How can marketers and agencies better align their activities with commercial outcomes?

Gurdeep Puri, Founding Partner, The Effectiveness Partnership

Half a lifetime ago, I took part in the first ever IPA Senior Advertising Programme, taught by the late Peter Doyle. Doyle was a cynical, smart, chain-smoking Liverpudlian business school professor who goaded us ad agency rising stars with our ignorance of business and finance, our failure to read books, our belief in advertising as a unique and self-contained universe. We gave as good as we got, but after eight exhausting, 16-hour days, I emerged with a fundamentally new perspective, which has never quite left me: we should never lose sight of the idea that all advertising begins and ends in its wider business context.

I returned to the agency and my role as planner on Hellmann's Mayonnaise. The client (then CPC) had earmarked a large budget to support the brand. Now that I looked at the numbers with my new eyes, it made no sense to me to invest heavily in a brand that already had over 60% share of a tiny category unless we believed we could create significant growth in the category itself. In order to do that, we would need a radical new repositioning of mayonnaise as a versatile everyday condiment, not just a posh alternative to salad cream.

Our campaign got rid of the silver candlesticks and bow ties, and showed a scruffy subversive schoolboy (played by the adult Bob Carolgees) fending for himself with a jar of Hellmann's after his mother 'ran off with the coalman'. Within a few years, we had tripled the value of the category while retaining a dominant share (see IPA Awards, 1984). But then the client, who had never really liked the campaign, fired the agency and brought back the equivalent of silver candlesticks.

I had discovered that rigorous analysis and attention to business outcomes could lead to award-winning and even outrageous creative work. I had also discovered, however odd it might seem, that commercial results were not necessarily top of the client's agenda. The circumstances in which we lost the account were complex, but essentially involved a promise by the marketing director to his bosses to find a new campaign.

We had presented several ideas, which had all been turned down (one that earned particular ridicule was a series of animals in stop-frame animation, synched to voiceovers of real people talking about Hellmann's: this technique surfaced soon after as 'Creature Comforts' for the Electricity Board, and made the fortunes of Aardman Animations).

But some of the client's decisions can be explained, I now think, by their collective desire for advertising that reflected their own self-image about the brand, which was all to do with quality and exclusivity, not scruffy schoolboys. In the end, the only way the marketing director could get himself off the hook was by firing the agency.

Advertising should be a relatively simple business. We understand by now the basic principles, much better than Claude Hopkins ever did: keep a clear picture of the business context, spend enough money relative to market share, create fame and distinctiveness, build the right relationship with your audience. But people in organisations work very hard to make it seem more complicated, and muddle the process with all sorts of other goals: proving campaigns can be justified in rational terms, getting scores on pre-test systems, pleasing the subjective whims of the board, reflecting the organisation's internal culture, winning creative awards. I think you will find that such goals are what really occupy most of the attention of people in marketing departments and agencies, and their attempts to satisfy them all simultaneously are what make their task so time consuming, and frequently impossible. And in this process, the commercial realities often seem the most remote, the least demanding, and are the first to be excluded from the discourse.

I have heard that one highly successful agency has a policy, when pitching, of always asking to meet, preferably over lunch, with the client's finance director. They ask the FD to explain, simply, the company's business model, and one question: what is the single most important metric you look at to monitor the success of this business? Whatever it is - load factor, or 'churn', or price premium - becomes the focus for their strategy and their evaluation. It might help if everyone made a point of doing this, and then adopting a simple enough model of advertising so that every activity can be linked back to this outcome. There is no risk greater than the risk of mistaking internal outcomes for external ones.

This article originally appeared in the April 2012 issue of Admap. Click here for subscription information.