Direct competition?

The debate rages over whether creativity or media planning should come first in any campaign strategy. David Benady gauges how direct marketers perceive the role of creativity within their discipline

Whether it is Nike sponsoring sports stars or easyJet painting its telephone number on the sides of its jets, companies are looking for alternatives to television advertising as a way of building brand awareness.

At Unilever they dub it “on-granny advertising”, after a campaign for tea which used actors dressed up as grannies parading through UK high streets sipping cups of char. By advertising “on grannies”, Unilever demonstrated that traditional forms of communication are failing to reach target markets, and that it is seeking imaginative ways of getting messages across.

In some cases this can be a way of avoiding the huge costs of television advertising. EasyJet has built its brand around this tactic, positioning its cheap and cheerful ads as a rejection of expensive advertising. Some marketers see a future where only the biggest brands will be able to advertise on TV – everyone else will have to be more creative.

But a problem for marketers and agencies lies in the way these campaigns are created. There is much debate as to whether it should be left to the creative department to come up with clever ideas that can be used in a variety of settings, or whether opportunities should be found by media planners and then concepts created that apply to them.

Trying to achieve a “media neutral” approach – where media are chosen for their suitability to targeting a specific market rather than the margins they offer – is hampered by the way many agencies are structured. Not only will a direct marketing (DM) agency tend to avoid coming up with ideas that do not involve sending out mailings, but the division between planning and creativity in most agencies can act as a barrier to developing new working practices. Within the traditional model, creatives come up with ideas for specific media and these are then executed. But the growth of media planning has put the type of media channels used at the forefront of many campaigns, so concepts are created that can fit those media.

What’s the idea?

Some people are sceptical about putting media planning ahead of creativity. It may have tactical uses, but for most campaigns it is the ideas that consumers relate to. Where ads are communicated seems to be a secondary consideration.

DP&A managing director Dan Douglass says: “I believe in the primacy of the creative idea above all else. Anybody can raid the cupboard for highly visible sites, spots or ambient ideas, but if there’s no strong creative idea behind a campaign, it’s ultimately fruitless.”

Kevin Allen, planning director of DM agency Cramm Woolf Francis, says he finds it frustrating that there is still such heated debate about whether planning or creativity comes first, as it indicates that the two are not working together. “As the number of potential points of contact with customers continues to proliferate, the challenge is to ensure a singular, consistent message. Brand dissonance is the ultimate enemy of awareness and response,” he says.

The old certainties of advertising have been blown apart by the explosion in media channels and the multiple ways in which the public consumes media. Brands find it difficult to communicate their messages when the public no longer sits in front of ITV every night, absorbing 30-second ads. And the crisis is set to deepen as a pincer movement of a rejuvenated BBC and the growing power of BSkyB (the subscription-based operator that makes only a fifth of its revenue through ads) threatens to turn the UK TV market into a new regime where advertisers’ interests take a back seat. ITV’s decline is not a failing of the channel, but in the digital future it will be just one channel among 300.

Those disciplines that have appeared so lacking in glamour in the past are now considered to form a significant part of the future. It is a question of how brands combine their DM, sales promotion, public relations, internet and TV ads in the most powerful and cost-effective way. But agencies inevitably suggest using the methods that they specialise in.

As OgilvyOne executive creative director Rory Sutherland says: “No specific agency itself can be media neutral in its execution, but it can help to contribute to better media-neutral ideas.”

He believes marketers are trapped by stereotypical ideas of what the different disciplines are capable of achieving. TV ads are viewed as the best way of launching products, DM is seen as good for shifting them and sales promotion gives products a boost and encourages trial. “Where sales promotions and mailings contribute to awareness more effectively than TV, it is very rare that a client sees fit to measure DM other than on its response rate,” laments Sutherland.

Get the message

For media neutrality to gain credibility, clients must move away from fixed ways of viewing the use of each medium and wise up to the fact that TV ads can stimulate response and sales promotions can be used for a relaunch. One often quoted example of this is British Airways’ relaunch of its offering after the recession and travel downturn of the early Nineties with the “World’s Greatest Offer” sales promotion programme. This kick-started its business, prompting awareness and product trial.

OgilvyOne’s Sutherland cites campaigns that have used media in innovative ways including the launch of Hotmail, which was achieved almost entirely through the Web. He also cites Caterpillar’s entry into clothing for the use of “brilliant ideas that transcend any particular discipline” and points to the American Express card and Reader’s Digest as products that have been built largely through the use of DM.

One classic example of a campaign that scrambled the traditional media schedule was the launch of the revamped Mini in June 2000. It began with a cinema campaign – unusual for a new product launch, particularly in the car market. TV ads followed and then came a DM campaign by EHS Brann.

The agency had to generate prospects and help to create a general buzz before the Mini’s launch. Activity then needed to deliver against tough sales targets (from 9,600 cars in 2001 to 30,000 in 2002), and create a dialogue as a prelude to a retention programme in 2002/2003. The launch strategy EHS Brann developed invited prospects to be “kept in the know” about the Mini, mainly by registering online. Media planning was central to the campaign and a raft of media were used, ranging from traditional DM to new media.

A Mini adventure

Mini marketing manager Emma Lowndes says the launch was a team effort, which relied on media planning advice from above-the-line agency WCRS. But she says this approach is not unusual in car marketing. She says: “You always start with a business objective, working out what you are trying to achieve in sales and revenue, and you work backwards from there. No one was going to get precious about it; you just thought which media worked best and the creative ideas dropped out of that.”

She says the rationale for the approach was that the launch budget did not stretch to a big TV campaign. “We had to box cleverer than that, having a fraction of the big manufacturers’ budgets. You have to cut your cloth to suit your needs.”

There are those who reject the idea that there is a division between planners and creatives which needs to be healed before effective campaigns can be created. Craik Jones Watson Mitchell Voelkel head of planning Alison Payne believes the central function of DM is to get response. She criticises media planners for having a “limited understanding” of the medium.

“Successful DM campaigns are not born out of media planning or a big creative idea. Our starting point is always the target market, an insight into their behaviour and an understanding of how they consume media. In this respect, we are totally media neutral. For us, it’s the client’s business objective, not the medium, that matters,” says Payne.

In truth, while the split between creatives and media planners has been explored in depth at above-the-line advertising agencies, direct marketers feel that it is an issue that affects them less. Their job is to get responses whether it is through mailings or above-the-line ads featuring telephone numbers.

Many agencies, whether they are in DM, advertising, sales promotion or media, claim that they have no bias towards advising clients to use a particular medium. In reality, it is very hard for them to break out of viewing the world through the discipline in which they have the most experience.


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