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Do digital agencies not understand effectiveness?

15 Sep 2014  |  Dominic Mills 
Do digital agencies not understand effectiveness?

Digital was supposed to make it easier to prove effectiveness, writes Dominic Mills - so why are there practically no digital agencies on the 2014 short-list for the IPA's Effectiveness Awards?

Historians of advertising will recognise that the British industry has given the rest of the world two priceless assets: one is the planning discipline, invented in the '70s jointly, if separately, by Stephen King of JWT and Stanley Pollitt of BMP (now DDB); the second is the notion of effectiveness, driven forward by the IPA and its biennial awards.

Of course, planning and effectiveness are closely interlinked. It is the planners who provide the intellectual fire-power about how advertising works, and it is the IPA's Effectiveness Awards that prove it. Plus, it is the planners who write most of the entries.

And if the Effectiveness Awards didn't exist, the industry would still be trapped in a tomb made of amiable fluff.

Instead, the Effectiveness Awards bestow rigour and credibility on those who win them - agencies and clients - and the industry as a whole. (Funny though, other service industries - say management consultancies, lawyers, accountants - don't have them).

All this is a pre-amble to a look at the 2014 short-list, published earlier this month, and detailed below.

In a sense, the list is a proxy for measuring who's on the up, and who's not. To enter, you've got to be confident; to be short-listed, you've got to be damn good; and to win you've got to be right on the top of your game.

The judging is incredibly rigorous. Many years ago, I was let loose on the long list. The weight of responsibility was heavy on my shoulders. The discussions were, at times, incredibly detailed, even down to merits of different econometric modelling techniques - to which I didn't have much to contribute. But I learned a lot.

This year's short-list of 35 is fascinating in many ways. By client, by category sector, and by agency type, whether creative, media, network or independent.

But who's not on the list is just as relevant as who is.

And the category of agency whose absence speaks volumes is digital. There's one exception - Tribal DDB. Plaudits.

Otherwise nothing.

This is a bit of a puzzle. I thought digital was supposed to be the 'accountable' discipline, the one whose exponents had mastered data to the extent that they knew what each input achieved, and therefore how effective it was. Digital was supposed to make it easier to prove effectiveness.

It's clearly not the case that these campaigns don't have a digital element. Some research I've seen shows that the average number of channels used by Effectiveness winners has increased from just over two in 1980 to almost nine in 2012, most of which will be down to digital.

So one reason could be that, in an integrated campaign, digital agencies don't take lead position - for all their claims to have the ability to sit at the top table.

But that should stop them not making a contribution. As you can see, multiple-author entries are the norm. Plus, there are many digital-only campaigns out there.

Another explanation might be that they simply lack the confidence to enter. This is possible. After all, it wasn't until the late 90s that media agencies began to enter - around the time media got more complicated and media agencies began to take a more strategic role. Before then, they suffered from an inferiority complex.

A third might be that, as relatively youthful outfits, they lack the ability or wherewithal to write the entries. I don't mean this in a rude way, but writing a good entry a) consumes a huge amount of time and effort b) requires a certain style and approach (planners make the best authors) and c) needs a broad and deep understanding of advertising theory. Lack any one or two of these attributes, and entry is more difficult.

Nevertheless, if you look at this year's list, there are some small and/or young agencies - 18 Feet and Rising and Mike Colling & Co - who have managed it.

A final explanation: can it be that, culturally, digital agencies are just not as committed to effectiveness as others? I hope not. That would be worrying. Agencies that aren't focused on effectiveness eventually disappear up their own backsides.

What else can we glean from the short-list?

- AMV BBDO is the daddy of effectiveness, with four short-listed entries. Moreover, they are for big, serious, complex clients (all, incidentally, long-standing ones): Aviva, EDF, Sainsbury's, Mercedes.

- There's a reasonable showing from media agencies, with eight short-listed entries. But the spread is narrow, featuring only OMD, PHD, MediaCom and Havas.

- OMD is the most committed media agency, with four short-listings. PHD has two.

- By network, Omnicom rules the roost. Counting multiple agency entries, it has 13 agency listings. WPP has 11, and even IPG (four) beats Publicis (three).

