Why advertising will never die

Advertising’s not dead, it’s not dying and no one’s going to kill it any time soon. It’s never been more alive, so instead of taking aim, let’s be dead proud of it.

People constantly declare that advertising’s dead. Fast Company recently claimed David Droga wants to kill it. Elon Musk said Tesla doesn’t do it. Jeff Bezos said only unremarkable brands need it.

Why do so many people do advertising down, even from within the industry? It’s a thriving global business that’s never made a bigger global economic impact.

The idea that advertising’s dead or dying is bizarrely persistent, given it can be countered with just three words: Alphabet, Meta, Amazon. Their combined revenue from advertising was around $240bn in 2021.

If Netflix also joins the party, and with Apple also having a fast-growing ad business, the FAANG flush will be complete. For the first time ever, a handful of the world’s very largest, most powerful companies are, or at least include, significant advertising businesses.

So, if your metric is commercial success, advertising has never been more alive. Which means anyone claiming advertising’s dead, dying or needs to be killed is firing blanks.

Why the idea’s so persistent

The ‘advertising is dead’ trope actually appeals to a pretty broad church, which probably goes some way to explaining its longevity.

Many are nostalgics with a rose-tinted view of the past, lamenting a perceived decline in the creative quality and emotional impact of the industry’s output. They tend to be creative agency veterans disappointed with the changes they’ve seen in the industry since the 90s. For them, the current commercial success of the industry has come at too high a cost to the industry’s creative soul. They perceive their industry as having been under attack from outside forces and having been changed beyond all recognition. Far from being evidence of its vitality, for them, the three corporations mentioned above are partly to blame for its demise.

But the ‘advertising is dead’ line is probably more commonly deployed by people hyping up the dawn of a new era and new technologies. What unites both groups, whether they’re mourning advertising’s loss or dancing on its grave, is a belief that technology is responsible.

Much of it is really just lazy headline writing. The standard headline in the genre is actually ‘Advertising as we know it is dead’ or the classic QTWTAIN (question to which the answer is no) ‘Is advertising dead?’. Often what these articles actually go on to say is ‘TV advertising has a smaller share than it used to and other advertising channels like X are growing’. So it’s often just clickbait from people who are signalling they’re modern, innovative and disruptive…with some newer, shinier kind of advertising to sell you.

You could argue it’s just a harmless sales trick. But it’s a sales trick that’s been repeated so frequently that the word ‘advertising’ has collected a ton of baggage. Baggage that’s shaped perceptions that it’s old-fashioned, on its way out, wasteful, inefficient and ineffective. So not harmless at all.

The new platforms had new forms of advertising to sell. New types of agencies and consultancies emerged to help brands take advantage. Existing agencies wanted to show they were keeping up without looking out of date. Individuals had careers to protect and couldn’t risk looking like dinosaurs. We’ve all in some way been complicit in depositioning our core product. I know I’ve been guilty of it.

The people with new kinds of advertising to sell created an imaginary world called ‘traditional’ advertising. An old-fashioned and inefficient method of producing and distributing advertising, made by old-fashioned ‘legacy’ companies, used by old-fashioned brands, bought by old-fashioned marketing people.

We all bought into a related narrative about a golden age of advertising in the 20th century, led by the glamorous, cool, creative geniuses of the ‘Madmen’ era, and the idea that this has now been replaced in the 21st by the left-brained, data-driven types of the ‘Mathmen’ era. Leaving aside the stereotyping, the problematic terminology and that any talk of a golden age in any field should always be treated with scepticism, it’s a compelling narrative with a kernel of truth, but it’s ultimately a false dichotomy. Has the proportion of ‘creative’ people in our industry really shrunk? Possibly. But have we all gone from being Madmen to Mathmen? Of course not.

Social media was initially framed as a way to help brands reduce their dependence on costly and wasteful advertising, by allowing brands to tap into communities of followers and reach more people for free. This essentially anti-advertising stance of course had to evolve as the platforms developed their ad products and adapted their algorithms. Social media became less ‘social’ and more ‘media’.

With ‘Don’t make ads. Make TikToks’, TikTok is playing a similar game – using a disruptive anti-advertising stance to advertise its ad products to ad agencies and advertisers.

TikTok’s ad campaign aimed at brand marketers

From this alone you can see how tainted the word ‘advertising’ and all its derivations have become. It would seem bizarre to anyone outside the industry, but even using the word advertising can sometimes feel like it sends out the wrong signals. We so often substitute it for alternatives like comms, campaigns, film, video, content, copy and of course the now ubiquitous asset. Anything but ‘ad’. Maybe we need to try to use that simple, useful, truthful little word a little more often?

Musk and Bezos on advertising

So far I’ve mostly been describing the collateral damage the industry has managed to inflict on itself from the inside. But just as damaging is how similar themes have been picked up beyond adland.

In the world of tech startups, word of mouth and virality are so highly prized that a reliance on advertising for growth has come to be seen as a weakness, a sign that a company hasn’t quite got the X factor, a tax on a poor product. In this environment, proclaiming you’re fundamentally opposed to advertising has become a way to promote your genius and the brilliance of your product to investors. A way of saying “we’re so smart that our innovation will earn us an outsized share of attention in the marketplace – we don’t need to do something as dumb as paying for ads”.

This is what Musk and Bezos were both doing when they made their famous anti-advertising declarations. Musk’s 2019 tweet, “Tesla does not advertise or pay for endorsements”, and Bezos’s still much-quoted line from 2009 “advertising is the price you pay for unremarkable thinking” both come from a similar place.

Debates about whether Tesla does actually pay for advertising or not usually come down to how you define ‘paying for advertising’, whether very narrowly (eg paying for TV spots or search ads), or very broadly (paying tens of millions of dollars to fire a product into space, place it in front of the camera and livestream the results to the entire planet).

If you define it broadly, as something like ‘the monetisation of attention’, Musk, already the world’s richest person and perhaps its greatest showman, is ironically a far more archetypal ad person than his CEO counterparts Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg, Sunder Pichai and Tim Cook – all in the ad business but not exactly ad people. Only time will tell if he can continue to support his position on paid advertising as Tesla’s strong grip on the EV market slips.

Whether Musk pays for advertising may be arguable, but Bezos’s U-turn is unarguably one of the greatest stories we have for the continued value and vitality of advertising:

  1. Bezos makes a famous and influential denunciation of advertising.
  2. He learns the value of advertising from Amazon’s own data and changes his mind.
  3. Amazon becomes one of the largest (and best) global advertisers.
  4. Amazon builds one of the world’s largest ad businesses.

Musk and Bezos are outliers. And yet, many brands continue to take inspiration from them by making overt rejections of advertising, often as a way to get attention and proclaim their genius in their early days. Similar claims from brands including Monzo and Brewdog were both later reversed when they grew and advertising was needed to help take growth to the next level. In fact it seems like there’s an immutable law of modern marketing that every vociferous rejection of advertising is later met with an equal and opposite endorsement of it.

Musk may not ‘pay’ for ad space, but he certainly has a deep understanding of one of its most valuable potential outcomes, fame. Many advertisers understand advertising but very few really understand fame. And unless you’ve got the same nose for fame as Musk, paying for attention is likely what you’re going to need to do to achieve it.

So it’s not just social media that’s guilty of deploying a kind of ‘bait and switch’ – claiming to be anti-advertising but then reversing their position when they need to make the commercials work – it’s a pattern that’s constantly being repeated by platforms, agencies and advertisers as they mature.

Let’s not do advertising down, let’s stand up for it and celebrate it

The ‘advertising is dead’ myth is especially bizarre because advertising has never been more alive. We have never had a wider, more varied array of options and opportunities available to us. But as an industry we often seem a bit embarrassed, even ashamed of what we do.

How the advertising industry uses the power of human imagination for commercial impact should be something we’re all in awe of. We’ve created commercially viable processes to harness human creativity, craft and design skills. We’ve developed the technology to distribute the output across billions of screens. When done right, our product can attract and keep people’s attention, entertain and move people, communicate powerful ideas, create indelible memories, and influence consumer behaviour both now and in the future.

Paid advertising in its huge variety of forms continues to provide a consistent, regular, controllable way of getting a company’s core message in front of new audiences that no other marketing communication can match.

Companies have many options open to them to help reduce costs and do things more efficiently, but few growth levers. Advertising is one and it’s proven. In fact there’s arguably no more researched, picked-over and proven discipline amongst all the different kinds of commercial activity most companies do.

The excellent work of Grace Kite and others in building the ARC database, a meta-analysis of hundreds of real-world case studies from companies of all sizes, categories and using all channels, shows advertising today returns an average £3.80 revenue for every £1 spent. IPA Effectiveness award winners return more, £13 revenue for every £1 spent, but they’re outliers, the very best of the best.

Advertising’s naysayers invariably have ulterior commercial motives for undermining perceptions of what it can do. It’s rare that they’re making any significant or serious point that’s in any way testable or backed up by data as robust as this.

Global advertising spend in 2021 was around $689bn and is forecast to reach $850bn by the end of 2024. Deloitte’s calculation of the overall economic contribution of advertising suggests that every $1 spent on ads generates $6 in broader economic impact. Which means advertising’s economic impact could be around $4tn annually. Roughly equivalent to the GDP of Japan or Germany. The role we play in driving the economy, and therefore society, forward is something we should be proud of. We often highlight advertising’s societal impact when talking about social purpose, but advertising’s economic impact alone should be a sufficient source of pride.

That $689bn would have been spent on trillions of ad impressions. Never have more ads been served to more people, more often. It probably doesn’t help advertising’s ‘brand image’ that they’ve also never been shorter, viewed on smaller screens, and attended to for shorter amounts of time. The shop window for our wares has definitely got smaller, less distinctive and less enticing (although with Netflix potentially joining the party, this direction of travel could be about to change). But that’s a technical issue that our ingenuity and creativity as an industry will overcome.

Could advertising be ‘better’ today? Of course. But everything can always be better. Are there big problems that need to be fixed in today’s advertising ecosystem? Of course. But are advertising’s problems existential? Of course not.

Advertising will be with us forever

When you take a much broader historical view of advertising, it reveals that – despite the peaks and troughs, the new channels emerging and existing ones evolving – advertising as a percentage of GDP always tends to stay remarkably constant over time. For decades ad spend has hovered around 1% of GDP in the US. Its growth mirrors the growth in the economy. It’s basically a historical constant. Wherever there are eyeballs, there will be advertising.

12 months since moving to Jellyfish, here’s my diary. 

Last January I moved from the creative agency world to a very different one. To Jellyfish, a full-funnel marketing performance company at the forefront of the convergence of brand and ‘performance’ marketing, media and creative, content, data and technology.

A blog post I wrote soon after about the move (‘I’ve never heard of Jellyfish’) got a surprising amount of interest, so whilst I don’t usually write about myself I thought I’d write a follow-up to that, covering my first 12 months here.

The most common questions people asked me when I started was ‘who are Jellyfish? and ‘why did you go there?’. A year on, people now ask things like ‘what are you getting up to there?’, ‘what are you learning?’, and ‘are you still enjoying it’? So this is an attempt to answer those.

TL;DR: the answers are loads, loads and loads.

Apologies if this all seems a bit self-indulgent. And I know I’m definitely biased, but I’ll try not to make this too sell-y.


First day. Catch-up with JP, the Chief Solutions Officer of Data & Planning here and my ‘Capability Partner’. JP reassures me that I’ve got a few weeks to get my head round things before getting into any client business as I’ll find things pretty different here.

First week. Full of slickly-run onboarding sessions and intro’s. Learn that Jellyfish clients include all of the FAANG (now, erm, MAANG?) companies for whom we do a wide variety of things. Strong sense of Jellyfish being an unusually unified global business, in many ways more tech platform than agency, with a tonne of very smart, very nice people. 

Meet the three people in my Personal Support Network (PSN). Jellyfish is dismantling old hierarchies and structures, including line managers and the classic agency ‘pyramid’, which perpetuates an ‘up or out’ mentality and puts an artificial limit on the talent you can have at different career stages. Instead all 2,150 Jellies have a dotted line to three individuals – a capability partner, a mentor, and a people partner – their PSN. Jellyfish is essentially a network of experts organised by a wide range of capabilities (across Media, Data, Analytics, Technology, CRM, Brand, Creative, Training etc).

Meet my brilliant peers on the Brand Planning ‘Steering Group’ – Tania, Amy, Michael and Matt. They have a wide range of backgrounds, including media, social, creative and consultancy. Without a pyramid structure there are no ‘heads of’ so there’s no need for people to move elsewhere to get promoted, to compete or be political to the detriment of the company. So a group who might be ‘Heads of’ or CSOs in competing companies can co-exist and collaborate extremely happily here.

Meet some great new colleagues in Data and Analytics. The brilliant Alex Davies, shows me Jellyfish’s Share of Demand Dashboard  which incorporates Share of Search tracking as well as actual traffic data. Very cool to see something close to what Les Binet and others have written about actually in real operational use for clients.

Meet some of the c400 Creative & Experience team, including creatives, producers, designers, content creators and other specialisms. C&E would be roughly equivalent to a creative dept if Jellyfish were a creative agency. Get a real sense of our creative people being closer to the platforms than in other places. Hear the phrase ‘in-platform origination’ for the first time – meaning creating and making things in the platforms, not in isolation of them. ‘Big’ ideas aren’t really what they do – ‘scalable’ ideas is more like it – ideas that start in one platform and evolve and grow across other platforms. Meet some familiar faces from past lives. My imposter syndrome had been flaring up but temporarily goes into remission.

First client work includes a project with one of the tech giants, helping define the role of social within their overall brand strategy and making organic content across key social platforms. Start working on this with the creatives responsible for Jellyfish’s (Emmy award-winning) social work for Netflix.

Another project is to define the brand and communications strategy for a new global brand in the fast-growing ‘social audio’ category. We were already doing their ASO (app store optimization: driving visibility and conversion in the app stores) but they now needed a better defined brand, and a full-funnel media and creative approach to help take growth to the next level.

Things feel good. Maybe moving to Jellyfish wasn’t so crazy after all. 


Pitches this month include a fun (and ultimately successful) creative one to make some Facebook video ads for TikTok to help them cast off their reputation for only being used by lip-syncing teens.

