Optimizing solely for attention in digital advertising is really dangerous. Ads that are native/UGC, unbranded and trend-driven get clicked more, but hurt you in the long run.

Why? I think Machiavelli has the answer… ‘The Prince’ teaches us that the pursuit and achievement of power is always right, and that people should be amoral about seizing it.

The performance mantra`

In Machiavelli's war-torn Italy, whatever you had to do to seize power is justified because a strong ruler brings greater peace and stability for the general population.

Many performance marketers think the same way:

  • Attention is the #1 priority
  • Ads should do whatever it takes to get it

A successful ad is one that makes someone take action, no matter how small. Ads that don’t get clicked are failures. Ads that make you click are gold.

But no-one likes ads, so you have to trick people into paying attention by pretending it’s not an ad.

Cue a torrent of UGC/Native ads that try to blend in. Low-fi aesthetics, no branding, lots of dancing - anything to look like it was casually recorded on someone’s iPhone.

Don't make ads, make TikToks

And it works. Kinda.

Yes, these ads get more clicks. But they fundamentally misunderstand the whole purpose of advertising — to build desired associations in people’s mind so that they think of you more often and are willing to pay more for what you’re selling.

How advertising works, Les Binet (Adam&EveDDB)

Not including branding means that the ad can’t be associated with your business.

And jumping on whatever trend is hot on TikTok means you aren’t building associations that make you more desirable and salient to potential customers.

This doesn’t mean you have to have slick production values or plaster the logo everywhere. But it does mean you have to tell a consistent story that clearly links back to your brand.

In other words, you need to create an ad - not an entertaining video or meme for clicks.

Much like Machiavelli, the single-minded pursuit of attention and clicks and the willingness to do whatever it takes to get them creates a warped view of reality.

Yes, it works. But not the way you think it does.

And what are you abandoning in order to get your prize?

Frequently asked questions (and answers)

This seems out of touch with how brand marketing functions on a platform like TikTok. I don’t know a single marketer that still sees TikTok as “lots of dancing” content unless they don’t fundamentally understand the platform.

Fair point! I don't think that all UGC ads are dancing kids or challenge videos. What I meant was that UGC/Native ads aim for entertainment over branding. It gets more attention and clicks, but has diminished business value. You need to be consistent with your messaging and branding, which most UGC ads aren't (because they're trying to fit in).

Maybe I’m missing what “branding” elements you’re calling out but there’s a way to make UGC ads in a way that your solution stands out/is remembered.

You're right - there's no reason why UGC can't be 'branded' (use logos, consistent colour palettes and fonts, and brand codes like characters, motifs, jingles, etc.) but most don't because it would no longer look native.

Unfortunately, attention is the name of the game now, and people have higher expectations for quality content. Attention is our most valuable asset and people don't want to waste it on boring or irrelevant content.

100% agree, which is why your advertising needs to be interesting, relevant and memorable. The challenge is to do that in a way that builds brand awareness and reinforces desired perceptions, which requires consistency in your messaging and creative. If you're suggesting that well branded ads can't be creative or engaging, I think that's lazy and wrong.

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