Why Marketers Shouldn't Always Blame the Media

Creative, Strategy Just as Important as the Ways in Which They Are Dispensed, and Often Have Bigger Sales Impact

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BATAVIA, Ohio (AdAge.com) -- Blaming the messenger, as opposed to the message, has a time-honored history, but perhaps nowhere more than in marketing, where blame or credit for campaign success has focused increasingly on media plans in recent years as marketers used increasingly sophisticated analytics.

But in fact, creative can have a much bigger impact on effectiveness and sales than media.

It's no wonder media gets lots of scrutiny. It's the last stage of the process, and thus the proximate cause of the results, and the biggest outlay in most marketing budgets. Yet a large and growing body of evidence points to advertising messages and the strategy behind them playing at least as much of a role in marketing success as the media plans that carry them.

The "blame the media" focus recently became clear to Lakish Hatalkar, who heads integrated-communications planning, package design and innovation for Novartis Consumer Health while planning a panel he was asked to moderate on marketing accountability for a meeting of the Consumer Healthcare Products Association.

"We were only talking about media," he said. "If you go to most any marketing-accountability session, they all talk about things like TV vs. print vs. digital and what's the right mix. It's like the tail wagging the dog. This should not just be about media choices."

What marketers say, and whom they try to say it to -- the creative and strategy -- are at least as important as how they say it, as Mr. Hatalkar, and the Procter & Gamble Co. marketing framework he grew up with and helped develop, see things.

The creative often has a far bigger impact on sales than the media choices, as Gregg Ambach, managing director of Analytic Partners in Cincinnati, has seen over two decades in marketing analytics. One problem is that the creative impact on sales is often harder to quantify, analyze or predict.

"You can do more to move the needle from an effectiveness standpoint with creative than anything else," he said. The media mix may have a bigger effect on efficiency -- i.e. getting the results at a lower cost," he said. "But in terms of how big the volume bump is, creative is going to be the single biggest change you tend to see from one campaign or one piece of advertising to the next."

But unless marketers run their ads in such a way as to test the creative in market -- different ads in different geographies, for example -- it's hard for marketing-mix models to pick up the difference in impact from different creative. One way to try is by factoring copy-test scores into the analysis, but that poses problems too, Mr. Ambach said.

"There is a relationship between copy testing and in-market performance," he said, "but as a former boss of mine said, it's a relationship you want to squint at, not stare at."

Another factor that may make marketers scrutinize media more closely than the creative, he said, is that they have a lot more personally invested in the creative. The marketer either developed the strategic brief, approved the creative or both, he said, but is less likely to have developed the media plan.

Research based on marketing-mix modeling actually suggests the importance of creative relative to media has risen over time, said Mike Hess, exec VP-research, marketing science and consumer insights at Carat. He points to research led by Wharton Professor Len Lodish revisiting in-market advertising test results from SymphonyIRI, which indicated the role of strong creative, as measured by copy-test scores, was actually greater in 2007 than in 1995.

But one reason marketers are more likely to focus on media is that a lot more has changed there than with creative. What worked as an advertising message hasn't changed nearly so much in the past 15 or 20 years as the media landscape, Mr. Hess said. "There used to be four or five touch points," he said. "Now there are more like 25 or 35."

Still, Sunny Garga, principal of MPhasize Analytics, believes the accountability focus now is swinging away from media and toward creative.

"I think the pendulum had shifted too much to media and media mix," he said. "What's really driving this [shift back toward creative focus] is that clients are realizing that not all creative fits all media, that creative has to fit the media."

He believes the analytics and data in models have improved to the point that they're better able to separate impact from creative and media than before, and he's increasingly encouraging clients who have copy-test scores to make them available to feed into the analysis.

Ameritest, in analyzing more than 60 over-the-counter drug ads with more than 2,400 consumers earlier this year, delved into whether different creative approaches could affect how much consumers were willing to pay for a product.

The firm found that better creative really did have a significant correlation with prices consumers expected to pay for products, though other factors, such as how well consumers related to the characters in TV ads or how likely they said they were to tell friends about the ads, had a slightly higher correlation with how much consumers were willing to pay for the product.

Media's not the only driver

While marketers often focus on the impact of media, creative can drive sales and price premiums, too. In testing with consumers, Ameritest found viewers of different ads varied considerably in what they thought would be an appropriate price for a bottle of pain reliever, based simply on differences in the ads they saw. Ranges from high to low in average expected price based on which ads consumers saw are below:

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