Present a new brand strategy and brand platform to the ‘social audio’ brand’s clients on the US West Coast. Goes down well. Start briefing creative people to bring the new brand strategy to life across the platforms. For the app store copy it’s the first time I’ve briefed a copywriter who’s thinking about how the algo’s first and humans second.

Meet the team responsible for case studies across the business. Identify a potential story in our work for a major US university, a 10 year client relationship that started out in acquisition channels but has grown to encompass brand-building activity too. See potential for this to become a great long-term marketing effectiveness case – feels unusual in the typically short-term, project-based world of digital marketing. Start warming up my IPA Effectiveness case study-writing muscles.

Begin thinking about some of the brand planning hires we need to make and the very particular sets of skills we need in different markets. Get the roles live on our jobs page (200+ roles currently available here across Jellyfish). Start meeting potential new hires. 


Discuss themes for future blogs and articles with JP. Write one on why I moved to Jellyfish. It starts getting used by our People and Talent Acquisition teams to help candidates and new hires understand more about what we are and what we do. Several client prospects get in touch to see if we could be a fit for their needs. (Content marketing works, people).

We decline to take part in a couple of big pitches. Both were large, well-established brands that didn’t really seem ready for a totally new approach.

Meet more of our analytics and measurement team, including the incredible data scientist Di Wu, to understand more about our campaign measurement tools, creative testing platforms, and our new ‘Hybrid MMM’ measurement approach.

Introduce my new data friends at Jellyfish to the brilliant Dr Grace Kite. I really hope we’ll be able to intro her to our clients where relevant, as her ‘classical’ MMM could be nicely complementary to how we work.


Meet some of the great team at Uncommon with whom we’ll be collaborating on a major tech brand. Uncommon will be looking after the ATL creative and we’ll be doing the social. Hopefully just the first of many similar collabs on other great clients with other great creative and media agency partners.

Creative presentation to a leading global travel platform. Creative and production on a scale I’ve never seen before, potentially several hundred thousand videos a year (every destination x every major market x in every major language). Our hybrid approach (human creativity plugging into automated production and adaptation) out-performs some purely technology-driven solutions in creative testing. Humans+tech=better.


Meet some great new potential hires – including Cleef Chong from MullenLowe Singapore for our new Singapore office, Vincent Johnson from Wieden+Kennedy for our new Amsterdam office,  Josh Reidy from Adidas for London.

Meet Phil Lloyd, the CMO of our new property platform client Boomin, for whom we’re doing PPC and paid social. Very smart team with an exciting vision to disrupt their category. 

Take part in a Marketing Society panel discussion about ‘balancing marketing investment in the short and long term’. Marketing Week cover the conference, and afterwards they get in touch to ask if I’d be interested in writing a regular column, to which the answer was an immediate yes.


Meet a really interesting new client, US/UK aviation start-up KinectAir, with a vision to be the on-demand flight network, the Lyft/Uber of aviation. Discuss doing their brand strategy, media, creative, and programmatic. This isn’t some fantasy about flying cars – it’s tech that can work now. Everyone’s especially fired up about this one. Great opportunity to show how the right & left brains at Jellyfish work together.

Meet the brilliant Prof Karen Nelson-Field of Amplified Intelligence. Discuss using her attention-based media planning tool to help optimise media plans for our clients.

Present a version of my blog about balancing and uniting brand & performance, ‘The Wrong and the Short of it’ at a Facebook conference.

Record an interview with digital consultant Neil Perkin for his Google Firestarters series, reflecting on my thoughts about the future of agencies and my move to Jellyfish.  Not normally at my best on video but this went ok.


Take Jellyfish’s two day digital marketing training course. Realise I know more than I thought, but with some specific gaps in my knowledge which I need to start filling soon (especially search/PPC, ecommerce). Imposter Syndrome flares up a bit.

Creative pitch for the launch campaign for a major new SME retail platform. Our CX team in the US were already working on the design of the platform itself so it made sense for the client to ask us to pitch for the creative for the launch campaign. Present a strong brand idea and executions across all the key platforms.


First visit to my actual office in the Shard. Incredible views, very cool bar, coffee machines controlled with an ipad. Meet some of the leadership, JP and some of my actual team face-to-face for the very first time. Everyone’s exactly like they are on screen, just some of them are taller/shorter than expected.

Film a version of my ‘Wrong and Short of it’ article for a virtual marketing conference. Meet Dr Grace Kite for the first time which is crazy given all the work we’ve done together. Do a filmed interview with her talking about the value of econometrics in ad measurement.

Get stuck into the brand positioning work for KinectAir, with the awesome Alessandra Pinho, a new Brand Planning Director in NYC, and meet all their key people including their hugely charismatic, ex-military pilot CEO. 

Present a piece at the Zeemelt marketing conference in India entitled ‘In a world of change, what won’t?’, on the unchanging principles of creative effectiveness that will remain true regardless of the technologies we use in marketing communication.

Invited to pitch for the brand media planning on a global online secondhand fashion platform. Experience the joy of working with our whip-smart, fast-talking VP of media strategy, Jenna Cummings, and an international group of media and brand strategists based in NYC, London and Paris (including Marlie, Josh, Celine).

A common theme is emerging from many of the great opportunities presenting themselves: brands, often platforms themselves, often more experienced in the world of performance marketing, who are looking to take growth to the next level by developing a more unified brand & performance approach to media and creative. This chart often seem to resonate with these brands:


Pitch our brand planning and media strategy approach to a DTC mattress brand in the US. We were already doing their programmatic, but the new CMO had seen one of the Marketing Week articles and they got in touch to talk about brand stuff too.

Attend sessions with the IPA’s Share of Search working group run by Les Binet and James Hankins, as they develop their research work in this area.

Write an article on the ‘sales funnel’. Seems to strike a chord with people and surprises me by becoming Marketing Week’s second most read piece of 2021: Why the sales funnel is the cockroach of marketing concepts

Start the 12 week Mark Ritson Mini MBA course along with a large cohort of other Jellies – part of our plan to make sure Jellies of many different, but predominantly digital backgrounds, get the best training in the marketing fundamentals too. 


Start working with the DTC mattress brand to plan an ATL media test across key US cities, and also optimise the creative assets they’d developed in-house with our creative asset optimisation team led by the very smart digital video expert Abi Howson.

Present a new brand strategy, media and creative thinking to KinectAir, to help position and launch the brand and get their crowdfunding campaign off the ground. Especially pleased with the brand platform we come up with for them, ‘Open The Skies’: an invitation to everyone to be able to experience the true joy of flight [see KinectAir’s wefunder page here]. The feedback from the CEO in the meeting was a humbling endorsement of the Jellyfish proposition:

“I have worked with really great creative and I’ve worked with really great quant marketing and lead gen, and I have never seen it fused like this before. Never. This is magnificent. To actually have Matthew present the left brain of the project, and then…going over to the right side, into the creative studio and start figuring out how to actually get into the hearts of people…I have never seen it in the same brain before. You are mindful of both hemispheres and how they interact. I continue to feel in great hands!” 

The sales funnel article is getting a lot of interest from our clients so we start presenting the thinking to a number of existing ones, and discussing how we can start applying it to their media and creative output.

Very interesting conversation with the Organisational Design team at one of the big 4 management consultancies who are interested in writing up Jellyfish’s innovative org structure as a case study.

Publish my next Marketing Week piece, on the 7 principles of creative effectiveness. Seems to go down well.

But the highlight of October by a mile is sitting on Jellyfish’s Business Case panel. This is the monthly panel that assesses anonymised written cases by Jellyfish employees laying out their evidence and data in support of a salary increase or job title promotion. Everyone can do this 1-2 times a year and it’s in addition to the separate annual inflationary raises guaranteed for everyone. The Business Case process is a central part of Jellyfish’s progressive approach to talent management and one that’s leading to a more diverse and inclusive approach to career and salary progression. On average 82% of female business cases get approved. Sitting on the panel was a genuinely inspiring experience. The process beats having to beg for a pay rise from your line manager and witnessing only their favourites succeed any day.


Great planning session with property portal client Boomin. Great to see the CMO bringing their long-term vision to life on flipchart paper covering a wall of a large room in the Shard.

Talk at a media conference on creative effectiveness in video. Luckily Abi had taught me a few things about best practice in the different platforms.

Fun evening at the top of The Shard for the launch of Orlando Wood and System1’s great new book ‘Look out!’.

Fascinating question from the COO and founder of an EU-based unicorn who gets in touch to ask: could we help with Podcast SEO? Answer from the SEO genius Nick Fettiplace and our Earned Media team: yes and here’s how you could get started…


A pitch covering brand strategy, acquisition media, CRM & creative for a buy now pay later app looking to scale and launch the brand across EU markets. Another great new opportunity to stress-test the Jellyfish proposition.

A great new social project comes in for one of the FAANG brands. Help assemble an EU-wide team and get cracking on the strategy work. Vincent in Amsterdam nails it before he hands over to the fabulous Ann-Sophy in Paris and Ingmar in Germany, and heads off for a well-earned holiday.

Talk with JP about the growing need for people with strategy/planning skills but also deep experience of the platforms themselves and where we’ll find them – social agencies, client-side, at the platforms themselves? Draft a new Job description for a Platform Strategy Director.

We launch the new Jellyfish brand positioning led by Tania and the brand planning team: ‘We give brands a platform to perform’. It’s a promise to help brands thrive in the platform world, which includes a bit of a re-framing of what performance means today: goodbye performance marketing, hello marketing performance…

So those are some of the highlights from my first 12 months here. Hopefully this sheds some light on what I’ve been up to and gives a sense of the diversity of what we do here in Brand Strategy. It only really covers a small fraction of what goes on at the intersection of brand, creative & media where I usually hang out, and only a tiny fraction of what Jellyfish does as a whole.

I probably couldn’t have predicted any more than 5% of it. I knew I’d do some brand strategy work, some pitches, write some briefs, make some campaigns, write some blog posts. But mostly I knew that a lot of it would be completely new to me. And 95% of it was. In 2022 maybe a bit less will be new, so my imposter syndrome may be a bit more manageable.

My predictions for what 2022 will hold for me personally include more work on what combining brand & performance really means in practice (not just theory), more on how you really get media and creative working together, more on what it means to help brands orchestrate their activity across the platforms, more on the new kinds of partners that clients need to help them do all this stuff better. And lots more learning. I’ll let you know in 2023.

In a world of change, what won’t?

In marketing we love change, but what about what won’t? Here are 7 unchanging principles of effective communication that are based on how our brains work, not on how specific technology works.

Papyrus, paper, the printing press, television, the internet, the smartphone: the new communication technologies with the power to shape human culture invariably lead to revolutions in commercial communication too. The metaverse could be next, although I’m not really into making predictions.

So while marketing’s obsession with the shiny and new is often derided, it does have some justification.

But from the quantity of talks and content focusing on new stuff, you’d be forgiven for thinking that change is the only thing that matters. When actually it’s what won’t change that’s as important.

In 2019 Jeff Bezos made a brilliant case for people to focus less on what’s changing and more on what’s not. “I very frequently get the question: ‘What’s going to change in the next 10 years?’…I almost never get the question: ‘What’s not going to change in the next 10 years?’ And I submit to you that that second question is actually the more important of the two, because you can build a business strategy around the things that are stable in time.”

American creative director Bill Bernbach made essentially the same plea more than half a century before. “It took millions of years for man’s instincts to develop…It is fashionable to talk about changing man. A communicator must be concerned with the unchanging man. With his obsessive drive to survive, to be admired, to succeed, to love, to take care of his own.”

So what are the unchanging fundamentals of marketing communication that will always be true regardless of the technologies we use to exploit them?

The most important tech of all

Let’s start with the brain. All other developments in communication technology are really just software: the human brain is the hardware they all have to run on. Specifically the circa 150 million-year-old limbic system that governs our primitive physical and emotional drives, our motivations, memories and decision making.

When an external stimulus is received, electrochemical signals get sent on to the central nervous system, and are then cross-referenced with information already stored in our brains to determine the appropriate behavioural response (eg fight or flight? Pleasure or pain? Ignore or pay attention?). Over time, consistent, distinctive stimuli create a network of associations which inform our behaviours, which psychologist and economist Daniel Kahneman called ‘The associative memory’. So a brand is actually a real, physical thing in our brain, a network of memories and associations.

Kahneman outlined the two systems of mental processes that govern all human behaviour and decision making. System 1 is quick, intuitive, automatic, lazy and effortless, and governs the vast majority of our decisions and behaviour. System 2 is slower, more conscious, more deliberative and more effortful, and is responsible for only a tiny minority of our behaviour. So although people assume we’re thinking creatures that feel, we’re actually feeling creatures that think, according to neuroanatomist Jill Bolte Taylor.

Here’s a fun question posed by Phil Barden, author of ‘Decoded: The Science Behind Why We Buy’. Which of these two brain scans shows the brain of someone choosing their favourite brand and which is the same person choosing a less favoured brand from their repertoire?

Source: After Deppe, M.; Schwindt, W.; Kugel, H.; Plassmann, H.; Kenning, P. (2005): Non-linear responses within the medial prefrontal cortex reveal when specific implicit information influences economic decision-making, in: Journal of Neuroimaging, Vol. 15, No. 2, 2005, pp. 171-183

Contrary to what most marketers assume, the answer is the right hand scan. They get this wrong and choose the left hand one showing more ‘hotspots’ of neural activity (probably because they’ve bought the idea that their job is to make people love their brands as much as they do). But System 1 decisions are ‘no-brainers’, they’re automatic with little cognitive effort. Our brains are lazy and are always looking to conserve energy by taking shortcuts. And brands work as shortcuts to people’s functional and emotional goals. So we need to make our brands no-brainers, not Lovemarks.

To do this we need to deliver consistently distinctive stimuli that can earn people’s attention, build brand memories and create an expectation that a brand will meet its goals.

But how? Here are seven fundamental principles of effective marketing communication that will always be true because they’re based on how our brains work, not on how any specific technology works. Sorry they’re not ‘new’, but that’s sort of the point.

