Short-termism and long-termism are both just wrong-termism, says Tom Roach.
Let’s end the false choice between long and short-term marketing tactics, maximise the compound effects of getting them working together in harmony, and start to close the value-destroying divide between ‘brand’ and ‘performance’ marketing. It’s limiting marketing effectiveness and brand growth, when we’ve never needed them more.
Long term vs short term is probably the most commonly cited false choice in marketing – and that’s saying something, as we love false dichotomies in this industry: brand vs performance, emotional vs rational, creativity vs technology, intuition vs data, art vs science, to name just a few that we constantly debate.
And, of course, the answer to most of these is ‘and’ not ‘or’.
It may seem a little unnecessary for yet more words to be written about the long and short-term in marketing given Les Binet and Peter Field have literally already written the book on it1. But whilst the theory says we should all try to achieve a balanced approach in order to maximise both saleability and sales simultaneously, there’s a massive gulf between the theory and the actual practice, which is increasingly divided between practitioners of ‘brand’ and ‘performance’ marketing.
And it’s even quite common for people to overlook the central importance of the theme of balance in Binet & Field’s most important work, and to think of them as ‘the high priests of the long term’.
Short-termism rightly gets a lot of criticism, and there have been plenty of brilliant critiques of it by other people, so I won’t do that here2.
There are irresistible pressures pulling marketers towards the short term3. And there’s also a huge asymmetry in terms of accessibility to ‘performance’ channels vs ‘brand-building’ channels. Google, Facebook, Amazon and other platforms have given millions of businesses of every size and type, easy, self-service access to a giant direct response advertising eco-system4. And this universal accessibility is also ensuring there’s a ready and growing supply of ‘performance’ marketing specialists and a dwindling supply of ‘brand’ marketing specialists – a factor that further exacerbates the divide.
Too many people though, especially on the ‘brand’ side of the divide, also wrongly assume that because short-termism’s a bad thing, long-termism must therefore be a good thing, despite the potential for it to be just as damaging in different ways.
There’s always been a lot of magical thinking about the long term in advertising. That you can just do something big and expensive as a one-off, then close your eyes and cross your fingers and hope no-one commercially oriented asks any awkward questions for six to twelve months, until future sales start magically happening.
But communications that are successful over the long term don’t work by activating some kind of ‘sleeper cell’ in buyers’ minds which suddenly bursts into frenzied commercial action after many months of lying completely dormant – communications need to achieve some level of short-term sales success as well as improving a brand’s mental availability if they’re also going to achieve long-term growth.
And whilst short-termism may give people a bad name within certain corners of the marketing world, it may actually be long-termism that gives some marketers a bad name within their organisations and amongst the rest of the business community. Perhaps because these marketers appear to act like selling’s a dirty word to them (for example by getting evangelical about certain marketing approaches that appear purposefully designed not to sell stuff).
And whilst they’re quite different, it’s possible to simultaneously see short-termism and long-termism as equally bad practice – wrong-termism, if you will.
Wrong-termists get it wrong in two different ways: short-termists restrict the long-term growth their marketing can achieve, and long-termists restrict its short-term sales impact.
The long through the short of it
It’s never been more important to make every marketing $ work as hard as it possibly can. We’ve never been more aware that without short-term success there may not even be a long-term for some of our brands. And the best way of securing both will be to embrace the fertile middle-ground that lies in combining the power of short and long-term effects.
Long-term growth always has its roots in the short term. The two are connected, influence each other, and if you get the two working perfectly in harmony together, you’ll achieve the strongest, most sustainable growth possible.
But we so often miss out on maximising growth in this way because of our binary belief systems, the organisational siloes we inhabit, the different job titles we have, the different channels and formats we tend to use and the different metrics we try to optimise.
It’s important to say that long-term growth isn’t just achieved by adding up a series of short-term effects. It’s more complicated than simply being additive: it’s a multiplicative, compound effect, which starts slowly but strengthens over time.
And whilst all long-term growth actually has roots in the short term, only some kinds of short-term activity also lead to long-term results.
So the roots of long-term growth are there in the present if you do the right kind of marketing communications.
The two are always happening simultaneously, to some degree, in the same marketing campaign and in everything a brand communicates about itself. Les Binet’s chart below shows two kinds of sales impacts from a single exposure to a single execution: a short-term sales spike and a longer-term tail.
The two lines are interrelated. If you try to push the red spike higher, you’ll reduce the length of the black tail (e.g. a promotion or offer would push the red spike higher but massively reduce the black tail; an ‘our brand stands against toxic masculinity’ message would hugely reduce the red spike). Which means to achieve equilibrium you’ll need a balance across a campaign and across your entire marketing plan (although not necessarily within an individual execution)5.
