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The next big trick is mass media

Advertising is an industry constantly focused on finding new ways to bedazzle and charm consumers. But in reaching too far into the digital hat, David Thomason reckons advertisers might be losing grip with what made the show effective in the first place.

By David Thomason | August 2, 2017 | features

ALAN MORRIS was the ‘Mo’ of Mojo, the legendary ad agency behind some of Australia’s most iconic eighties ad campaigns. While presenting a global advertising concept to Coke in Atlanta, Mo was interrupted by another ad man. He challenged Mo to define the target market in terms of both demographics and psychographics. Mo stood up and spoke clearly into the microphone.

“Any c*** with a mouth.”

Apparently, the president of Coke considered this refreshingly precise.

This article is about a renewed appreciation of broadcast advertising. It’s not a critique of digital channels. It’s about the way we’re using both modern and traditional media. Carefully targeted short-term marketing is a critical part of the marketing mix. But it shouldn’t dominate.

Mass-media, brand-building and long-term thinking are intertwined. Combined they remain the most efficient and effective marketing force for driving large, sustained business results. But we’ve now moved too far to the other end of all three scales; to focus on a quick sale to today’s customer. Despite the modern rhetoric, this move isn’t based on evidence or logic. It’s cultural.

Marketing is still run by human beings. Like our audiences, we’re social animals making decisions based largely on emotion. We’re particularly influenced by what we think others are doing and how they might perceive us. Knowing this, I won’t just use research to make my point. I’ll tell some good old-fashioned stories.

The first time I heard Mo’s quote was at Lintas in 1993. I found it confusing because I was simultaneously being given the first brief I’d seen featuring a target audience and insight box.

I soon realised that the box often evoked an apologetic tone from the person doing the briefing. “I know this is rather broad, but they insist on appealing to everyone”, or “Yes, the household shopper buys it, but everyone in the family eats it, so we can’t go too narrow, sorry”.

As a creative working on a large mass-market product or service, it was very useful for me to picture one person that I was writing for, real or imagined. Someone with certain beliefs, hopes, needs and behaviours. I’ve long believed in having a focused, meaningful brand position and that generally starts with a defined target audience. And, conversely, not worrying too much about other segments. As professor Michael Porter said: “The essence of strategy is choosing what not to do.”

But the truth is that I hoped most people, whatever their circumstances, would like my work. This wasn’t based on any understanding of advertising effectiveness. It just seemed a natural, human ambition to create something popular.

Early in my career I worked for seven years on a decorating brand called Levene. (For the young ones, it was a large and very popular privately owned retail chain that was sold then died.) I don’t remember anyone ever carefully describing the Levene target audience. And I definitely never saw a brief.

Our target audience was simply Gill – the young home-owning, style-conscious art director I worked with. She was a modern, discerning, image-conscious woman. Having lived overseas, she was disappointed with what was available and affordable to her in New Zealand. So we aimed our marketing at her. (Levene’s category managers even chose product with Gill in mind.) Our ads were sexy and young; full of stylish people, fast cuts, colour and music. More like European fashion than New Zealand retail. But, as distinctly positioned as the brand was, it was widely popular. Our parents shopped there. Grandparents, students, men, people who’d never been interested in home décor all loved the brand. We didn’t try and reflect everyone’s tastes. 

Levene’s marketing actually moved the country’s home décor aesthetic more towards Gill’s.

That’s a creative perspective on targeting.

But what about media? Back then, even with a clear audience in mind, there was little chance that our work would only be seen by the core target. If it appeared in television, print, outdoor or radio, then careful planning could skew placement towards a certain demographic or psychographic. But given enough time in market, we were pretty much reaching all people. Want to reach household shoppers? Use Shortland Street. Want to reach anyone? Use Shortland Street. How successful would Levene have been if our advertising had only reached those young female home-owners?

There’s a moment when people well outside of your usual circles learn that you work in advertising. So they ask which ads you or your agency have done. Back in the nineties I’d mention Levene. A decade later it might have been Moccona. In the last ten years, perhaps Pak’nSave or Mitre 10.

There’s much to learn from those barbecue conversations. Firstly, no-one wants a complicated answer. Hopefully, a brand name is enough to get, “We love Stickman,” or for Mitre 10, “The funny one with the two kids in the playground?”. It’s awkward when your potential new friend looks blankly at you, unable to recall anything. So you describe the ad. “Oh yes, I just didn’t remember who that was for.”

Today it’s likely you’ll have to explain that your recent work has been very targeted, so they probably didn’t see it. If it was on TV, they might respond with: “Sorry, I just don’t see TV ads anymore.” Advertising people hang out with people that are many times less likely to see television ads. Millions still do. And it’s likely the self-proclaimed non-TV viewer did see your ad but it wasn’t memorable. Increasingly likely is that your ad, TV or anywhere else, didn’t have enough media weight or run for long enough to make an impression.

This scenario is about more than just the ego of the advertising or marketing individual concerned. It’s a very useful proxy for the effectiveness of the modern advertiser’s efforts – possibly even an early-warning sign for many large brands and the industry in general. It’s our job to make brands famous. But we’re often too busy crafting numerous small, engaging short- term campaigns that briefly reach a narrow audience.

