With the ability to draw in an audience of millions, Super Bowl Sunday is a Carnegie-level stage for advertisers. But while the big game is used to sell everything from beer to cars to underwear, the gridiron does not seem to be an especially good fit for those obsessed with literature.
Still, on a recent afternoon in Toronto, the team at Edelman Canada had gathered to discuss whether one of its clients, the e-reader company Kobo, could jump into the advertising fray on Sunday.
Kobo is not advertising on television during the game; the discussion was entirely around real-time marketing – a buzzword that refers to the growing effort by advertisers to take part in more conversations as they happen, in forums such as Facebook and Twitter, without seeming forced, overly corporate or out-of-touch.
At Edelman, the team is not involved in developing mass media campaigns for clients such as TV commercials, but like many PR agencies, it is moving into a more creative role in managing a brand's voice from day to day. This brainstorming session is a daily gathering they call the scrum, a kind of pitch meeting for stories and conversations they could create for clients. It's part of a new approach the company calls its "creative newsroom," an attempt to make the PR agency function more like a media company.
It's something that many agencies are spending more time doing. And the greater demand for this kind of real-time content comes, in part, as a result of last year's Super Bowl.
When a blackout hit the Super Dome in New Orleans, bringing the game to a halt, Oreo had already gone through three years of work with its digital agency, 360i, to build up its real-time prowess, practising with daily communications on social media. During the Super Bowl, the brand's war room sprang into action. Within minutes they had drawn up and approved a joke about the blackout that was posted on Twitter with speed that surprised ad industry watchers.
"Power out? No problem," the company tweeted with a picture of an Oreo on a dark background featuring the slogan, "You can still dunk in the dark."
"It was a watershed moment," said Andrew Lane, senior vice president of content and platforms at PR agency Weber Shandwick Canada. "Any time a marketer is seen as winning the Super Bowl on the back of a tweet, that's incredibly disruptive. That woke a lot of people up."
To praise a brand so effusively for a clever tweet may seem ludicrous. But the Oreo case is important because it speaks to a shift in advertising itself, and in the fundamental way that companies think about how to reach consumers. Knowing how to participate in conversations on Facebook, Twitter, and whatever comes next – without eliciting eye rolls – is going to be as important in the coming years as making good ads has been in the past. Oreo's sales were up in 2013.
Mr. Lane says his firm's clients have been investing more in real-time marketing over the past year, and that's true for many agencies. Edelman's "newsroom" is filled with televisions tracking news events and its team tracks conversations on social media as they happen with a tool called Radian6. Since March, Weber Shandwick has been developing a new approach it calls "mediaco" that helps advertisers act more like content producers, including real-time communications.
"Real time is effective only if you've built … engagement through always-on storytelling, and if the event in question has credible relevance to the brand," said Tristan Roy, the director of Edelman Digital in Canada.
And while advertisers are embracing the conversation with customers on social media more than ever over the last year, the landscape is also growing more crowded, and that means it is harder to make an impact.
For example, in December, the Ignite Social Media Agency conducted a study into brands' posts on Facebook. It found the "reach" of people who actually saw those posts had declined significantly – from 44 per cent to as much as almost 90 per cent in some cases, over the year.
That means marketers have to be savvy about how they manage their voices on social media or risk being lost in the din.
For the Super Bowl, Weber Shandwick is working with ad agencies BBDO and Digitas on a campaign for M&Ms. Yellow, the peanut M&M, and Joe Montana will together be commenting on the game in real time on social media platforms such as Twitter, Facebook, photo-sharing service Instagram, and video service Vine.
"Countless brands are going to spend Super Bowl Sunday waiting around for one moment to try to infiltrate conversation, but we wanted to do something different that enhances the viewing experience all game long," M&M's senior director Seth Klugherz said in a statement this week.
None of this means that brands are writing off TV advertising just yet. Prices for Super Bowl ads continue to balloon, to a reported $4-million for 30 seconds in the U.S. broadcast (and an asking price of roughly $160,000 for ads on CTV here in Canada, according to sources.)
But with Oreo having stolen so much of the spotlight for its forward-thinking strategy last year, and a recognition of how many viewers are checking in on a "second screen" such as a tablet or smartphone while they watch, expect many brands to be pushing real-time marketing efforts this Sunday.
Oreo parent company Mondelēz is steadily shifting a larger proportion of its advertising budget into digital channels, because its research shows that the return on investment in digital is so significant.
"There's a connectedness, and a fondness toward the brand," Mondelez Canada's vice-president for the biscuit category, Janine Keogh, said of the results of the real-time communication strategy. "When you're at retail, you see it."
That takes planning. Real-time marketing is not always done in real time. At Edelman, for example, the content that it publishes for clients is typically 80 per cent planned, around events or holidays – and timed for publishing based on audience analytics that measure when the people it wants to reach are online and most likely to see the message. About 20 per cent of those clients' social media activity is made up of spontaneous reactions to conversations or developments in the moment.
Mondelez's Ms. Keogh also emphasizes that its strategy requires intensive planning with creative materials produced, legal concerns checked out, and executive approvals happening at an unprecedented pace.
In Canada, Mondelez's team is focused less on Super Bowl than the upcoming Olympics, but the same strategy applies: it has created mascots for the Sochi Games to celebrate Canadian success in short-form advertising on CBC, and the company is working on a social media strategy to harness the emotions around the Games and take part in the conversation.
"We've planned to be spontaneous," Ms. Keogh said.
Super Bowl XLVIII, by the numbers
100 per cent: amount of advertising time available in Sunday's broadcast that CTV says it has sold
5: 30-second spots that CTV has set aside during the game not sold to advertisers that will be used to promote shows on the network and other Bell Media channels such as Space
5 to 15 seconds: length of bonus advertising "billboards" for the network that CTV has on hand to cover up stoppages in play or any lull in the action (and to cover up the Fox promos for its shows that run in the U.S. broadcast feed during that down time)
7.3 million: Canadians who tuned into the Super Bowl last year
108.4 million: U.S. viewers last year