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Phoebe O'Connell

30 September 2020

Make your brand the band, not the cover song 

Ciaran Bonass on finding new ways for brands to matter in an increasingly complex world

Marketers should make their brand the band, not the cover song, advised Ciaran Bonass, Virtue Worldwide’s ECD for Asia, Middle East and Africa, on Tuesday. 

Bonass was speaking at the Contagious APAC Bootcamp virtual event. He tuned in from Dubai to explain why brands should aim to ‘be the main event’, rather than make ‘ads that people skip before the main event’ discus how brands can move from interrupting what audiences are interested in, to being what they are interested in. 

Virtue Worldwide, the agency born from VICE, exists at the intersection of advertising and entertainment culture, explained Bonass. Understanding societal narratives is ‘naturally in our DNA’, and it’s essential for creating work that is relevant for our audiences, he added. ‘Audience data is absolutely at the bedrock of what we do. It helps us understand firsthand where those large cultural shifts are.’

Now more than ever, we’re scrambling to not be skipped.

Ciaran Bonass, Virtue Worldwide

Being part of VICE Media Group, the agency is part of the cultural conversation on a daily basis, said Bonass, which ultimately means it helps brands make more meaningful work.

‘We’re an industry focused on stealing attention,’ said Bonass. ‘And when I say “stealing”, I mean it in the nicest way possible.’ Advertising is an industry that interrupts, and ‘now more than ever, we’re scrambling to not be skipped.’

What’s changed in recent years however, is that younger audiences feel brands should entertain, and add value to society and culture. 

Bonass believes advertisers should look for better ways to be part of consumers’ lives and passions, helping brands ‘to matter more in the world’. But with more channels to choose from and consumers generating their own stimulating content, it’s hard for brands to stand out. ‘We’re drowning in content,’ said Bonass.

In this cluttered space, advertisers’ biggest competitor is time, he said. Rather than focus on the ‘hook upfront’ in the first three to six seconds, Bonass urges advertisers to make sure their content is interesting, valuable, and worth people’s time. ‘I’m fully understanding of the importance of immediate impact in an infinite scroll of content, but we need to move away from that stolen glance,’ he explained. Put something of value in front of your audience, and they’ll engage with it and seek it out instead.

We need to stop interrupting what people are interested in, and be what people are interested in.

Ciaran Bonass, Virtue Worldwide

This approach requires brands to ask themselves, ‘What are you giving your audience of value in exchange for their time? Are you making them laugh? Are you making them cry? Are you changing their perspectives?’ Provide something of substance that resonates with the values your audience upholds, said Bonass. Be a co-creator, and everyone wins. 

‘We can either spend more money trying to buy [consumers’] time, or we can be part of their world and create the kind of work they naturally seek out.’ This requires a shift in the way brands communicate, Bonass explained.

A shift from the traditional marketing mindset (demand attention, interrupt and get noticed with simple messages that people pay to avoid) to the entertainment mindset: enlighten, entertain and empower, respect people’s attention, credit them with intelligence and autonomy, participate and contribute. ‘Make sure it’s content that people will seek out [...] creativity is at the heart of what we do, but this is about the mindset that we start off with.’

Ultimately, said Bonass, ‘We need to stop interrupting what people are interested in, and be what people are interested in.’ Make this the premise for how you approach your creative work, and you could be the band, not the cover song. ‘Why aim to make the best pre-roll? Our aim is to make the content that gets pre-rolled,’ he added.

Thinking about product, then format, then story, will bring you down a very narrow road. I’d rather reverse that and think about the narratives that will interest my audience.

Ciaran Bonass, Virtue Worldwide

Virtue Worldwide’s work for Dubai Tourism last year exemplified this approach: Through a combination of musical storytelling and global talent, including Rita Ora and rapper Eva Queen, the brand generated 15 million organic views. A Story Takes Flight followed – an eight-minute film starring Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Hudson and Zoe Saldana that was cinematic and relevant – reaching 2.4 billion global impressions and resulting in a 12% increase in people seeking more information from 

‘Thinking about product, then format, then story, will bring you down a very narrow road,’ said Bonass. ‘I’d rather reverse that and think about the narratives that will interest my audience.’ Then think about the format that that can take place in, he advised.  ​​​​​​​

Bonass finished with some important questions for creatives to ask themselves in order to step back from the rules of marketing:

- Would I seek it out?

- Would I queue for it?

- Would I pay for it?

- Would I tell people about it?

- Is it worth my time? 

- Has it made me think?

- Has it made me feel?

- Has it changed my perspective?

- Has it driven me to action?