The seven steps to strategic success

Laurence Green, the convenor of judges and planning partner at Fallon London, identifies the key parallels between the variety of papers that took the gongs at this year's IPA Effectiveness Awards.

Had the fates conspired to propel them to the 21st century marketing coalface, Confucius and LP Hartley would be at loggerheads on the IPA Effectiveness Awards. "Study the past if you would define the future," Confucius famously encouraged his followers. "The past is a foreign country. They do things differently there," was Hartley's contrary position.

Confucians will raid WARC's freshly stocked effectiveness larder and the AdWorks book that follows for clues that might inform, not just evaluation best practice, but also strategy, media and even creative direction.

The Hartley camp would not have got this far, recognising the Awards as well-deserved baubles for the agencies and clients involved, but with little to teach us beyond that.

My premise is the belief that we can learn from campaigns passed effective by the IPA jury. Based on submissions that run to 4,000 words and comprising enough graphs, tables and footnotes to satisfy the most bulimic planner, they are a thorough excavation of our past, both recent (many papers report on the past few years of a brand's fortunes) and less so (others stretch back more than 30 years).

They happen to occupy helpful middle ground between the cries of the digerati at one end of our business and the refuseniks at the other.

What, then, do this year's Awards winners tell us? In short, that new media works both empirically and conceptually; that "old" media still works, and that the two might work best in concert rather than opposition.

Beyond this topline, the transparency of the papers (for which agencies and especially clients must be congratulated) means we can make a relatively sure-footed assessment of effectiveness "best practice", rather than assumptively track back from the industry's creative favourites or the City's latest darling.

That said, we all view the world through the lens of our profession, and what follows is just one path to effectiveness, drawn from the data, and most likely one that betrays my breeding as a planner and my habitat as a creative agency. Others will find different patterns and, regardless of my conclusions, readers should almost certainly pursue their own path, if only on the basis that marketing stepchange lies so rarely in merely matching precedent.

What follows, then, is neither a foolproof plan, nor a guarantee of return on your comms investment. It is, instead, a good stab at a shortlist that improves your odds of commercial success. Unless, of course, your competitors are reading, too ...

1. SIT MEDIA AT THE TOP TABLE

This has always been a good idea, but in the modern media environment, with new media having long ago reached critical mass and ambient opportunities proliferating, the case for upstream channel thinking is irresistible.

Although the Awards submissions are still largely authored by creative agencies, the campaigns they describe are obviously co-authored by, at least, creative and media agencies, and often by other partners beyond this.

Moreover, some of the very best papers - by definition, the industry's most credibly effective campaigns - not only boast media thinking that delivers the communication, but that also drives it to a greater or lesser extent.

The Silver Award-winning Virgin Trains paper, for instance, describes media's role in the campaign engine room, disciplining the laydown of budget and communication along parallel strategic tracks; the requirement to win both hearts (cut to TV and cinema) and minds (cue surgical use of press, poster and online).

The judge's favourite channel thinking - and winner of the Special Prize for Best Media - went even further. COI's "don't give them an easy ride" campaign for Vehicle Crime Prevention hinged on a two-pronged media strategy, designed to drive both attitudinal and behavioural changes. Broadcast "motivation" media, such as TV and outdoor, were expertly complemented by ambient "reminder" media, such as car-park barriers, pay and display tickets, petrol pump nozzles and washroom posters. The overall mix was planned with unusual granularity and tilted towards ambient over time.

How much of Virgin Trains' and COI's success relates to content (creative) and how much to context (media) remains unclear: No reliable metric yet exists beyond bar-room bragging. But what's certain across these cases and others is that a place for media at the top table has contributed to payback, whether that contribution is divisible from creative or otherwise.

Beyond this, as interruption gives way to engagement, this year's Awards begin to highlight the emergence of an altogether new media model - one which lives beyond the traditional modus operandi of "optimally distributing messaging", as Iain Jacob of Starcom has labelled it. Case studies such as Sony Ericsson, Monopoly and Jamie's School Dinners adhere - consciously or otherwise - to a media school which might best be described as "drop a pebble, create a ripple".

In conclusion, whether old or new, media leverage can profoundly influence the effectiveness of your comms.

2. DON'T WORRY 'BOUT THE SIZE OF YOUR BUDGET

Until very recently, sensible brand management involved the establishment of a threshold budget, beneath which communications investment most likely would fail to at least be sub-optimal. Multibrand companies culled their sub-threshold tails to better fund the "power brands", for whom ongoing investment was demonstrably worthwhile. The web (and other media, to a lesser extent) demolishes this old certainty.

Chris Anderson has written brilliantly about "The Long Tail" of previously imperilled content that the web now nourishes. Likewise, it follows that, if our media model increasingly hinges on "branded content" that the consumer pulls (rather than propositions that the advertiser pushes), then media budgets, conceptually at least, might be set at zero.

This might sound like the stuff of fantasy, but 2004's IPA Award-winning BMW Films campaign did pretty much that - albeit trading investment in media for production. And this year's Sony Ericsson, Monopoly, Volkswagen Golf and Jamie's School Dinners papers (among others) describe how budgets were made to work disproportionately hard by exploiting the "free media" that consumer or opinion-former engagement and word-of-mouth represents. Fresh evidence, if you like, that the best creative ideas save you media money.

More traditionally perhaps, but no less admirably, Grey's submission for Manchester City proved that, spent creatively and responsibly, small budgets (in this case largely won through barter deals) can still trigger commercial return, and that a small budget advertiser can, and should, still evaluate their campaign effects, albeit being obliged to do so inventively.

The Awards have long featured tales of those plucky Davids who have competed against the budgetary odds; as the media environment changes around us, the effectiveness playing field appears to be more level than ever. A genuinely big idea is an increasingly plausible rival to a big budget.

