuring emotional blanket or as a curt dismissal of doom. Two words; infinite narratives. The important part is that it’s a two-way conversation and the receiver fills in the blanks to create meaning.

This idea that the receiver is half the story, isn’t a new one. But apply that thought to six-seconds ads and you have something powerful. In six short seconds you can trigger strong emotion and because of how the human mind works, you can hook viewers and invite them in to longer-form storytelling.

There’s power in knowing that six-second spots aren’t cut-downs from :30s; they’re their own brief beasts. To engage “The Text Message Generation,” we need to ignite imaginations utilizing that brevity. Engaged viewers can opt in to watch more content and before you know it, they’re inhaling that long-form piece you wrote.

And while 30 seconds is usually the beginning and end of the story, six seconds is just the start. Your six-second piece can be way more inviting than the 30-second format you often used to pack in a brand identity, characters, storyline and one watered-down joke. The key for creatives and brands is figuring out how to give the right amount of spark for consumer brains to start their own fire. Here’s how to create the heat…

Don’t give too much. You don’t have to capture a campaign in six seconds, but you do have to create an element of experience. The audience needs to walk away feeling emotion and a desire to know more. So don’t spend the final three seconds summarizing or delivering a punch line—unless, of course, the idea is the punch line and you’re teasing the setup.

Don’t give too little. Ambiguity is welcome, but it all needs to drive one clear message. The message can be simple like, “This feels fun” or “Something strange is about to happen.” As long as viewers are left with a distinct take-away, you’ve done enough to capitalize on the format.

Embrace the power of context. At a SXSW YouTube talk on artificial intelligence, “Stories of Today Meet the Tech of Tomorrow,” an AI robot wrote an original screenplay based on data from thousands of scripts. The dialogue was nonsensical, but the emotions the characters conveyed were real, inviting viewers to decide for themselves what the storyline was. People loved it because emotions are powerful. Now the viewer is invested and creates context for himself. In this instance, the ambiguity is an invitation for the viewer to become the storyteller.

Play with production. Low budgets can yield big results. A single lock-up or extreme close-up is proven to captivate viewers’ attention. So limiting the shots, actions and objects in the scene can be really effective. While you limit shots, unlock different versions: decide on a formula then plug and play. Six-second spots are the perfect format for A/B testing and for measuring the impact of minor tweaks.

Explore sequence. This format grants a great opportunity to give dimension to your storytelling. Think of different character POVs and play with the timeline. All of this disparate information resembles human memory in that it’s nonlinear and at times nonsensical. The viewer will naturally connect the dots, so give them some good dots to connect.

Impress with character. It takes about seven seconds to make a first impression, so you have just enough time to create a meaningful feeling around a character. And the fewer characters the better. Less action and less dialogue give the viewer more time to drink in the subtleties of your character.

HBO’s trailers for Westworld are perfect examples of well-executed sixes. They tease the storylines, give you a sense of genre and create a suspense that leaves you obsessing. They didn’t have to introduce storylines or characters; they leaned into emotion-inducing music and gave glimpses into both the sci-fci and western worlds. They created powerful invitations to longer-form content.

Maybe the most helpful tip of all? Kiss your ego goodbye. Let go of previous conceptions about what you need to convey. Be open and playful and break away from the script. This isn’t the industry taking away your time; it’s an opportunity to be engaging in a fresh way. New parameters don’t have to be scary; they can simply define a space where you can create.

All great stories are built on unforgettable moments. So make your six seconds something to remember.