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A case for the resurrection of mass media

The promises of targeted digital marketing were big and bold, and marketers and agencies heeded the call. But FCB head of strategy David Thomason argues that we've perhaps moved too far and too fast, jettisoning some of the core long-term thinking that has always typified effective marketing.

By David Thomason | December 6, 2016 | features

David Thomason is chief strategist at FCB.

“Just about the only thing that successful brands have in common is a kind of fame.” – Jeremy Bullmore, 2001.

The rapidly-changing world of digital media brings exciting new ways to connect with consumers. And the transformation extends well beyond advertising. The entire customer experience is being revolutionised. Online technology means many service interactions can now happen anywhere, anytime. They can be targeted, relevant and interactive. And, significantly, easily measured.

Undoubtedly, businesses, marketers and agencies that aren’t already rapidly, and continuously, adding new skills and ways of working will be left behind.

But, as with all change, there are many ‘traditional’ principles that remain important. It’s the baby/bathwater scenario.

Recently marketers all over the world have begun to realise they’d found one aspect of the transformation a little too seductive. It was the allure of advertising that carefully targets only your most immediate customers, and produces a quick, measurably more efficient result. This new kind of advertising, it was proclaimed, would eliminate the need for expensive, traditional, repetitive, broadcast mass-media. Eventually we would no longer need to waste money talking to people who aren’t in the market.

Unfortunately, it’s not true.

The tide of popular marketing opinion has started turning in defence of mass media. (It’s interesting to note that television, despite multiple technological attacks, remains, so far, the true champion of broadcast advertising.) This is far from a rejection of “narrow-cast” options. It’s understanding that both are part of an improved mix. And brand-building through mass media remains a very important ingredient.

This realisation’s being largely driven by marketers learning through their own experimentation. And there are some particularly high-profile examples. But there are also some outspoken experts who always believed we were moving too far, too fast. And now there’s some very compelling large-scale research that suggests many advertisers have done exactly that.

Here are six reasons why the power of mass-media and broadcast advertising is not going to disappear anytime soon, and should actually enjoy a resurgence:

  1. 'Fame' drives success. Peter Field’s extensive analysis of UK’s IPA database concludes that fame is the most powerful and valuable magnifier of advertising effectiveness. Fame means huge numbers of people recognising you, knowing what you do, considering you a leader, and talking and writing about you. Even those that might never buy you. (A theory UK advertising guru Jeremy Bullmore called “Posh Spice and Persil” way back in 2001.)

  1. Top-of-mind awareness is hugely powerful. That’s because mental and physical availability dramatically affect our motivation to do anything. “Mental availability” means that when you want to buy from any category, the brand that easily comes to mind first has a disproportionately high, and often irrational chance of being chosen. And to achieve that, your brand has to be highly, and consistently, visible.

  1. Humans are social animals. This has two relevant implications. We feel safe and happy choosing what other people are choosing. And seeing advertising that we know everyone else is seeing helps us feel that way about the brand featured. Secondly, we use brands and products to signal our identity to others. So we need other people to recognise and understand the brand we’ve chosen, even if they’ll never buy it themselves.

  1. It takes time, and repetition to form or change habits. While a single nudge at the right moment might push someone to buy once they’re close, it takes more to change an ingrained belief. Research has suggested that the best brand-building campaigns only really start to get going after more than six months. It makes sense that with audiences now harder to reach, it might be even longer. Yet marketers have been doing the opposite, producing more ads and running them for shorter times. People still take time to warm to a new idea.

  1. Reach tomorrow’s customers. If you reach a very wide audience, and connect in a memorable way, then you’re taking care of much of your marketing years in advance. Many of these “non-target audience” people will eventually enter your market, by having kids, getting a pet, buying a house, going into business, travelling or simply getting older and becoming wealthier. And if they’ve seen your broadcast advertising over the years they will already feel comfortable with your brand. This under-appreciated, under-measured effect has immense value. The decisions consumers make today are driven by perceptions formed well before this week’s ad or offer.

  1. Efficiency. Possibly the most surprising one. Once you accept the audience-related points about fame and future customers, the other efficiency considerations are creative development costs. Not to mention the (often under-valued) internal business resource required to develop multiple ever-changing strategies and executions. Less can really be more. Produce elements that last, that keep working for longer, and the real return on investment improves.  

Let’s look at some of the evidence, starting with a fascinating modern marketing anecdote. In early October 2016, UK marketers were given a unique opportunity to appreciate the magical power of top-of-mind awareness.

Unilever U.K. wanted to off-set increased costs caused by a weaker pound. So they raised the price of Marmite by 10 percent. This led to a very public row with Tesco supermarkets. The fight was brief. But due to the iconic nature of both brands, also very high-profile. It made headlines in all the major news channels.

Brand health tracking proved that consumers saw Marmite as the bad guys. “Buzz”, a measure of people who had heard anything positive or negative about the brand, fell dramatically from +8.7 to -23.7. On a ranking for “brand reputation”, Marmite dropped 16 places. Value perception also plummeted. And probably most worryingly of all, purchase intent fell 3.9 points.

Marketing Week declared that “Marmite is undoubtedly the biggest loser after last week’s row.”


Clearly brand health is important. But how severely did this large-scale negativity impact sales? The answer is: very quickly and very dramatically. Marmite sales immediately increased by 61 percent. That’s a £335,000 sales boost for the week ending 15 October.

61 percent sales increase. Without a carefully crafted consumer proposition. Without creatively honed brand story-telling. And without any kind of targeted, tangible innovation or offer. Instead, the publicity had been, measurably, entirely negative.

