On the twenty-fifth ARF David Ogilvy Awards, WARC's Geoffrey Precourt looks at how research has changed advertising.

In two months, The Advertising Research Foundation (ARF) will announce the winners of its annual its David Ogilvy Awards competition—what the organization touts as the only award show that honors the research and analytics insights behind the most successful advertising campaigns.

But the full roster of finalists is already in place, featuring a list of diverse brands that includes Advil, Budweiser, Clorox, HP, IHOP Restaurants, Johnson & Johnson, McDonald’s, Merck, Pepsi, Petco, and Walmart.

This year marks the Ogilvy’s 25th anniversary and, according to Scott McDonald, ARF president/CEO, “This year's competition was especially fierce—with applications up 45% from last year.

In a letter to ARF members, McDonald looked beyond the raw numbers to dig down into the lessons of a quarter-century of award submissions and winners, “about what has changed and what has remained the same in our industry.”

“Back in the early years of the Ogilvy Awards,” he wrote, “the research toolkit consisted mostly of surveys and focus groups—with many variations around the basic qual/quant divide. Since the awards are just about exactly the same age as the World Wide Web, it is not surprising to see growth over the years in the use of digital data—including passively collected behavioral data—in the award applications.

“For the most part, these data are used more on the back end to document campaign impact rather than to generate the initiating insight, though occasionally the research inquiry will begin with some alert researcher wondering about an unexpected or anomalous ripple in a digital data stream. But, more typically, digital data are cited as evidence of impact.

“In particular, contestants have worked social media data (e.g. mentions, likes, shares, posts) into their submissions over the past decade, especially since about 2012.

“Though some brands use social data as a proxy for surveys, the more typical pattern is to use evidence from social media as a supplement to more formal sentiment tracking. Social media data often provide color or give examples in customer language that support insights derived from traditional research sources.

“It is worth noting that, so far at least, social media data submitted in the Ogilvy Award applications have been confined to verbal rather than visual evidence. This corresponds to the present high level of sophistication in natural language processing relative to computer vision.

“But progress in computer vision seems to be picking up the pace, so that ten years from now it would not surprise me to see more submissions using visual evidence from social media—say perhaps analyses of Instagram uploads and similar visual markers of changing consumer taste.

“The ARF David Ogilvy Awards of 2029 are also likely to benefit from progress in other areas of science, including better neuroscience-based methods, improved adaptations of machine learning, and artificial intelligence.

“However, if history is any guide to the future, these methodological advances of the 2029 ARF David Ogilvy Award applicants will supplement rather than replace traditional methods—much as today's sophisticated data integrations often still rely on random probability samples to reconcile results with known population universe characteristics.

“Indeed, it is striking to see the resilience of the traditional workhorse methods that were prevalent way back in 1994. Nearly all of the 2019 ARF David Ogilvy Award submissions used some form of survey research as well as various forms of qualitative methodology—ethnography, interview, and in-store intercepts, even when passively-collected behavioral data were also presented.

“This seems to reflect an enduring conviction that to understand people you still need to speak with them—even if you don't take everything that they say at face value.

“So, we have a richer mix of methods, but the best practitioners avoid the temptation to rely only on passive data, and they tend to leverage both big and small data.”

In identifying what he called a “more complex market mix” form the 2019 batch of Ogilvy finalists, McDonald noted, “We see a reflection of the underlying development of the consumer and business environment. Back in the early days of the Ogilvy Awards, the submissions were mostly about ad campaigns—which translated into buying paid media in TV, radio, print, and out-of-home.

“But now the campaigns are part of broader marketing efforts that also leverage all digital media as well as owned media, earned media, branded content, and other features of the contemporary marketing mix.

“This complexity comes at a cost, since it is now much harder to structure, plan, understand, and assess all of the factors at work in a complex marketing effort. The old saying is that success has many parents, while failure is an orphan; but today's fierce debates about how to allocate credit for sales increases ultimately affect competitions like the ARF David Ogilvy Awards.

“At present, the campaigns seen in the submissions are more complex than in the past, but the attribution methods have not quite caught up, so juries are likely to take claims of causality at face value. I suspect in 2029 that won't be true any longer, and evidence of the causal connection between campaign elements and ultimate market outcomes will be scrutinized more brutally.”

With new tools has come the challenge of massive changes in audience composition and, the ARF president/CEO noted, “more diverse casting of ad creative.”

According to McDonald, As the U.S. has become more ethnically, linguistically, and culturally diverse; more accepting of gender non-conformity; and more stylistically diverse (e.g., more tattooed, more perforated), that diversity has been reflected in the ad creative that gets submitted for consideration. It is not clear whether it has also resulted in fundamental shifts in the ways that creative gets tested (e.g., by focusing more on relevant niches, rather than broader populations).”

The result, as demonstrated by the group of 2019 Ogilvy Awards finalists? “More focus on short-term sales,” McDonald writes.

In the early days of the awards, it was not unusual to see submissions with impact evidence using standard or bespoke measures of brand perception, brand favorability, or other proxy measures of effectiveness. Sales data were often harder to come by. However, as more companies have developed direct-to-consumer sales channels or have partnered with third-parties to gather point-of-sale data, the Ogilvy submissions have adjusted accordingly.

“It is rare now to see a submission that does NOT include some quantitative evidence of short-term sales impact to demonstrate the impact of a marketing campaign. Of course, this taps into the venerable debate about the tradeoff between long-term and short-term results.

“Evidence from much research supports the idea that short-term results are a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for long-term results. However, too much short-termism can do major long-term damage to brand equity.”

But as complex and demanding as the market changes have been in the last 25 years, McDonald’s examination of the most successful research submissions reveals “more submissions now that focus on social problems, especially submissions from the non-profit sector.

“That said, it is nevertheless striking how stable the underlying objectives are among the Ogilvy Award applicants from the past quarter-century. These objectives can be clustered into three categories:

  • Revitalize brand, often in a static category—46% of entries.
  • Break through clutter or against increased competition—27% of entries.
  • “Improve, change product/brand perception—27% of entries.”

“It seems that some marketing problems are hearty perennials,” McDonald observed, with the new mandate, “Innovate or die. Stand out in an increasingly cluttered environment.

“Perhaps this apparent stability of Ogilvy applicant objectives is more a product of the kinds of large, established brands that tend to compete for the ARF David Ogilvy Awards (as compared with, say, startups). Either way, it deserves mentioning when looking back over the past 25 years….

Today's advertisers have to navigate a much more complex environment with many more tools at their disposal, but also with considerably more ‘noise’ to overcome. But the challenge is still much the same—to understand your consumer, to attract attention, to persuade, to inspire, to influence hearts, minds, and behavior.

“As different as the world may look now compared to 1994, consumers are still people who beg to be understood using all of the old and new tools at our disposal. In a field that is often criticized for chasing the "shiny new toy," the historical record of the 2019 Ogilvy finalists show that marketers today are still using the tools grounded in psychology, economics, sociology, and anthropology, now in combination with tools derived from neuroscience, behavioral analytics, decision theory, semiotics, and machine learning.

“But the point is still to get the insight that helps you understand human emotions and motives, that helps you make sense of life experience, that enables you to come up with the inspired breakthrough.

“In celebrating exceptional success stories, the ARF David Ogilvy Awards are as important today as on the day they were born.”