1. Reach

One of the few actual scientific laws of marketing is that a brand’s growth is driven primarily by acquiring new and light buyers. This has been known for more than half a century and has repeatedly been found to be true in every category. A marketer not believing this and thinking they can grow their brand primarily by driving loyalty from existing heavy customers is like a physicist not believing in gravity.

So my first fundamental principle of marketing communication is that your focus needs to be on reaching loads of people who are mostly not that into you. As Martin Weigel puts it: “Your brand’s health depends on lots of people who don’t know you well, don’t think of you much and don’t buy you often, if at all.”

Regardless of how technology changes our ability to target people, reaching beyond existing heavy buyers will always be essential. So remember your most important audience isn’t nearly as obsessed about your products as you are and don’t just speak to existing fans.

2. Attention

Obviously alongside reaching these mostly disinterested new and light buyers, you’re going to need to earn their attention. Loyal users will be primed to notice your communication anyway, so you’ll have to work harder to cut through the clutter with new or lighter buyers. ‘Cutting through the clutter’ is a cliché for a reason. No communication ever exists in beautiful isolation. But if you’re tempted to think ad clutter is a modern problem, think again. There is a painting called ‘Modern Advertising: A Railway Station’ by Alfred Concanen from 1874, which appears to mirror a modern day site, overloaded with ads, but none of them really grabbing you.

‘Modern Advertising: A Railway Station’, 1874.

A personal favourite example of attention-grabbing communication from KFC was an inspired way to draw attention to a message that was really just another corporate apology.

Thank FCK it didn’t just publish the standard dull-looking letter from the CEO, like most brands would have done.


Attention looks like it’s finally getting the attention it deserves, with attention measurement tools becoming available, and the potential for its use as a media currency being explored. Karen Nelson-Field is leading the way here, and while it’s early days, the attention age appears to be dawning.

3. Creativity

Creative has repeatedly been found to be the strongest driver of sales and profitability, over and above media or targeting, by various studies from Nielsen, the IPA and others. Creativity means a lot of things to lots of people, so what is it really?

I love this definition by technology strategist Faris Yakob, which reminds us that it doesn’t mean pure originality and that new ideas are always recombinations of existing ideas: “Good ideas are non-obvious, non-trivial, combinations”. It has echoes of the timeless criteria new inventions must meet from the US Patent Office, ‘Novel, non-obvious, useful’, which is also perfectly true of great creativity.

BBH’s first ever ad for Black Levi’s in the early 80s illustrates one of the most timeless creative principles.

It exploits the ‘Von Restorff effect’, a theory coined by psychiatrist Hedwig von Restorff in 1933, that predicts when multiple similar things are presented, the one that differs most is more likely to be remembered.

It’s worth noting, though, that while the Von Restorff effect works to get attention, it won’t work if the object of attention is not relevant or motivating. More on that later.

And yet there’s so much sameness in advertising today. At BBHLabs a couple of years ago we counted 27 end lines in the format ‘Find your X’ and there have been many more since.

Every category has its own sea of sameness that you need to stand apart from, like this one below from the UK mobile handset category.

Making a ‘sea of sameness’ like this is a classic trick to help you avoid the modern marketing wind tunnel by persuading colleagues of the risks of not standing out.

Human creativity will be with us forever, and will be a competitive advantage forever, for companies that choose the rational, sensible, less risky path of deciding to use it.

4. Distinctiveness

The core task for all marketing communication is to build and refresh memory structures that improve the chance of a brand being recalled first in decision making and buying situations. This in turn increases the chance of a brand being bought, in large part due to the ‘availability bias’, explored in the work of Kahneman and Taversky in the 1960s and 70s.

Distinctive brand assets help create the memory structures that are the frame of reference, stored in the brain, that help brands come to mind first and get chosen. Having a strong set of distinctive brand assets results in ‘a brand looking like itself’, according to Byron Sharp.

McDonald’s is one of the best examples of a brand that nails this time after time. It has built and nurtured a pool of distinctive assets over decades that it draws on and plays with in much of its work.

5. Consistency

In order to strengthen and reinforce brand memories, your communication needs to be consistently distinctive. Byron Sharp says: “You cannot be distinctive if you are not consistent.” But consistency is probably one of the most commonly ignored principles of great communication. The temptation for new CMOs and agencies to change everything is usually just too strong. It’s not enough to create a series of unconnected fireworks – despite industry creative awards prizing discontinuity far more highly than consistency. You need to find ways of moving it on without moving it off, to find the right balance between freshness and familiarity.

Consistency is more profitable than inconsistency. In an analysis of 1,500 campaigns by Ebiquity, long-running distinctive brand campaigns were found to deliver ROIs +62% versus the rest. Ebiquity also found that second and third bursts of campaigns on average generate ROIs 30% higher than the first burst, as they build on the brand recognition scores initially achieved.

6. Emotion

Communications that evoke strong emotional responses have a wide variety of benefits. “Communications evoking emotional responses have better attention, deeper processing of the content, better memory-encoding and retrieval”, according to Phil Barden.

When people talk about emotion in advertising they tend to think it’s limited to emotional storytelling in video. But some kind of emotional reaction is necessary in order to achieve a behavioural response to any kind of stimulus. People can have an emotional response to any format, of any length, albeit the intensity of the emotional response will vary. A seemingly rational messaging can have an emotional effect: a search ad saying ‘half price champagne’ could cause a strong emotional and behavioural reaction. So beware talking about ‘rational’ versus ‘emotional’ ads – always think about emotion as a consumer response to communication, not an executional input into it.

7. Motivation

‘Emotion’ is actually not what motivates people in communication. Motivation is aided by including something that reinforces what the brand helps you to achieve. So the famously emotional John Lewis Christmas campaign in the UK works because of the double whammy of emotional response and motivation. It makes people cry and sometimes laugh (earning attention, creating memories, getting it shared) but it also shows John Lewis shoppers are ‘thoughtful gifters’ (an implicit goal the audience want to achieve). The emotion evoked by a piece of communication and the implicit goal it promises to help people achieve can be quite different things.

So there it is: one unchanging piece of communications hardware, the brain, and seven unchanging principles of effective marketing communication that can get that hardware working for your brand: reach, attention, creativity, distinctiveness, consistency, emotion and motivation.

The most effective communication has always and will always combine human creativity and imagination with the power of technology. But our obsession with the latter can drown out the importance of the former.

Marketing technology is mostly an enabler, a delivery mechanism to get communication in front of people. Whether it’s then noticed, attended to, processed, remembered and affects behaviour is mostly down to the power of the content to trigger the right response in our brains.

So let’s not confuse the ends of changing businesses with the means of only employing technological change to achieve it. Or we risk missing out on the power of something at least as powerful as what’s changing: what won’t.

The sales funnel is wrong but it’s here to stay, so let’s fix it.

The sales funnel is nearly a hundred years old, but despite frequent reports of its death and surprisingly little evidence that it reflects how advertising actually works, it’s never been more alive. The cockroach of marketing concepts, it just seems to keep going and going, adapting to the environment it finds itself in.

This is not one of those ‘X is dead! Long live Y!’ articles deploying the ‘kill and switch’ tactic to launch a totally new thing like, for example, The Roach Rhombus. But the sales funnel needs to be adapted to today’s media environment, to fit more of the actual evidence from marketing science on how advertising works, so maybe marketing’s workhorse can keep going a few decades more.

Origin story

The now ubiquitous sales funnel started out as the linear and hierarchical ‘AIDA’ model (Attention, Interest, Desire, Action) which first gained traction in the personal, door-to-door sales era of the late 19th century as a way to teach salespeople how to push buyers towards a sale in a single conversation.

It was in 1924 that a book called ‘Bond Salesmanship’ by William Townsend first overlaid the funnel metaphor on top of the AIDA model, again as a way to push people towards a sale, but presumably this time in the context of the then-new telephone network. So its roots are as a sales aid for salespeople in the direct sales business.

Source: ‘Bond Salesmanship’, William Townsend

Note in the extract above that originally the metaphor was more about facts being forced down the funnel than people, as in most modern interpretations. And it was originally about leading people towards a sale in a single engagement, whereas today we assume multiple phases over longer time scales, with different audiences and across different platforms.

It’s become less about individuals being taken on a journey and more about nudging large pools of different people forward stage by stage.

It then seems to have remained in relatively low level use for the rest of the 20th century, only becoming as omnipresent as it is today over the last decade or so.

Recent rise

A Google image search for ‘sales funnel’ instantly shows you just how prevalent it’s become. A sure sign of how useful people find it and that it’s not going anywhere anytime soon.

It’s easy to assume it’s been in constant use throughout its century of existence, but its current popularity appears to be relatively recent. During a recent conversation I had with Les Binet, he said he first became aware of the funnel in the mid-1990s in a Volkswagen strategy presentation, and that it was so little known then that the planner was assumed to have invented it.

Other conversations with people working in adland around that time suggest the funnel’s use started to ramp up in the 2000s and 2010s. So what caused its rise? My theory is that it was the growth of the adtech platforms, which needed an intuitive and simple framework to help explain how digital advertising works.

The funnel is now the menu used by the platforms to sell us their wares, helping them to explain the roles their ad formats play along the customer journey. It’s become the go-to tool for digital marketing training courses (including ours at Jellyfish) to organise and simplify the vast and ever-expanding complexity of the digital marketing universe. Media agencies use it to organise media proposals. Creative agencies use it to organise the assets they want to make.

So the funnel is, essentially, a sales tool. It is not a customer, data or science-led framework. In fact, as I’ll show, it is actually a surprisingly inaccurate model of how advertising actually works.

Who’d have thought a concept invented to teach salespeople in the late 19th and early 20th centuries would be even more powerful as a tool to help digital advertising people sell to each other in the 21st?

Common criticisms

There are lots of common criticisms you can throw at the standard funnel. To start, it doesn’t encompass post-purchase or loyalty.

This is usually easily fixed by adding a couple of stages, such as loyalty and advocacy, and a loop back to earlier stages. McKinsey’s loyalty loop fixed this (illustrated below), but in doing so created a sort of Kafkaesque nightmare, where everyone is permanently considering, evaluating, purchasing or repurchasing, and ignoring the fact that in the real world people are mostly passively filtering out any kind of brand or communications most of the time.

Source: McKinsey & Company

Another criticism is that funnels are too linear – that in the real world, people tend to meander around, occasionally and randomly bumping into different touchpoints on their entirely unpredictable and personal journey in time towards a sale. I love this visualisation of that chaos in Doug Garnett’s critique of a related concept, the customer journey map.

Source: Doug Garnett

This kind of non-linear pinballing effect is touched on in James Hankins’ recent hexagon model. It’s a brilliant bit of theory, which (rare for these models) acknowledges that people start out passively, subconsciously assimilating stuff about brands, are triggered in some way, and then go on a journey which can vary in time, stages, and linearity.

Importantly it also acknowledges that this journey will vary from brand to brand and individual to individual.

Source: James Hankins/Marketing Week

In practice you’d need to identify what your core journey is for your brand, and for each stage work out what the role of communications is, and what the messaging and channels would be at each stage.

In other words, you’d end up creating your own bespoke funnel. It’s possible this model may require a little too much personalisation for most marketing people to work with.

Problems with ‘Awareness→Consideration→ Conversion’

Most versions of the standard funnel are built around three basic layers – awareness, consideration and conversion. Three concepts that are all sort of wrong, but in different ways.

Few would argue with the need to make a large number of people aware of your brand. But its inclusion at the top of the funnel is a bit blunt and can lead to lazy thinking. The standard funnel almost never encompasses a concept that’s arguably more important: mental availability, or the chance of your brand coming to a buyer’s mind at key decision-making or buying moments.

Mental availability encompasses awareness, but is really a composite of spontaneous awareness, salience, distinctiveness, associations with category cues, being noticed and remembered. It rules over everything. People being aware of your brand obviously isn’t enough; people remembering it for relevant things at critical decision-making moments is what you need.

So, bluntly laying some ‘awareness’ activity over the top of your communications plan just isn’t going to cut it.

Meanwhile, almost all funnels include at their heart a period of rational, system 2 evaluation, which is usually labelled ‘consideration’. Most funnels skew somewhat to a more rational view of the world, rather than one where people’s decisions are subconscious, emotionally-driven, even irrational.

So today’s sales funnel is heavily influenced by a school of advertising thought, dominant through the early-to-mid 20th century and later adopted by most of the digital platforms, that advertising must persuade people with facts in order to get them to actively appraise and consider a product or service.

What we now know about the brain suggests this is usually not how buying decisions work. This type of evaluation is more common in low frequency, high value categories where people may want to spend more time researching options. But even then their final decisions will be primarily ‘emotional’ or subconscious.

In fact, the concept of brand consideration often doesn’t actually stand up to much scrutiny or data analysis. One major financial services client of mine, which has more analytical resources than any other company I’ve ever worked with, couldn’t find any real evidence for a causal, chronological link between brand consideration and customer acquisition.

Its analysis identified three key metrics that mattered for its brands: 1) spontaneous ad awareness, 2) relevant brand associations, leading to 3) conversion.

It identified two roles for communications: a) simultaneously building mental availability & creating brand associations and b) triggering those associations closer to purchase. A philosophy closer to Byron Sharp’s thinking than the usual funnel.

And conversion too has issues as a label, echoing the ‘strong force’ theory of advertising, when advertising is usually only a weak force on people’s behaviour. The average clickthrough rate on digital display ads being approximately 0.07% is just one small piece of modern evidence for this, so naming a whole layer of a funnel ‘conversion’ when 99.03% of the time it’s playing some other role (e.g. refreshing brand memories) is probably over-playing advertising’s hand.

Bringing this all together

I like the funnel’s flexibility and utility. Its shape reflects the need to target broadly, to cast the net wide for prospects, to build the brand with as many category buyers as possible, creating mental availability with them, so that at the point at which they fall into the market, whether today, tomorrow or in the future, it has a greater chance of being chosen by them.

The tapering suggests deploying more targeted means to refresh mental availability and to trigger sales more directly when a smaller proportion of prospects fall into the market.

This mirrors Les Binet’s own beautifully precise articulation of how advertising really works (pictured below), which has a two-tiered funnel hidden within it: “broad reach ads that people find interesting & enjoyable and targeted activation that they find relevant and useful”Plainly forcing people through a process or journey isn’t possible – mostly people will do things at their own speed and volition. Nudging people is more realistic.

