Big lessons from small advertisers

Andy Nairn, the convenor of judges at the IPA Effectiveness Awards, reveals the difficulty of creating a winning campaign.

This year's IPA Effectiveness Awards were limited to campaigns spending £2.5 million or less. It was designed to give smaller advertisers a chance to compete on an even playing field. However, in a year where even the mightiest budgets have been under pressure, a lesson has emerged for all of us: creativity is more important in hard times than ever.

There's nothing new here, but what is striking is how these calls are brushed aside in the desire to "play safe". And so, while necessity should be the mother of invention, recession is often the enemy of innovation.

These awards are proof that there is a more effective way to do business. All the shortlisted papers have been assessed by two eminent juries. All have a proven strong return on marketing investment. And all have done so by employing creativity in the widest sense of the word. That last bit is important because the winning papers emphasise that creativity must be applied to all aspects of campaign development. Let's take a look at this approach in action.

Creative use of research

One of the first challenges that smaller advertisers face is the lack of research funds. This is less of a problem at the creative development stage (indeed, one can argue that smaller advertisers are better off trusting their judgment at this point). But, without proper strategic research, there's a real risk that smaller advertisers set off in the wrong direction in the first place.

In the digital world, smart marketers can avoid this danger by listening in to existing conversations. For instance, Grey London analysed blogs and social network sites dedicated to the Frijj brand. This informal research uncovered bizarre rituals and behaviours that later inspired a quirky integrated campaign based on a cult movie.

Imaginative agencies can also make use of outside experts. For instance, WCRS worked with an experimental psychologist to help it understand how the human brain processes visual information. This led directly to its "moonwalking bear" film for Transport for London, which was watched by 13 million people and helped reduce serious injuries among London's cyclists by 7 per cent.

In both these cases, fresh insights were unearthed that would not have emerged from conventional research. And, in both cases, the cost was minimal. Maybe the next time we start a project, we should impose a voluntary ban on focus groups and identify other ways of gathering insight?

Creative strategies

The next challenge that smaller brands face is that many of the more obvious positionings have already been taken by the big guys. But, again, if strategy is approached with the same creativity traditionally reserved for execution, this problem can be overcome.

TBWA\Manchester created a great campaign for Resolva weedkiller doing just that. The established brands in this classic low-interest market were all positioning themselves on functional grounds. Resolva saw that this left a gap for it to take a more emotional approach, taking a humorous look at how annoying weeds are. This disruptive strategy led to sales rising 50 per cent above target.

Krow Communications' paper for Nutella took creative strategy further by redefining the brand's occasion and marketplace. From being an infrequent treat at weekends, the spread was repositioned as an everyday breakfast food, using the unknown fact that the product was made from hazelnuts rather than chocolate. Sales leapt 61 per cent post-campaign.

Again, there are lessons for all of us here: what new emotional benefit could we uncover for our brand, what new functional properties could we communicate and what new market could we compete in?

Creative targeting

Small brands are often constrained by their audience, so a classic question they must ask is whether they can reach out to a broader target market. This requires some creative thinking if existing customers are not to be alienated. Total Media pulled off the trick for its Maximuscle client, reaching out to lifestyle gym-goers, while holding on to its bodybuilder heartland - the brand tripled its turnover and quadrupled its profits in four years.

Alternatively, a brand owner may decide to stay focused on its core audience but connect more strongly with it. This was the approach taken by Swinton's Taxi Division. To differentiate itself from 30 other players, all targeting the same niche audience, Swinton's agency, Red C, created a "mystery tipper" promotion, which captured the imagination of cabbies up and down the country. Policy volumes were driven up by 20 per cent year on year, largely because some creative thinking had gone into tailoring a campaign for this very specific audience.

The pertinent question here, is whether we should be redefining our audience more radically, or thinking more imaginatively about how we connect with our existing target. It's a question that is all too often left unanswered in recession, as the temptation to target everybody takes hold.

Creative branding

Here's another obstacle for smaller brands: they suffer disproportionately from a lack of name recognition. The conservative response is to build on previous investment and hang on to whatever little awareness there is.

However, a more radical approach is to reinvent the brand from scratch, so that the new name has built-in fame and appeal. This was the route taken by UKTV and Red Bee Media in rebranding its channels from UKTV Documentary and UKTV People to Eden and Blighty. This strategy would have seemed outlandish just a few years ago, but it ended up boosting the channels' share of viewers by more than 20 per cent.

Once a brand has the required cachet, the challenge then becomes to protect this precious asset. Ghd was a relatively recent entrant to the hairstyling irons market. In six years, it grew into a £100 million business, partly as a result of its iconic name (derived from the expression "good hair day").

However, by 2008, the brand's success had attracted legions of online counterfeiters. TBWA\Manchester fought back for its client, redesigning its website so that the company regained control of its brand in the online environment.

These are two very specific papers, dealing with two very particular business problems but, even here, there are lessons: namely not to view branding as a sacred cow, as many companies do, but also to apply as much creativity to the protection of our assets as to the development of them.

