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The programmes are now as good as the ads

It’s 1987, a hurricane has torn apart southern England, nobody is putting Baby anywhere near the corner in new release Dirty Dancing, and Alex Ferguson has been at Manchester United for a year.

Elsewhere, and slightly lower key, the annual TGI survey of 24,000 UK adults has started to include dozens of lifestyle statements. One of those statements, which has survived to this day is “On television, sometimes the advertisements are as good as the programmes”.

25 years on and there is much debate about the consistent decline in the percentage of people agreeing with this statement about the relative enjoyment of TV ads and programmes.

Dramatic emphasis is added by the fact that this is one of the few statements to have remained intact since 1987. It feels a little like watching a revolution, albeit in market research slow motion; the subtext is that the great British public has fallen slightly out of love with TV ads.

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When is ‘enough’ enough?

The results of two new research studies have made me question one of the final shibboleths of media planning: the idea that there is such a thing as an ‘effective frequency’ which can be easily defined and which offers a single, optimal level at which the advertising ‘works’.

The first piece of research was a neuroscientific study we carried out. It revealed how we process advertising when we watch TV as opposed to when we are engaged in various online activities. It clearly points to the importance of emotion and engagement in driving performance – much more so than attention – and underlines recent insights into the role emotional association and implicit memory play in strengthening a brand’s position within our choice set. As the neuroscientists say, “the neurones that fire together wire together”.

The second study, conducted with the IPA, compared data from the IPA Databank with scores from the Gunn Report and showed conclusively that creativity does pay…just not necessarily in the way we expected. There was a much greater pound-for-pound performance amongst creatively-awarded ads in terms of driving efficiency (i.e. how much relative share of voice drives market share), but the differences in absolute effectiveness were less marked for the simple reason that the creatively-awarded campaigns spent less and therefore achieved a lower share of voice, despite the fact that they were eleven times more efficient at driving market share. One of the explanations for this may be that many of these campaigns were advised that they could ‘get away with’ spending less to achieve their target levels of awareness, recall, stand-out etc. so the ads could achieve them with lower levels of frequency.

So what of ‘effective frequency’?

Qualitatively, we have seen many examples of ad campaigns where respondents appear quite happy to watch and enjoy their favourite ads time and time again; Barclays ‘Waterslide’ and Comparethemarket.com’s Meerkat ads are good recent examples of this. We can all think of ads that we would be happy to keep seeing, like Honda ‘Cog’, Sony ‘Balls’ and Cadbury’s Gorilla.  It is clear that there is no single magic number beyond which the message has landed and the job is done. Every additional exposure to an ad is part of the continued wiring together of neurones into positive associations with the brand. These can last a lifetime and relate far more closely to business performance and incremental profit than the message cut-through approach that underpins much of the thinking behind the concept of ‘effective frequency’.  

I’m not denying that ads can sometimes reach their maximum desirable frequency, after which even I start shouting at the TV.  But very, very few campaigns get to the Crazy Frog level and recency is a major factor here.  No-one wants to see the same ad 20 times in a single day, but, spread across a month,  that frequency becomes totally acceptable.

All of the new insights from behavioural economics and neuroscience (two polar opposite disciplines yielding very similar insights) about the power of fame and emotion to influence the way we use implicit associations to ‘short-cut’ the decision-making process have successfully weaned us away from the ‘message myth’, swaddled in the comfort blanket of influence models such as AIDA and DAGMAR. Perhaps now is the time to rethink the role of frequency within the mix; especially if it also means refocusing on the potential payback achieved by higher levels of advertising creativity.

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Online and over here

Amid the cutbacks and regulations that have hamstrung some advertising categories, there is one that has recorded rapid and continual growth in the money invested in advertising in general, and TV in particular. It is a category that has access to a wealth of data to evaluate the success of its marketing activities, much of it instantaneous. It has witnessed rapid growth in sales revenues and the number of brands entering the market. I am talking, of course, about online brands.

