Does advertising work and if so when, and how? It may be an age-old debate but it’s got plenty of mileage yet, as the industry’s pet iconoclast Professor Andrew Ehrenberg of South Bank University is demonstrating. Ehrenberg has finally published the results of a two-year survey into “justifying our advertising budgets”. It ridicules the widely-held notion that advertising’s purpose is to increase sales, and that it works by persuading consumers to go out and buy. According to Ehrenberg, for most mature brands the goal of sales growth is simply “chasing a rainbow”. Advertising, he says, has to be mainly for brand maintenance.
If he’s right, common assumptions about how to prove the effectiveness of advertising are not only wrong, but dangerous. By setting up the wrong yardsticks for distinguishing success from failure, they immediately condemn most campaigns to the “failure” slot before they’ve even hit the media.
Ehrenberg’s broadside is all the more relevant as the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising’s Advertising Effectiveness Awards extol the latest examples of advertising that truly pays it way. The IPA, of course, has pioneered attempts to evaluate the longer and broader effects of advertising. Nevertheless, reading the winning papers in the light of Ehrenberg’s remarks leaves one feeling curiously dissatisfied. Agencies seem to be underselling and overselling themselves at the same time.
First, underselling. For many gold medal winners the actual campaign was just the final manifestation of an insight that goes way beyond clever ads, as far, in fact, as to transform a company’s entire marketing strategy. Take Orange, winner in the best new launch category. What the paper really celebrates is the overall brand strategy: Orange’s decision to separate itself from the established pack – and the pricing fog it had created – by redefining the category with a brand vision of “a wirefree future in which you call people, not places” and placing itself first within it.
Then there’s Daewoo. It won a silver for the best new launch and gold for the best integrated campaign. But as its submission demonstrates, the agency’s research had identified “unmet needs of a fundamental kind in the market” which led to a totally different brand proposition based on the decision to bypass traditional dealer networks and focus on service and the total brand experience. The ads were just the tip of an iceberg.
The National Lottery campaign, for which, Saatchi & Saatchi strangely got only a commendation, is another example. That phrase “It could be you” was more than an advertising idea. As Saatchi points out, it influenced everything about the National Lottery’s marketing, down to the details of its logo.
But this is mixed with an embarrassing element of oversell: black box econometrics which produces alarmingly precise figures purporting to prove that the adspend of x pounds created a sales increase of exactly y pounds. The problem with many of these calculations is their implication that it was the advertising, and nothing else, that really delivered the goods. Yet if you wanted to be wicked, you could rewrite many of these case studies to highlight the contribution of other marketing disciplines. What about PR leverage which generated acres of media coverage and also got BT “It’s good to talk” (Grand Prix winner), Barclaycard (gold winner for established brands), Daewoo, Walkers, Orange and others plus their slogans embedded into journalists’ copy, splash headlines and comedian’s jokes?
Or market research? Sure, Bob Hoskins is a wonderful spokesman for BT and AMV’s ads are warm and witty. But what really drove the success of that campaign is a high class researcher’s gem of an insight into the social and psychological dynamics of telephone use: that men tend to be “gatekeepers” to their families’ use of the phone.
Surely, it’s much better to argue, as Paul Feldwick and co-authors do in their paper on Barclaycard, that advertising is complementary to other marketing activities, “doing specific things that they do not”, such as providing a continuous presence and dramatising product claims? “Barclaycard’s success is a result of an integrated marketing campaign. It would therefore be meaningless to claim that advertising is responsible for any particular ‘share’ of the brand’s success,” they say with refreshing honesty.
However, if Feldwick is right, then many of the claims made by his fellow prize winners are indeed “meaningless”. Indeed, if you listen to business strategy guru Professor Michael Porter they might be worse than meaningless. Porter’s target is business strategies such as re-engineering that focus solely on operational effectiveness. What they do is force competing companies down the same road. And the faster they rush down this road, the more alike they become, the harder it becomes for them to differentiate, the faster they rush, and so on.
The real trick of competitive differentiation is to manage a trade-off. For example, a no-frills airline trades in-flight meals, connecting flights, and allocated seats against the industry’s traditional full-service offer. It has different product attributes, distribution channels, price positioning, advertising strategy, target customers, cost structure, culture, recruitment processes, etc. And somebody who tries to offer both no frills and full service will fail in both.
His point? That in successful strategies “competitive advantage grows out of the entire system of activities” where “the whole matters more than any individual part”. In such circumstances, he continues, “the competitive value of individual activities cannot be decoupled from the system or the strategy”.
Ditto, surely, for advertising? The real message of case study after case study is that where the marketing strategy is off-beam, it adds up to less than the sum of its different elements. And where it’s on track, it generates massive positive feedback, reinforcing the effect.
Now, there’s no harm in rigorously analysing and dissecting campaigns. That’s how we learn. That’s where the awards like the IPA’s have been so positive. But now it’s time to move on, because now it’s important to get Porter’s “entire system of activities” working in harmony. In other words, what we need now is some marketing effectiveness awards.