Outspoken marketing expert, Professor Mark Ritson of Melbourne University would not have been surprised. A week before the results were announced Ritson declared:

“While brand image and reputation do count for something, they are dwarfed by brand awareness and simple saliency at point of purchase. Marmite took one step back in terms of brand image last week, but took at least four steps forward in terms of awareness. I’ll bet you … Marmite’s comparative sales for Q4 this year will eclipse last year’s performance.”

It’s a wonderful modern marketing lesson. It would certainly be a step too far to conclude that all PR is good PR. There’s a big difference between messing with the price and messing with the product, as Cadbury learnt with its palm oil fiasco. In fact, it can easily be argued that these two approaches are quite opposite, with price being a proxy for good quality. (At the time of writing, it remains to be seen how the new gappy Toblerone fares in sales.) But it’s certainly clear that it’s mental availability that remains king. And that it’s still driven primarily by mass media; in this example print, online and TV news.


Byron Sharp's book 'How Brands Grow' makes an important point about how perceptions rather than facts sometimes guide marketers' decisions.

Byron Sharp put forward the Ehrenberg Institute’s argument for mass reach in no uncertain terms. His 2010 book, How Brands Grow, argues that too much of what marketers believe and do is based on fashionable, oft-repeated catchphrases rather than fact. Having evaluated large amounts of evidence, he concludes that it’s essential for brands to continually recruit new customers. Sharp suggests an over-emphasis on targeting a loyal base of fans is partly down to a couple of those cute catchphrases; The “80/20 rule” and “there’s no point pouring more water in until you’ve fixed the hole in the bucket.” (Sharp finds both to be false.)

(On the topic of catch phrases, we are a slogan-driven industry; “TV is dead”, “Brands are dead”, “Matching luggage”, “Interruption advertising”, “Engagement”, “Content is King” … The list goes on. All have been used much the way Trump campaigned, to create strong views without the need for solid evidence.)

Procter & Gamble is the world’s largest advertiser, so tends to look at these issues quite seriously. This year, the company reached an important conclusion on the effectiveness of highly targeted advertising. They’d been doing too much of it. “We targeted too much, and we went too narrow,” said P&G’s chief marketing officer, Marc Pritchard. 

P&G is now moving spend away from highly targeted Facebook advertising. This certainly doesn’t suggest Facebook isn’t a very effective medium. The company is moving its budgets within Facebook in order to reach a wider audience. Reach remains very important whatever the channel.

But probably the most significant and timely finding for our industry comes in the form of this year’s Gunn Report. The latest analysis of 20 years of advertising case studies is titled “Creativity and effectiveness under threat”.

IPA advertising effectiveness analyst Peter Field has long been a champion of the link between creativity and effectiveness, and the perils of short-term thinking. The evidence remains very clear for both points.

Field concludes that creatively-awarded campaigns are six times as effective as non-awarded ones. The problem is that last time he checked they were 12 times more effective. That’s a huge negative shift in just four years.

Field blames the reduction in effectiveness primarily on a lack of media support. Specifically, not enough media weight, and campaigns not running long enough. “Budget investment behind creativity has fallen sharply. Short-termism has grown dramatically.”

The report includes two further points, both startling, one of them new.

Firstly, as Australia’s ADMA (Association for Data-Driven Marketing & Advertising) suggested a number of years ago, over shorter time frames, non-awarded campaigns tend to outperform awarded campaigns. ADMA and the Gunn Report both define a short-term campaign as one that runs for less that 6 months, and notes that the percentage of short-term IPA campaigns has quadrupled.  

Secondly, there’s the startling effect of ‘extra share of voice’. “ESOV”, a brand having greater share of voice than share of market, has long been recognised as one of the strongest drivers of brand growth. Unfortunately, the report shows that ESOV for IPA campaigns has, on average, fallen around 12 percentage points. And for creatively awarded campaigns it’s fallen a huge 20 percent, taking them into negative territory for the first time in 20 years.

This strongly suggests that either marketers are hoping great creativity will compensate for lack of media spend, or that long-term exposure and reach are being willfully sacrificed in order to achieve creative heights. But as Field notes, creativity is a multiplier. It can’t replace exposure. Campaigns with negative ESOV “should not expect to drive market share growth”. But here’s the newest and most startling finding for marketers and their agencies, one that should rightly prompt huge debate;

“If ESOV is cut to negative levels, awarded campaigns are likely to achieve less growth than non-awarded ones.” This essentially says that exceptionally creative campaigns only work when they’re seen more than the competitor’s campaigns Otherwise it’s better if they’re less creative. Wow.

In their November 2016 paper, “Marketing in the Digital Age.” Field and research partner Les Binet use the IPA data to reach the interesting conclusion that “digital tech is making mass-media work better.”

Their main two conclusions for modern marketers? “Penetration is the main driver of brand growth” and “Mass media are still crucial for effectiveness.”

While the IPA database includes campaigns from all around the world, it’s definitely skewed to the U.K. But, with New Zealand audiences still significantly easier to reach through mass media, that only makes these findings more significant. Reaching large numbers of people, repeatedly, over time, remains critical. And, so far, broadcast media is still the best way to do that.

Jeremy Bulmore summed it up nicely in his 2001 “Posh Spice and Persil” presentation on the importance of brand health and fame. He was both direct and honest;

 “A brand, if it is to enjoy celebrity, must be known to a circle of people that far exceeds what we in the business so chillingly call its target group. It is not enough for BMW to be only known to that five percent of the population wealthy enough to even contemplate buying one. For BMW to enjoy real fame it must be known almost indiscriminately. I do not know why this should be. I only know that it is.” 

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