In theory, numbers and logic should show us the bigger picture, and suggest the best solutions. But hearing the words ‘big data’ (is anyone really doing it?) seems to have focused us on little things. Hundreds of little things that don’t last, and few people see.

For decades there’s been a growing belief that soon we’ll be able to eliminate waste and talk directly to potential buyers only at the moment they’re ready to buy. That’d be clever. We’d look good to clients and peers.

Technology has brought us closer to that vision. Here’s an excerpt from a March 2017 piece by Zander Nethercutt called, unhelpfully, ‘The Death of Advertising’:

“The perfection of data will, eventually, give rise to a world in which every consumer can be paired up with goods that meet their biological tendencies, rather than their consumptive ones. This world will also be devoid of branding, because in a world that relies on perfect information, there will be no need for branded trust.”

I’m grateful to Nethercutt for succinctly summing up the essence of the flawed thinking that’s already led many marketers astray. It sounds like brainy stuff. To my point about culture, this is the age of the progressive high-tech marketer. But it simply doesn’t stack up, and it never will, because it’s not based on actual science.

I’d have to agree with commenter Justin Choi, who added below ‘The Death of Advertising’ that “this article points to a fundamental misunderstanding of both advertising and human beings”.

Many technology-driven marketing evangelists seem attracted to the idea of a rational approach that would eliminate the flawed human element. That messy link in the marketing sequence has always been an inconvenience. It’s frustrating when customers purchase a competing product or service even when “the numbers show our one performs 2.3 percent better”. Or costs 4.2 percent less. The conclusion? “Get those messages out there. It’s an education job.”

Yet, there’s a vast and easily accessible understanding of human behaviour that quickly explains (scientifically) why there’s so much more to marketing. Recently, there’s been a lot of marketing talk about behavioural economics, and even neuroscience. Ironically, both are rational ways of explaining emotional human behaviour to educated people who’ve been taught not to trust their instincts.

For advertising specifically, there are the research-based observations and principles from the likes of Byron Sharp, Mark Ritson, Peter Field and Les Binet. So you’d think that the fundamentals of effective marketing would now be quite clear.

Late last year, I wrote an article capturing some of this expert reasoning and providing six reasons why mass-media should enjoy a resurgence: 

1. Fame drives success:
This means people talking about you even though they might never buy you. One of Peter Field’s strongest points.

2. Top of mind awareness is powerful:
– mental availability makes it easier to buy. 

3. Humans are social animals:
We feel safe choosing what others are choosing, and we signal our identity via brands and products. 

4. It takes time and repetition to form habits:
Targeted and timely communications are a more effective nudge later in the customer journey.

5. Reach tomorrow’s customers:
Reach a wide audience and you’re building your brand with customers yet to move into your target segment. 

6. Efficiency:
Producing less elements, that last longer, saves precious resource. 

I neglected a very important seventh point which I’d already focused on in a separate article: 

7. The waste is the part that works:
The status conveyed when a person or brand has enough resource to put on an ‘unnecessarily’ expensive display (production and mass-media costs) increases both credibility and desire. 

But these aren’t the real reasons we’ll rediscover the power of broadcast advertising and brand- building. We’ll reset the balance for the same reason we moved away in the first place. It wasn’t logical. It was a shift in marketing culture. We’d been hearing and reading endlessly about innovative, technology- driven, targeted methods that deeply engage audiences. Campaigns and people that applied these methods have been celebrated loudly. Usually without waiting for the results. In many cases we’ve continued to speak in awe of campaigns even after we know they’ve failed.

‘Pepsi to skip Super Bowl ads in favour of a $20 million social media campaign’ read one of many dramatic headlines at the end of 2009. Marketers around the world looked sheepishly at the old-fashioned media plans they’d presented to their exec teams. But ‘Pepsi Challenge’ was one of the greatest catastrophes in marketing history. Sales fell more than five percent and the brand slipped to number three behind Diet Coke. Yet, in August 2010, Forbes listed the campaign at number five on their list of ‘Best-Ever Social Media Campaigns’.

Marketing professor Mark Ritson is very clear about this flawed culture. He uses the 2013 Oreo Super Bowl tweet to demonstrate the biased influence of media.

“The whole stadium went dark and the game had to stop. Oreo saw an opportunity and sent out a tweet. ‘Power out? No problem.’ And there was a link to a picture of an Oreo cookie. Underneath it said: ‘You can still dunk in the dark.’

“That tweet became known as the tweet that was heard around the world... In Wiredmagazine: ‘How Oreo won the Marketing Super Bowl With a Timely Blackout Ad on Twitter’. In the Wall Street Journal: ‘How Oreo culture-jacked the Super Bowl’. In C-Net: ‘How Oreo’s Brilliant Black Out Tweet Won the Super Bowl. BRW in Australia: ‘Taking the biscuit: how Oreo’s blackout tweet trumped million-dollar Super Bowl ads’. Let’s talk about that tweet. Let’s not be lazy journalists... Let’s break down the numbers.”