Creative ideas

Of course, all this clever research, strategising, targeting and branding is pointless if the subsequent idea isn't up to scratch. And this is particularly true of smaller advertisers, for whom cut-through is more reliant on executional brilliance than sheer media weight. The key point here, though, is that "creative brilliance" is now defined entirely by the consumer.

Two excellent papers from Grey and the British Heart Foundation illustrate this perfectly. To educate young people about healthy eating, the agency created an online game called "Yoobot". This allowed children to create a free, digital version of themselves and either care for it or feed it into an early grave. More than one million children created Yoobots and 78 per cent of users claimed to be eating better as a result. At the other end of the age spectrum, Grey also created a stunning two-minute film to educate older people about the symptoms of cardiac arrest. Called "watch your own heart attack", the ad only ran once on ITV, but was heavily trailed and then put online. As a result, 6.5 million people watched it and delays in calling 999 were significantly reduced.

These campaigns were actively sought out by their audience and throw up another test for us all - is our idea so good, people will look for it and interact with it voluntarily? Really?

Creative use of media

Many of the campaigns cited above have great media strategies at their heart. But these success stories hide the dilemma that communications planning presents to smaller brands: namely whether to focus limited resources on one channel, or to spread them over many.

The London Business School's campaign to promote its new Masters programme is a good example of the focused approach. The institution's agency, Serious Ideas, recommended an online-only approach to connect with prospective students. It then devised a highly creative seeding strategy using social networking sites, to deliver a response that was 135 per cent above target.

A good example of the multi-channel approach was the "don't be a cancer chancer" campaign from the Manchester Versus Cancer Alliance. Working with its agency, McCann Erickson Manchester, the charity coalition set out to surround its socially deprived audience with messages in their everyday lives. This meant tailoring communications to every touchpoint, from pubs to GPs' surgeries, pharmacies to bingo halls. The approach led to a huge rise in awareness of the key symptoms of cancer, and a 55 per cent increase in GP referrals.

There is no right or wrong answer here, but again either approach requires creative channel planning rather than media by numbers.

Creative use of evaluation

Finally, smaller advertisers encounter greater difficulties in evaluating their campaigns.

This is partly a financial problem, reflecting an understandable reluctance to spend heavily on research, when the money could be diverted to the campaign itself. However, this can sometimes be a false economy. For instance, the judges picked out JWT's paper for Knorr as an excellent example of a small advertiser refusing to compromise on rigour and profiting as a result. Likewise, the jury was taken by Publicis' paper for Slendertone, which told how venture capitalists insisted on an ongoing programme of testing and learning, to help them turn a loss-making business into a profitable one. In both instances, evaluation was quite properly seen as a worthwhile investment rather than a cost.

On a more valid note, the problem is also related to the media typically used by smaller advertisers. Online advertising, social networking and PR were common themes among this year's winners - for all the right reasons. But some of these channels are harder to evaluate than their more traditional counterparts. So again, a creative approach has to be taken to the measurement task itself.

Delaney Lund Knox Warren's campaign for Halifax's student division is a good example of this. The bank had taken the sensible decision to move its entire student marketing budget online. But, while this fitted the audience and objectives, it threw up potential measurement problems too.

DLKW won a gold for proving that the campaign had boosted account openings by 8 per cent, on half the previous budget. But it won the special prize for "Best new learning" by showing the brand effect of their online advertising and for quantifying the impact of viral spread on the bottom line.

Commercial creativity

And so to the Grand Prix. What made Morrisons a worthy winner of the top prize was the creativity it demonstrated across all of these dimensions.

The paper started with a great insight from research: namely that "to really appreciate fresh food, you have to get your hands dirty". This then inspired a creative business strategy: to develop a community engagement programme based on growing your own food. In turn, this led to a clear targeting approach (to focus on mums of primary school kids) and a great new brand name ("let's grow"). The launch idea used the gardener Diarmuid Gavin, but the real creativity lay in the way Mediaedge:cia used partnerships and community activities to build grassroots support.

Finally, smart modelling was used to prove that the campaign drove an extra 1.7 million shopping visits and £52 million incremental spend over the promotional period. The campaign stood out as a genuine piece of "commercial creativity", which showed our industry at its imaginative and effective best. As such, it received universal praise from both juries.

Share of creativity

To conclude, it's worth mentioning the IPA's other effectiveness showpiece: a joint piece of research with Nielsen, which concluded that: "Share of voice continues to drive brand growth, and without investment here, innovation in media and creativity is wasted."

These awards provide a useful and complementary counterpoint, again based on empirical evidence. Namely that smart thinking also drives brand growth and without investment here, share of voice is compromised.

The two bodies of evidence should be read together and suggest that the most effective approach, for advertisers large and small, is to apply imagination to all aspects of the business challenge and invest relatively heavily in the resultant great idea. Maybe it's time for a new metric to reflect this, such as "share of creativity"? One for next year's entrants perhaps, but, in the meantime, congratulations to all this year's winners.

- Andy Nairn is the executive planning director at Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy.