Contest of ideas is good for brands
A view from Gideon Spanier

Contest of ideas is good for brands

Tension between brand-building and performance marketing can be healthy.

Sara Bennison, chief marketing officer of Nationwide Building Society, threw down an important challenge at Campaign's Media 360 conference this year when she suggested the ad industry has been "suckered" into thinking that long-term brand-building and short-term performance marketing are "in conflict". "Somehow we seem to have become obsessed by pitting brand against performance as if they were two separate things and I just don’t believe they are," she said.

Bennison pointed out that Campaign has played a role in shaping this debate as it has run a series of "brand v performance" breakfast briefings this year in London, New York and, most recently, Manchester. Getting the balance right is "the marketer’s dilemma", as Campaign has called it.

Long term versus short term is a perennial debate but has become more urgent because more than half of UK adspend is now in digital channels. Advertisers have ploughed money into search, social and programmatic media because it can produce measurable, short-term outcomes, particularly for digital-disruptor businesses that are focused on metrics such as sales growth, customer acquisition and app installations.

Now, it feels as if some companies will invest in their brands only if the idea is "entirely rational or totally tested or happens today", according to Bennison, who warned that creative, right-brain thinking and emotional storytelling are being neglected. "What we are doing [as an industry] is devaluing the power of advertising for the collective good of brands in the economy over the long term in pursuit of individual, short-term gain for channels deemed in some arbitrary way to be ‘performance’, rather than ‘long-performance’ drivers."

Her argument chimes with other thoughtful leaders. Simon Peel, global head of media at Adidas, has admitted the sports brand has been "overly focused on digital attribution" and Orlando Wood, author of a new IPA book, Lemon, has raised fears that "the advertising brain has turned sour".

And Bennison is right to focus on language. Even describing direct response and short-term activation as performance marketing is potentially misleading – all marketing should perform.

The rise of performance marketing has been a cute piece of positioning by the digital evangelists, as Les Binet, head of effectiveness at Adam & Eve/DDB, noted when he spoke at Campaign’s London breakfast. 

It was Binet and Peter Field of the IPA who showed that the optimum mix between long-term brand-building and short-term activation should be 60:40, and subsequent research has warned of a shift towards 50:50 or worse. Their 2013 study remains important because it demonstrates brand and performance are not always the same. They often involve different creative messages and media channels.

The crux of the matter, then, is not so much whether marketers should treat brand and performance separately but rather whether the two are in conflict. And this is where some advertisers, particularly those "new economy" businesses, do have a fundamentally different approach from "classic" brand-builders.

Digitally native companies are likely to have built their online marketing capabilities in-house from scratch and, because media is so central to driving growth, they take a performance-led approach to most, if not  all, their marketing.

Ross Matthews, chief marketing officer of Ice Lolly, which has become one of the UK’s biggest travel price-comparison sites, talked about building its brand "on top of a digital base of performance" at Campaign’s Manchester event.

"We’ve moved to in-house as much as we can" because performance marketing is so vital and agencies "can’t really help on a day-to-day basis", Matthews said. "They’re not close enough to how we trade."

That points to another shift inside brands. The chief marketer is no longer certain to be the sole custodian of marketing spend. The head of ecommerce, chief digital officer, customer director or CRM manager might also have a say, especially over performance-type media. "Ecommerce experts are being tapped more and more to lead marketing," an agency chief, with several disruptor clients, observes.

None of this means brand and performance have to be in conflict, but friction can be healthy. The future of advertising should be a contest of ideas.