When I started in the media industry 12 years ago, the talk at the time was about how media planning should come before creative thinking. It was common talk amongst all media agencies and it had a lot of resonance in a world where media opportunities were exploding with the mass take up of the internet, the proliferation of digital TV and the rise of digital radio (what happened there!?) The difficulty of wading through all the multitude of media options gave real momentum to the claim of the media strategy to be an integral part of the marketing strategy. Within a couple of years it was seen as pretty much conventional wisdom, although there was some reluctance on the part of other advertising services agencies, understandably. But it was pretty well accepted that the context of an advertising message could often be as important as the message itself.
So the article below from Antony Young, would be exactly the type of article I would expect to have been written 10-12 years ago. Except it wasn’t written at any point in the previous decade. It was written last week.
I was really quite shocked to be reading something like this in a publication such as AdAge in today’s marketing environment.
Not only did I think that the value of “the medium” had already been well established in our industry, I also thought that we had grown up and moved well beyond any kind of debate which put media before creative or creative before media.
Surely there is general consensus in our industry that what is required is a collaboration between all the key disciplines to ensure that all elements of a marketing campaign work in an integrated and orchestrated way to deliver against marketing and business objectives.
Surely we have moved away from protectionist attitudes such as “my discipline is more important than your discipline” Putting it simply – placing an irrelevant message in perfectly targeted media environment will have no more success than placing a wonderfully crafted message in front of an audience who have no interest in the product. It’s daft to claim that the media is more important than the message, but equally the message shouldn’t ever be developed in isolation of the media options.
I believe (and I thought most of my peers also believed) that the creative approach and the media approach should stem from the same overall communications strategy and should feed and nuture each other in an ongoing, organic, iterative, real time process. Surely the concept of a linear process where you make an ad, you buy some media to distribute the ad and then walk away is something that our industry has walked away from long ago?
But maybe I’ve been deluding myself. If the article above is anything to go by the media industry hasn’t really gone anywhere in the past 12 years.
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!
It’s time to come out of the closet and admit to what you’ve probably all suspected. I’ve long been a secret devoted fan of the talent show concept. Ever since my little sister’s childhood friend sang his stuttering heart out on the original Pop Idol (what did happen to Gareth Gates) I’ve been a little bit hooked by this televisual opiate. I was a sucker for the emotional manipulation, the sob stories, the “redemption” stories and along the way a few people who could sing.
Whether it was Pop Idol, American Idol, Britain’s got Susan Boyle, or X-factor, I was hooked.
That is, until this year.
In a post a couple of months back I highlighted this Daily Mash article a pertinent analysis of just how awful The X-factor had become, but to be honest it had been going that way for a long while. For too long, the Simon Cowell industry had been picking on the vulnerable, laughing at the weak and then glorifying fame-hungry mediocrity. And we’d put up with it. Initially it was guilty fun, and then after a while we were just watching hoping against hope for a Leona Lewis or Susan Boyle moment that never came.
This year when they put the banally talentless and mindless Frankie Cocozza through to the live stages of the show just to kick him off in a staged “scandal” (so that they could bring back the initial favourite in an effort to protect her in the run up to the final,) I knew that the show had long outstayed it’s welcome on my Sky+ box and it was time to quit. As far as I was concerned that was it, the talent show format was basically dead. It may thrash around for a while as Syco applies the defribulators, but it will only be delaying the inevitable.
Then something strange happened.
This is where it gets embarrassing. Don’t ask why, but a couple of weeks back I was perusing the Anytime+ offering on Sky and came across their version of the talent show : “Got to Dance”. Now these kind of shows are ten a penny, but like I say, I’m a sucker for them and so decided to check it out, expecting the standard deluge of idiots dancing badly, punctuated by someone who is a bit better but who is told “that’s the best thing I’ve ever seen” by a bunch of nonentity judges who are just towing the company line. I knew to expect that because that’s how the show was last year – why would it be any different?
But then something happened – The first auditionee was really good, chills down the spine good. OK, they just wanted to start well and then say “the good start couldn’t last long”, but no, the next act was pretty damn good too. As was the third and fourth. Then they stopped and did a bit of a background story on a geeky looking nerd. Obviously he was going to be rubbish. Except he wasn’t. He was pretty good, not excellent, but pretty impressive for someone who had learnt it from basically watching TV. And then the further surprise was that they didn’t put him through. They praised what he had done, gave him some solid constructive criticism, but didn’t blow smoke up his arse and tell him he was amazing.
This continued throughout. A series of surprisingly good or even excellent performances, followed by passionate “nearly” performances. The personal background stories were there, but they weren’t sob stories, the performances tending to tell you everything you needed to know.
The common thread through each and every performance was the participants’ genuine, heartwarming passion for what they were doing and the joy, originality and liberation that they expressed whilst they were doing it. There were no equivalents of the tone-deaf halfwits that you make up 75% of the X-factor audition stages. Even the 5% of people who were a bit rubbish were rubbish in such a vibrant fun way that you couldn’t help but enjoy and applaud their performances.
I was also really impressed by the attitude of the judges – it didn’t feel like there was any agenda or quota to fill and they made their deliberations and judgements on the true merits of what they saw. Even more enjoyable was the fact that they so clearly loved watching other dancers and seemed genuinely inspired by what they saw. When Simon Cowell sees that one special singer that makes people sit up and take notice, you know that all he is seeing is dollar signs. When the three judges on Got to Dance (Kimberley from the Pussycat dolls, Ashley from Diversity and Adam Garcia from um… some tapdancing thing) see the equivalent all they seem to be thinking is “Can they teach ME how to do that!”
OK I still feel slightly embarrassed about enjoying that so much, but I didn’t feel grubby afterwards, I actually felt excited and happy. OK I know I’m sharing too much, but I think it is important.
The reason I think this is important is that I’m hoping this is part of a bigger trend. For too long in this country we have celebrated mediocrity and allowed ourselves to feel superior by watching the failings of people who don’t know any better. And maybe, just maybe, someone has realised that we’re better than that. Maybe we want to be inspired and humbled by the endeavours of people who are really striving for excellence for it’s own sake. Maybe we can start to follow their example.
Maybe I’m being too naively optimistic, after all Sky1’s “Must be the Music” (a music talent show aimed at finding original new talent rather than derivative karoake singers) was cancelled after only one season. But I hope not.
Part of this goes back to my “manifesto for sustainable communications”. I know it is just TV, but in their own way, shows like “Got to Dance” promote striving towards excellence (rather than being content with notoriety and infamy and fame for fame’s sake.) In doing so they may inspire the next generation to work towards excellence of their own, which in turn will create more role models for us to celebrate. That’s sustainable media, and we have a bit more of it maybe I can start enjoying more moments like this