Source: Les Binet

And the unthinking application of the funnel can lead to people planning campaigns on automatic pilot, an acceptance that ‘awareness’ work can be separate, that ‘consideration’ work is essential, and that ‘conversion’ activity could be from a completely different planet.

It can lead to overly layered and fragmented campaigns with budgets being spread too thinly across multiple platforms and formats, rather than being concentrated on activity that will actually get your audience’s neural circuitry firing and creating brand memories.

And it doesn’t seem right that most of the industry uses a template built on three layers which are each kind of wrong and not strongly supported by marketing science. Awareness is insufficient as a descriptor. Consideration is not true for most people’s purchases. Conversion suggests advertising is a strong force on people’s behaviour.

The language of ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ funnel can also reinforce the value-destroying division between ‘brand’ and ‘performance’.

Some people seem to think the upper funnel is the only place where brand-building can happen, or worse, the only place where ‘creativity’ is allowed. Which can lead to people assuming that these two things are luxuries, optional extras that you only need to deploy if you’ve got the money.

Similarly, people think that ‘performance’ only happens at the bottom, when all good marketing communication should be seen as driving performance.

The standard funnel also doesn’t tend to emphasize a key role played by much digital marketing today. Not its role in helping brands to come to mind more easily, but in helping brands that have already come to mind to be found more easily. A role less akin to driving mental availability, and more akin to helping aid physical and digital availability.

Econometrician Grace Kite puts it like this: “It’s the role of online ads as signposts…this task is the online equivalent of the name above the high street front door, the lights that stay on inside, the shelf-space and even the entry in the Yellow Pages. The task is to help people who are already on their way to a website arrive safely.”

So rather than invent a totally new thing, here are some suggestions of simple modifications to the funnel to keep it up to date and in line with more of the evidence about how advertising works:

  • Where building mental availability, not just awareness, is the basic role for advertising.
  • Where everything is seen as contributing to brand-building and performance.
  • Where advertising’s ‘emotional’ role is primary but not separate from any ‘rational’ role.
  • Where an evaluation stage could be added if necessary but isn’t assumed to be needed.
  • Where nudging brand memories is used as a way to trigger short-term sales.
  • Where the connecting role of paid search and SEO in helping make brands be easy to find is highlighted as an important and distinct role for communication today.

The modified funnel would look something like this:

As they say, all models are wrong and some are useful. But perhaps this simple adaptation of the standard funnel could be a little less wrong and a little more useful.

But whichever version of the funnel you use, don’t allow any version of it to let you do your planning on auto-pilot. Determine the actual path to purchase for your brand, the best role for communications at each stage, the metrics that matter at each, deploy the best media mix and make the very best creative you can to shift them.

The sales funnel has been in use for nearly a hundred years by adapting to the media environment of the day. If we continue to adapt it to what marketing science tells us about how advertising works, perhaps it could be in use for the next hundred.

Do you have a marketing philosophy?

Do you have a philosophy for how marketing communications work for your brand? I don’t mean a strategy or plan. I mean a vision that’s articulated simply, compellingly, inspiringly.

For most marketing people the honest answer is probably no, although I suspect it’s a bit more common amongst marketers at the ‘brand’ end of the marketing continuum than the ‘performance’ end.

Today’s bias for the practical over the philosophical may be partly to blame – which, whilst maybe great for getting a million things done in the short term, isn’t so good at helping us get the right things done over the longer term. But having a philosophy has practical benefits: it can help bring focus and consistency.

The philosophy articulated in 1959 by Coca-Cola’s legendary advertising director Delony Sledge is a powerful example. In a letter to J. Paul Austin, then president of The Coca-Cola Export Company, Sledge wrote:

“If we, in presenting Coca-Cola to our consumers, are content to do ordinary things in an ordinary way, we must of necessity be content to become, and remain, an ordinary product.

“If, on the other hand, we determine to do extraordinary things in an extraordinary way, we are perfectly safe in assuming that we will create, in the minds of our consumers, an image of an extraordinary product.

“Many years ago in the United States, Coca-Cola chose the latter route, and I believe the character and prestige enjoyed today (and maintained even in the fact of fiercest competition) is the result of this choice.”

Or take this precisely articulated section of a 1982 pitch brief by Whitbread Beer Company (now AB InBev) to ad agency BBH. It’s not simply a brief for an ad campaign – it sets out their entire belief system:

Most client briefs today tend not to include anything as clear-sighted or inspiring about how a brand’s communications should work in their totality. Fragmentation and specialism in both the client and agency worlds probably hasn’t helped.

Perhaps the now ubiquitous sales funnel has played a role too. If briefs only ask for approaches to a specific layer of the funnel (to drive awareness, consideration, conversion, loyalty or advocacy), maybe developing a perspective on how the layers should work as one coherent system is bound to get less attention.

Perhaps marketers are expecting their brand guidelines or marketing playbook to play this role. But while these may aid consistency and provide practical tools, they’re usually lacking much in the way of vision or inspiration.

The philosophical impasse

If more marketers had a coherent philosophy, I suspect agencies would be much better equipped to deliver work that meets or beats expectations.

Agency people love CMOs with a strong point of view on this – it’s so much easier than having to guess, having to find common ground between stakeholders with differing perspectives, or having to tell them what their perspective should be.

I once had a senior client team including a brand purpose lover, an emotional storytelling fan, a Byron Sharp evangelist, and someone who just wanted ads that made people laugh. There was no philosophical coherence to their respective positions. The overlapping area of the Venn diagram in which the brand’s communications needed to play was impossibly tight.

Our work became inconsistent, performance deteriorated, and an agency with a vision compelling enough to cut through the philosophical impasse won the business, and have since gone on to bring coherence, consistency and creative excellence.

Someone with a coherent philosophy that’s plain to see from his output across multiple brands is ex-Dove marketer, Burger King and now Activision Blizzard CMO, Fernando Machado. His pinned tweet on Twitter reads: “I stumbled on this picture of something I wrote back in 2013 when we were deploying Dove Real Beauty Sketches. Still relevant today as it was 7 years ago.”


Whatever your views on the work Machado did at Burger King, you can’t deny it was clearly driven by a singular vision of what he believes works. Many marketers have individual creative ‘hits’; having a consistently applied creative philosophy like Machado’s gives you a greater chance of keeping those hits coming year after year, for different brands, and earning the career progression that’s likely to follow.

To be able to articulate your own advertising philosophy, you have to be more actively conscious of your own fundamental beliefs about what works best than most of us tend to be. You need to know which marketing principles, ideas and concepts you believe in, the ones you tend to build your plans around and return to time and again. And you need to be just as clear about the things you don’t believe in.

If you’ll excuse me for jumping from the philosophical to the profane, one way to think about this is to ask yourself what your kiss, marry, or kill of marketing ideas is.

My answers – the things I believe in most unwaveringly – are: creativity, reach, attention, fame, emotion, distinctive brand assets, mental availability, bothism. The things I’d consign to marketing’s Room 101 include the label ‘performance marketing’ (all good marketing is performance marketing isn’t it?), brand love (sounds like a nice idea but isn’t actually a major driver of brand growth) and brand purpose (when it’s seen purely as an advertising tactic rather than baked into a business model).

If pushed for a final answer I’d say my choices would be fame, bothism and brand love.

Our own individual answers to this question reflect our identities as marketing people and will be shaped by everything we’ve experienced in our careers. Mine are being shaped by the journey I’m on, from the holding company creative agency world to Jellyfish, a new era full-service communications company, which is opening my eyes wider than ever to the ever-increasing array of options available to solve any given marketing problem.

I know my choices have changed in the last few years and I’m sure they’ll evolve over the next few years, given the new ideas, tactics and tools I’m now being exposed to.

Sniffing out the snake oil

Most of us are probably too busy doing the job to ever take much time to think about it. A lack of formal marketing training covering the marketing fundamentals doesn’t help. And neither is the on-going tactification of marketing, an increasing ‘modern marketing myopia’, that I wrote about recently.

Marketing is an incredibly broad church and we have an infinite variety of different philosophical, strategic and tactical options available to us if we open our eyes and our minds to them. People being able to have their own distinct points of view is part of the joy of what we do. There is never only one way or solution, there are always lots – many effective, many less effective.

The philosophical position you take will tend to be heavily influenced by the most influential marketing leaders and thinkers in your own corner of the marketing world.

If your experience is primarily in brand marketing or FMCG, and you’re from the UK or Australia, you’ll probably have adopted some of the academia-honed ideas of Byron Sharp and the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute. If you look more to the US tech and VC world, it might be the brand and advertising-sceptical perspective of Scott Galloway, or perhaps the organic social content-obsessed Gary Vaynerchuk.

But rather than just believing what your own gurus or particular tribes believe, maybe we should make up our own minds more deliberately, less passively, with a healthy dose of scepticism and a far broader understanding of the wider options available.

It would benefit all of us to question the validity of the new ideas that we’re sold overtly and covertly every day (and practically every piece of marketing content you read is selling you something).

As Paul Feldwick talks about in his superb book ‘The Anatomy of Humbug’, a surprising number of the ideas we use every day in advertising (such as the ‘USP’ popularised by Rosser Reeves of The Ted Bates Agency in the 1960s) were originally created to sell an agency’s services, and this will always be the case.

In fact anyone who insists there’s only one way to solve your problem isn’t trying to solve your problem, they’re probably trying to sell you their solution. We all need to be better equipped to judge which of the new ideas we’re exposed to were designed to promote a particular company. Which are sound, and which are snake oil.

So if you don’t have your own advertising philosophy worked out and written down, perhaps you should give it a go. Applying some self-knowledge, Socrates’ maxim ‘know thyself’, is a good way to start.

Because even practitioners can benefit from a little philosophy.

Modern Marketing Myopia: is marketing losing perspective?

If ‘Marketing Myopia’ was an over-focus on products vs consumer needs, its modern variant is an over-focus on the present vs the past, present & future, that puts us in danger of losing sight of the bigger picture for our brands.

In 1960, Harvard Business School professor Theodore Levitt’s article ‘Marketing Myopia’ described a damaging problem in business: a nearsighted focus on selling products rather than taking a bigger picture view of what customers really want. He argued for organisations to define their categories and competition more broadly around customer needs, famously summing it all up in the mantra “people don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole”. His article became an HBR classic, perhaps the most influential marketing article of all time [1].

Since then customer-orientation has become a central tenet of marketing. You can see it in subsequent big ideas such as ‘product-market fit’ and Clayton Christiansen’s ‘jobs to be done’. It’s there in every bland statement of corporate values, and writ large in Amazon’s vision “to be Earth’s most customer-centric company”. Everyone claims to be customer-centric now.

High profile business failures like those of Blockbuster and Kodak often have marketing myopia as a cause.

But whilst marketing myopia, with its roots in the manufacturing age, hasn’t been eradicated, the ubiquity of the idea of customer-centricity has probably helped reduce its mortality rate over the last sixty years.

Now, though, we may be suffering from a new, and maybe more prevalent strain. Let’s call it Modern Marketing Myopia. If the first strain originated around the production lines of the industrial age, the second originated around the lines of code of the digital one.

What is Modern Marketing Myopia?

Marketing today has got vastly more myopic than Levitt could possibly have imagined. If marketing myopia is an over-focus on products vs consumer needs, modern marketing myopia is an over-focus on the present vs the past, present and future. A narrow, inward-looking and apparently precise view of the now, that blocks out bigger views encompassing broader horizons. A focus on the microscopic that means we’re in danger of completely missing the bigger story for our brands.

It means obsessing over the data, spreadsheets, dashboards, and slack channels immediately in front of our noses, the apparatus and busyness of the modern working environment, at the exclusion of the less visible, harder to quantify and predict, but more real worlds of our customers. 

Having modern marketing myopia means not lifting your head up to look out at the real worlds and lives of real people. It means a blindness to or lack of curiosity for the real human stories behind the data. It means seeing numbers in spreadsheets as ends in themselves, not as signals and proxies for the behaviours, thoughts and feelings of living, breathing people. It means not even questioning whether the data actually represents real humans or real activity, despite the vast amount of ad fraud happening today. It means overstating the value of information immediately in front of us and understating the value of information that’s harder or slower to get hold of, including qualitative, ethnographic, brand or econometric data. It means not looking ahead by defining a north star for your brand or a compelling vision of the future. It means not thinking about how to enable that future by investing in the right people and training, especially in marketing’s history and fundamentals.

File:It is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong. John Maynard Keynes, 1883-1946 -en.svg

John Maynard Keynes famously said “it is better to be roughly right than precisely wrong”. One danger with modern marketing myopia is that it reduces the chances of us being roughly right, and massively increases the chances of us being precisely wrong.

But its greatest danger, just like the original strain, is that it limits growth potential because it blinds us to future opportunity.

How did we get here?

By not learning the fundamentals

There’s not enough training going on in the core marketing principles today [2]. New, specialist tactics tend to get a much greater share of training budgets and time. Technology has opened up new creative and media tactics to everyone. The democratisation of marketing in this way is hugely exciting, but it places more and more of our focus in terms of training on tactical capabilities at the expense of the fundamentals.

By prizing agility over strategy

The methods of agile software development have made their mark on every corner of modern business including marketing. It’s a way of working that, when applied to marketing, often seems to favour trial and error over long-term, top-down strategic planning. It’s led to a world where marketing and communications strategies are less likely to be defined and agreed upon, and that’s a world where people will focus solely on their specialisms, rather than connecting what they do up to a bigger, more macro strategy, with bigger, longer term goals.

By marketers thinking they’re in sales 

Marketing’s primary responsibility is influencing saleability, creating the conditions for sale, not being responsible for the sale itself. But many marketers today seem to fixate on the precise moment of sale at the expense of thinking more broadly about their role in influencing saleability in the weeks, months and sometimes years up to (and after) that point.

By over-stating the sales-driving role of digital ads

We tend to over-state the role digital advertising plays in directly driving sales, and under-play its role in driving saleability. Brand search often gets more credit than it’s due, when it can be more of a navigation aid for sales that were likely to happen anyway [3]. Attribution modelling can massage digital channels’ direct contribution to sales, and longer term, bigger picture measurement like MMM remains rare. We’ve always been guilty of thinking advertising is a strong, rather than a weak force [4], and we’re continuing to make that mistake with digital. So the brand-building, longer-term role it plays is under-measured, under-reported and under-valued. Digital has in some ways been mis-sold as a sales tool, when it’s really a marketing tool.