It’s practically the law that any discussion of the long and short-term in marketing must include Binet & Field’s classic ‘steps’ chart illustrating the two different ways in which communications can drive sales – through short-term sales activation and long-term brand-building, so here it is:
And what follows are some new and never previously published illustrations by Les Binet that build on this, but this time rather than separating the short and long-term effects, they show the combined effects of doing ‘brand-building’ and ‘sales activation’ together in different combinations. They’re just theoretical, they knowingly exaggerate the effects for clarity, and there will of course be real-world exceptions.
Scenario 1 is what could happen if a brand that had been heavily biased towards sales activation shifts its balance in favour of brand-building activity. It could see lower initial short-term sales peaks, but base sales would begin to rise and the short-term sales peaks could start rising too as the strengthening brand helps improve the impact of sales activation.
Scenario 2 shows what could happen if that brand switched back to being heavily biased towards sales activation from a more balanced plan. Short-term sales peaks could get lower and base sales could drop over time. It’s a cautionary tale that you may have witnessed, for example with the arrival of a new CEO or CMO who ‘doesn’t believe in doing brand marketing’.
But charts like these don’t always totally reflect the real-world options available to modern marketers, for example where performance activity is usually ‘always on’ rather than pulsed, and where the idea of scaling it back dramatically or even switching it off could feel like instant career suicide.
So below is an illustration by econometrician Grace Kite and me building on the classic ‘steps’ chart from the perspective of a common real-world scenario – that of a digital-first brand whose initial strong growth from always-on performance activity has levelled off, after which point brand-building activity is successfully deployed in order to take growth to the next level. It’s based on the econometric modelling Grace has done for a wide range of brands facing similar challenges.
It shows growth initially being driven by always-on activity in performance channels, and the impact of that activity reaching a plateau which often happens when saturation point is reached. Then it shows the impact of a successful decision to layer in ‘brand-building’ activity. Note that this brand activity both delivers its own short and longer-term sales impacts, as well as improving the sales generated by performance channels. It also shows the compound effects of all this marketing activity working together and becoming stronger over time as the brand-building activity is further optimised.
‘All models are wrong, but some are useful’ of course, but hopefully this shows ‘performance-first’ brands the growth potential of adopting a more balanced approach that includes layering in brand-building activity and gives brands like these a little more confidence when taking the big step into doing ‘brand-building’ communication.
A promising metric for measuring the long through the short?
The long-term growth potential of campaigns should be measurable in the short-term, even if you’re not currently set up to monitor it. So you may need to start thinking about boosting your existing measurement (which would ideally already include a balanced scorecard of long and short-term metrics) with new kinds of short-term measures that can also predict long-term performance.
A number of companies have metrics aiming to do this, but one that’s emerging as a strong contender is a brand’s ‘share of Google Search’.
Millward Brown has seen that search volumes can strongly reflect how salient or famous a brand is6. And Google believes ‘share of search’ may reflect brand health and market share for brands in some categories7.
Les Binet is doing some great work looking at whether a brand’s share of Google search can predict its market share (initial findings in several categories are extremely promising).
Further research is needed, but monitoring a brand’s share of search could also help narrow the divide that exists in marketing between ‘brand’ and ‘performance’ marketers: it could be a rare example of a metric nearly everyone can get behind. Because ‘brand’ marketers instinctively know that brand search behaviour is often reflective of a brand’s fame and mental availability – and they know that investing in mass reach communication can be an effective way to improve it. ‘Performance’ marketers of course know brand search is a hugely important source of traffic and conversion.
I believe it’s never been more important that we start closing the artificial but growing divide between brand and performance marketing, and to do what’s most effective for our brands collectively.
For some brands it will be a huge task, but if anything shared here helps a single team begin to break down the barriers in their business it will have been worth it.
Brands should be aiming to create long-term communications engineered for immediate success. Advertising that, in the words of the great Jeremy Bullmore, sells ‘both immediately and forever’8.
Let’s all make that our ambition too.
1. Buy Binet & Field’s classic work The long and the short of it.
2. Martin Weigel is simply the best, most persuasive writer against the shortcomings of short-termism in advertising.
3. For a brilliant analysis of the factors leading to short-termism read Gareth Price’s IPA Excellence Diploma prize-winning paper here.
4. I don’t subscribe to Bob Hofmann the Adcontrarian’s view that no offline brand has ever been built online, but I do think it’s much harder to do so than it should be within the current media ecosystem, which is plainly better at direct response than brand-building.
5. Les Binet is always keen to stress that it’s best not to attempt to optimise an individual execution to try and make it do both simultaneously and equally. He says that “Our research suggests that while all ads do both jobs to some extent, trying to do both equally in every ad is inefficient. Rather, it’s better to have a 60:40 balance of ads that (primarily) focus on the brand job and ads that (primarily) focus on activation. Making every ad a ‘brand response’ ad is a poor compromise”.
6. Millward Brown, Digital Behavior Analytics: what can search and social behaviour tell you about brand performance?, 2016
7. Measuring Effectiveness: Three Grand Challenges, Matthew Taylor, Google, 2019
8. Jeremy Bullmore’s essay for WPP’s Annual Report 2017.