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Why Do We Pretend That Budgets Don't Matter Anymore?

Advertising Agency
Toronto, Canada
INFLUENCER: Adland needs to honest with itself about what it takes to build and sustain a brand, writes Mark Tomblin

In my time, I’m lucky enough to have judged quite a few effectiveness awards. And generally  I really enjoy doing it.  But there is one thing that winds me up – I mean really winds me up (said in my best Ray Winstone voice) – and that is the bit in the award entry where the author writes something like “The only problem is that we had no/very little/a laughably small budget.” Whenever I read this I am so very tempted to mentally check out and start thinking about where I’m going for my summer holidays. But of course I don’t, because I’m a pro.

But come on, I mean really, COME ON! 

Since when did money not matter in the brand-building project?

Let’s be clear about one thing. This is not in fact a debate. Not in the least. The jury came in a while back and gave their verdict and gave it unanimously. When it comes to building brands, budgets matter. The very briefest of glances at the splendid work of Les Binet and Peter Field shows the power of money – expressed particularly as what they call ‘extra’ share of voice, the amount by which your share of voice exceeds your brand share – in making a real difference to real brands in the real world.

And if you think about it for more than a nanosecond, it makes total sense. People don’t really care about brands – they are far too busy living their lives to do that. So to achieve salience for brands (that vital mental availability that genuinely makes a difference when people are in buying mode) is really tough – and money is one crucial part of the effectiveness calculus. The other is of course, great, vivid creative work that makes the brand distinctive and, ideally, famous. But that’s for another day.

There is, after all, a reason why brands still pay insane amounts of money for Super Bowl spots. It’s not because the marketing people are egomaniacs. It’s because, done well, they work. (As someone much smarter than me once said “Content without reach is like building a cathedral in the desert.”)

So what’s going on?

I think that a number of factors combined a few years ago to make a kind of perfect storm for advertising and advertisers, with toxic effects that persist today.

The first factor is the effect of the Great Recession, the legacy of which is still with us in the form of mottos of stunning stupidity such as “doing more with less”. Just think about that for a minute. No, really think about it. Who on earth thought that was a sensible idea? And where’s the evidence that it’s even possible. Oh, that’s right, there isn’t any. The same with less would be a major achievement, if it’s doable at all. More with less? Fantasy.

The second is the original rise of social media – what I like to think of as the 'Age of Innocence'. This coincided helpfully with the recession cited above and played straight into the same set of insecurities. Because it was ‘free’ (remember those glorious days?) it seemed to allow people to do more, not just with less, but with nothing. Genius! At least for a couple of years, before Zuckerberg and co figured out how to monetise it so very effectively. But the habits of mind formed in that innocent time persist, despite the evidence of our own eyes (and of Zuck’s bank account) that earned media is pretty much deader than the dodo.

The third point is linked to the others and that is the profound loss of confidence in the advertising business by its own practitioners. We pretend – against our better judgement and knowledge – to believe a number of impossible things before breakfast, so as to keep clients on board. And of course I understand that. But it has helped create an environment toxic to the sensible discussion of what may actually be needed to build a brand.

The bad news is that I really don’t know how we escape this trap. I suspect that there is no simple way out – but I’m sure we’ll get there because to stay where we are feels unsustainable to me.

We could at least start by being honest with ourselves about what it takes to build and sustain a brand. Perhaps next time you see about a really smart campaign idea, your first question should be: “That’s great but how many people are actually going to see it?”

Mark Tomblin is CSO at Juniper Park\TBWA