Alan Mitchell: Effectiveness awards which fail to offer value

The IPA awards are to be relaunched. Alan Mitchell says the entire awards industry should be revamped to achieve real rewards for itself and its clients

The IPA Advertising Effectiveness Awards – the granddaddy of all marketing communications awards – are being relaunched. The word advertising is to be dropped from the official title.

This move is meant to reflect the IPA’s broader membership base. But it is also a move that recognises corner-fighting between different specialist disciplines doesn’t help clients achieve what they want. Clients want improvements in effectiveness per se, regardless of which discipline comes out on top. It’s taken us a long time to get this far, and the journey is instructive. It reflects (in microcosm) the dilemmas facing the entire marketing communications industry.

The awards industry is grappling with two main challenges: the “me too” effect and seller-centricity. When the IPA launched its advertising effectiveness awards in 1980, other practitioners quickly recognised what a good idea the awards were, and soon everyone jumped on the bandwagon. The result was: sundry competing awards from more specialist areas, all jostling for clients’ attention. Bewildered clients, burdened with the task of deciding which awards really add value, can only look on in dismay.

The second hurdle facing the IPA is that each award has been cursed by its own seller-centricity. Each niche sector has tried so hard to fight its own particular corner: advertising agencies promoting awards designed to show how effective advertising can be, direct marketers promoting awards designed to show how effective direct marketing can be and so forth. The result is that the industry has lost sight of the client’s perspective. The louder each discipline shouts: “Look at me. Look at me. Choose me,” the harder it is for clients to sift through the myriad of businesses and get an impartial, integrated overview. Consequently, effectiveness awards are not particularly effective for clients, who are left little the wiser.

The irony is that this dilemma mirrors (in microcosm) the long-term evolution of the marketing profession’s own relationship with consumers. As soon as any brand manager discovers a powerful new trick, everyone else immediately piles in with something similar.

As a result, a multitude of brands and offers jostle for consumers’ attention, all desperately looking for something special to set themselves apart, even as they assiduously copy each other’s best moves. And because each brand is in it to fight its own corner, the net effect for the client (the consumer) is exactly the same. He or she, bombarded with competing alternatives, is left bewildered and little the wiser.

What unites both these dynamics is a system effect, where the sum of many individually rational decisions creates collective irrationality (like a crowd in a hall on fire, all running for the same door at the same time). The harder each seller strives to fight his own corner, the more difficult it becomes for buyers to sift through the noise and find the information they really need. The result, as far as the buyer is concerned: water, water (or, in our case, brand messages and communications) everywhere, and not a drop to drink.

If there is one strategic issue facing the marketing communications industry, it’s this: seller-centric corner-fighting, and the counterproductive system effect, mean we are failing to see things from the consumer’s point of view – a point of view that is entirely absent from the whole marketing effectiveness debate. There is not one awards’ body anywhere that stops to ask: “How effective is all this marketing communications activity – and all this marketing spend – in achieving the consumer’s go-to-market objectives or in meeting the consumer’s information needs?”

This matters. Analyse what markets need to work effectively, and we discover two main categories of information. First, there’s information from sellers describing what they have to offer. This is what modern marketing communications is all about: sellers fighting their corner. In the case of awards, it’s the stuff that implies that media advertising is better than direct marketing, or that TV is better than press. For consumers, it’s the stuff that implies that Ariel is better than Persil.

But because the purpose of such messages is to help sellers sell, they pay scant attention to providing the information that helps the buyer buy. This is the second category of information: the impartial, comparative, comprehensive information that helps me sift the evidence and make an informed decision.

The ideal, of course, is where the same information helps both sides achieve their objectives at the same time. A win-win situation in other words. It does happen. But not often enough. Nowadays the “look at me, choose me” stuff dominates while the “help buyers buy” stuff hardly gets a look in. Like clients and effectiveness awards, most marketing communications are not “effective” for consumers at all. This means that they are not all that effective for sellers either.

That’s because real effectiveness is driven by win-win outcomes. I don’t buy products or services that fail to meet my needs. Value is only realised effectively when the company produces something that suits my needs. Then everyone benefits.

Likewise, with marketing communications. Why should I bother “buying” – paying attention to – narcissistic marketing messages that are so focused on saying what the seller wants to say that they fail to address my information needs as a buyer? The win-win is only generated when the information provided by the seller aligns with my information needs as a buyer.

What’s needed is for communications professionals to apply to communications what marketers have always applied to their products: the simple precept “does it add enough value for the buyer to consider it worth buying?”. Alignment and effectiveness are one and the same. The IPA awards’ relaunch edges towards this realisation vis-a-vis clients. Now all we need to do is apply the same mindset to our communications with consumers.

Alan Mitchell’s book Right Side Up: Building Brands in the Age of the Organised Consumer is available from HarperCollins Publishers, at the special price of £16.99 (rrp £19.99) including postage and packaging. Telephone 0870 900 2050 and ask for department 832D

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