Yesterday morning, we held an event (and streamed it live online) looking at this phenomenon and exploring why it is happening and how best for online brands to use TV. We’ll be making it available on the Thinkbox website to watch in the coming weeks.

It is amazing to think that only five years ago this market category hardly appeared on the radar. In 2004 a total of 34 brands spent less than £10 million a year on TV. Last year the market was worth over £180 million to TV, with a total of 239 brands accounting for 5.5% of all TV advertising revenues; and that doesn’t include the 20+ programme sponsorships in which they also invested. It is an average annual growth rate of 172%.

Other media have also benefitted from this dynamic market, but it is TV where these online brands have invested the vast bulk of their money. In fact, TV accounted for nearly three quarters of their offline media spend in 2009.

There are many reasons for this. The complementary nature of TV and online means that TV drives online response better than any other media channel.  But it is not only response generation that is responsible for TV being the predominant marketing channel for online brands. It is TV’s ability to build brands, through fame and emotion, which has kept them coming back.

For brands that have little or no physical presence, the ability to create an emotional connection with its consumers becomes even more important. Meanwhile, the power of fame to create word of mouth, awareness and, most important of all, trust cannot be denied, as the 700,000 Facebook fans of Aleksandr the Meerkat would no doubt agree.

Also, the growing phenomenon of ‘two-screen viewing’ – concurrent consumption of TV and online – has helped facilitate response. A brand can go from initial awareness to purchase during the course of a single commercial break, making TV a point of sale medium in these circumstances. New research we’ve just carried out shows that 94% of the UK claims to have gone online as a direct result of something they’ve watched on TV in the last 12 months.

Consumers’ growing confidence online means they instinctively know where to go when a TV commercial engages them and creates demand for a product or service. Our growing arsenal of evaluation tools demonstrates TV’s significant role in this process more and more and online brands have been voting with their budgets.

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TV goes app

Now, here’s a lovely thing that I’ve been meaning to blog about for a while. The brilliant Barclaycard ‘Waterslide’ TV ad propelled its iPhone app spin-off to become the most popular free, branded game in the history of the iTunes App Store. This is a fine example of TV and interactive media cuddling up and making babies.

BBH’s Barclaycard’s ‘Waterslide Extreme’ iPhone app has clocked up 4 million downloads from the iTunes App Store since its launch in mid-July. It became the top free app in 57 countries.

The Barclaycard TV ad was an instant hit and sparked lots of Twitterface activity.  I loved it too; given that their previous campaign had featured a heartthrob from an all-time favourite TV series, that’s quite an achievement.  Dare (the creative agency behind the app) also created a YouTube channel where people made their own versions of the ad for other to vote on (the excellent tea&cheese’s take on the ad got the most votes).

Apart from actually buying the product, in the ‘olden days’ (like 1998) we could only really show our love for TV ads or programmes by talking about them, imitating them, reading articles about them or buying some related merchandise, like a board game or a mug. We can and do still do all this both on- and offline but, as the existence of the Barclaycard app highlights, we can now do so much more with our TV creative.

We can be inspired to make our own versions, chat in real time about them with people on the other side of the planet, watch extra content, send them to friends, play games based on them or simply watch again. We can even have conversations with the fictional characters that TV ads give birth to, such as the half million Facebook friends and 24,000 Twitter followers of the pre-eminent meerkat of our time.

Of course not every app is as successful as Barclaycard’s but it does demonstrate how potent the TV + online combo can be. T-Mobile’s Life’s for Sharing campaign gets it right too.  Nothing gets the party started like telly and interactive media extends the fun.

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Sounding off

Our lovely cousins at the RAB have made an online TV ad to promote radio advertising. The cheeky blighters have based it around our TV ad, but, as they don’t say much we’d disagree with, we have decided to take it as a tribute. Don’t forget to put the sound up.

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