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Frequency is the penalty for mediocre ads

Posted by Uwe Hook on July 7th, 2010 at 9:20 pm

How Science Started to Dominate Advertising

In 1926, President Calvin Coolidge pronounced a benediction on the business of advertising:

"Advertising ministers to the spiritual side of trade. It is a great power that has been intrusted to your keeping which charges you with the high responsibility of inspiring and ennobling the commercial world. It is all part of the greater work of regeneration and redemption of mankind."

Between 1926 and today, we proceeded dealing with advertising as if it was more science than art. Reach and frequency were introduced, new metrics like GRP and TRP started to dominate the language of the business and now we measure our reach in terms of impressions. Coolidge's idea of inspiration and spiritual redemption through advertising was replaced by spreadsheets, perspiration and a dominance of left-brain thinking.

Is Advertising Art Or Science?

If advertising is a matter of data and science, why do we remember an Apple commercial from 1984 that ran once? And why do I get so annoyed when I see the same, mediocre ad over and over again, behaviorally targeting the hell out of me and perfectly aligned with reach and frequency formulas? I would argue, there's an advertising world outside of science. It's called creative innovation.

The advertising industry underwent already a creative revolution in the 60s and 70s with the likes of Bill Bernbach, Mary Well and later Chiat, Freeman and Clow. Just to name a few. And the digital revolution was supposed to be the next creative revolution. Unfortunately, it turned into a data and tracking revolution, transforming the bean counters into masters of the universe.  The lack of creative innovation is truly astonishing compared to the science part of advertising which has improved exponentially over the year. Neuroscience and Behavioral Economics add new layers of advertising science to the mix. While creative innovation is stuck in 300x250 hell. For some reason, we tend to have no problems with a mediocre creative execution as long as the media plan/communication plan is stellar. Have we just given up hoping for superior creative products or are our expectations too low?

It seems, we tend to believe that mediocre ads can be helped with the crutch of frequency. "Well, the ad is pretty lame but as long as we can push the message 7 times in a week, we should be good." We seem to forget that each impression equals investment. Real money that moves from brand to publisher and agency. Ending up in absurd situations where brands are not willing to spend $50k for a better video execution but have no problems investing $500k in additional media.

What brands should do

Here's the challenge each brand should give to their agency: Create work that only needs to be viewed once. It should be fresh. It should be relevant. It shouldn't be stuff that the competition does because it worked for them. It should be work nobody has ever seen before. It shouldn't be good, it should be awesome. Something you want to share with the world immediately. And, if you have limited budget: Don't skimp on the creative. Make the media team work harder. There are so many opportunities in paid, earned and owned media to explore, it allows brands to re-allocated funds from media to creative incrementally. Often providing a much better ROI.

Current frequency and reach formulas are based on the assumption that the creative product is mediocre. Basically, brands are paying a pretty expensive fine each time they run mediocre ads. Why continue paying that fine when you could avoid it by creating something inspiring?

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