The results of the latest assignment from A[P]SOTW – or the Advertising [Planning] School On The Web – are in.

This initiative is run by a team of senior planners from across the world. They post challenges for up-and-coming planners and marketers - or, in fact, anyone with an interest in smart ideas and communications – and have the entries judged by a heavyweight group of marketers and strategy experts. Warc teamed up with the School a few months ago to help promote the challenges.

You can view the previous challenge we helped out with here. Over to Gareth Kay and the feedback from the latest assignment!

The brief was an exercise in the often overlooked art of defining the problem to be solved and therefore the role for communications.

Imagine you are at your desk and your phone rings.

It's the new CMO of Kiehl's, a wildly successful brand of stripped down cosmetics. Its success has been built through great word of mouth and their habit of giving free samples; there has been little, if any, 'traditional' paid advertising.

But sales have slowed. The CMO believes it's time to invest in marketing communication. And he wants your agency to tell them - and the management team - if you believe they should invest in marketing communication and why.

You have no more than 10 minutes on a conference call to make your case. Your answer to this question will determine whether conversations continue. They are talking to 12 more agencies. What would you say?

We got 14 entries. What follows are some macro points that the illustrious judges – Rob, Andrew and David – and I observed.

  1. Follow the brief. A lot of responses either ignored the question or had the Pavlovian response of ad people to decide that the answer was an ad and so jumped straight into campaign strategy. That wasn't the question and we need to break this muscle memory. This challenge was about defining the business case (if there is one) for marketing comms (in their broadest sense)
  2. Frame the problem the brand faces. You were told "sales have slowed". A good planner would work really hard to diagnose why and address that. As Andrew put it in his judging notes, "brands in trouble have usually forgotten what made them great, or failed to keep that relevant to a culture that relentlessly moves forward. Not everyone made their argument specific to Kiehl's." You have to define the problem to stand any chance of solving it.
  3. Watch the generalizations. Lots of you talked about fame and awareness without really saying why it would help the business. You need to look more at changing real behavior and removing the reasons not to buy.
  4. Understand the audience. The brief made it pretty clear this was a skeptical audience about comms investment. The best responses would be explicit about the opportunities investing in marketing comms could create, the difference it might make and some sense of what payback could be. Better still, you might also have suggested running an experiment at a low investment level to see what could be done for Kiehl's.
  5. Be interesting. Too many entries just showed the client they'd done some research. There was no leap. And no one was brave enough to say, "we don't think you should invest in comms. Instead, you should xxx." The objective of this exercise was not to show how clever you are or how much research you've done or even that you think you have the answer. The objective was to get another meeting.
  6. Keep it simple. Too many entries lost us because they were trying to be too clever. As Rob said about one paper: "I would remind people of something my father – a barrister, so not exactly a stupid man – used to say. "If you have to prove how intelligent you are, you're not very intelligent." The best bits of planning are like the best bits of communication: simple thoughts, interestingly expressed.

We did decide there was a winner – Lizbeth Pal, well done. It felt the most credible articulation of the business problem and how comms could address it.

Here's Lizbeth's entry:

Kiehl's Marketing Communications Pitch


  • Up until recently, limited traditional paid advertising has worked for you
  • Sales are starting to slow and we understand you are looking into marketing communications to improve this


  • Kiehl's spends 80% of the marketing budget on samples for existing customers
  • Existing customers are not doing enough with these samples to purchase more products and encourage their peers to become Kiehl's brand advocates
  • Marketing communications can help two of these problems


  • Kiehl's converters are taking for granted your samples, while non converters don't know your brand story > also at different stages of the purchase funnel
  • ‘the sample push': what is on the sample that will push converters from consideration to purchase, and non converters down to the pointier end of the purchase funnel
  • marketing communications campaign can help push these stories out to your consumers

How marketing communications will help solve the problem

  • Kiehl's has a strong brand story, but you are relying on your customers to tell the story without your support > almost like Chinese whispers
  • You need to tell these stories with more rigor
  • We can help develop these stories and push them through your sampling strategy, whilst supporting them through your existing channels eg. Facebook, Twitter and initiatives through ‘Mission of Kiehl's'
  • Marketing communications campaign will help deliver a stronger call to action (supporting the ‘product speaks for itself' strategy)

How might a Kiehl's marketing communications campaign look?

Example: ‘The Sample Push'


  • Converters: create reward programs for purchasing full size products, and sharing samples with friends
  • Non converters: encourage to go into Kiehl's retail store


  • Samples are treated as ‘Kiehl's currency'
  • Create stories around the social and environmental issues Kiehl's cares about and link them to their product range
  • Stories are shared on the sample with QR code to Kiehl's website to purchase, or read more about the issue
  • Reward participation with Kiehl's currency/products

Thanks to all those who took part and thank you to the judges for their time and clarity and usefulness of feedback. - GK