3. THINK LONG TERM, ACT SHORT TERM

This year's award winners run the gamut of effects from short-term sales spike to the enduring commercial competitive advantage afforded by a strong brand. The former is exemplified by Branston Beans, the latter by Felix and VW Golf (whose effects clock in more than ten years and 30 years respectively).

Despite their apparent differences, both camps have much in common. The short-term papers do not eschew the organising principles of branding and a long-term perspective; the long-term papers do not turn a blind eye to problems and opportunities that arise in the short term. It seems that, whether your payback timescale is short or long, the most effective campaigns will be those that are built for the long haul, but put to work against today's tasks.

The Silver Award-winning Felix paper vividly describes the self-doubt consuming the Felix team, as their winningly campaignable and commercially proven long-term campaign vehicle was asked to carry new news and combat sudden competitive innovation. The solution? Not to sacrifice the equity, but to put it to work in new and different ways. The Gold-winning VW Golf paper similarly charts a famous (and famously consistent) campaign history.

Marketing corridors used to echo to the refrain: "Think global, act local." As the web challenges that premise, perhaps the new effectiveness mantra is: "Think long term, act short term."

4. INTEGRATE. THEN INTEGRATE SOME MORE

Contrary buggers that we are, most of our marketing theories sooner or later attract a competing hypothesis. Few among us, however, make the case that campaigns would be more effective if they were less integrated, and I am not about to advance that cause.

This year's winners make a compelling argument for the commercial upside of integration, whether strategic or executional, hard or soft. Some winners explicitly wave the integration banner, while others do so implicitly. Some size the specific contributions of each part of the integrated mix, others assert the superior overall returns of integrated campaigning. All underscore the sense - again catalysed by the web and the vigilante consumer - that a brand and its comms are best-served by the disciplined co-ordination and alignment of activity across all consumer touchpoints.

A charter, less for using lots of media than one for aligning them if you do.

Whether it's ING punching above its weight in financial services or O2 in mobile, results can be credibly catalysed rather than hamstrung by disciplined integration. Both are examples of multimedia advertisers presenting a consistent brand voice and promise across various platforms. But perhaps the definition of integration should stretch beyond the traditional - that different comms strands pull together - and apply to the fit between comms and the product itself, asking not just whether or not comms are integrated across platforms, but if they are truly integrated with product and service.

The examples cited above still pass the test, but so too now do campaigns like that for Famous Grouse. Less notable for its integration across media (because TV has been used almost exclusively), but praiseworthy for its absolute integration of comms and brand in the form of its "grouse" icon. It would have been easy for the agency involved to eschew this "obvious" route for one grounded in drinker, provenance or recipe, as other whiskies and their agencies have tended to. The decision to "animate the pack" may have been less creatively glorious than this kind of discontinuous thinking, but has proved to be, not just creatively distinctive, but commercially astute, too.

5. PUT PRODUCT CENTRE STAGE

This may be a controversial recommendation for creative agencies, but this year's effectiveness vintage certainly boasts a disproportionate number of campaigns where the product is the hero, not the impeccably fashioned creative idea.

There can be no hard and fast rule on this; there will be products and occasions where this is not enough. More generally, too much of a product focus and we deny by definition at least some of the added-value branding confers.

Equally, if everyone merely peddled product rather than engaging the consumer with narrative and ideas, we would most likely destroy the consumer goodwill the commercial break relies on and the appetite for new ideas that sustains newer, more viral media.

Sometimes, however, product-led is best. M&S rediscovered its feet as an advertiser and its fortunes as a retailer when it decided to hero its food (reputation previously good, profile low), and its clothing (reputation previously damaged, profile arguably higher).

It's arguably the classic retail model rediscovered: Project "what's in the shops" as attractively as possible. The agency's contribution remains immense - framing the product, managing tonality, asserting discipline.

Beyond our Grand Prix winner, there is plenty of supporting evidence that when product is good, the primary duty is to shout this out. ING is direct about its generous interest rate. Branston about its better-tasting beans. The Jamie's School Dinners idea was not shrouded in layers of invention, nor were O2's tariffs and product initiatives. If your product or service is a powerful source of competitive advantage, don't go all "ad agency" about it.

6. BE CREATIVE IN THE ROUND

Please don't conclude that creativity no longer counts. Virgin Trains, Tropicana, Travelocity, VW Golf and Felix are brands transformed by comms because their strategies were transformed by brilliant creative ideas and executions.

Beyond these examples, a broader-based creativity lies beneath many other effectiveness success stories, examples where creativity in strategy and media have improved payback.

Sometimes, creative media is driving spirited execution, as with Virgin Trains and Vehicle Crime Prevention.

Elsewhere, the papers for Monopoly, Jamie's School Dinners and Sony Ericsson have ideas at their core which were either inspired or delivered beyond the creative department.

7. GET YOURSELF A SAINT (OR A SINNER): CELEBRITY STILL SELLS

Of course, St Jamie wasn't quite so holy pre-School Dinners, and ill-judged endorsement can be costly. But, again, the IPA Awards underscore the multiplier effect that celebrity endorsement can lend when, and if, you do get it right. Witness M&S and Alan Whicker-powered Travelocity in particular, while New York lends its celebrity to Tropicana.

If you can't get a saint, get a sinner. Channel 4 added notoriety to the More4 launch by presenting it as adult entertainment and studding its launch communication with US porn stars.

It ain't foolproof, but celebrity sells.

That's it. A partial telling of the IPA Awards' tea leaves. Reach your own conclusions, because the most enduring rule of marketing is perhaps this: to do something, even one thing, differently to your competitors.

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