On the positive side it means there’s still a huge opportunity to explore the role digital channels can and do play in brand-building. There’s a huge need for a robust body of cross-platform evidence on this, rather than just case studies or single platform studies.

By making the media landscape so complicated 

The complexity of the modern media landscape and the proliferation of platforms and channels means we need more specialists than ever to understand and deploy them, which inevitably means more spreadsheets and dashboards and more silos. We need more generalists to balance things out, to represent the macro view in this increasingly micro world. One of the roles played by brand and media planning at Jellyfish is exactly this: to connect up the huge variety of specialist tactics we have available, help paint the bigger picture, and to help brands navigate the platform world our brands now operate in.

By becoming addicted to data

We have a huge amount of data available today, especially real time data, and we’ve developed an addiction for it. The instant gratification and addictive rush of dopamine when you receive likes in your personal social media is well-known; real time marketing data is bound to have a similar effect on us in a professional context. Seeing immediate results is now easy and highly rewarding; having the patience to wait a few weeks or months for slow gains in brand metrics or for an econometrics debrief is hard in comparison.

And perhaps the ‘availability bias’ is kicking in here, which means if something is more readily recalled, our subconscious assigns it extra significance [5]. So regardless of how much it actually matters to the success of our brands, the easy availability of certain kinds of data means our minds confer on it a greater importance than it may actually deserve. Combine this with a decline in marketing strategy and I suspect this all leads to a focus on speed rather than on velocity – speed in a specific direction – direction towards a bigger goal.

Someone asked me recently if marketers are using enough data in their decision-making. For me the issue isn’t quantity, but quality of data and quality of interpretation. It only took 4kb’s of data to put humans on the moon, so I’m pretty sure we don’t actually need the vast amounts of data we now have at our disposal to nudge people to choose our brands. We just need more people who can see the human stories within it and do smart, creative things with it.

How do you know if you’ve got it?

Ask yourself or your team these 10 questions. The fewer yeses you get, the higher the chances:

Do you or your team get training in the marketing fundamentals, and have you read any Sharp or Kotler?

Do you really know your consumers, the worlds and their needs (and not just from what a tiny % post online)?

Do you have a north star that your team and everyone beyond marketing are aiming towards?

Do you stick to your guns even when the numbers don’t look right from one day to the next?

Do you know how your campaigns work to drive both sales overnight & brand over time?

Do your creative people think in terms of ideas and campaigns, or are they just ‘filling in rectangles’?

Does everyone on your team actually know all the ads you’re running, and where?

Do you know how many people actually see your campaigns and how often?

Do you know what people think and feel as a result of your marketing activity (not just what a few do instantly)? 

Do you know the 3-5 ‘metrics that matter’ from the tonne of data you collect?

Prevention & treatment

We all need to look back more, look up and around us more, look forward more. We need to make deliberate attempts to rebalance the importance we assign to data that is less easily available and less frequently collected. We need to put firmer stakes in the ground around the metrics that actually matter. We need to evaluate activity across every time horizon, not just the shortest. We need to train people better.

And what if we in digital marketing companies actually also have Levitt’s Marketing Myopia?

Digital marketing companies often suffer from the modern variant. But what if we’re also suffering from the original strain? Defining ourselves by the products we sell (technology, media, analytics, content, creative) or worse, promising to deliver them faster, better, cheaper?

As a category we need to recognise we’re not in the digital or technology business, and make sure we frame what we do in terms of what our clients, the brands, actually want, which is growth. Then there’s a better chance our own impressive growth trajectory will continue.

[1] https://hbr.org/2004/07/marketing-myopia

[2] Mark Ritson’s Mini MBA courses are a brilliant exception https://mba.marketingweek.com/

[3] Here’s a great article by econometrician Dr Grace Kite founder of Magic Numbers, on the signposting role played by some search ads http://magicnumbers.co.uk/articles/the-two-tasks-for-online-ads/

[4] Here’s a great article on how advertising is a weak not a strong force by the brilliant Martin Weigel of Wieden+Kennedy https://www.martinweigel.org/blog/2013/04/08/weakness-with-consequence-why-marketing-is-like-gravity

[5] Availability bias or heuristic https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Availability_heuristic

“I’ve never heard of Jellyfish.”

When I told people I was starting a new job at Jellyfish, people asked loads of questions. The most common from creative agency people was ‘who are Jellyfish?’. From people who knew little more than the name, it was ‘why’s a brand person like you going to a performance agency?’. But from those in the know, there was a sense of intrigue: ‘Now that’s interesting – what are they planning?’.

So a couple of months in, I thought I’d share some answers, some observations about the fascinating new world I’m now in, and what it’s making me think about the future of the industry.

Intro’s and origins

I myself hadn’t heard of Jellyfish until someone senior at Google introduced me to Jellyfish’s VP of Creative. This Googler couldn’t have been more effusive, saying Jellyfish is the only company in the world they’d want to work at besides Google.

It’s undeniable that Jellyfish’s brand awareness lags its impressive business performance, which stands at +45% growth on average every year for the last 8 years. Word has spread via people in the know, and new clients have tended to come in more through referrals than through the inefficient business of pitching. And like many digital-first marketing companies, its output often doesn’t have brand fame as an objective, so can’t always be the shop window that it is for pure-play creative and media agencies. Which partly explains why Jellyfish is currently more ‘trade secret’ than darling of the trade press. Whilst plans are afoot to solve the brand awareness issue, it’s an approach that doesn’t appear to have held back growth to date.

Jellyfish was founded by a group of individuals from outside adland, with zero attachment to how agencies worked in the past, and who had nothing to do with the creation or maintenance of the increasingly creaky holding company model. Just smart, entrepreneurial business people, with an ambition to build, from the ground up, the kind of company clients and partners want to work with and people want to work at.

Appropriately for a company that’s in the business of digital marketing transformation, Jellyfish’s own origin story is itself one of transformation – from its roots as an IT consultancy in Reigate, UK, via its evolution into a performance marketing company, to its current incarnation, a new breed of global marketing services company with over 2000 people and 40 offices globally.

Jellyfish is injecting new DNA into the marketing services industry. The London agencies of the 20th century can mostly be traced back to a handful of Soho shops of the 60’s [1], but Jellyfish has no connection to Soho, or its US equivalent, Madison Avenue. It isn’t an adaptation of adland’s existing DNA; it’s a completely new bloodline. 

In fact Jellyfish’s growth has perhaps only been possible because of, not in spite of, its existence outside marketing’s establishment. And it’s growing fast – it’s currently hiring for 266 roles, has new offices opening all the time, and only a couple of weeks ago announced 5 new acquisitions of creative and content businesses [2].

Rob Pierre, Jellyfish’s CEO, doesn’t just want to build a better marketing services company – he’s on record as saying he wants it to be the blueprint for the world’s best organisation, full stop.

But what is Jellyfish really?

Because it’s part of a new category of company for which the industry hasn’t yet settled on a common descriptor, and because it’s evolving and transforming all the time, it can be hard to categorise. Jellyfish doesn’t call itself an agency or consultancy, instead describing itself as a ‘digital partner’.

When the Drum recently published a list of the most admired ‘digital agencies’ in the UK, Jellyfish was named No. 2. But the pure play creative agencies I’ve worked at also came out well (no. 40, 10 and 3 respectively), which shows the term ‘digital agency’ is too broad to be a useful descriptor today, now the majority of marketing communication is in some way digital.

Martin Sorrell’s definition of S4 Capital as “a communications business for the new marketing age” is also true of Jellyfish, and that’s helpful language as it points to a new category of company, of which S4 Capital and Jellyfish are two global front-runners, but this is also really broad.

Jellyfish plans and buys media, but it’s not a media agency. It does digital transformation consultancy, but it’s not a consultancy. It has serious expertise in the adtech platforms, but it’s not an adtech company. It makes creative content and advertising, but it’s not an ad agency. It does performance marketing but it’s not a performance marketing agency. (Performance agencies don’t tend to win Emmys, as our organic social creative team did last year for their work for Netflix [3]).

Importantly Jellyfish isn’t a holding company. It has one exceptionally unified organisational structure with a single global P&L, and every effort is made to make each acquisition or new hire feel like part of one global company from day one. Jellyfish only does things if they’re scalable – if it can’t productise a service and scale it globally then it won’t offer it. CEO Rob Pierre describes his vision for the growth of Jellyfish’s organisational structure and culture being ‘a vector image not a jpeg’ – so that regardless of how big it grows and no matter what your vantage point, every part looks and feels like Jellyfish, meaning no new component will add complexity, weaken its structural integrity or water down its cultural unity.

And whilst it’s not an agency, I’m told Jellyfish’s bar in the London offices on two floors high up in the Shard (which I’ve yet to visit but will be my home), has the best view of any agency bar in London. Which I suspect will make it pretty popular with agency types when word gets out.

So why am I at Jellyfish?

  1. To experience growth

I’ve worked in large network creative agencies for around 20 years. When I started at AMV BBDO in 2000 there were still Aston Martin’s and Ferrari’s parked in the basement car park, the last visible trace of adland’s glory days. But for much of this time, this part of the ad industry has struggled to adapt to the arrival of the adtech platforms. So despite being all about delivering growth to its clients, it’s been having trouble delivering growth for itself.

The big agencies of the 20th century got big by being the best at partnering with the big marketers of that era – P&G, Unilever, Coca-Cola, Ford etc. The big names of the 21st century will get big by being the best at partnering with the big platforms and brands of this one. In fact quite a few of the new platforms have themselves been early adopters of Jellyfish as clients – businesses like Google, Netflix, ebay, Uber, Spotify and TikTok.

Despite having huge love and respect for where I’ve come from, I’m not ashamed to admit to wanting to work in a company that’s growing fast – as fast as many of the platforms it partners.

  1. To learn & practice modern marketing strategy

I can’t claim to be an expert like many at Jellyfish in how to use the platforms to help brands grow, but I’m very excited to learn for my own personal growth.

Jellyfish has a significant digital marketing training business for both clients and partners (you can take a look at and even book courses here), with the first of its two floors in the Shard devoted to it. This world-class training capability is already helping ease my transition.

Strategy (or brand planning as Jellyfish call it) is a relatively recent but fast-growing capability. Alongside media strategy, we help connect up these specialisms and deliver unified marketing strategies across them. Strengthening our brand planning function means that, when the time is right for specific clients who want us to take strategic leadership on their business, we’ll be even more ready to do so. And as digital marketers are probably better known for their mastery of tactics than strategy, the brand planning team here are firmly committed to helping digital marketers up their strategic game, especially around helping people get back to basics and learn marketing’s fundamental principles. 

  1. To help bridge brand & performance

I wrote a blog post last year called the ‘Wrong and the short of it’ [4], which talked about the power of combining brand & performance, a theme which Mark Ritson subsequently termed ‘Best of Bothism’. It was written out of frustration with the persistent division between brand and performance marketing and a feeling that only by ending it will be able to unlock the full potential of the modern marketing toolkit.

Jellyfish is set up to do just this. It bridges all of marketing’s big divides and has all the components of the modern marketing machine sitting happily together under one roof: media & content, technology & creativity, brand & performance, data & ideas, agency & consultancy. Others may possess some of the component parts, but Jellyfish’s structure and culture could give it an advantage.

  1. To help make more effective digital marketing

We’re as aware as anyone of how bad a lot of digital marketing communication is creatively and therefore how poorly some of it works. While Mark Ritson, Bob Hoffman and others are fighting the air war against ineffective digital ads, we’re helping fight the ground war – trying to make them better in practice.

And we’re just as happy optimising creative assets made by a client in-house or by another agency as we are originating our own. Regardless of where it comes from we just want the work to work brilliantly across every platform. We know the brand and its objectives; we know the platforms and the algorithms; we know the audience’s behaviour on the platforms; we just want our clients’ brands to perform on them to their fullest potential.

  1. To be a part of the future

Whilst the holding companies may be finding it tough right now, small, independent creative agencies seem to be doing well. They’re getting on ever larger pitch lists and some are winning very large global creative origination briefs, for which they may not have the scale, technology or even inclination, to handle the creative asset adaptation, deployment and optimisation required. 

So perhaps in the future the marketing communications landscape could comprise two types of company: 1) Lead strategic partners who manage the on-going business of media planning, deployment and creative optimisation across the platforms; 2) Specialist creative agencies and studios whose role is to create new assets to challenge those currently being deployed. A ‘Champion vs Challenger’ model rather than ‘Media vs Creative’ model. A future where smaller pure-play creative agencies and larger companies like Jellyfish happily coexist in symbiosis.

So what exactly am I going to be doing at Jellyfish?

Two months here has confirmed much of what I thought was happening in the industry and is teaching me loads more.

Little did I know when I arrived that within a few weeks of arriving I’d have helped create a brand strategy and new video and display campaign for a new social networking app, been through a round of optimisations on it, helped revise the copy in the app stores in line with the new strategy to help it perform better with both humans and the app stores’ algorithms. I’ve written about bringing brand and performance closer together, and am now learning what that can actually mean.

I’m applying my existing strategy skills to client business. I’m trying to help bridge the divide between brand and performance. I’m trying to help make digital campaigns that are more visible, impactful and effective. And I’m going to continue to write about marketing and creative effectiveness, but from a fresh perspective.

If you’ve made it this far you may have picked up from this that I’m genuinely excited about the future – Jellyfish’s future, the future of marketing and the part Jellyfish can play in shaping it.

Please do get in touch if it’s a future you’d like to be a part of.

