There’s no clear origin for the term ‘non-working spend’ but I feel like it all started around 10 years ago. Brands started to pick up the dialect of big American consultancy firms and marketing money that didn’t go towards paid media placement started to be classified as ‘non-working’. In the last five years, this term has crept into everyday use, like a virus, to divide the marketing budget. Whilst it may sound clever on the surface, it actually amounts to absolutely nothing in marketing. It’s completely fallacious.
I’m not the first to say this of course. Most of the advertising industry suppliers, who are lumped in the ‘non-working’ group, look upon the term with disdain. However, they aren’t the ones getting the rawest deal. Having worked on both agency and brand side for many years, and now in consultancy, I feel I can categorically say that clients have created a monster. ‘Non-working’ spend is most damaging to them because it kicks off the marketing process with a fundamental misunderstanding of the value of the contingent parts.
The idea that the money you pay your agencies or your production company, or any suppliers, isn’t in any way connected to ultimate quality and effectiveness of the advertisement is an absolute absurdity. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be doing our best to acquire costs at the best value we can. I believe brands should be pushing for more accountability from their agencies and looking at new ways of working. But not valuing the many depending factors that go into making a great piece of communication is a huge oversight.
For example, planning and creative fees are non-working, so does that mean strategy, creativity and imagination are expendable when it comes to making a great ad? No. Of course not.
The problem is that everything these days seems to come down to mitigating risk and the reason advertising is considered ‘non-working’ is that fundamentally it is driven by uncertainty. Advertising works on the margins and there’s no way to directly equate the effect it has on sales. It can only ever be a ‘contributor’ to sales because there are so many other external factors that can affect consumer behaviour between seeing an ad and making purchases. Of course, you can set out clear KPIs but the most successful brands are the ones that know to truly make an impact, they have to risk doing something that has never been done before.
Risk is entirely asymmetrical and funding it isn’t non-working. If you produce a piece of work that’s mediocre, unfulfilling or just not very good, the downside to the brand is actually relatively small. Unless it’s some catastrophically bad piece of advertising, it’s a missed opportunity. It’s not going to damage the brand. However, the upside of something truly spectacular can literally transform a business. It can make or break not just careers, but entire companies. However, if we spend all of our time trying to take the edges off of it, and mitigate the downsides, we consequently cap the upside potential.
So, let’s get rid of this bullshit phrase and create something new that recognises these ‘non-working’ steps for what they are: potential game-changers!