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Oh, Snap! Dissecting Snapchat's Spotty Ad Pitch

Evan spiegel

originally published in&;Ad Age Digital Next; an updated version is below

Snapchat founder Evan Spiegel came to the Cannes Lions festival with a fittingly short message that he hopes won’t disappear from advertisers’ minds after 10 seconds. He promoted 3V advertising, where the V’s stand for “Vertical Video Views.” He makes a strong case, but he’ll still lose out to another model.

Spiegel gave a command performance, and not just to a full house of 3,000 delegates at the Cannes conference hall. If you really want to appreciate Spiegel’s message, watch his video at&0160;Snapchat.com/ads&0160;on your smartphone. It doesn’t take long; I’ll wait.

Now, here’s the pop quiz: did you watch the video vertically or horizontally? If you’re like me, there’s little you do on your phone horizontally, though I make an exception for&0160;Marvel’s Contest of Champions game. Viewed vertically, Snapchats video is perfectly framed. I even wondered at first if Snapchat was hosting the video itself to make a point to advertisers.

But Snapchat belies its own message. Go back to your phone and turn it around 90 degrees. The video, hosted on YouTube, rotates along with the device. Yet Spiegel says people using Snapchat don’t tend to rotate their phones, and it’s why Snapchat notes that vertical videos are completed at a rate of up to nine times higher than horizontal mobile videos.

Spiegel comes off as a polished pitchman. It’s as if Millennials got together and said, “We found a nice Jewish boy, gave him a sweatshirt that almost kind of looks like a sweater, and sent him to you to get you to speak our language.” Despite Spiegel’s stellar delivery, the effect of rotating the video is so jarring that it’s a mobile version of trompe l’oeil. It makes me wonder if there are creative directors first watching the video on their laptops where they’re only seeing the horizontal video and going, “This is terribly shot! They’re only using one-third of the screen!”

Another bit trompe l’oeil can be found in Snapchat reporting numbers on daily minutes spent on screens, with vertical screen usage rising from 2011 to 2015, and horizontal minutes leveling off. The point here is that mobile is gradually overtaking other media such as TV and desktop usage. But in very tiny print, Snapchat notes it analyzed eMarketer’s numbers.&0160;A public eMarketer report&0160;shows that most of the time US adults spend watching mobile video is on tablets, yet tablets are typically horizontal screens. And Snapchat’s own chart seems to indicate that vertical screen usage isn’t growing quite as fast as it was around 2012 to 2013.

3V makes sense for Snapchat. But even if Snapchat usage overtakes every other media property, that doesn’t mean Spiegel’s model will win out. After all, Spiegel further notes in his pitch that his generation doesn’t appreciate ad targeting, and his video pitch says, “In the early days of internet advertising, marketers relied on things like targeting to help differentiate ad products that weren’t very engaging.” It’s the biggest “oh, snap!” moment delivered by Snapchat’s CEO. Ads can’t be both creative and targeted? Just when sweatshirt guy is at his most charming, he manages to offend both the creative and media sides of the business, along with most ad tech companies and publishers.

What will beat 3V? I’ll propose an alternative model: 3S, or “Square Social Stories.” Let’s break down each component:

Square: Square video will take up the majority of the screen in either horizontal or vertical orientation on any device. It works perfectly for the ‘card’ model of digital content pioneered by Twitter, and square content will fit in well on Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, and other outlets. Adapting square content to full-screen formats could leave room in the margins for additional branding or a call to action. Marketers will appreciate creating one asset that works well across devices and channels regardless of orientation and aspect ratio.

Social: Why would marketers today want views to be the gold standard? Perhaps if you’ve been beaten down by debates around viewability, getting guaranteed video views is appealing. Instead, marketers should strive for getting people to share a video and associate their own brand with the marketer’s brand. Aim higher than merely generating impressions, which Mr. Spiegel may appreciate is a mindset from “the early days of internet advertising.” (Snapchat’s not the only one that can deliver an ‘oh, snap!’) And isn&;t Snapchat to resorting to the much-maligned interstitial format? Their whole model is a dusted-off relic.&0160;

Stories: Video, when done well, is an amazing way for marketers to tell a story. But sometimes a still image or jarring copy can do just as well. Beyond video, marketers are dabbling with virtual reality, and&0160;Google Cardboard won the Cannes Lions Grand Prix for Mobile this year. Marketers should feel free to use whatever creative approach works best to deliver their message.

In short, 3V’s great for Snapchat, but marketers will demand better targeting and will bristle against producing video for individual properties. 3S places greater demands for marketers to create something others will share, and the content can be distributed far more widely. Then again, I’m a Gen X’er who wears button-down shirts rather than a Millennial in a sweatery-looking sweatshirt, so you will have to choose who you trust.

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