Few TV commercials catch my eye. (When they do, it's usually because they're noticeably bad.) This one did, partly because the pitch wasn't obvious, nor was the brand it represents.

But mostly I noticed because I immediately recognized the little girl.

Last year, after she couldn't get her family to help her build a snowman, she followed two cats to a magical place called the Time Shop, where she learned about "lost time," "time that flies," and "together time, the best kind, [because] it can make memories that last forever."

And how "together time" is the only kind of time you can actually give.

This year she discovers her town has lost its spark, and, through the help of a new character (because no one ever does anything worthwhile on their own), discovers that she can spark hope for her friends and neighbors -- and how just one spark can inspire countless other moments of encouragement and joy.

Only at the end of the ad does the Chick-fil-A "card" appear. The call to action? "Spark hope and light the way this holiday season."

Content marketing, while great conceptually, is extemely difficult to execute. Creating innovative content that attracts an audience is hard. Creating content that effectively tells the story of your brand is hard. 

Creating content that helps an audience connect with your products or services? Yep: Hard.

Effective execution is especially difficult when content marketing involves a this-for-that proposition--an opt-in, tie-in, or incentive designed to prompt an action.

In theory, the offer benefits both parties. As was the case last year, other than positive brand assocation, this year's benefit for Chick-fil-A isn't obvious. The opt-in is to share a message with anyone you choose through a digital e-card. (Feel free to send me one.)

Choose a theme, write a personal message, and Chick-fil-A delivers the virtual holiday card.

What does Chick-fil-A get in return? As far as I can tell, nothing. You don't have to enter your email address or that of the recipient. Instead you copy a custom link, text or email it yourself, and the recipient lands on the "Share a Message" site, not the company's main site.

So, even though I rarely opt in to anything, I sent cards to each of our two grandkids. 

But it didn't feel the same as last year, when the opt-in was creating a custom Time Card, a commitment to spend quality time together: You'd specify the person you wished to give a little "together time" to. and Chick-fil-A printed and shipped the cards to U.S. recipients for free.

Eli, who was 5, redeemed his Time Card right away: Football, coloring, board games, and Mario Kart with Pawpaw and Gran. Easton was almost 2; while he didn't understand the premise, he still got his time -- and as my wife reminded me, it was important for Eli to see his brother get a card as well.

The commitment to together time felt more significant than sending a note of, however heartfelt, encouragement and love. It was still fun for us, and hopefully will still be fun for Eli and Easton.

But it's not quite the same.

Which isn't really Chick-fil-A's fault. Together time is harder to promise during a pandemic. So is committing finite resources to the production and fulfillment of a physical deliverable.

Digital was absolutely the way to go, especially for a campaign designed to help people help other people.

Which is the foundation of great content marketing: Helping people. Meeting a need. Solving a problem. Fullfilling a desire.

And doing so in a way that draws people to you, that attracts rather than annoys,  and leaves people feeling good about your brand.

If only because they didn't feel "sold."

Which makes this Chick-fil-A ad one of my favorites of the year, because I do feel I received more than I had to give.

And speaking of giving, maybe I should give Chick-fil-A some slack -- because last year's ad set a bar that might be impossible to top.