I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but if you listen to everything that is said these days about creative effectiveness you might be forgiven for thinking that everything in the advertising garden was rosy.
In 2016, for my sins, I travelled to Cannes to present an update of an earlier report exploring the link between creativity and effectiveness. As before, the report was based on analysis of the IPA and Gunn Report databases, fused, so that the effectiveness of creatively awarded campaigns could be compared with that of non-awarded ones.
The earlier 2011 report had come to the very positive conclusions that “creatively awarded campaigns are becoming more effective” and that “creatively-awarded campaigns were 12 times as efficient as non-awarded”. The intervening 5 years have been tumultuous in marketing – a deep and lingering recession has modified the mood of marketing and the evolving media landscape has altered the practices of marketing. In some very important ways these impacts have been very destructive of effectiveness in general.
Nowhere is the impact more harmful than on the contribution of creativity to effectiveness: the updated report reveals that for the first time in the 20-year run of data, creatively awarded campaigns have started to lose their effectiveness advantage. They are still considerably more effective than non-awarded campaigns, but a destructive downward trend has developed. So the new 2016 report carried the altogether less positive title of “Selling Creativity Short”.
Why should we mourn the demise of creativity?
Who needs creativity when we have social media and Big Data? The simple answer is that nothing else that we can do as marketers even comes close to the impact of creativity on effectiveness. We can play all the clever digital games we like with targeting and retargeting and they will not boost our long-term return on investment by a factor of 12.
If we are smart enough to follow Byron Sharp and his research at the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, we will know that tight last-minute targeting may even reduce long-term effectiveness. Creativity builds fame for our brands; it gets them talked about and shared. Consumers are drawn to such brands and over time, creative brands develop a disproportionately strong position in their minds. If we invest sufficient media money behind great creativity so that its reach is wide, and in media such as TV, that have the proven power to spark those conversations, then fame effects can be truly transformational. The much-celebrated John Lewis campaign is a tour de force of commercial exploitation of creativity. Who would have thought ten years ago that a Department Store would become a global role model for successful marketing communications?
[Image of Buster with caption: The Christmas 2016 campaign for John Lewis helped an unbroken 7-year record of impressive sales growth to continue]
So what is now going wrong with this amazing growth machine?
In a word, most of the deterioration can be put down to short-termism. If we measure success over the short term we come to completely the opposite conclusions about what drives success than if we measure success over the long term.
Short-termists reach for the low hanging fruit in the market: they reduce their investment in brand building because it takes time to deliver growth and they switch ever more expenditure to sales activation and digital sales tools such as search, which can deliver short-term results but do little for long-term growth. Worse still, they turn away from creativity when they discover it doesn’t bring the short-term growth they seek because it takes time to work its magic on the brand. A new genre of disposable creativity is arising with the largely futile objective of achieving lasting success overnight. Like fireworks these campaigns make a lot of noise and light but are gone before lasting impressions are created.
Short-termism has exploded in marketing
Doubtless this has been spurred by general management that fail to appreciate its marketing risks and by digital metrics that are obsessed with short-term effects. And the legacy of this orgy of short-sightedness is not only the halving of the typical efficiency of creatively awarded campaigns but also the sacrifice of most of the effectiveness gains achieved since the turn of the millennium amongst campaigns in general. How can we be sure that short-termism is to blame? Because the dwindling class of long-term adequately funded creative campaigns remain as astonishingly effective as ever. The continuing John Lewis campaign success over 7 years is fantastic evidence of that.
Let’s hope that 2017 sees the birth of a counter-trend towards long-term metrics and use of the media and strategies that can deliver long-term success. Otherwise it won’t only be creativity that we will be mourning the loss of.