Look back to move forward

23 Jan 2019  |  Bob Wootton 
Look back to move forward

Bob Wootton challenges an advertiser seeking to restore brand saliency to use an 'old fashioned' media plan - if only to settle an industry-wide argument. Plus: understanding trading disputes

If you talk to or read pretty much anybody who thinks (perhaps obsesses) about advertising’s purpose and effect, like Dave Trott, Richard Shotton, Mark Barber, Richard Marks, Craig Mawdsley et al, they all concur that what we do is not as effective as it was.

Brands – and advertising as a brand itself – are suffering. Study after study reports that advertising is neither liked nor trusted as much.

I gave some thought as to why, despite the Herculean industriousness of the industry and our embrace of all things new and tech, on aggregate we’re going backwards.

There’s general agreement amongst advertising’s ‘thinking classes’ that the ‘waste’ associated with mass media and avoided by ‘targeted’ online channels seems, perversely, to have been instrumental to brand fame and success.

I desperately want emotionally to buy into such arguments, though I sometimes find them rather self-serving and light on hard evidence.

But I think three things have had significant cumulative influence - short-termism, content and channels. (I add a fourth, weight, later).

I use short-termism as shorthand for the already well-rehearsed arguments about:

- frequent financial reporting;
- diminishing job tenures;
- expectations of quick returns over long-term margin maintenance;
- focus on price instead of admittedly more complex effectiveness narratives

Suffice to summarise these drive away from building and maintaining brands (by which I mean products and services surrounded with a set of attributes or beliefs which support a premium).

Things could be explained by dissipation of messages across more channels and/or targeting which excludes many viewers (and removes common parlance around the mythical water-cooler).

Yet far fewer ads seem to get people talking. (In contrast, more get them complaining because people today are more ready to find fault or take offence).

People recall more ads from the past than the present. Yes, there were lots of shit ads passim, but there were more which have stood the test of time.

Add the steady encroachment of regulation, whether in outright bans like tobacco or placement restrictions for gambling or food high in fat, salt or sugar. Or the progressive blanket neutering of what you can say and how you say it, for example through humour. This nannying shows no sign of abating.

More positively, claims in ads must stand up to ever-better scrutiny. But this all adds up to more intervention and less opportunity to entertain or use hyperbole to stand out and cut through the higher levels of noise.

I mentioned weight earlier. I can remember when we carpet-bombed literally thousands of GRPs per burst of TV for washing powders and the like. Over several bursts a year or dripping continuously.

Maybe ads were well-recalled because of this – which you can’t afford nowadays anyway?

Hold on. Many advertisers now spend as much or more on (discredited) social and search than on TV so the money is still there.

Meanwhile, the street price of offline media is stable.

Yet still the brief for offline media is too often “how little can we get away with?”. The answer is infinite and tends to zero, and effectiveness with it.

So I see an opportunity for a courageous and thoughtful advertiser seeking to restore brand saliency and yes, fame - an “old fashioned” media plan that doubles down and puts all the money into offline channels, most probably but not necessarily or exclusively telly.

Nothing will work for everyone, but this could well work for many.

Another year, another trading dispute

Talking of telly, the year has opened with a trading dispute between Publicis Media and Channel 4 Sales.

OK, it’s not really annual and such disputes rarely become public. The last ones were Five and Omnicom in 2015 (which led to Five’s moving into Sky Sales); and GroupM and Channel 4 (again) in 2013. There was also a very tense stand-off back in late ’96 when ITV sales house Laser found CIA Medianetwork to be falling short of its commitments.

Given the stakes, a few major public spats over two decades isn’t bad. Despite the occasional threat none has gone to law, most likely for fear of surfacing dirty laundry or spreading contagion. But this particular deadlock is getting quite lengthy.

Remember, the whole idea is to get the advertising out there as equitably as possible so it can do its job. Or is it?

In such stand-offs, the media owner loses revenue, some of which may not be recovered. Advertisers face changes to their media schedules, which despite agency reassurances, inevitably have adverse impacts. (If not, why use the channel in the first place? – which could be the subject of a whole separate piece).

Agencies have less to lose, at least short-term as they divert spend to other channels. Even if they’re still on commission, turnover and cash flow is protected, even if there’s a bit more work justifying their stance. Longer-term, clients’ confidence can be shaken.

Resolution is tricky because in a share-based trading system, the media owner expects the agency to replenish the deficit across the remainder of the deal period, typically annual. This causes prices to rise for everybody as the money is forced into less remaining inventory. But it keeps the money in the system.

This time the media owner allegedly fears a reduction in the agency’s investment on TV and seeks to trade on share. The agency wants to trade volume. The impact of either is not clear-cut. Sky may already have agreed to such terms, but ITV is bound by CRR and share is likely to characterise its deal. And the agency’s resolve is rather hamstrung by major client P&G having its own parallel and unaffected deal.

Eventually, face is always saved and positions are justified, but who actually wins from these sieges? Follow my thinking above, and you’ll see I don’t think anyone really does.

Hopefully common sense will prevail soon. We have bigger enemies to fight than each other.

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18 Apr 2019 

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