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How to become an advertising rock star

austin-neill-sxxnM-tRlVg-unsplash Credit: Austin Neill on Unsplash
OK, maybe that title is a little misleading. Rock star advertisers usually get awarded Lions at Cannes, and my advice is more likely to win you an Effie. But hey! Maybe you can do both! With that in mind, here is my three-step program to increase the probability of your achieving advertising fame and fortune.

Start with the basics
Here are four basic things to bear in mind as you set out on your advertising journey.
  1. Most brands do not have what it takes to grow significantly.
  2. Most people do not care which brands they buy.
  3. Most advertising is not fit for the purpose.
  4. Most people do not want to see advertising anyway.

If you are going to become a rock star advertiser, you will need to find the right brand to advertise and then you must create an ad campaign that will amplify that brand's revenue and profitability. 

So, here are my three steps. Each step has multiple components, because if advertising was that easy they would not give awards, would they?

Step 1, get the right job
Even back in the 1500s the Brits knew that you cannot make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. In other words, you need to start with the right brand if you want to be a successful advertiser.

Do not delude yourself that advertising is all powerful. It is not. Famous New York madman Jerry Della Femina is quoted as saying,

"Nothing kills a bad product faster than good advertising. Everyone tries the thing and never buys it again."

Particularly when many marketers find their role limited to advertising and promotion, no amount of good planning and execution will pay off if the advertised brand does not have the potential to grow.

The right industry, a big brand
When it comes to advertising sales response, bigger is better. Preferably find yourself a job with a high market share brand in a big and growing industry.

Advertising is multiplicative. Simply put, the same percentage increase due to advertising will produce far more sales for a big brand than a small one. Paul Dyson's meta-analysis of 28,000 ROI measurements from around the world finds the short-term profit multiplier of brand size to be 20 (see the explanation at the end of this post). And when it comes to market share, big brands have big advantages that advertising can leverage: more familiarity, more distribution, more repeat buyers.

The exception is if you believe that a small brand has a real chance of being disruptive. Brands that are perceived to be different by consumers (and have the potential to be relevant to a good number of them) are more likely to grow fast. Assess how competitive the category is already, both in terms of number of competitors and how much is spent on advertising. It might be easier to disrupt a category where the status quo has prevailed for years, and advertising has not traditionally been a big investment.

Organic growth is hard, and advertising is a relatively weak force. Advertising has stronger effects when deployed in synergy with other initiatives. Check if there are any of the following initiatives on the horizon,
  • A blockbuster innovation in the pipeline (remembering that close-in innovations are more likely to benefit from the existing brand halo)
  • A plan to expand distribution or enter new markets (provided the brand has proven itself and growth at home is good)
  • A plan to use broadcast media for the first time (because it will likely reach more people)
  • Or an urgent need for change (because otherwise it will be business as usual).

And remember, if it isn't broken, don't try to fix it. If a brand is already doing well, what are the chances you can do better? People always assume that a new product iteration, pack, or campaign will be better than the old. It could well be worse, and that is not going to get you on the podium.

Is the company culture right?
Does your future C-Suite believe in the power of a strong brand? Contrast what is said in earnings calls with what happens subsequently. Does the CEO understand that a strong brand is what potential buyers perceive it to be? Does the CFO see advertising as an investment? If they do not, there it is likely that advertising will be viewed as an expense and your budget will get cut when things get tough. Do people you talk to seem open to new ideas or do they have a not invented here mindset?

Will your budget and responsibilities be up to the task?
Once again, advertising is multiplicative. Spend more and you will likely get more. Combine advertising with another element of the marketing mix and you will likely realize synergies. If you do not have direct control over advertising-related functions, e.g., strategy, sales, pricing, distribution, key account management, customer relationships, ideally innovation, then your job is going to be a lot harder. Expect a lot of persuading, cajoling, explaining, strong-arming, and influencing, to align objectives and efforts and maximize your chances of success.

Step 2, identify the job to be done
Now you have a job that offers the potential for good growth, you need to identify what strategy is likely to be most effective.

What is the specific growth opportunity?
A successful advertising campaign starts with a clear business objective. What must change to generate more sales and/or improve margins? It is unlikely to be more of the same unless you are a brand leader that is already growing its market share. (In which case, why are you changing anything?). Do not assume that advertising is the answer, or that changing attitudes will lead to behavior change, it might be the other way around. Here are some important questions to consider,
  • Do you need to improve your product before doing anything else (think back to the Jerry Della Femina quote)?
  • Who is unaware of or fails to consider your brand?
  • What existing pain points can your brand address?
  • What new needs or occasions can your brand serve credibly?
  • What can your brand offer, functionally or emotionally, that competitive brands do not?
  • What do current customers value most compared to cheaper brands?

Really, really, try to put yourself in your customer's shoes when making this assessment. Chances are you are not representative of the typical customer and might be misled by your own biases if you are. Spend time reading the background research, then spend time with your potential customers, observe what they do, not just what they say.

Set an aggressive but realistic goal
Plan to go big or go home. Make sure that your investment is big enough to move the needle in your category. Most successful ad campaigns also involve a significant increase in media spend, allowing them to reach more people and punch above the brand's weight in the category.

However, spending more is tough to sell in, and might not have a lasting effect because competitors may up their own spending in response. Improving advertising effectiveness is also challenging, but potentially longer long-lasting and less easily copied. Plan across the typical interpurchase interval for your product category. Most people are not thinking about buying right now, but that is when they are most susceptible to influence.

