How Boots balances creativity and science to drive effectiveness

Using new tools to optimise campaigns before launch and taking a “brave” approach to driving progress have helped Boots CMO Pete Markey produce more effective advertising.

Finding the “balance” between strong creativity and science is crucial both to producing effective marketing and getting buy-in from the wider business for campaigns, says Boots CMO Pete Markey.

According to Markey, exploring new methods of pre-campaign measurement and optimisation helped to secure leadership buy-in for the retailer’s two highly successful campaigns in 2021.

Speaking at the Market Research Society’s Impact 2022 conference today (16 March), Markey – who describes the modern CMO as “part artist, part scientist, part champion for marketing with a business” – said there is a “healthy balance” to be struck between “trusting your gut” and supporting  decisions with data.

“Trusting your gut is never the most convincing way to sell an idea to the business,” he said. “You need some data points around it, rather than just saying you think it’s a great idea.”

Fortunately, there are considerably more tools available to marketers today than there were in past years, which can provide “a lot more certainty and confidence”, Markey said.

“On balancing good creative and measurement, there are so many great ways now using research,” he said, pointing to tech used by companies such as Kantar and System1 to run tests on ads before they go live to “pre-diagnose” how a campaign will perform.

“Then you can take action on that ahead of it going out and potentially optimise it in-flight, provided you’ve got additional material or ways of editing it,” Markey added.

Last year Boots launched two major campaigns – summer campaign ‘Feel Good as New’ and Christmas campaign ‘Bags of Joy’.

Both performed well for the brand and ranked highly on creative effectiveness measures. Indeed, Feel Good as New was crowned June’s most creatively effective TV ad by Kantar’s ‘The Works’ study, conducted in association with the Marketing Week and the Advertising Association. The ad scored in the top 20% of all UK ads on both branding and building brand affinity.

The new brand platform proved so strong for Boots that the business’s parent company, the Walgreens Boots Alliance, credited its role in driving a 15% increase in comparable retail sales in the UK in its fourth quarter financial results for the 2021 fiscal year.

Last year, Markey told Marketing Week that within two months of launch, the campaign had boosted online and in-store sales, particularly in the beauty and health categories most featured in the ad. The Boots website also saw a boost, with a 700% rise in the number of visitors to the Health Hub alone, while overall searches for the brand jumped 15%.

Meanwhile, the Christmas ad was praised for its creative execution by experts including marketing consultant Tanya Joseph, former Debenhams CMO and current Cignpost Diagnostics CMO Abi Comber, and Eve Sleep’s CMO turned CEO Cheryl Calverley, all of whom preferred the ad to offering from rivals John Lewis and M&S.

While the idea for Bags of Joy stemmed from consumer insight and was “really liked” by the Boots marketing team, the retailer nevertheless tested the ad alongside a number of alternative options to ensure its gut feel was right.

Even once committed to Bags of Joy, the ad underwent considerable pre-testing work “right through to optimising the end effort”, leading to last minute changes to the final edit to ensure the ad would be as effective as possible.

“You can get the balance right, you’ve just got to make sure, particularly with your agencies, that you’re all on board together and everyone’s clear that we need to build time to properly pre-test, properly learn, properly measure,” Markey explained. 

“The slightly scary bit is how much you want to pre-test and how much extra footage you want to film, or how much you’re open to re-editing or changing an ad before you put it out. That’s always the tricky bit.”

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It’s a similar story when experimenting with how AI can fulfil its “enormous potential” to improve a brand’s marketing, Markey added. At Boots, the retailer has begun playing with AI on things like testing email headings and subject lines.

“AI to help speed to market is really exciting. It can help you learn faster, act faster and remove wastage in what you’re doing in marketing. None of us want to email 2 million people and find that didn’t work,” he said.

But again, it’s about getting that balance between the technology and scientific methods it provides, and human creativity, Markey added. Marketers must continue to allow their creative agencies the flexibility to come up with great work and then use AI to optimise, measure, push performance and develop the strength of the idea.

“I don’t see a world where AI could take over from the ability we’ve got with a human eye to determine what makes great creative and great work. Not yet anyway,” he said.

Be brave

Markey also spoke to the importance of bravery in marketing leadership and its role in creating the best possible work by challenging norms and asking provocative questions.

“Being brave is really important. It means you’re willing to push the boundaries in the right way to see real evolution in your brand and business, and real success for the future and the long term,” he said.

According to Markey, in many of his previous roles he’d witnessed both failures to question the status quo and “breakthrough moments” where being brave enough to ask questions had led to significant improvements.

As an example, Markey spent over five years at insurance firm More Than between 2006 and 2011, including two and a half as marketing director. At the time, the brand invested a considerable amount of its marketing spend into small format press ads.Boots’ CFO: Don’t just have conversations with finance when it’s budget time

At the bottom of each ad was written a long registered office address, as it had been for five years before Markey joined the company. On enquiring as to why, Markey discovered both the business’s regulatory and legal teams thought the other wanted the address on the ad. In reality it didn’t need to be there and removing it freed valuable space to include better brand communication in the ad.

“Bravery leads to real progress if you come up with new ideas. You step forwards in them, you have ambition behind them and they’re closely tied to your vision and what you’re about as a brand,” Markey added.

In the context of market research teams, bravery is about putting forward insights and holding up a mirror to the business to expose what’s good and what’s less good about it, he said.

“We often get caught up in the microcosm of our own brands and often, for me, bits of insight have been breakthrough moments of bravery to say ‘That’s not good enough, or we need to fix that.'”



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