Ritson compares the tweet with a Budweiser TV ad. He calculates that about 64,000 people saw the tweet, or 0.02 percent of Oreo customers. A somewhat larger 50 million people saw Budweiser. 

“My point isn’t to say that Oreo weren’t clever or effective in their tweet,” Ritson continued. “My point is to say ‘on which bloody planet does that tweet beat that ad?’ For reach, for impact, for value, for brand-centricity? ... Lazy, inaccurate journalism giving marketers completely the wrong impression.”​

Ritson also looks at the large number of entirely wrong headlines proclaiming ‘TV is dead’. When it comes to anything other than sustained brand-building using broadcast media, the hype is consistently louder than the facts.

But it’s not just the marketing press. I feel lucky to have been part of an agency with a holistic and balanced view on all media, while the industry, in general, has perpetuated a myth. The cult-like social pressure to avoid anything that looks like ‘traditional brand advertising’ has been immense.

To reiterate, this isn’t about technology. We’ve got the mix wrong for both traditional and digital media. To maximise success, we need to shift the balance back toward sustained, wide-reaching, brand building activity across all channels. Digital opportunities that quickly deliver the largest audiences will demand a premium, as have TV’s Shortland Street and the news. 

Recently FCB hosted a dinner for its senior clients with UK-based advertising effectiveness guru Peter Field.

After kicking off with a frightening graph showing that advertising has become less effective over time, Field set out to bust some important myths: mass marketing is inefficient and tight targeting rules; real time data-driven marketing is less wasteful than broadcast advertising; timely and relevant offers are the most effective advertising; last-minute activation is better than brand building; and ROI drives everything we do.

Field’s research focused on the new media context and acknowledged the important role of digital channels. But his analysis showed that most of the ‘old success models’ still very much apply.

He ended with six important out-takes for the room: 

1.Beware the growth of short-termism

2. Do not retreat from mass-marketing

3. Remember the power of video

4. ROI can damage your brand

5. Emotions and creativity drive long-term success

6. Balance between short- and long-term activity matters (the balance should be 40:60) 

We’d hosted a similar dinner three years ago, but Field’s thinking was especially well received this time—probably as a result of sustained long- term marketing about the importance of sustained long-term marketing. Most had been exposed to Field’s thinking a number of times over the years. We were building on an existing brand.

Our dinner, and this article, are part of a large and important campaign. So if I’ve covered some of this stuff before... well that’s the point.

Many marketers of large New Zealand brands have now had time to experiment. They’ve seen the long-term results of moving too much budget from sustained brand-building and mass- marketing. They’ve also seen the huge resource required to produce numerous short-lived ideas and campaigns.

So after the presentation, the conversation quickly turned to corporate culture. Converting the people in the room is one thing. But shifting beliefs and behaviour with the many other stakeholders, and keeping it shifted, is another.

So let’s imagine now that I’m talking to the converted. How do we convince others to rebalance their marketing efforts toward sustained brand-building using mass-reach- media? Let’s apply some of the same principles we’d use, or should have been using, for our customer audiences. 

When it comes to senior business people, all the careful boardroom analysis in the world will never completely replace the human experience of repeatedly seeing something exciting in the market, having an emotional reaction to it, hearing your friends and family talk about it, and envying the brand behind it. Brands need to impress many audiences and stakeholders beyond the customer, and a famous brand campaign reaches all. Show them the best work in the market, here or overseas. And throw in some results.

Change the language. Don’t call mass-media advertising ‘traditional’. It includes channels such as Facebook. Talk about efficiently reaching very large numbers of people. Call it ‘mass-reach-media’.

Salience is important. But there are many more meetings about short-term results and objectives than long-term ones. Find ways for brand health to be part of everyday discussion, and highly visible beyond the core marketing team.

Present Field’s findings to audiences beyond marketing. Or get your agency or Field himself to do it. It makes good business sense.

Measurement is key. Focus on one or two simple target brand numbers and market those numbers to the wider internal audience. Then keep marketing the progress.

Show that this brand number delivers to the business. It’s hard to connect long-term activity and brand effects to the bottom line. Field’s research is based on case studies that require quite lengthy analysis. But the maths needs to be done and endorsed at a senior level. 

Balance is very important. Many marketers are well out from the ideal 60 percent brand, 40 percent activation marketing mix that Field proposes. Most wouldn’t know. Measure and scrutinise the long/short split in marketing budgets, rather than digital versus other.

KPIs and incentives are key. If people are employed and rewarded for short-term results, the problem continues. Hold the biggest celebrations for big picture results.

Tenure is a challenge. I met a New Zealand marketer who was remunerated by a large global company after he left their employ, based on the on-going results of initiatives he put in place while he was there. Incentives can reward all types of longevity.

Everyone is receptive to social influence. We need to establish a new norm. Marketing has changed. The smartest businesses are thinking bigger. They’re thinking about big, lasting, emotional campaigns that create fame. Anyone still pushing a short-term, highly engaging and targeted approach above all else, rather than a smart 40 percent of the mix, is now out of date.

Mass media is the next big marketing craze. Make sure you tell everyone.

  • David Thomason is chief strategist at FCB. 

This article originally appeared in the 2017 Media Issue of NZ Marketing (subscribe here).

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