- There is a large number of charity/public service short-listings - nine, all told. It bothers me when charities win creative awards - I always suspect judges go easier on them - but less so when it comes to effectiveness.

- I'm not surprised to see Aldi and easyjet here. Both are on a roll, and instinctively you feel the advertising is a key factor.

- Two clients, ITV and Karcher (it makes an indoor window cleaning tool, apparently), entered themselves. This seems like a new trend to me.

- Some of the evidence offered by ITV is based on increases in advertising revenue. I'm sure that Thinkbox, which, coincidentally, is the Effectiveness Awards' headline sponsor, might think it had something to do with ITV's performance.


The 2014 shortlist

Aldi, Aldi UK & Aldi Ireland by McCann Manchester

Aviva, Aviva by AMV BBDO

Be Clear on Cancer, Public Health England by M&C Saatchi

BHF, British Heart Foundation by Grey London

Cuprinol, AkzoNobel by 18 Feet & Rising

Dacia, Renault UK by Publicis London and Manning Gottlieb OMD

easyJet, easyJet by VCCP and OMD

EDF Energy, EDF Energy by AMV BBDO and Havas Media

Everest, Everest by MBA and MediaCom

Expedia, Expedia by Ogilvy & Mather London and Expedia

Fairy, Procter & Gamble by Grey London

Fire Safety, Department for Communities and Local Government by RKCR/Y&R

first direct, first direct by JWT

Foster's, Heineken UK by adam&eveDDB

Garnier UltraLift, L'Oréal by Publicis London

Group of Humanitarian Attention to the Demobilised, Colombian Minstry of Defense by Lowe and Partners (*Columbia)

ITV, ITV by ITV

Kärcher UK, Kärcher UK by Kärcher UK

London 2012 (Travel Demand Management), Olympic Delivery Authority / Transport for London by M&C Saatchi

Lux, Unilever by JWT Tokyo and Unilever (*Japan)

Make Health Last, Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada by Lowe Roche (*Canada)

Mattessons / Fridge Raiders, Kerry Foods by Saatchi & Saatchi

McDonald's, McDonald's Denmark by OMD Denmark and DDB Copenhagen (*Denmark)

Mercedes, Mercedes-Benz by AMV BBDO

MILO, Nestlé Malaysia by Ogilvy & Mather (*Malaysia)

Mobile Internet, Deutsche Telekom by DDB Tribal Group (*Germany)

National Depression Initiative (NDI), Health Promotion Agency by FCB New Zealand (*New Zealand)

Only, Bestseller by UncleGrey (*Denmark)

Pancreatic Cancer Action, Pancreatic Cancer Action by Team Darwin

Premier Inn, Whitbread by RKCR/Y&R

Ready Baked Jackets, McCain by PHD Media

Sainsbury's, Sainsbury's by AMV BBDO, Blue Rubicon, PHD Media and Sainsbury's

Sensodyne Pronamel, GlaxoSmithKline by Grey London

Specsavers, Specsavers Optical Group by Manning Gottlieb OMD

The Salvation Army, The Salvation Army by Mike Colling & Co and WPN Chameleon

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Rosie Yakob, Co-Founder, Managing Director, Genius Steals on 16 Sep 2014
“Interesting perspective, thanks for sharing.
Having worked at mostly digital agencies, from a small 10 person shop, to a large 200+ person shop, I noticed, too, an absence of interest in effectiveness awards from digital shops, especially when compared to my one stint at a traditional shop.
The reasons I think, are mostly cultural, but not in the way you describe. Instead, many digital agencies lack an awards culture in general. It's not just about effectiveness awards; it's about spending money on developing their talent and fostering a culture, as opposed to an award entry. (There's a lot you can do with $1200...)
And then there's the obvious link between effectiveness and digital campaigns: The stats exist, mostly for all to see. Gov.uk for example, shares their stats, live, online at Gov.uk/performance. They don't need to prove effectiveness through a paper.
But perhaps with traditional shops, the link is somewhat more blurry? Harder to show. More needing a smart planner to find a way to measure it and show it.
If awards are a way for agencies to advertise themselves, perhaps too, digital agencies don't feel the need to do so as much as traditional agencies. Their businesses are growing, the demand for their services increasing.
And then, there's also the final consideration: Is an effectiveness paper the same thing as being effective?”