Or even apply for one of 266 new roles at Jellyfish here: https://apply.workable.com/jellyfish-group-ltd/

[1] The original agencies from the mid 19th century to the 1920s all grew up around Fleet Street and the Newspaper industry. The next wave moved to 1960s Soho with its connection to the film and TV production worlds following the advent of commercial TV in the mid 50s. So agencies tend to arrive in waves, following shifts in the dominant media industry of the age. The digital age unsurprisingly has fewer geographical ties, which means the next wave of agencies can start anywhere, even Reigate. https://www.campaignlive.co.uk/article/history-advertising-no-155-soho/1373263

[2] https://www.jellyfish.com/en-gb/news-insights/jellyfish-acquires-5-companies-fueling-global-expansion-with-new-digital-capabilities

[3] https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/social-life-part-of-the-jellyfish-group-wins-first-emmy-for-work-on-netflix-series-big-mouth-301134971.html

[4] https://thetomroach.com/2020/11/15/the-wrong-and-the-short-of-it/

With apologies to AMV BBDO, The Economist, and the late David Abbott, perhaps the greatest British copywriter of all time, for the desecration of their ‘”I never read The Economist.” Management Trainee. Aged 42.’ poster, the first execution in their much-loved, long-running and highly effective campaign.

Scaling up without screwing up

When scale-ups consider using TV advertising for the first time, it’s a decision that can be riven with uncertainty. So here’s some advice and data to help, including a new analysis of the performance of 550 TV ads by 200 new-to-TV brands by System1 Group. It reveals some lessons for scale-ups and a worrying problem: techniques common in the production of online video could be limiting the effectiveness of new TV advertisers’ ads.

Deciding to use TV advertising for the first time can be a remarkably emotional decision. It’s often a natural next step for scale-ups needing to reach a much wider audience to take their growth to the next level. But concerns about TV’s cost, effectiveness, accountability, the need to hire agencies, even a marketing team’s lack of experience can come to the fore, making it feel like one of the riskiest decisions in a brand’s early life.

New brands can go through a phase when they see the success of their performance marketing level off. They may see increasing customer acquisition costs and decreasing efficiency of their acquisition channels as they reach saturation point. Layering in mass reach advertising can help them achieve a step-change in growth, as illustrated in the chart below by econometrician Dr Grace Kite and me.

Using TV at this point is not the only choice of course, and I’m not someone who believes no brand has ever been built without it. But I suspect many brands reach this decision point, consider the pros and cons, but choose not to go for it, for a whole host of reasons, some perfectly rational, some less so.

We’re all susceptible to our perceptions of TV as an advertising channel being shaped by what we hear in the mass and business media, which is often that it’s ‘dead’ or ‘dying’, and there’s not much any of us can do about that regardless of the hyperbolic nature of those kinds of claims. But a common problem that we can do something about is conflating our own media behaviours with our audience’s, resulting in that persistent fallacy, ‘no-one watches TV any more do they?’

Live TV viewing is certainly declining dramatically, especially amongst younger audiences, but the total reach of all kinds of TV – whether live, recorded, or broadcaster VOD, being viewed on devices and screens of every size and type, has actually remained remarkably stable over the last decade in the UK. In 2019 it was still reaching virtually everyone in the UK every week – 95.5% of all adults and 91% of all 16-34s every week, even when you exclude the subscription platforms[i].

And in terms of all the video advertising people are exposed to in a day, TV advertising still accounts for by far the largest proportion people are exposed to – 93% of the video ads that the average person sees in the UK, and 84% of the video ads younger people see, are TV ads. That’s 18mins of video ads a day in the UK on average, and 12mins for 16-34s. So TV advertising’s still very much alive, it’s digital, and it’s having babies.

You also hear people saying TV ‘doesn’t work anymore’. In fact, TV remains the most effective growth-driving channel overall, the most effective in the longer term, and the second most effective in the first two weeks of a campaign, according to ‘Demand Generation’, a study commissioned by Thinkbox and conducted by Mediacom, Wavemaker and the econometrics agency, Gain Theory, which looked at how different channels contribute to sales, and over what timescale their effects happen[ii].

And not only is TV still the most effective channel overall, but it can have the greatest incremental impact of any channel on all your other channels too – on average it can boost the impact of your generic search by +8%, your online video and VOD by +20%, and your paid social by +31%.

Monzo bank, for example, having at launch claimed not to believe in any kind of paid advertising, decided to use TV for the first time in 2019 to achieve a step-change its growth, and saw massive, instant uplifts in search, as well as ‘insane’ growth in app downloads and account openings[iii].

And whilst it’s sometimes the case that the cost of TV media can be the largest single bill of any kind that a digital native brand with no tangible assets has yet had to pay, it’s a fallacy that TV advertising is much more expensive than other channels. In the UK, TV’s cost per thousand is c£6 or 0.6p for a single impression, so not far off a typical CPT on Facebook. And a benefit of TV ads is the extra seconds of attention they typically get from viewers vs other video – around 4.5x the seconds of attention the average facebook infeed ad gets[iv].

In 2019 in the UK, over 900 advertisers spent less than £50k on TV advertising across the year. In the same year a total of 837 new brands advertised on TV, of which over 600 spent under £20k[vi]. At the other end of the spectrum, only around 250 brands spent over £5m. And to make it even more accessible, all the commercial broadcasters are experimenting with different ways of incentivising new brands onto their platforms, helping hundreds of brands make the step every year[v].

One specific area of concern can be from teams who are used to getting an immediate read on the customer acquisition costs of every channel. And whilst it’s perfectly possible to monitor TV’s immediate sales and other impacts, because TV has unusually long-lasting effects, with around c60-70% of sales being generated in the weeks and months following exposure, TV spend can appear inefficient if its full effects aren’t factored in. And to do that you will need the right data, marketing analytics partners, and crucially time and patience, which can be in limited supply for brands in a hurry. Fortunately, some providers of marketing performance analytics are innovating to help make their offerings faster, better, cheaper.

When a brand decides to use TV, it can also be the first time it’s engaged external agencies. And if founders are involved, hiring an agency can feel to them like they’re handing over their baby to a childminder for the first time, with all the potential for tension and tantrums that implies. In fact, there’s actually a neuroscience study which shows that founders react to a visual of their brand’s logo with the same emotional intensity as when they’re shown photos of their own babies.[vii]

Aside from media and agency costs, the cost of producing video assets to air on TV can also seem prohibitive and it’s true they’re usually greater than the cost of producing a video for social channels. But add up all the smaller individual costs for a year’s worth of videos, and you can easily surpass the c£50k entry level cost of producing a TV asset that will give you at least a year’s worth of use.

So hopefully that’s some useful context and data to help inform the debate for brands weighing up the pros and cons of starting to deploy TV advertising today.

So what can scale-ups learn from other scale-ups who’ve already taken the plunge?

As it’s such a significant moment, and one that can also seem so difficult creatively, I thought it would be interesting to explore the creative performance of scale-ups when they take their first steps onto TV.

Are marketers right to be nervous? Do ads by scale-up brands perform any worse than ads by brands who’ve been doing it for years? Do they get better with experience? Do their inexperience or lack of big budgets show? Are ads by new-to-TV advertisers better at driving short-term performance than long-term, perhaps because of the skew in their experience towards social and performance channels? Do they bring with them any good or bad habits from the channels they’re most used to creating video content for? What advice could help scale-ups get the most out of going on TV?

To try and answer some of these questions, I approached System1 Group, who test all the breaking TV ads in most categories in the UK and the US, so have data on the performance of thousands of ads including those by start-ups and scale-ups. They helped provide the data that follows.

Matching a list of c10,000 ads from System1’s ad testing database with BARB’s list of new TV advertisers from 2014-2019 in the UK, gave me a list of 200 new-to-TV advertisers for 2014-2019, and performance data for 550 ads, including 193 year1 ads, 120 year2 ads, and 86 year3ads.

This list of 200 new-to-TV brands covers every category. It reads like an A-Z of scaleups in the UK from the last 5 years, including Brewdog, Bulldog, Deliveroo, Drover, Fitbit, Funding Circle, Go Henry, Habito, Harry’s, Huel, iZettle, Marcus, Monzo, Pinterest, Starling, Tide, Twitter, Tyrrell’s, Weflip and Xero.

The first thing we found was that ads by new-to-TV brands tend to perform worse than ads by established advertisers. Their 1st year TV ads only average 1 star on System1’s 5-star scale which measures emotional impact and is predictive of long-term sales success, vs the 2 stars that the average UK ad gets.

When you look at the distribution of the scores, many more 1st year ads got 1 star on average vs established advertisers. Far fewer achieved 2 and 3 stars, only one achieved 4 and none achieved 5. For new-to-TV advertisers both the ‘floor’ and the ‘ceiling’ were lower than for established advertisers.

The only new-to-TV year 1 advertiser to achieve 4 stars was Elizabeth Shaw chocolates. And their first foray into TV was indeed hugely successful: they saw +268% sales uplift in the regions where TV was used[viii].

The 193 year1 ads by new-to-TV advertisers perform worse on average on all three of System1’s key metrics: long-term impact (their ‘Star’ rating), short-term sales impact (their ‘Spike’ rating) and branding (their ‘Fluency’ rating).

But to be fair they’re not much worse than established advertisers, and actually after 3 years they’re on a par with the average. Whilst new TV advertisers show no improvement in their 2nd year of TV advertising, by years 3 and 4 on average they have improved up to the level of established advertisers. So whilst some existing advertisers may have decades more experience, on average they only have a 3 year head start in performance terms.

Building lasting brand memories by making an emotional impact on viewers is one of the core strengths of TV advertising, and this is where the greatest improvement happens in years 3-4 for new-to-TV advertisers, perhaps as they improve the capabilities, creative and craft skills required to get the most from the medium.

The lessons from this for scale-ups are these: hire people with experience and/or appoint an agency, rather than attempting to go it alone; don’t expect perfection from the get-go; don’t imagine you’re going to see exponential growth like in your start-up days; keep what’s working from your initial attempts; aim to create a greater emotional impact; stick with it; and the commercial impact of your TV advertising should improve significantly by years 3 and 4.

To try and shed light on why the performance of ads isn’t as strong in the first couple of years we looked at the type of emotions they evoke. The results were clear: in years 1-2 they tend to cause too neutral a response from viewers and not enough happiness. It’s only by year 4 that they’re evoking good levels of happiness – the emotional response most predictive of long-lasting commercial impact.

It’s possible that there is some survivorship bias at play here (ie with some better advertisers continuing to use TV but not improving over their initial years, and some worse ones dropping out, so taking the average up over time). But when we looked at the advertisers in the dataset who develop new ads in each of their first 3 years, they also improve, on average, exactly in line with the total picture.

When we explored the performance of ads from different sectors, we saw the greatest under-performance from new Financial Services, Automotive and Tech advertisers. Household and Food & Drink brands performed a bit better, albeit still under-performing vs established advertisers in their categories.

It’s possible that new FS, Automotive and Tech brands under-perform the most because it’s these categories that are responsible for the most disruptive and novel business models and propositions, and so perhaps new brands in these categories feel a greater need to explain their propositions in detail to the audience, which can limit their emotional impact. For many of these ads their TV scripts can seem like they’ve been copied directly from their investor pitch decks – essentially an explanation of the customer issue followed by an extended product demo. This is understandable but it suggests a failure to find creative ways to engage the audience emotionally, which new brands should see as an important outcome and not simply a nice-to-have.

Another thing we explored was whether new-to-TV advertisers perform better on short-term impact than on System1’s predictor of long-term commercial impact. One hypothesis here being that some new TV advertisers may perhaps intentionally sacrifice long-term performance to achieve maximum impact in the short term. It’s a common debate, with voices on the marketing team often arguing for creative with a short-term bias: “we need to be a little less creative, more focused on the product, to establish this new category and explain the proposition with consumers – we can get more creative and ‘emotional’ in the future once we’ve done that”.

The data suggests that’s a false choice. You’ll see from the chart below that a significant proportion of the ads (just under 20%) do manage to perform on both short-term and long-term impact. So you don’t have to sacrifice long-term impact in order to achieve short-term impact even if you’re a new brand trying to establish yourself. Interestingly you don’t get many ads in the extreme bottom right of the chart: if you do really well on long-term impact, you’re more likely to also perform well in the short term too.

So what can scale-up brands learn from this analysis about how to make better TV advertising?

In this analysis, ads by new-to-TV brands are weaker because they create less of a positive emotional reaction and leave people feeling nothing. Evoking strong, positive emotional reactions gains and keeps attention, making a brand more memorable, helping it to come to mind and get chosen long after the initial exposure.

To explore why more ads by new-to-TV advertisers leave people feeling neutral, we took a sample of 117 year1 ads[ix] and analysed the executional features in them. This included noting the type of music, the dominance of words on screen, and other video and story-telling techniques. We then compared this with a similar analysis of 100 UK TV ads and 102 UK Facebook ads[x].

We found something really interesting: year1 ads by new-to-TV advertisers appear to ‘look’ much more like Facebook ads in terms of the presence of some specific features than a random sample of recent TV ads.

Use of music The majority (67%) of the year1 new-to-TV ads featured a rhythmic soundtrack, and very few (only 9%) featured music with a melody. Whereas only a minority (30%) of UK TV ads featured a rhythmic soundtrack and a majority (55%) featured music with a melody, and 45% of Facebook ads had a rhythmic soundtrack and only 10% had music with a melody. So when it comes to their use of music, year1 ads (in pink below), are much more like Facebook ads (yellow), than the UK average TV ads (grey)

Music, proven to be a highly emotive feature of TV advertising and a major driver of creative effectiveness, looks like it’s being used far less effectively by new-to-TV advertisers. This could be because they’ve been prioritising it less for their Facebook and other videos where music is usually less of a feature, and have carried this habit over to TV. It could also be that new-to-TV advertisers are just spending far less on music – using more library tracks and generic sound-beds and fewer tracks with recognisable or familiar melodies.

Use of text

77% of our year1 new-to-TV ads featured prominent text on screen during the ad (and before the end-frame), compared to 67% of UK TV ads, and 91% of Facebook ads. So again we see ads by new-to-TV advertisers (pink) ‘looking’ more like Facebook ads (yellow) than the average TV ad (grey).

Here are some typical examples of this from the new-to-TV ads in our analysis, with text and graphics often being used extremely prominently:

Another common feature of the ads in our data is that a high proportion focus on someone (very often female) addressing the viewer face-on and making a direct pitch to the audience. On paper this may seem like a good way to get and maintain attention, but our data suggests it’s not.

