Giving the Finger to Rules of Thumb

I work in an industry where we seem to rely an awful lot on rules of thumb to make important and expensive decisions about how to spend marketing budgets. The next 1000 words are a bit of a rant about why I hate that, but also why it means I love my job! For those of you who don’t work in media or marketing this one might not be as fun as some of my other rants – don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Now rules of thumb are useful. They are useful so that you don’t have to start from scratch every time you look to make a budget decision. They are useful to spot something that is completely out of line with efficient and effective media principles. They are really useful when you are inevitably asked to pull together a recommendation by yesterday as they provide a shortcut to an answer which will probably be 70-80% correct (which is a damn sight better than if the client made it up themselves.)

Where they are really not useful, where they are in fact a hindrance, is when planners and marketers choose to abdicate their own intuitive sense and reasoning capabilities and instead use rules of thumb as planning LAW.

So some examples.

As a rule of thumb, IPA Datamine 2 (Marketing in an age of accountability) suggests that 3 media channels is the optimum number of channels to maximise the likelihood of delivering a positive business ROI for a campaign (This is also broadly supported in Datamine 3).

This is a useful rule. It tells me that if I spend a £20million budget exclusively on TV then I could probably improve my chances of success by diverting some of the budget into a different support medium. It also tells me that if my £10 million campaign has 8 different bought media channels on it then I should probably think about focusing or prioritising, ensuring that each of them is adding something new and valuable to the overall campaign. What it doesn’t mean is that a campaign which uses 5 different media is fundamentally wrong in all circumstances. From the graph we can obviously see that isn’t the case as over 50% of the case studies that used 5 media WERE successful, but it is just that the likelihood of success starts to decrease.

I was recently told that we shouldn’t add a “video marketing” strand to a TV campaign because we already were using press and radio in support of the TV campaign and so “online” would be an extra channel too far. This fundamentally misunderstood a) how the rule of thumb works and b) how people consume audio visual content in the 21st century. I’ve also been told variously that we shouldn’t include social media, PPC search and even SEO using the same rationale.

A number of things are to blame here

1) there is a mis-understanding by marketeers of the term “media channel” in the Datamine study. Media channels as defined in that context are traditional paid for advertising channels that allow you to broadcast a message to many people. Unfortunately “media channels” has been applied by the marketeers to anything that is managed for them by their Media Planning and Buying agency. In a world where the media agency remit is expanding far beyond the 5 traditional advertising media, this needs to change. Marketeers wouldn’t lump PR or sales promotions or CRM or any of the other core marketing functions into this “only 3 media” rule, so neither should they with social media or search

2) There is another form of siloing happening here as well – In this example, online video marketing is seen as a separate “channel” from television. However if all you are doing is ensuring that your TVC is discoverable in all places that people view AV content then it is clearly just an extension of “TV”. Unfortunately, fear of the unknown causes people to create false media segmentation and in doing so can miss out on a golden opportunity for cost effective amplification of their core advertising message.

The fundamental problem here is that people aren’t interrogating the rule. They aren’t asking “Why is 3 the optimum number” they are just accepting it as a shorcut and lazily using it as “the answer”. I’ve even heard of agencies where the mandate from the very top is “we do not use more than 3 media channels in any campaign” and they take great pride in their lazy inflexibility. I agree with the principle of “do fewer things, better” but to have such a coarse rule offends my natural tendency to question, explore and push the boundaries of what communications can do.

It isn’t just in broad planning that we see these “rules of thumb” being used badly.

I’ve recently heard them used to justify quite specific media implementation. The product was an NPD for an FMCG brand that a colleague of mine works on and specifically it had a brand spanking new innovation which needed a bit of explanation. The team rightly identified that part of the role for communications was to demonstrate this functionality and so they allocated a portion of the budget for “demonstration” media. Where this fell down was by using rules of thumb badly. The logic went something like this

1) Digital media is good at “demonstration” because it can be animated (TV wasn’t an option due to budget constraints),
2) Women spend a lot of time shopping

ergo: We should do digital 6-sheet posters in Malls – obviously

To have gone ahead with this would have been completely wrong for a number of reasons: 1)the 5 seconds of animation on the poster simply wouldn’t have been adequate for the message; 2) the attention of the average Mall shopper is being demanded constantly by hundreds of more interesting items – primarily the shop windows that they are gazing into – they aren’t going to spend any time watching a reel of posters in case something relevant pops up; 3)this audience is in “fun” shopping mode, they are thinking about buying the stuff that makes them feel sexy/cool/young etc – what they aren’t thinking about is what they are going to feed their kids that evening. I could go on.

The point is that the “rules of thumb” suggested that this was a relevant media, but intuitively it is really clear that it would be a inappropriate use of marketing money against those comms objectives. The problem is that some people had just stopped at the answer that the rule of thumb delivered, without really applying any understanding of why the rule of thumb existed and whether or not it truly applied to the human behaviour in question.

And this in turn brings me to my final conclusion – Why I love my job. Yes I hate the way that too many marketing services professionals use lazy rules of thumb to make their media decisions for them, but the nature of the media industry means that there will always be a place for people to question received wisdom as we work in an industry that is constantly evolving and changing. Since I started in media 12 years ago, the media opportunities are virtually unrecognisable in so many ways. As new media channels constantly come to the fore, any “rule of thumb” inevitably has to be re-evaluated and there will always be a place for people who understand not just the basic rules about what works in communications, but for people who always ask why it works so that they can intuitively understand whether the latest greatest media phenomenon is actually relevant or a big noisy red herring. No computer or “Black Box” planning tool is ever going to be able to do that, well not in my lifetime anyway!

Bring on the next 12 years.


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