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2021: The Year Media’s Mightiness Emerges from Creative’s Long Shadow

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Zenith's chief strategy officer Richard Kirk gives insight into the potential power of media in 2021
2021: The Year Media’s Mightiness Emerges from Creative’s Long Shadow

Richard Kirk, chief strategy officer at Zenith sits down to make his 2021 predictions on media's emergence in its contribution to advertising success.


Given the unpredictability of the last 12 months, future-gazing seems a little indulgent at the moment. But given the misery of the past 12 months I don’t see the harm in a little self-indulgent future-gazing.

There is one thing happening in advertising right now that is going under the radar. It’s been a slow-burn trend that has existed for years, but I think it will get pushed out into the open in 2021: That almost by stealth, media’s contribution to advertising success has grown significantly whilst that of creative has gone into reverse. 

I would go so far as to say that for many campaigns media choices now have a greater bearing on success than any creative factor - bar the inclusion of existing brand assets in the ad (and let’s be honest, if you fail to do that, you might as well not bother at all).

This would mean a spectacular turnaround in the famous insight published by Data2Decisions in 2006

How has this happened? Well, since the turn of the century, media fragmentation has created many new levers for media planners to influence performance. At the same time, increased time spent with media has made those levers more powerful. And during this period, multiple forces have depressed our ability & will to produce truly effective creative.

This isn’t just a theory. Leslie Wood of Nielsen Catalina Solutions quantified this trend, showing that between 2006 and 2017, Media’s contribution to sales grew from 15% to 36%, whilst creative declined from 65% to 49%. A refresh of this research is due sometime next year.

I believe that new research will show Covid has accelerated this gradual change. During this extended period of social distancing in the world’s biggest advertising markets, media consumption has exploded, (UK adults were consuming over 90 minutes extra media a day in lockdown) and crucially, circumstances have pushed millions towards new ways of consuming media, accelerating fragmentation: for instance, in 2020 over 3m UK adults tried a new way of consuming video (Ofcom media Nations 2020).

The result? More levers for media planners, made more powerful by our increasing dependence on media to connect us to society. Put simply, the media plan becomes mightier each year. 

Meanwhile, the impact of creative on campaign performance is being diluted.

Bob Hoffman says: “The best media strategy is a great ad”. I agree wholeheartedly – a truly great ad just needs to be seen by as many people as possible to produce results; hardly a difficult media planning task. 

But what is ‘great’? The Binet / Field / Wood school of thought seems most credible to me; that great ads generate a strong emotional response. Ads that aim for fame and deliver. 

This is easier said than done, especially in 2021. ‘Aim for fame’ requires confidence – not just in the advertiser’s business and marketing dept, but also in their ad agency. But cuts, Covid and cancel culture have caused businesses commercial cojones to shrivel dramatically. 

In Lemon, Wood showed driving emotional response multiplies the benefits of outsized SOV. He has also shown the creative devices that most commonly drive a 4-5 star emotional responses are being used less frequently. 

Functional, solid ads, rather than spectacular ones have become more and more prevalent whilst truly brilliant, fame-driving creativity is in retreat. 

For evidence of this, look at Covid: The pandemic presented a unique opportunity for brands to do something different but still hugely relevant with their brand’s distinctive assets. What happened? Creative output became so uniform and generic that an entire industry was reduced to a meme.

I suspect it will take the publication of new Nielsen research to cause a watershed moment in our consideration of each discipline’s contribution to effectiveness, but brands can begin to discover the truth for themselves via search volume analysis:

Most brands would agree more people searching for their brand is a good thing in terms of sales. By using linear regression this search volume can be decomposed and the individual contribution of each advertising channel to search interest in the brand can be revealed.

At Zenith, we’ve seen that changes in TV creative, between ads that all drive a middling emotional response, have barely any influence on the amount of incremental search interest being driven in the brand. 

For those same ads, varying the media plan – i.e. the amount of time between bursts, week on, week off vs continual presence, and weekly weight of TVRs, all have a much more significant impact on search interest. 

This data indicates media is quantifiably mightier than messaging, and much more than just some boxes to be filled. Particularly for brands that cannot justify the undiluted pursuit of fame and emotional response in advertising. 

What does this mean for brand managers and marketing directors? Well, firstly brands need to get their heads round the key factors driving their own success. Presuming the message is the dominant factor in success is no longer a given. If you don’t know the relative contribution of media and creative to success for your business, investigate! This insight is crucial in determining where to invest your time and resources. 

As media’s outsized influence on business outcomes becomes better understood, more focus is required on the key trade-offs that inform a media plan. Being clear not just on the media strategy, but the effect this has on buying decisions and auditing, is crucial.  

Finally, Media planners need to step up. We’re all too often the dry, dull, dutiful sibling to creative work – the vehicle for the ad. 2021 is the time to finally shake that label off by showing the power media strategy and planning has over business outcomes. You never know, doing that might just put you ahead of the change.


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Zenith, Tue, 05 Jan 2021 15:57:16 GMT