Another extremely common and dominant feature of the new-to-TV ads is the all-pervasive shot of an app or website in use. Admittedly it’s good practice to include a strong role for the brand or product in a commercial, as well as to build recognition of a brand’s visual identity, which means this is an understandable executional trope. But even allowing for all that, it’s hard to believe that the lack of imagination on show here is a driver of overall creative effectiveness, rather than a drain on it. At the very least more creative focus and imagination could be applied to the treatment of these shots.

In Peter Field’s work ‘Crisis in Creative Effectiveness in advertising’ (IPA 2019), he noted “Instead of emotionally engaging human stories that seek to charm and captivate, we are seeing more didactic, literal presentations that seek to prompt us into action”. And that’s exactly what you see in our analysis of 117 year1 ads by new-to-TV advertisers.

In Orlando Wood’s book ‘Lemon’ (IPA 2019), inspired by the work of psychiatrist, neuropsychologist and author Iain McGilchrist, Wood reviewed hundreds of UK TV ads from 1990-2018, and observed a decline in the use of character, storytelling, real world contexts, cultural references and other creative and imaginative elements. Conversely, he saw an increase in use of wall-to-wall voice overs, text, graphics, products and other imagery in close-up and free of any context. We saw exactly the same picture in our analysis of new-to-TV advertisers.

In the analysis for ‘Lemon’, features in ads were grouped and labelled as ‘left-brain’ or ‘right-brain’, with ‘left-brain’ features broadly being more rational, informative and detailed (text, words, close-ups, graphics etc) and ‘right-brain’ features broadly being more human, creative and ‘big picture’ (character, storytelling, melody etc).

‘Left-brain’ ad features‘Right-brain’ ad features
Lots of words on screenCharacters acting
Someone talking to cameraA story unfolding
A noticeable voiceoverInteraction between characters
Flat backdrops, basic studio setsA recognisable place
Fast-cuts, split-screen effectsDiscernible melody

For ease of comparison in this analysis we grouped the executional features of our year1 ads in the same way. And whether or not you follow McGilchrist’s theories of brain localisation and how left and right hemispheres process things differently, you see a stark picture in terms of the way different ad features skew.

In our analysis, the average year1 ad contains 4.8 ‘left-brain’ features and only 1.5 ‘right-brain’ features, a skew to ‘left-brain’ features of 3.2. By comparison, established TV ads had a skew of 1.8, and Facebook ads had a skew of 2.7. So again on this measure, year1 ads (in pink) tend to have more in common with Facebook ads (yellow) than the average TV ad (grey).

It could be that the lower TV production budgets available to new advertisers have a negative impact on creative effectiveness (I’ve long suspected there’s generally a correlation between TV production budget and effectiveness).

But it could also be that our data is picking up something more problematic in the long run: that techniques (including a heavy use of text and lack of music with melody) used by teams with more experience at making video content than making TV ads, are influencing TV creative and having a negative effect on effectiveness.

So what can scale-ups take away from all this?

TV and video advertising have an unparalleled ability to evoke emotion, attracting and maintaining attention and building long-term memories, which generate long-lasting sales effects.

But just putting any video on TV does not guarantee its emotional impact and these long-lasting effects. So approaching the development of TV creative in the same way you do your social or other video content could be a missed opportunity to unlock TV’s unique strengths – and growth.

The best TV and video advertising is executed in a way that can attract and hold attention and get a reaction from people. And the best ways to do that have been known for thousands of years: stories set in recognisable places, characters that interact with each other, stories that unfold in dramatic and surprising ways, music to amplify the emotional impact and drive the action.

In the early days of social media, the advice for advertisers was ‘don’t just put your TV ad on social’.

As social media and video content marketing reach maturity, and TV becomes the obvious next step for brands looking to scale, the converse of that advice seems to hold true: ‘don’t just put your online video on TV’.

[i] Thinkbox. This weekly reach figure excludes subscription VOD like Netflix and Amazon.

[ii] https://www.thinkbox.tv/research/thinkbox-research/demand-generation/

[iii] https://www.marketingweek.com/monzo-tv-ad-campaign/

[iv] Chart from Dan White’s Smart Marketing Book using data from ‘The Cost of Attention’ by Lumen Research https://www.lumen-research.com/blog/p653k3atys5ubp58jcydxoyn0d0wik

[v] Thinkbox https://www.thinkbox.tv/getting-on-tv/is-tv-advertising-right-for-me/tv-advertising-is-for-everyone/#:~:text=In%20terms%20of%20investment%2C%20over,over%20250%20spent%20%C2%A35m%2B.

[vi] e.g. ITV’s initiative ‘Backing Business’ https://www.itvmedia.co.uk/itv-backing-business

[vii] ‘Why and how do founding entrepreneurs bond with their ventures? Neural correlates of entrepreneurial and parental bonding’, Lahti, Halko et al, The Journal of Business Venturing, May 2018 https://www.researchgate.net/publication/325341076_Why_and_how_do_founding_entrepreneurs_bond_with_their_ventures_Neural_correlates_of_entrepreneurial_and_parental_bonding

[viii] https://www.thinkbox.tv/case-studies/elizabeth-shaw/#download

[ix] We cut the full list of 193 down to 117 because we had a full dataset across all of System1’s metrics on this subset. [1] Lemon (IPA 2019, Orlando Wood), Achtung (IPA 2020, Orlando Wood).

[x] Lemon (IPA 2019, Orlando Wood), Achtung (IPA 2020, Orlando Wood).

The Wrong and the Short of it

Short-termism and long-termism are both just wrong-termism. So let’s end the false choice between long and short-term marketing tactics, maximise the compound effects of getting them working together in harmony, and start to close the value-destroying divide between ‘brand’ and ‘performance’ marketing. It’s limiting marketing effectiveness and brand growth, when we’ve never needed them more.

Long term ‘VS’ short term is probably the most commonly cited false choice in marketing.

And that’s saying something, as we love false dichotomies in this industry: brand vs performance, emotional vs rational, creativity vs technology, intuition vs data, art vs science, to name just a few that we constantly debate.

A summary of most of the binary debates in marketing tweeted by Martin Weigel

And of course the answer to most of these is ‘&’ not ‘Or’.

It may seem a little unnecessary for yet more words to be written about the long and short-term in marketing given two industry legends have literally already written the book on it [i]. But whilst the theory says we should all try to achieve a balanced approach in order to maximise both saleability and sales simultaneously, there’s a massive gulf between the theory and the actual practice, which is increasingly divided between practitioners of ‘brand’ and ‘performance’ marketing.

And it’s even quite common for people to overlook the central importance of the theme of balance in Binet & Field’s most important work, and to think of them as ‘the high priests of the long term’.


Short-termism rightly gets a lot of criticism, and there have been plenty of brilliant critiques of it by other people, so I won’t do that here [ii].

There are irresistible pressures pulling marketers towards the short term [iii]. And there’s also a huge asymmetry in terms of accessibility to ‘performance’ channels vs ‘brand-building’ channels. Google, Facebook, Amazon and other platforms have given millions of businesses of every size and type, easy, self-service access to a giant direct response advertising eco-system [iv]. And this universal accessibility is also ensuring there’s a ready and growing supply of ‘performance’ marketing specialists and a dwindling supply of ‘brand’ marketing specialists – a factor that further exacerbates the divide.


Too many people though, especially on the ‘brand’ side of the divide, also wrongly assume that because short-termism’s a bad thing, long-termism must therefore be a good thing, despite the potential for it to be just as damaging in different ways.

There’s always been a lot of magical thinking about the long term in advertising. That you can just do something big and expensive as a one-off, then close your eyes and cross your fingers and hope no one commercially-oriented asks any awkward questions for six to twelve months, until future sales start magically happening.

But communications that are successful over the long term don’t work by activating some kind of ‘sleeper cell’ in buyers’ minds which suddenly bursts into frenzied commercial action after many months of lying completely dormant – communications need to achieve some level of short-term sales success as well as improving a brand’s mental availability if they’re also going to achieve long-term growth.

And whilst short-termism may give people a bad name within certain corners of the marketing world, it may actually be long-termism that gives some marketers a bad name within their organisations and amongst the rest of the business community, perhaps because some marketers appear to act like selling’s a dirty word to them (for example by getting evangelical about certain marketing approaches that appear purposefully designed not to sell stuff).


And whilst they’re quite different, it’s possible to simultaneously see short-termism and long-termism as equally bad practice – wrong-termism, if you will.

Wrong-termists get it wrong in two different ways: short-termists restrict the long-term growth their marketing can achieve, and long-termists restrict its short-term sales impact.


It’s never been more important to make every marketing $ work as hard as it possibly can. We’ve never been more aware that without short-term success there may not even be a long-term for some of our brands. And the best way of securing both will be to embrace the fertile middle-ground that lies in combining the power of short and long-term effects.

Long-term growth always has its roots in the short term. The two are connected, influence each other, and if you get the two working perfectly in harmony together, you’ll achieve the strongest, most sustainable growth possible.

But we so often miss out on maximising growth in this way because of our binary belief systems, the organisational siloes we inhabit, the different job titles we have, the different channels and formats we tend to use and the different metrics we try to optimise.

It’s important to say that long-term growth isn’t just achieved by adding up a series of short-term effects. It’s more complicated than simply being additive: it’s a multiplicative, compound effect, which starts slowly but strengthens over time.

And whilst all long-term growth actually has roots in the short term, only some kinds of short-term activity also lead to long-term results.

So the roots of long-term growth are there in the present if you do the right kind of marketing communications.

The two are always happening simultaneously, to some degree, in the same marketing campaign and in everything a brand communicates about itself. Les Binet’s chart below shows two kinds of sales impacts from a single exposure to a single execution. A short-term sales spike and a longer-term tail.

The two lines are interrelated. If you try to push the red spike higher, you’ll reduce the length of the black tail (e.g. a promotion or offer would push the red spike higher but massively reduce the black tail; an ‘our brand stands against toxic masculinity’ message would hugely reduce the red spike). Which means to achieve equilibrium you’ll need a balance across a campaign and across your entire marketing plan (although not necessarily within an individual execution) [v].

It’s practically the law that any discussion of the long and short-term in marketing must include Binet & Field’s classic ‘steps’ chart illustrating the two different ways in which communications can drive sales – through short-term sales activation and long-term brand-building, so here it is:

And what follows are some new and never previously published illustrations by Les Binet that build on this, but this time rather than separating the short and long-term effects, they show the combined effects of doing ‘brand-building’ and ‘sales activation’ together in different combinations. They’re just theoretical, they knowingly exaggerate the effects for clarity, and there will of course be real world exceptions.

Scenario 1 is what could happen if a brand that had been heavily biased towards sales activation shifts its balance in favour of brand-building activity. It could see lower initial short-term sales peaks, but base sales would begin to rise and the short-term sales peaks could start rising too as the strengthening brand helps improve the impact of sales activation.

Scenario 2 shows what could happen if that brand switched back to being heavily biased towards sales activation from a more balanced plan. Short-term sales peaks could get lower and base sales could drop over time. It’s a cautionary tale that you may have witnessed, for example with the arrival of a new CEO or CMO who ‘doesn’t believe in doing brand marketing’.

But charts like these don’t always totally reflect the real world options available to modern marketers, for example where performance activity is usually ‘always on’ rather than pulsed, and where the idea of scaling it back dramatically or even switching it off could feel like instant career suicide.

So below is an illustration by econometrician Grace Kite and me building on the classic ‘steps’ chart from the perspective of a common real world scenario, that of a digital-first brand whose initial strong growth from always on performance activity has levelled off, after which point brand-building activity is successfully deployed in order to take growth to the next level. It’s based on the econometric modelling Grace has done for a wide range of brands facing similar challenges.

It shows growth initially being driven by always on activity in performance channels, and the impact of that activity reaching a plateau which often happens when saturation point is reached. Then it shows the impact of a successful decision to layer in ‘brand-building’ activity. Note that this brand activity both delivers its own short and longer-term sales impacts, as well as improving the sales generated by performance channels. It also shows the compound effects of all this marketing activity working together and becoming stronger over time as the brand-building activity is further optimised.

‘All models are wrong, but some are useful’ of course, but hopefully this shows ‘performance-first’ brands the growth potential of adopting a more balanced approach that includes layering in brand-building activity, and gives brands like these a little more confidence when taking the big step into doing ‘brand-building’ communication.


The long-term growth potential of campaigns should be measurable in the short-term, even if you’re not currently set up to monitor it. So you may need to start thinking about boosting your existing measurement (which would ideally already include a balanced scorecard of long and short-term metrics), with new kinds of short-term measures that can also predict long-term performance.

A number of companies have metrics aiming to do this, but one that’s emerging as a strong contender is a brand’s ‘share of google search’.

Millward Brown have seen that search volumes can strongly reflect how salient or famous a brand is [vi].

And Google believe ‘share of search’ may reflect brand health and market share for brands in some categories [vii].

Les Binet is doing some great work looking at whether a brand’s share of google search can predict its market share (initial findings in several categories are extremely promising).

Further research is needed, but monitoring a brand’s share of search could also help narrow the divide that exists in marketing between ‘brand’ and ‘performance’ marketers: it could be a rare example of a metric nearly everyone can get behind. Because ‘brand’ marketers instinctively know that brand search behaviour is often reflective of a brand’s fame and mental availability, and know that investing in mass reach communication can be an effective way to improve it. And ‘performance’ marketers of course know brand search is a hugely important source of traffic and conversion.

I believe it’s never been more important that we start closing the artificial but growing divide between brand and performance marketing, and to do what’s most effective for our brands collectively.

For some brands it will be a huge task, but if anything shared here helps a single team begin to break down the barriers in their business it will have been worth it.

Brands should be aiming to create long-term communications engineered for immediate success. Advertising that, in the words of the great Jeremy Bullmore, sells ‘both immediately and forever’ [viii].

Let’s all make that our ambition too.