Use eSOV analysis to assess the level of advertising investment that will help drive growth. It is worth noting here that it is not just how much is spent that matters. A well-differentiated brand with compelling advertising will out-perform the category average (which is why you chose the right brand and are going to make sure your advertising is effective). Also assess the likely impact on price elasticity and factor that into your calculations. Gain Theory finds that every 10%-point increase in SOV reduces price elasticity by an average of 5-20% (subject to diminishing returns).

Work with your finance colleagues to assess the likely payoff. Be transparent, share your objectives, insights, and calculations and work with them to estimate likely financial returns. Make sure the assessment includes longer-term effects. Is the financial payoff over three/five/ten years (as appropriate) likely to justify the time and investment required to achieve the goal? What is the opportunity cost to the brand of not holding its own in terms of eSOV?

Make friends and influence people
Returning to the point made above about internal company coordination, figure out who needs to be on side if your campaign is to have its full effect: R&D, design, suppliers, sales, customer relationships, customer complaints, key vendors, retailers.

Step 3, do the job right
It does not matter how good the strategy is if it is not executed well. And in this case, success is defined by how the target audience responds.

Get the creative right
Of the various profit multipliers under an advertiser's immediate control, creative is the single most important, although also the most challenging. You need to find a creative idea that earns people's attention, but it must also fit the brand and the task at hand.

The creative process is unpredictable, iterative, and takes time, but the right idea, well executed, can have a dramatic effect on sales and profitability. Paul Dyson's meta-analysis of 28,000 ROI measurements from around the world finds the short-term profit multiplier of creative to be 12, second only to brand size. That means the return to creativity is highly variable and you need to find the right combination of factors to advertise your brand effectively.

I have put creative before media because contrary to a lot of advertising practice, I believe that getting the right creative is more challenging than constructing a good media plan. That said, you do need to find a creative idea and distinctive assets that will work well across multiple media channels. What works on TikTok probably will not work the same way on TV. What works well for outdoor will probably not transfer to online display. Aim to identify a central idea and plan to adapt specific executions to the way people use each medium. Use your distinctive brand assets in all executions to connect exposures across touchpoints and time.

Figure out what will resonate with the target audience. How the intended audience responds is what matters, not what you or others inside the company believe. Answer the following questions.
  1. What is the real human insight your brand can tap into?
  2. Does that insight fit with how people perceive your brand?
  3. What is the real benefit of your brand to the consumer? What does your brand help people do? How will owning or using the brand make people feel?
  4. What idea will get people's attention across different media channels?
  5. Will the impression stick to your brand in people's minds? Is the idea compelling and memorable enough to make your brand famous for something?

Pre-test the lead executions
OK, I know this will have some people spitting tacks, but in my experience the biggest waste of media money is to use weak creative that is not fit for purpose. Pre-testing is an exercise in risk reduction. It gives you a chance to assess whether your lead executions will do what you need them to do (leave a branded, memorable, and motivating impression). Good pre-testing (or perhaps I should say good interpretation of pre-testing results) should help you figure out how to improve things if the results are not all you hoped for.

Get the media mix right
All forms of media can produce a profitable return over the long-term (except maybe display which is eminently ignorable and primarily short-term in effect). However, some media channels are better at certain tasks than others. Work from the behavior change you need to figure out what combination will work best.

Reach all potential buyers. Why exclude people and drive up your media costs? If you have a long-term goal, you will likely need to include online and offline video in the mix. Whether it is demonstrating a benefit or striking an emotional chord, video can establish lasting impressions at scale better than other channels.

Use multiple media channels with the intent of expanding reach and activating interest during purchasing. Using multiple media channels has a profit multiplier of 2.5. And with that in mind, get the balance between brand and performance advertising right for your brand and category. Match your media to the task: priming, reminding, signposting. On its own, getting the balance right has the potential to multiply profit by 2. Combine that with the use of multiple channels and the potential impact rises to 5.

This is a new campaign, so you need to get the idea seeded in people's minds. Front weight the campaign to make a splash and get the campaign idea seeded, then aim to remind people on a regular basis to keep the impression salient. People are likely entering the market on a continuous basis, so if you can afford to do so, spend continuously. Or if there is significant seasonality, spend on brand advertising before people start thinking about making a purchase and then use your performance advertising to quickly direct buyers to your brand.

Don't sweat the small stuff until you have the basics right
The great thing about media planning is that there is a ton of data, particularly in the digital domain, and most brands already have a decent media plan. Do your due diligence, but, unless something is dramatically off, the optimal plan is probably not going to give you much more leverage than a good enough one. Media laydown and phasing is estimated to have a profit multiplier of 1.15, targeting has a profit multiplier of 1.1 (the lowest of all, despite what most marketers think).

Done all that? Now you stand a good chance of being a winner
Why only a good chance of being a winner? Checking all the boxes improves your chances of success, but you will still need a healthy dose of luck. Too much is outside of an advertiser's direct control.
  • The pandemic proved that environmental factors can either boost or decrease brand performance.
  • Competitors have their own plans, which might undermine your own efforts.
  • If you do not persuade your colleagues to do their job right it is unlikely that you will succeed.

Little wonder award winners are the exception not the rule. So, after all that, do you still want to be an advertising rock star? Better get started.

Meanwhile, what do you think of my recommendations? Any you would add or change? Please share your thoughts below. 

*Just a note on the Dyson profitability analysis. This is really media profitability. Additional revenue from advertising divided by the cost of media. Given margins vary a lot across industries and brands this yields an easy to calculate metric that can be compared on a like-for-like. Analysis is based on the short-term return on media spend, i.e., measured across weeks, not years (however, expect the long-term effect to be a multiple of the short-term.) Think of the multipliers as how the best campaign compares to the worst on the given variable.

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June 24, 2024