Marketing effectiveness itself cannot be guaranteed because the consumer and citizen world in which the marketing happens is, to a greater or lesser extent, unpredictable. Rather than being restrictive, this fact makes the search for effective marketing theory all the more potentially rewarding, argues Andre van Loon.

There are three main audiences, I think, for marketing effectiveness theory: the creative strategist, the creative strategy team and the effectiveness theorist.

The creative strategist

In a typical creative agency context, the strategist is tasked with developing the conceptual framework for a new marketing campaign / activity, and to express it in a creative brief. Since most campaigns / activities are specific, in the sense of being defined to happen at a particular time, in particular media and with set media budgets, they can be said to be 'one-time' events (even when they remain comparable to others.) Individual strategists can have a 'one-time' interest in making their work work well.

Marketing effectiveness theory appears in books, award essays, white papers, articles, videos and in what experienced colleagues might pass on to you. 

Effectiveness theory is driven by those who say a variety of true things versus those who declare the Truth.

The dedicated strategist will look for bits of information through desk research or by asking around; for rules or laws postulated by theorists like Byron Sharp or Peter Field; for sharp opinions by writers like Mark Ritson, Charles Vallance or Bob Hoffman.

The overall intention is clear: gather reliable or well-argued information or, better still, replicable rules or formulas (e.g. The effectiveness code) to apply to the new campaign / activity. 

The underlying assumption is that if a certain way of doing things was successful in the past (e.g. in a John Lewis Christmas campaign), then it could work well again. And it might, in reality, perform precisely in the anticipated way.

The creative strategy team

The creative strategy team is the second main audience for marketing effectiveness theory. This is a collection of individuals, interested in the question: 'how does marketing / advertising work?'

These individuals might also work by themselves but, as a team, there is a common will and method to establish a culture of learning. 

A culture of learning (or an effectiveness culture) seeks to develop a way of thinking, a certain procedure for making successful campaigns / activities, based on a considered process of studying marketing effectiveness. The Head of Strategy (or similar) will usually lead this process. 

Such leadership can incorporate team training sessions, open discussions, the collective reading and interpretation of set texts, the assignment of thought leadership articles or presentations and the composition of effectiveness award papers.

The leadership point is twofold. First: the proper grounding of an effectiveness culture within a strategy team, and beyond that, the agency as a whole. Second: the direct application of acquired knowledge to upcoming campaigns / activities. 

Leadership seeks to take the individual away from sporadic (if potentially rich) research, into a collaborative context of systematic learning. Of course, you can't know everything, but you can seek to live within a culture of knowledge (to borrow Edgar Morin's thought in Dialogue sur notre nature humaine: "Certes, on ne peut pas tout avoir dans sa tête, mais on peut circuler dans le savoir." – ‘You can’t have everything in your head, but it can circulate in knowledge.’)

The team can start to feel it has gone back to university, to the joy of tutorials. And with it, the politics of learning together: who is 'better' or 'worse'; who shows more or less attention to the topic; who falls into which sub-group within the group; how charismatic or demanding is the tutor. Some strategists may start to like the theory of marketing effectiveness more than they like putting it into practice – and go on to write thought leadership or academic studies.

The team dynamic, however, is also full of risk.

Knowledge gained can become knowledge lost. The team can lose members or its leadership. There can be disagreement about the usefulness of the theory studied. Influential personalities within the team can seek to use knowledge as leverage, a tool to discredit others. The culture might change from one of learning and collaboration to one of power play.

In the wider agency context, a team dedicated to the pursuit of complex knowledge can gain detractors. Knowledge, communicated as a blunt directive, could lead other teams to ask 'Who are they to tell us how to do our jobs?' Charts, datapoints or creative effectiveness formulae won’t always hold sway with creative, editorial or client service teams – or at least, we shouldn't assume that they will.

But the risks of a failing effectiveness culture makes achieving one all the more worthwhile. Done properly and managed with care and attention, the study of effective marketing can stimulate new thinking across the agency. An effectiveness culture can also gain advocates.