[i] Buy Binet & Field’s classic work ‘The Long and the short of it’ here: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Long-Short-Balancing-Long-Term-Strategies/dp/085294134X

[ii] Martin Weigel is simply the best, most persuasive writer against the shortcomings of short-termism in advertising:


[iii] For a brilliant analysis of the factors leading to short-termism read Gareth Price’s IPA Excellence Diploma prize-winning paper here: https://medium.com/@g_price/thinklong-b069e0f8bed9

[iv] I don’t subscribe to Bob Hofmann the Adcontrarian’s view that no offline brand has ever been built online, but do think it’s much harder to do so than it should be within the current media eco-system which is plainly better at direct response than brand-building: http://adcontrarian.blogspot.com/2015/05/take-refrigerator-test.html

[v] Les Binet is always keen to stress that it’s best not to attempt to optimise an individual execution to try and make it do both simultaneously and equally. He says that ‘Our research suggests that while all ads do both jobs to some extent, trying to do both equally in every ad is inefficient. Rather, it’s better to have a 60:40 balance of ads that (primarily) focus on the brand job and ads that (primarily) focus on activation. Making every ad a ‘brand response’ ad is a poor compromise’.

[vi] Millward Brown ‘Digital Behavior Analytics: what can search and social behaviour tell you about brand performance?’ 2016


[vii] ‘Measuring Effectiveness Three Grand Challenges’, Matthew Taylor, Google, 2019 https://www.thinkwithgoogle.com/intl/en-gb/consumer-insights/measuring-effectiveness-three-grand-challenges/

[viii]Jeremy Bullmore’s essay for WPP’s Annual Report 2017: https://www.warc.com/newsandopinion/opinion/jeremy_bullmore_a_20th_century_lesson_for_21st_century_brands/2701

Brand purpose. The biggest lie the ad industry ever told?

I was asked recently to give a talk answering the question ‘does brand purpose really drive profit?’. My very short answer to it was ‘yes it can, but mostly it probably doesn’t’.

And the slightly longer answer to it was ‘it really depends, but on balance brand purpose is over-used in marketing today and its power over-stated, and it’s actually best used as a business tool by companies that are genuinely committed to conscious capitalism, rather than as a bolt-on by marketing teams looking for a quick sales fix’.

I suspect no robust data analysis will ever prove conclusively that it’s better for brands to be ‘purposeful’ than for them not to be. By cherry-picking case studies, you could probably make whatever argument you wanted for or against it: whether that’s highlighting examples that show purpose can drive profit or by cherry-picking examples of brands getting it wrong, in order to suggest it can’t. Or if you want to undermine the whole concept of purpose entirely, pointing to brands pretending to be purposeful, or even highlighting the many highly successful non-purposeful brands.

So it’s quite easy to cherry-pick examples to make whatever case you want. In fact one of the people who made purpose so popular in business and marketing was ex-P&G Global Marketing Officer, Jim Stengel, whose book, ‘Grow’, was founded on essentially a big cherry-picking exercise where he took the top 50 performing brands on a measure of brand strength and claimed that what linked them, and so accounted for their success, was that they all had a brand ideal to make the world a better place in some way – I recommend you look up Richard Shotton’s article and talks on this as he rips apart the data behind Stengel’s book in a way that I’m not going to do justice to. But it’s a very compelling case.

I will pick two cherries of my own though just to show you I’m not actually a purpose sceptic, just a sceptic of certain types of supposedly ‘purposeful’ brand communications. A personal favourite example is Timpsons, a UK shoe repair chain, who do amazing work employing ex-prisoners, and repeatedly get listed as one of the top 10 best companies to work for. They don’t even use the word ‘purpose’, and you’ll never see them running empowering TV ads humbly bragging about the good they do, but by most definitions they look pretty purposeful. An example close to me is Barclays, which has been on a journey of internal transformation since the Libor scandal, that has helped it discover for itself a more positive role in society via fantastic initiatives like Digital Eagles and LifeSkills. Barclays saw a return on investment from its advertising about these societal initiatives far stronger than the ROI for ads talking about current accounts and mortgages. It’s a kind of marketing alchemy that Barclays ‘purpose-led’ advertising about them helping young people with job interview techniques sold hundreds of millions of pounds worth of mortgages. That’s clearly a win-win. But for every Barclays, there’s a handful of other brands with pseudo-purposeful ad campaigns that are clearly just cynical attempts to jump on board a societal issue in order to grab some headlines and turn around flagging sales.

So overall I think there are probably 3 broad types of brands that define themselves as having a purpose that we see in the marketing world. Imagine three concentric circles containing three types. At the bullseye we see brands that are Born Purposeful, often founder-led, often small, niche, usually founded with a societal purpose and where purpose goes across the whole business operation. Toms and Patagonia are perhaps the most often-cited examples of this. No one ever seems to argue about brands like this – very clear purposes, and business models designed to balance purpose and profit. In the middle concentric circle we see a second type, which tend to be Corporate Converts – often larger businesses which have adopted the concept of purpose more recently. They usually seem to genuinely want to make a positive difference to the world alongside making money, sometimes to correct past wrongs or just to become a better corporate citizen. They’re by definition on a journey of transforming themselves and are often more complex businesses, and because of that they may have to make pragmatic decisions that favour profit over purpose in certain instances. They may not have a business model that’s built around their purpose. They may have certain voices internally who are more committed to their purpose than others, and they’re likely not to have a founder present who’s committed to keeping the business permanently in line with its purpose in all its decision-making. So they’re naturally a greyer area. Purpose often becomes a new type of business vision or Northstar for these kinds of brands – they will typically need to find a space at the top of their strategy pyramid for their new purpose.

And there’s a third kind, on the outer circle, which I would call Pseudo-purposeful brands – these are the ones for which purpose is just a new ad campaign claiming to try and solve an issue like gender or racial equality, or toxic masculinity or whatever the most resonant topic is that their social listening data says is trending with their demographic that month. This is the kind of purpose that’s least likely to become embedded across every function of a business, it was probably cooked up in the marketing department, and so is far less likely to take root within an entire organisation, be taken seriously and gain long-term investment. And so it’s far less likely to be profitable in the long-term.

So there are probably three types of purposeful brand: 1. Brands that are Born Purposeful, 2. The Corporate Converts, 3. The Pseudo-purposeful brands doing what’s recently been labelled ‘woke advertising’. And the likelihood of purpose driving a profit probably decreases from type 1 to 3.

And whilst it’s fairly obvious that, like most things, brand purpose sits on a spectrum, the debates about purpose in marketing always seem to be hugely divided, with the industry’s biggest beasts all coming down firmly on one side or the other. Unilever’s Keith Weed and Tesco’s Dave Lewis are believers. But two of marketing’s most well-known Professors, Byron Sharp and Mark Ritson are non-believers, who tend to see marketing’s obsession with purpose as a sign that marketers have lost confidence and pride in their core task – to sell.

The simplest, most no-nonsense view, is this, expressed by Jenni Romaniuk of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute, who when asked about brand purpose said simply: “A brand’s purpose is to sell stuff.”

Mark Ritson, says this: “Brand purpose is mostly nonsense talk. There are a couple of brands, like Ben and Jerry’s…they were founded with purpose first. But for most of the brands in the room, the banks and telcos, these noble purposes that all sound the same – they are not differentiated, customers don’t give a shit.” Ritson tends to see Purpose, with some specific exceptions, as bad marketing practice, unlikely to lead to brand differentiation and lacking in relevance for most consumers. He sees most purpose marketing as failing to help brands create relevant differentiation, help them stand out from the crowd in a way that motivates consumers. He also attacks purpose as a layer of bullshit applied to pull the wool over the eyes of gullible consumers. Writing about Starbucks he said this: Time and again we encounter the lofty, admirable sheen of brand purpose only to discover it flakes off with even the slightest scratch to reveal a darker, more commercial sub-surface beneath. Starbucks’ famous mission ‘to inspire and nurture the human spirit — one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time’ is about as lofty as it gets. But it contradicts mightily the company’s abject inability to align its tax responsibilities accordingly”.

Byron Sharp not only sees deception and duplicity going on with marketing’s obsession with Purpose – but also spots something a bit deeper – a level of self-deception, even self-loathing going on here amongst marketers. He says “[Brand purpose] is almost like an apology as we feel marketing is so disrespectful and evil that we have to do this other stuff. I think that’s terrible. If marketers don’t stand up for marketing, who will?

Very few people in marketing seem to disagree with the importance of brand purpose when the examples cited are companies built on progressive business models that successfully share the proceeds of growth in order to help alleviate a societal problem. But when advertising becomes a significant part of the conversation about purpose, things tend to go awry. In fact, my view is that if being purposeful means doing ads to you, then you’re probably doing it wrong.

So that’s where I stand. But how did we get here? How did we get to a place where brand purpose became simultaneously the most pervasive yet divisive concept in marketing? How can we explain the rise and dominance of brand purpose in early 21st century marketing?

My answer to that last question is this.

The dominance of brand purpose in marketing is perhaps the inevitable consequence of advertising people being told by everyone else, for about 150 years now, that they’re liars. That what they do is deceitful, that it’s of little or no positive value to society, that it doesn’t matter. Constantly hearing this view has helped give many advertising people a feeling of self-doubt about the role they play in society.

An Ipsos-Mori poll from 2018 found that ad execs are the least trusted profession in the UK, with only 18% of respondents saying they trust ad execs to tell the truth. That’s worse than estate agents, journalists, even politicians. A long-running study with over six decades of data, suggests that around 70% of the public tend to see advertising as untruthful – and that this number has stayed more or less stable for all of that time. This tallies with a finding from the Advertising Association that trust in the ad industry overall was around 30% in 2018.

And my theory is that perhaps advertising people have subconsciously sought in response – through their eager adoption of the concept of brand purpose – to prove they can be of value to society and that their work can do some good. The great irony here being that a response which has resulted in advertising people pretending, for example, that a brand of carbonated sugar water can solve some of society’s biggest issues, will actually have the opposite of the intended consequence: most of the pseudo-purposeful advertising out there just makes ad people and their output seem even more deceitful.

Advertising people have always sought to present themselves as respectable, responsible corporate citizens in the face of the strong suspicion that they’re not. You only have to look at the agency names DDB, BBDO, WPP, Ogilvy & Mather, J Walter Thompson, to see agencies trying to present themselves as respectable, professional people, to sound like lawyers or accountants. David Ogilvy’s schtick was to present himself as the refined aristocrat of advertising amongst the sharks and hucksters of New York. Despite or even because of the legalistic name, the New York agency BBDO, was nicknamed, by none other than President Harry S Truman, as ‘Bunco, Bull, Deceipt and Obfuscation’. Bill Bernbach built his agency DDB’s reputation on the idea that he was selling ‘the truth wrapped in wit’, in order to stand out against the deceitful salesmanship expected of the time, with ads that themselves told extreme versions of the truth like ‘Lemon’ for the VW Beetle.

‘The Adman’s Dilemma – from Barnum to Trump’ is a fascinating book by the cultural historian Paul Rutherford, which for me goes some way to explain why advertising has always been and remains one of the least trusted professions, and why advertising is seen by so many as a kind of licensed deception. It chronicles the prevailing anti-advertising cultural narrative since advertising’s early days in the mid-19th century from PT Barnum right up to the present day. Rutherford starts with Barnum whose skill deceiving a gullible public helped him achieve a reputation as the king of false advertising, ‘the uber-Huckster’.

Rutherford’s book chronicles the public outcry, and subsequent regulatory response, to the advertising of the patent medicine moguls in the US – who for several decades from around the 1880’s used mass communication to deceitfully claim their medicines could cure people of almost every medical problem. The most famous patent medicine born in this era of course being Coca Cola which was introduced in 1886.

The book goes on to discuss how the 1950’s and 60’s saw one of the most famous moments in the anti-advertising movement when a series of bestsellers including ‘The Hidden Persuaders’ by journalist Vance Packard caused a moral panic about the nefarious and deceitful psychological techniques supposedly being used by the newly ubiquitous TV advertisers. There are clear parallels I think between the scares of the ‘50’s and the scares we have now about the use of our personal data by Facebook as well as the use of psychometric targeting for political advertising in elections. Whatever side you’re on in the debate about Facebook, the demonization of Mark Zuckerberg clearly has parallels with this trope of the adman as public manipulator and arch-deceiver.

Perhaps the most relevant anti-advertising episode for a discussion about brand purpose is Naomi Klein’s 1999 global bestseller ‘No Logo’. Klein’s book was an unashamedly anti-capitalist attack on the negative societal impact of advertising, which pointed out the hypocrisy of many of the global brands appropriating social and moral values whilst also engaging in questionable employment and environmental practices, in a fore-shadowing of the critiques of some of today’s more obviously pseudo-purposeful advertising.

By highlighting some of the worse behaviour of global brands, No Logo played its role in subsequent efforts by big businesses to clean up their acts and become good corporate citizens. Which in turn is leading to many businesses becoming more purposeful and taking on the philosophy that’s now called conscious capitalism.

To Rutherford, Mad Men’s Don Draper is the archetypal sufferer of the ‘adman’s dilemma’, of whom he says ‘whatever success he found, he found his life empty, hollow, he searched for some experience more real, more authentic’, and quotes Don Draper’s Stepfather saying to him “You’re a bum, what do you do, what do you make? You grow bullshit.”

So given the way advertising has always been portrayed in culture, it’s not hard to see why ad people would jump at the chance to show they’re respectable professionals whose work can have a positive impact on society. But in choosing to jump so fulsomely onto the brand purpose bandwagon we may just be making matters worse for ourselves.

When what we really need to do to prove our value to society, is to prove our commercial value first and foremost – to have pride in the value we create and so demonstrate the role we play in driving the economy, and therefore society, forwards. There’s plenty of genuine virtue to be had in that.

In the final scene of the final episode of Mad Men, we see Don Draper meditating on a clifftop, and as if in a eureka moment in his meditative state, we cut to the famous 1971 Coke ad ‘I’d like to teach the world to sing’. So we see a fictionalised advertising genius dreaming up a real celebration of peace, love and harmony, an idealised depiction of hippie culture, and appropriating it for a genuine commercial for the world’s most famous and valuable brand. It’s a fittingly brilliant blend of fact and fiction, authenticity and artifice.

It’s simply the most perfect ending for the show to have Don Draper, the archetypal, self-deceiving adman, whilst himself searching for a more authentic, more purposeful existence, dreaming up for a brand of carbonated sugar water, what may well have been the Patient Zero of all the pseudo-purposeful advertising that would follow in the decades ahead.

It’s hard to imagine a more perfect representation of advertising’s complex and uneasy relationship with truth, lies and brand purpose.