We’re in a Golden Age of TV: Ad Makers Need to Step Up Too

The op-ed is by Darren Foldes, Partner and Head of Films at Sibling Rivalry, a brand studio and production company based in New York and Los Angeles. Leaning into the company’s “craft first” mantra, Darren has reshaped Sibling Rivalry Film’s roster of talent to be grounded in the present, while at the same time distinctly leaning towards the future. At the heart is a talented group of accomplished filmmakers, diverse artists, and above all, kind people.

The rise of streamers like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and Apple TV has catalyzed a (New) Golden Age of TV: episodic shows have become more poignant, more engaging, slicker than ever, and more nuanced—honing in on pinpoint cultures and subcultures.

The best of these programs (think Succession, Severance, The White Lotus, Shōgun, The Handmaid’s Tale, Fleabag, The Bear, Beef, and on and on) take cues from the world of cinema and demonstrate a new approach to craft and detail. When we get an ad break, however, people are all too often served generic, cookie-cutter promos that viewers understandably look to mute or skip. Essentially, it is the worst of what we as an industry create.

Given the abundance of talent working in the industry, it’s surprising that the ads surrounding today’s culture-defining shows fall far short. Undoubtedly, those who direct and conceptualize these spots have the ability, talent, and storytelling skills. With streaming now representing over 38% of all TV usage—why the lackluster commercials on streaming platforms?

I’m not looking to start a debate (well, maybe I am!), but the best we collectively have to offer shouldn’t be celebrated by a select few only on the festival circuit. Our most stellar work should delight, entice, and educate in living rooms and bedrooms all year round.

© Sibling Rivalry

Surely, this is also a debate for the media buyers amongst us, but essentially, audiences are smart, and the quality of what we consume has increased over the past decade (contrary to what David Chase, creator of the greatest show of all time, The Sopranos, has recently said about the decline of episodic content). So, let’s give them the best of what we as an industry have to offer.

Netflix’s optional ad-supported plan, launched in 2022, has amassed 15 million users. Prime Video launched ads this year, and we’ve all read the speculation that even Apple TV+ is now poised to do the same. Safe to say, streamers are increasingly moving towards ad-supported services.

We all know about the Super Bowl effect: the connection between ads and the game transcends inside-industry chat and gets everyone talking about mega-budgets and celebrity brand collabs. But let’s be honest: Are these ads even as great as they once were?

Having been at “industry” Super Bowl parties for the past decade or more, I can assure you it’s not my opinion alone that fewer creative risks have been taken in recent years relying on believed-to-be-proven formulas, often using the same voices who have been directing these spectacle spots for the past decade. Why? Because they seem like the “safe choice.” Many of these ads are good, don’t get me wrong, but are they great?

There’s something we all know: we should be making more great work.

These formulas have become tired and expected, and by using the same directors, the spots generated are frequently obvious and, even worse, predictable. Some get it right; the folks at Highdive come to mind, and my synapses also fire to CeraVe (from Ogilvy and Tim & Eric) and even Tubi out of Mischief.

Tide Super Bowl Commercial 2018 (David Harbour), Directed by Traktor

To go way back, those wonderful Tide ads directed by Traktor and Saatchi & Saatchi are the best semi-recent examples where delight, surprise, craft, cleverness, and inventiveness ruled the day. But I digress. Super Bowl rant aside, we can’t overlook the 529 million viewing minutes achieved by Ted Lasso’s final episode alone. Essentially, the best of what we make should be seen and celebrated on the Super Bowl and streamers alike, but candidly, there’s something we all know: we should be making more great work.

It’s not just streaming viewing figures (quantity) that should be luring brands to strive for creative excellence; it’s also the distinct mindset (quality) of those tuning in. Take Euphoria, a show that’s authentic, raw, and emotive and delivers a viewing experience that resonates at the core. Audiences of shows this good are in a state of heightened emotion, receptive in a way they arguably never have been before.

Epic cinema ads like we used to see would feel very at home on streamers; here are a few other ways to kick-start progress:

Push for greater transparency from streamers: Nielsen has started reporting streaming figures much as it does for linear TV. Additionally, in December, Netflix released a report that shared global hours viewed for nearly its entire library over a six-month period, its most comprehensive breakdown of viewership yet. The writers’ strike has also helped to galvanize change and transparency. Let’s build on this momentum by continuing the push for greater clarity around reporting.

Create narratives: Let’s tap into episodic advertising’s storytelling potential. Consider sequential campaigns that take viewers on an emotional journey they’ll want to invest in.

Don’t go for the safe choice: Invest in pushing the boundaries of creative work; as a rule of thumb, don’t create anything for streamers (or anywhere else) that you wouldn’t be proud to air on linear TV or even during the Super Bowl. Push harder conceptually and take more risks.

Embrace thematic alignment: Some posit that if advertising is high enough quality, it risks disrupting the program itself. Advertisers should rise to this challenge, creating ads so well-made that they enhance the viewing experience. Matching ad themes to the content will tap audiences’ unique emotional state when watching beloved shows.

Brands and beyond: Considering public service announcement films (PSAs), let’s tie them into the content of shows to reach the audiences who need to see them with relevant, targeted, unskippable films. Fentanyl’s rise, for example, is a monstrous and disastrous issue in the US and abroad. A PSA-esque ad for Narcan during Euphoria would save lives.

© Sibling Rivalry

If we align as an industry to address the mismatch in quality between the majority of ads on streaming platforms and the incredible shows they house, we’ll start a virtuous cycle of more channels, more opportunities, and, in turn, continuously better creative work. We’ll also push back the perceived threats of AI, for example.

In this golden age of TV, it’s time to take cues from the cream of episodic content and create adverts that get people talking, not muting.

Images created by Sibling Rivalry.

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