The effectiveness theorist

The professional effectiveness theorist is the third main audience, and the audience theorists seek is usually other theorists. Those capable of agreeing or disagreeing with the advanced theory, in a similarly academic language. A peer group, in short (although there are notable exceptions to this, not least in the agency-addressed work by Les Binet and Peter Field.)

For them, effectiveness study can be explorative or universalist, depending on their favoured tradition. Marketing is both an art and a science, and its theorists can feel at home in either humanistic or scientific camps (or have a foot in both.)

The humanist tends to see complexity and diversity, the irreducibility of facts to a single truth. The scientist tends to seek universality, to identify rules or codes and to replace faulty theories with correct ones. 

Effectiveness theory is driven by those who say a variety of true things versus those who declare 'the Truth.'

Effectiveness theory is a rich field, because it considers different aspects of successful marketing. From aesthetic composition to creative, brand and product messaging; media channels, budget choices and distribution; audience reception; historical, cultural and political contextuality; agency and brand particularities; and much more besides.

Beyond predictability

Marketing effectiveness is essentially anchored in the consumer and citizen worlds. Marketing activity succeeds or fails because it is (or isn’t) received, comprehended and influential with a group of consumers or citizens.

The consumer and citizen worlds are more or less unstable, unknowable even. I say this without intending mysticism. I mean simply that events and facts that haven't happened yet cannot be accurately predicted. 

Consumers and citizens are not mechanisms in the world, but changeable personalities in an evolving reality. Or to put it more concretely: I will always buy such-and-such a toothpaste, until the day I switch to something else. I don't know why I changed my mind, perhaps 'I just felt like it.'

At a large scale, effectiveness theory has much to learn from in-depth consumer / citizen research. Rather than constructing formulas or replicable codes, I think effectiveness theory should prioritise a dynamic, continuous 'listening' exercise in which consumer / citizen's voices are investigated.

This requires us to accept unpredictability. The bits that escape unifying theories, the 'extra' facts, the unpredictability and radical changeability of the modern consumer and citizen can all generate a rich diversity within effectiveness study as a whole. 

And this multiplicity can keep the marketing professional and theorist fresh, up-to-date and open-minded.

Implications for marketers

I would like to end by making two points, and an appeal.

Practitioners of marketing are often separated from the arguments that creative strategists, creative strategy teams and effectiveness theorists are able to put to them. Marketers typically focus on the short-term – here I agree with Peter Field, among others. Financial gains now (through rational marketing, such as price promotions) are increasingly put above longer-term brand building. 

There is a rich area of marketing effectiveness theory that shows how brand building can be more profitable and powerful than short-termism, if bravely supported by bold marketers. But this message, even if it's heard, doesn't show promising signs of being acted on. 

A richer culture of learning, I think, can be the first step in correcting this. Bold creative strategists, confident in what they have learnt, can start to advocate their ideas to their clients and ultimately to brand owners.

The second point: I think marketing effectiveness theory is, at present, too reliant on a few single arguments. The arguments put forward so eloquently by Les Binet and Peter Field, favouring big and bold marketing to drive long-term profitability are not the only story. 

Binet and Field take an empirical approach to point towards future marketing success (what's worked in the past can work again, if done properly).

But the present and future of marketing success should depend on the 'voice of the consumer / citizen.' It is they who ultimately make or break a campaign or activity, and it is they who are changing rapidly and profoundly, or at least have the ability to do so (without warning, at once.)

While such change may affect a range of brands, I think it's those where consumers make explicit ethical choices (e.g. around product provenance or environmental impact; or socio-political brand meanings) that are most likely to be affected. Also, several societal trends in the world of COVID-19 restrictions have the potential to impact on 'business-as-usual', not least a consumer / citizen desire for richer, slower and more rewarding brand experiences."

The culture of learning I advocate, therefore, should be based on varied understandings of what can make for success, not 'one big idea.'

So, my appeal is to creative strategists and teams: broaden your perspective; seek out different voices; take the conception of the changeable consumer / citizen to heart. This will stimulate fresh thinking, and drive marketing effectiveness theory beyond what it knows – to what it should know to stay true.