John Fanning on why marketing spend in the future can be won by more than just securing sign-off on long-term advertising campaigns
Les Binet and Peter Field are two British admen who have been writing about advertising effectiveness for over a decade. Binet has worked for DDB’s Adam & Eve agency for over 20 years and Field has been a marketing consultant for a similar time. They are regarded as two of the world’s leading authorities on how advertising works and in particular on the link between creativity and effectiveness.
Their definitive analysis of over 1,000 case studies in the IPA Advertising Effectiveness awards database began in 2007 with Advertising in an Era of Accountability. The report presents advice on all aspects of planning and measuring campaign effectiveness, from defining better strategies and writing better briefs to budget-setting, media and payback audits.
Meagre budgets down to share values: John Fanning says that while the arguments made by Les Binet (pictured) and Peter Field about what makes for advertising effectiveness makes perfect sense, a lack of commitment to long-term branding outside the FMCG business sector and the change in business ethos which occurred 40 years ago with a concentration on short-term maximisation of shareholder value, was crucial in curtailing marketing spend.
From such a rich database of campaigns, they have been able to show proven effectiveness over a 40-year period and can draw conclusions which should be required reading for all marketers. For example, they recommend that focusing on a single campaign objective does not make marketing communications campaigns more effective; “objectives should be detailed and above all prioritised”.
Binet and Field distinguish between the different effects a campaign can have; business objectives, increased profitability, behavioural, increased market share and brand health, awareness and attribute ratings. They advise focusing more on increasing profitability and market share and argue that awareness and brand attribute ratings are more a reflection of market share than campaign influences.
They returned to the fray in 2013 with a new analysis; The Long and the Short of It, and a stark warning about a growing tendency towards short-term sales activation campaigns at the expense of long-term brand building. The time between the two reports was dominated by the severe recession of 2008.
The recession impacted on marketing budgets but the authors also blamed the growing impact of digital platforms that emphasised precise targeting and sales activation; both of which were inimical to long-term brand building. Fresh analysis reports followed in rapid succession; Selling Creativity Short (2016), Media in Focus (2016), Effectiveness in Context (2018) and finally Crisis in Creativity (2019).
As the titles become more apocalyptic, so does the tone. The last report was based on a talk by Field at the Cannes Lions, where he paced up and down the stage sounding like a demented vicar exasperated by the waywardness of his flock that simply refuses to see the light, the truth and the way.
Field reported that creatively-awarded campaigns were now less effective than ever in the 24-year history of analysis and that “we have now arrived at an era where award-winning creativity typically brings little or no effectiveness advantage”. The reason for this sorry state of affairs, often pointed out in the previous reports, was the shift to short-term sales activation at the expense of long-term brand building.
It is changing the nature of the ads we are exposed to; “instead of emotionally engaging stories that seek to charm and captivate we are seeing more didactic literal presentations that seek to prompt us into action”. Field does not present any solutions other than the obvious one of renewing our efforts to highlight the abundant store of long-term brand building campaigns delivering handsome profits.
Seeing is believing in new ideas: Comedian John Cleese in one of the Specsavers ads. In the five years to 2018, the campaign generated an extra £750 million in profits and it featured in previous Adfx reports, but business leaders chose to sidestep the argument. Fanning believes that a new era may be about to dawn in adland with a more progressive business ethos resulting in a stronger belief in loosening the purse strings for marketing spend.
It has long been said that the calibre of marketing departments has been in decline and marketing directors have lost influence in the boardroom, unable to argue the case for long-term brand investment. In this context, it was worth noting that Field’s talk at Cannes was preceded by a presentation from the Financial Times marketing director on a representative readers’ survey on the subject.
Tellingly, the presentation was titled The Board-Brand Rift. In spite of the fact that most respondents agreed that strong brands were a major contributor to the profitability of a business there was a disturbing admission of ignorance as to how strong brands can best be developed and maintained.
No surprise. Findings like this have been presented for the last 25 years and although the provenance of the companies commissioning the data can be dubious – management consultancies and accountancy firms with their own axes to grind – they are a cause for concern. The favoured solution to remedy the deficit is more continuing professional development (CPD) for senior marketers.
