What does a crash course in marketing theory teach you? WARC’s Editorial Assistant (Awards) Chiara Manco is currently studying for the IPA Foundation Certificate. Here, she shares what she’s learned.

Working on all four of WARC’s awards schemes, we deal with “effectiveness”, “strategy” and “ROI” every day. Come the judging sessions and papers that seem like strong contenders because they’ve displayed a sound creative idea often end up being shot down. Their objectives were not clear, their execution had been done before, they showed no business results, they did not measure effectiveness properly. The judges recruited to assess our awards entries are experienced enough to not be swayed by “glittering appearances” (as showman-turned-entrepreneur Phineas T. Barnum would describe them).

Now, through studying for the IPA Foundation Certificate, it’s increasingly clear why. The Certificate offers a framework for understanding the forces that come into play in the development of the communication.

Preparing for the Foundation Certificate exam shows why campaigns whose creative might be brilliant did not really work. From the importance of embedding effectiveness in the strategy from the beginning, to that of ensuring objectives are clearly defined and cascading from business goals through to marketing and communications, it offers a deeper understanding of what it takes to develop a solid piece of advertising.

A fascinating aspect of the course is the range of theories underpinning communication strategies: from Peter Field and Les Binet’s research showing that creative, emotional communications are ten times more effective than rational ones, to the dismantling of the concept of ‘homo economicus’ brought about by behavioural economics.

Byron Sharp’s theories on brand growth are a major talking point, especially his point on the effectiveness of “sophisticated mass marketing” over “targeted, low-reach media”. This may seem counterintuitive in today’s data-driven communications landscape, where brands are increasingly investing in complex technology allowing them to target specific audience segments with tailor-made messages. After all, Prospan, the Flordis-owned Australian cough remedy brand, has just stolen the show in the Best Use of Data category of WARC’s 2017 Media Awards, taking the Grand Prix with a campaign that used an algorithm that predicted when kids would catch a cold, and enabled the brand to reach mothers in time.

Yet Sharp suggests that ‘Big Ideas’ and mass targeting still deliver incredible results. The Snickers global campaign Bean Kung Fu generated an ROI of more than 10:1 through one single blockbuster execution. Similarly, the John Lewis Christmas campaigns comprise individual executions that can generate unbelievable levels of fame and talkability across the UK. Considering Field and Binet’s finding that fame campaigns are the most effective of all, can a campaign targeting a limited segment of consumers, like Prospan, drive fame?

Ultimately the IPA Foundation Certificate shows that, when it comes to debates within the advertising industry, there is no definite answer, no single “right” way of developing communications. Should brands aim to produce culture or collateral? Field and Binet recommend allocating budget between brand-building and activation following a split of 60:40. Should a client choose a full-service agency or work with many specialist ones? The right choice depends on so many variables: context, brand, product, objectives, market.

The Foundation Certificate enables its students to see for themselves that the consensus on marketing theory is that there is no consensus. Or, as Paul Feldwick points out in The Anatomy of Humbug, subscribing to one particular doctrine of thought will only cap, as opposed to grow, a brand’s potential.