Why the most effective ads don’t look like ads


When outgoing CMO of Unilver Keith Weed made his swan song speech at Global Marketer’s Week, focused on the 7 deadly sins of advertising – the causes, he believes, of 37% of people saying their trust in it has declined. At the 4As Decisions 20/20 Event, the global CEO of Initiative Media Mat Baxter made the same point: “I think the single most important issue in the industry is that it’s got to get back trust.”

Most startlingly, the IPSOS Veracity Index has a new contender for absolute bottom: advertising professionals. In assumed truthfulness, we come in lower than politicians which, considering the current political situation globally, really has to sting.

There are many reasons for this fall from grace. Trust in all institutions has been falling for years, but advertising has been hit the hardest so the general trend does little to explain it away. Advertising’s role funding content, be it on mainstream or social media, means the industry has become entangled with fake news, whatever people believe that to be. Criminal trust violations from big advertisers like VW and Wells Fargo have demonstrated that their advertising lied. Billy McFarland, Ja Rule, and ‘Fuck Jerry’ (a social media marketing company) convinced more than 5,000 people to buy tickets to Fyre Festival, an event which never actually existed.

At the same time, the volume of advertising continues to creep up in line with media consumption. In face of this ever-increasing onslaught, coupled with increasing use of ad blockers, should we be concerned this will lead to lower efficacy of advertising overall? I am skeptical of any new brand I see advertised exclusively on social media. The environment itself has become suspect.

As BBH’s Tom Roach pointed out recently, “sameness is commercial suicide” because difference is what triggers attention and memory. That sameness could be understood to refer to content or form. So what different things are working?

The WARC Effectiveness 100 “tracks the performance of campaigns, brands and agencies in advertising effectiveness competitions around the world.” It suggests that the most effective ads, all over the world, don’t look like ads.

The top two campaigns came from India. Whilst the market has some specific dynamics – an emerging middle class and the world’s fastest growing economy – what is working hardest there is still fascinating.

The most effective advertising campaign was rooted in the real. The agency was asked for a campaign to help Saregama, a classic Indian record label, return to growth. It was having trouble selling music to young people on mobile devices. The agency came back with a new audience – the over 50 market who already loved the music and were uncomfortable with new technology – and a new product. Caravvaan is a retro-chic music box, pre-loaded with 5,000 of the classic songs. In the first 11 months, Saregama sold 389,000 units of Carvaan, at an approximate price of $100, creating total incremental revenue of $38.9 million and an increase in net profits of almost 300%.

The second most effective idea was Savlon Soap Sticks. Instead of competing with the established brands huge budgets in the fast-growing hand wash category, the agency developed a new product. Children in rural areas still use chalk in the classroom, so a way of incorporating soap into chalk sticks meant that children were washing their hands with soap without any new behavior, and the seeding strategy got the sachet product into retail distribution across the country. Outside of India, a significant number of the most effective ideas exist out in the real world.

Operating in the real world

If you don’t trust ads, which live trapped in media, a way for brands to overcome this is by making real things. Melbourne University turned a number of small outdoor poster formats into an interactive 3D exhibition. The Fearless Girl statue seems to have triggered a craze. In the UK, the charity Calm had 34% more people reaching out after it installed 84 sculptures of men on top of a tower, to raise awareness of the number of men who die from suicide every day. The Grand Prix at the Euro Effies was a Mud Solider that slowly melted in the rain to promote “Visit Flanders UK and Ireland.” Mastercard devised a competition to choose where rugby legend Richie McCaw played his last game, based on how much the local regions in New Zealand used their contactless solution to buy things in a limited amount of time. In a significant departure from recent years, none of the top 100 most effective ideas had social media at their heart – few even mentioned it.

These ideas often leverage media coverage to reach mass audiences, which means they have to be ideas worth talking about. But operating in the real world doesn’t have to be a PR generating product or installation or statue. We have traditional media at our disposal outside of that consumed on screens. The data supports this: outdoor advertising, for example, over-indexes in the Effective 100 vs the ‘average’ campaign.

Mark Tutssel, CCO of Leo Burnett, recently said “We are not an advertising agency: we are a creative solutions company,” a sentiment echoed by many agencies around the world. If the industry is to live up to this re-positioning, it will need more ideas that solve problems differently, outside of advertisements. But agencies need to be honest about what they can truly deliver, before claiming it. Otherwise we are back to a different aspect of the trust problem. Keith Weed pointed out that “A brand without trust is just a product. Advertising without trust is just noise” – and an agency without trust is just begging to be replaced.

This article first appeared in www.warc.com

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