Send them back to college for a refresher course in brand development and management? I have my doubts. The problems go deeper and may be structural in nature. The first issue may be a lack of commitment to the concept of branding. Without a deep understanding and focus on the value of developing a brand, a business is unlikely to commit the investment needed for sustainable long-term brand building.
Such a commitment is not all that prevalent outside of the FMCG sector and sadly its share of overall business is in decline. Weakened by the growing concentration of retailer power and perhaps a slightly jaded public less susceptible to the business world and their promises in general, the big consumer grocery brand owners are no longer as profitable relative to other business sectors as they were in the past.
They have become a target for opportunistic, fly-by-night financial manipulators out to make a quick killing. Although most other business sectors have adopted the ‘brand’ concept; the word is used with what used to be called in more innocent days; ‘gay abandon’, but overuse devalues meaning and often businesses witter on about their brand without it being clear as to what it is they are actually talking about.
If I’ve depressed you too much already, please don’t read any further as there’s another underlying condition – as they say in the best medical circles – which is making it harder than ever to obtain decent levels of investment for brand-building; the ‘financialisation’ of the economy. The process began in the mid-70’s when neo-liberalism emerged from the ashes of post-war welfare state consensus politics.
Some people might dislike the term ‘neo-liberalism’ but to be perfectly frank I can’t think of a better one for the efforts to undermine state support for anything that moved, privatise everything in sight, deregulate all markets and confine the state’s role in society (which, of course, doesn’t exist) to that of night watchman.
Revelling in the resulting freedom from trade union and regulatory restraints, businesses enthusiastically followed Milton Friedman’s dictum and maximised shareholder revenue and wholeheartedly applauded Michael Douglas’s Wall Street ‘hero’ Gordon Gekko (above with Donald Trump) and his celebrated manifesto: “Greed, for want of a better word, is good, greed is right, greed works, greed clarifies and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”
If this is the prevailing mood, what’s the point of painstakingly developing, building and maintaining brands when you can pump up your balance sheet by engaging in some quick and dirty M&A? The end result was a short-term imperative to maximise profit and share price, which inevitably clashed with the investment requirements of long-term brand building and marketing budgets duly suffered.
I suspect that these macro-business factors contributed more to the decline of long-term brand building campaigns than any possible shortcomings in the education of marketing personnel. On reflection, I’m not sure that the marketing communications business would ever have had the clout to reverse such a revolutionary change in business but all uprisings burn themselves out and invariably end in tears.
The neo-liberal fire was more or less extinguished by the Great Recession of 2008 and any remaining sparks have been well and truly stamped out by the Great Covid-19 Pandemic of 2020. More civilised business values are likely be in the ascendant for the foreseeable future, partly because new generations of consumers will demand them and also because a renewed emphasis on environmental concerns will require more civilised consumption behaviour.
In this more considered climate, brands are more likely to be given the opportunity to develop at their pace. But there may be new opportunities for marketing communications. In 2009, at the height of the Great Recession, John Armstrong, an associate professor at the Melbourne Business School (MBS), published an interesting book, In Search of Civilisation, which concluded with some intriguing comments.
They read: “Through the 1970’s the big theme in business was the creation of desire. We know what will make you happy, in the 1990’s the essential message of advertising was; You know what will make you happy and we are listening to you, but the opportunity for the future will be to marry two earlier trends; creative leadership in influencing what people want, together with a service towards real needs.”
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Cover image: Barry’s Tea ‘Sisters’ TV ad created by Thinkhouse
Armstrong’s end line read: “The future of business lies in teaching people their real needs, not just fabricating new wants.” At the time I thought the idea was a little far-fetched, now I’m not so sure. Unilever’s Knorr brand launched its ‘Reinventing Food for Humanity’ programme aimed at introducing more plant-based products, having identified 50 future foods kinder to the planet and human health.
Other businesses are now thinking along similar progressive lines. Teaching people how to consume in a more environmentally-friendly way requires well-conceived creative communications. It could lead to a new stream of business for agencies. I’ll leave you with a final thought: the aforementioned John Armstrong is a philosopher and art theorist.
His full title at MBS is ‘philosopher in residence’.
John Fanning lectures on branding and marketing communications at the UCD Smurfit Graduate Business School; firstname.lastname@example.org