Editorial: US research offers scant comfort for ad agencies

Angst-ridden advertising agencies so long bedevilled by self-doubt and the value of what they do will not draw much comfort from a book set to be published in the US next month. It is called What Sticks and claims to address Lord Leverhulme's famous quandary about which half of his advertising budget was wasted.

Rex Briggs and Greg Stuart, the book's authors, reckon they have the answer. It is not as much as Leverhulme once feared but still enough to send shivers down the industry's spine. They calculate that 37 per cent of total adspend is poured down the drain.

Before the pair are accused of plucking the figure out of the air, it is worth bearing a few things in mind. One is that Briggs and Stuart are respected marketing thinkers of long experience. Another is that their calculations are based on five years of research into more than $1 billion of marketing spend data of 36 top US advertisers, among them Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, Kraft and Ford. Their work is being hailed in the US as the most important advertising research for more than a decade.

Along the way, Briggs and Stuart reach some alarming conclusions. Media planning is frequently based on nothing more than hunch, they suggest. At the same time, too many marketers are willing to reject research that does not match their preconceptions in favour of research that reinforces them. The pair castigate clients for failing either to set out the criteria for a successful campaign from the beginning or to measure that success effectively.

So what conclusions are to be drawn? The most depressing one is that, at a time when media grows ever more sophisticated and fragmented, there are still too many cases where the assignment of big budgets is too heavily dependent on somebody's gut feeling. Nevertheless, there is an upside. TV advertising still works. Briggs and Stuart cite numerous examples of it doing so. Audiences may no longer be quite as mass but the medium still has the capability to deliver them in their millions.

However, one nagging thought remains. Does TV still dominate the schedules of big advertisers because many remain either fearful or ignorant of other media which may give them a better return on investment?