Google 20th Anniversary Firestarters – Planning and Performance

On 27th Sept it will be Google’s 20th anniversary and so to mark the occasion last week we ran a special Google Firestarters that spoke to potentially what is one of the most fundamental and topical themes facing the industry right now. For more than six years we’ve been running two strands of Firestarters events – one primarily for the planning and strategy community and one focused on the performance marketing community. I’ve often thought that each audience would learn a lot from the other, and at the same time the debate in the industry around the value of creative/brand-building and data/targeting/performance is often quite polarising in an unhelpful way. So we decided to collide these two areas together in as positive way as possible to find the middle ground but also ask what each end of this spectrum may be missing about what the other does.


First up we had the wonderful Rory Sutherland, Vice-Chair of Ogilvy, TED speaker, author, Spectator columnist. Rory began by lamenting what we might have lost in the separation of media and creative that happened in agencies all those years ago – the ability for the creative, account and media planner to work more seamlessly together (‘if all three were happy then you knew you were on to something’) and produce standout ideas that worked in all contexts, like realising that The Economist masthead was the same dimensions as a 48-sheet poster. The danger he said (in an echo of his recent Campaign article) is that we focus on optimising one part of the whole. Like a Sodoku puzzle, you can’t solve things in isolation. It’s a natural thing for people in all kinds of businesses to want to make their work look as scientific as possible – just look at the type and amount of reporting in most businesses and how most people actually spend their time – and yet there are clearly some areas where you can never be scientific. The old adage from military strategy – if your strategy is completely logical then it is completely predictable (illustrated by this clip from Airplane).

Some part of marketing, said Rory, has to be involved with differentiation and marketing is a complex system where the usual rules of maths don’t always apply to everything. When we separated creative and media no-one asked the client, and when combined in right way they amplify to much greater than the sum of the parts. The proliferation of options is not always a good thing – always good with an analogy, Rory compared this over-burdening of choice to a Mongolian barbeque restaurant where you cook for yourself and they have effectively outsourced the job of the crafts-person in the process. That is akin to farming your online creative out to outsourced providers in distant markets (there were some other fantastic analogies, too many to go into individually but involving things as varied as the London property market, self-driving cars, Easyjet, Wagamama, airport buses, and Nespresso).


Rory’s key point was you can’t separate who you speak to from how you speak to them from what you say. Not all markets behave the same and markets behave in unexpected ways and it is impossible to reduce human behaviour down to simple laws (‘once you pretend something is a science you assume magic is impossible’). I liked his point about how in Physics the opposite of a good idea is always wrong, but in art it could be brilliant. As you would expect from Rory it was a fantastically witty and erudite exposition of the need to make creative and media work harder together. 

Simon Andrews gave an excellent counter-point to this in a talk that was wonderfully optimistic about the future of the industry. It’s always seen, he said, as a maths-men vs mad-men debate. It’s always one thing vs another thing (brand vs performance, traditional vs digital, mass vs targeted). Always one thing taking away from another. Why can’t it be ‘and’? There is sometimes an unhelpful dose of nostalgia that gets in the way of progress. Simon used the mobile ad and content experience as an example of how sometimes just the basic plumbing doesn’t even work properly. And yet, as many DNVB’s (Digital-Native-Vertical-Brands) have shown it is very possible to build a brand in digital. If you put things in front of people that they want when it’s of interest to them they will respond and as more media becomes ad served the opportunity is to execute and target well. And yet we forget the value that creative brings to effectiveness. Better creative works harder.


We need, said Simon, to use data to ads better, to involve creatives in the process and get them excited about the possibilities, and then to apply better application of data to target in smarter ways. Stephen King’s classic question “Precisely what do we want who to do differently as a direct result of the advertising?” is as relevant as ever but we have better ways now of serving this question and we should all be using them. There may always be ways to do ad creative cheaper but the new economics of ads needs to be that better creative combined with better application of data leads to a compound increase in effectiveness which leads to better results. 


Rebecca Burchnall, Joint Head of Planning at PHD, then gave an excellent defence of the smart use of data in our industry, starting with a great provocation: as an industry shouldn’t we be treating our consumers better? Poor creative, and poorly executed targeting leads to wasted budget but also wasted attention and even annoyance as irrelevant product ads for things we’ve already bought chase us round the internet.

But data has the potential to inform every part of the consumer journey. It is one of the most powerful tools in our industry but also one of the most misused or misunderstood. It can inform great work like the Always Like a Girl campaign, but it can also lead to bad or lazy advertising where we forget that one of the most important ingredients in great campaigns is the human element that helps to truly understand what the data is telling us and how to behave as a result of this. The balance between long-term brand building and short-term activation has been well researched (not least by Binet and Field) and data can inform our approach to this – the danger is that we see it only as applicable to the sales activation element of marketing where targeting, information and demonstration of physical availability play a key role. 

Instead data can be used for both macro and micro, short-term and long-term. It can help us identify or solidify what a brand can stand for, how it should behave, when is most effective to activate (she used the Cannes-winning example of how Tesco used local consumer data to tailor the recipes and love stories featured in their creative). It can make the experience between mass reach and activational comms much better. It can help us to understand the bigger picture (loved this example she showed below of the perception gap in modern society, and how we think too much and feel too little).


 Using some lovely examples, she talked about how great data can also challenge the status quo, lead to new opportunities in media, inform when we can have the most impact, lead to better targeting, inform great creative (like the Spotify example below), and flex messaging across the customer journey.


In short, the potential to use data to make advertising more exciting and impactful are myriad but this leads to us needing to be more responsible in how we advertise to people. 

Tom Roach, Managing Partner at BBH, closed the talks by building on his great exposition over on the BBH Labs blog of how we’re in danger of forgetting the value of brand in business. It is, he said, so terribly wrong that it has become such an ‘either/or’ debate. Too much focus on performance marketing can detract from the fact that all marketing is about performance. CEOs and CFOs don’t always understand the value of brand anymore and yet it is one of the most powerful business tools ever invented. The pressures of quarterly reporting and short-termism are major contributory factors to this, but so is the fact that ‘brand’ is such an intangible thing. And the industry has not done itself many favours with how we’ve sold the value if what we do, dwelling often on the emotional side of brands which, whilst important in driving effectiveness, is harder to attribute tangible value to or directly relate to the rational and commercial measures that CEOs and CFOs really care about (‘We’ve been selling the magic but forgetting the logic’). We need to argue more for the clear impact that ‘brand’ has on business, and less about what ‘brand’ is or isn’t.

“A strong brand is a business’s most valuable commercial asset. It increases the chances of customers choosing your product or service over your competitor’s, attracting more customers, at a lower cost per sale, who are happy to pay a little more, and will buy it a little more often. A strong brand will deliver more revenue, profit and growth, more efficiently, year after year, and so generate more shareholder value. It can help attract, motivate and retain your second most important asset: your people. And can work as a barrier to entry for future competitors, creating a legal ‘monopoly’.”

It was a fitting way to bring together the myriad elements that enable modern brands to contribute so much value to business.

In the Q & A afterwards there were some great points made about how the processes and structures that the industry has adopted don’t always lend themselves well to finding the middle ground. We may not have definitively solved the question of where the right balance is in brand/creative and data/targeting but there were some powerful arguments, and actually lots of common themes in the talks and the discussion around the nonsense of making it a binary debate and the power of bringing the science and the art of our industry together. It was a brilliant way to mark a special anniversary and the first time that we’ve brought the different Firestarters audiences together. My thanks as ever to Google for hosting, to the speakers who did such an amazing job, to Scriberia for visualising, and to all those that came on the night. 



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