'The emperor is wearing no clothes'

In the first of a series exploring creative effectiveness, Jon Steel likens the focus on shares, hashtags, 'likes' and social buzz in modern effectiveness case studies to The Emperor's New Clothes and urges the industry to wear something a little more substantial to truly meet its clients' needs.

Jon Steel: group planning director at WPP and chief strategy officer at George Patterson Y&R Sydney
Jon Steel: group planning director at WPP and chief strategy officer at George Patterson Y&R Sydney

My first job in the industry was at London’s Boase Massimi Pollitt, the agency that, along with J Walter Thompson, pioneered the discipline of account planning.

BMP had a very simple belief about advertising: it had to be distinctive enough to stand out and be noticed, and relevant and motivating enough to get results for its clients. Most importantly, it regarded "distinctive" and "relevant" as complementary – rather than opposing – forces. I was trained to believe that advertising that consistently embraced both was a powerful commercial tool.

It’s not exactly brain surgery to suggest that our job as marketing communications professionals is to create "work that works". Why else would clients pay us? For the past 30 years, however, I have been surprised by how many in the client community still regard creativity as a dark art that gets in the way of their business objectives, while there are many on the agency side who continue to pursue distinctiveness for its own sake.

In my early years in the business, there was a very clear understanding that when we talked about effectiveness, we meant a campaign’s ability to deliver on commercial objectives. Now, when I look at case histories, all I seem to find is excited reporting of "thousands of Tweets… unique media impressions… driving social engagement… creating a real buzz… starting a movement… keeping the conversation going… ‘likes’ on Facebook… trending hashtag… hot topic on social media… page views… video views… giving bloggers a reason to get excited".

If someone out there really believes that excited bloggers represent ROI, then the apocalypse is truly upon us

Someone has to say it: the emperor is wearing no clothes. I don’t think it’s either old-fashioned or irrelevant to expect effects such as increases in usage frequency, sales volume, share or margin. If someone out there really believes that excited bloggers represent return on investment, then I’m afraid the apocalypse is well and truly upon us.

If we are to be successful in meeting our clients’ needs and growing our agencies, we have to develop and champion a culture of effectiveness. This means identifying the real business problems that our campaigns must address and persuading our clients to attack these issues, rather than gathering cheap "likes", hits and visits ahead of the quarterly executive meeting.

When we prepare creative briefs, they should include questions such as "What will success look like?", "How can we develop a clear, quantifiable connection between our marketing communications and business results?" and "What data do we need?".

We also need to remind clients of the value that our campaigns can add to their business and remember that this is also good for ours. If I help create a campaign that works and actually persuades people to buy things, which in turn builds my client’s business, then that client’s reputation will soar, they will remain employed and my agency will most likely keep and grow the account.

That’s why awards such as the Cannes Creative Effectiveness Lions are so important. They showcase the very best creative work from around the world and provide the hard evidence that is needed of its commercial impact.

It’s vital that we continue to demonstrate this connection and agree – as an industry – that no campaign can be described as "great" until it has simultaneously climbed the twin peaks of creativity and effectiveness.

Jon Steel is the group planning director at WPP and the chief strategy officer at George Patterson Y&R Sydney