It's how, not what, you communicate that counts

It's how, not what, you communicate that counts

The people at Ehrenberg-Bass has provided a powerful argument for channelling our resources back to the imaginative end.

Dubbed "Adland's Grinch" as I recently was for daring to cast strategic aspersions over the odd Christmas campaign, I come this time bearing gifts.

Not just for creative people, who have always seen the world the way that I’ll describe, but for anyone wondering if they’ve been spending a bit too much time staring at the message and not enough time at the messenger.  

My gift springs from an unlikely source: academia. More specifically, the copper-bottomed treasure trove of advertising learning that is the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for Marketing Science. 

Home of Byron Sharp and the headline-grabbing How Brands Grow, the organisation also publishes more frequent, less expansive and frankly less heralded papers; its B-sides, if you like. And Creative that Sells: How Advertising Execution Affects Sales is a great B-side.

The paper’s title declares its authors’ hand straightforwardly enough. Their research correlated the short-term sales effectiveness of 312 ads (across five markets) with 89 creative devices, from humour on the one hand to hard sell and puffery on the other. 

Let’s skip the science bit and get straight to their conclusion: "How advertisers choose to communicate (framing, characters, situations) is possibly more impactful than what is communicated (news, features or benefits)." It's a conclusion so at odds with much of existing creative development practice that it bears repeating: how you communicate may matter more than what you actually say.

Creative people know this instinctively, of course. They trust that commercial advantage can spring just as much from executional delight as it can the faithful relaying of The Thing The Advertiser Wants To Say. They write from briefs, not to them. They fight for things that seem superfluous to those who see advertising as message transmission rather than a messenger (and message) in its own right.

Research like this has been done before, but it has tended to focus on the impact of soft executional factors on intermediate proxies of advertising success, such as attitude and intentions, that the Ehrenberg-Bass team casually denigrate in passing as measures that "are typically found to be poor predictors of actual behaviour or in-market sales" (ouch).

The effects that they track, instead, are actual in-market sales results. So, although any academic study is obliged to equivocate about some aspects of its methodology, we can now state with some certainty that "creative execution devices" matter at least as much as and possibly more than "message strategy devices". And given how we often carve up our time (and budgets), that’s a powerful argument for channelling our resources back to the imaginative and executional end of our business and away from the procedural and the strategic. 

It’s a contrary position for someone who trained as a strategist, I’ll grant you, but it chimes with my own experience of reporting advertising effects across four decades. The difference that great creative makes dwarfs the one that strategy does. So it’s the strategist's non-negotiable duty as the agency’s effectiveness conscience to inspire great execution, rather than just write good strategy.

There’s plenty of stuff in Creative that Sells for sceptics to cavil at, not least the finding that music use can be problematic. Try telling that to David Golding. But how glorious to read an academic paper, funded by Mars, that concludes: "Our data specifically suggest that advertisers should look to emphasize what can happen when the product is not used… and humorous elements."

Laurence Green is executive partner at MullenLowe London

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