Whitespace for the bold

Planning for marketing effectiveness, not media efficiency.

10 min read

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The future of strategic media planning is an evolving and challenging area.

The following article provides guidelines and key principles to help navigate this, reviewing the current state of the industry, considering best practice and unpacking relevant case studies.

The State of the Industry Today

It is an incredibly exciting time in the media industry.

Traditional channels have evolved to give us digital out of home advertising, streaming audio, and connected TV.

Digital advertising has matured to a global majority position and birthed new media channels in the past decade including search, social, programmatic, and commerce.

Technology and data have become integral to targeting and delivering campaigns, and global enterprise marketing cloud providers like Adobe, Oracle, Salesforce, Amazon and Google are all part of our marketing investment mix today.

Investment from venture capital and disruptors (such as direct to consumer brands) are also challenging the media marketing status quo.

With efficient new channels, emerging new competitors, and automated new enterprise cloud solutions, is media investment more effective than it has ever been before?

Actually, no.

A 2018 ten-year longitudinal study by Binet & Field for the UK IPA suggests that marketing effectiveness has actually been in decline since 2012. This well-documented academic finding has also been reinforced in the last few years as leading global advertisers have admitted to becoming distracted with new technologies, new channels, and new measurements at the expense of their overall marketing investment effectiveness and brand growth.

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How did we get here?

The last twenty years of media has seen enormous change across both consumer behaviours and marketing solution options. Some of the biggest shifts in human communication have taken place in recent years.

The rise of the internet and digital media in the early 2000s. The advent of the iPhone in 2007 and the rapid advance of mobile platforms and social media consumption in the early 2010s. The proliferation of ‘martech’ in the late 2010s driving addressability across channels and programmatic automation.

In 2020 alone we’ve seen:

  • US Presidential Election highlights social media’s role in society
  • US adults listen to more streaming audio than radio
  • COVID 19 collapses the US television upfront investment commitment
  • COVID 19 accelerates global ecommerce to 30% YoY growth
  • US streaming households set to pass cable households at 85 million

Digesting all of these new channels and consumer behaviours, not to mention all the new measurements that accompanied them, became a challenge for every marketing organisation.

Marketers took their eyes off the holistic goals of effectiveness and growth and became distracted in reviewing all these new tools. They divided up their teams by channel to better understand search, social, programmatic, and data and gave them individual performance goals by channel with new Key Performance Indicators like clicks, click through rate, likes, and shares. Some marketers even supported internal performance competition, ranking their marketing efforts by Return on Investment (ROI) on spreadsheets, with attribution often favouring those channels closest to the point of purchase.

Simultaneously, all of these trends were supported by the tailwind of the global financial collapse of 2008 and the corporate commercial pressures that followed since. Faster turnover in global CMO roles, the rise of private equity hostile take-overs and zero-base budgeting, and fantastic new growth benchmarks from successful tech and Direct to Consumer brands, all contributed to an ‘all-in’ hunger for short-term growth measured in spreadsheet ROI.

The rising technology companies replacing the traditional media guard were well-equipped to feed this hunger, with new channels designed to capture this short-term ROI, and new attribution schemes that tended to overweight the attribution of last-touch channels in the overall marketing investment mix.

What is changing?

Most marketers are well versed in the theory, challenges and changes we have mentioned in this report. These are universally accepted truths with plenty of cautionary industry tales filling the news cycle to reinforce the theory.

We have the information, but is this leading to industry-wide behaviour change?

A recent survey of global CMOs highlighted that short term thinking was a ‘primary concern’ going into 2021. It also highlighted that the most likely areas of their marketing budget to be cut in 2021 were in brand advertising. This suggests a level of cognitive dissonance is at play within the industry. Compounded by the economic challenges as a consequence of COVID 19.

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How do we go forward?

Guiding principles for the future of media

For AKQA, the future of media is whitespace for the bold.

The bold businesses who avoid inaction and fill the gap left by the conservative. A future driven by brands who have the confidence to build for long-term outcomes. Marketers who embrace our craft and take risks. Where effectiveness is our guiding principle. Driven by vision, geared for outcome.

Think marketing effectiveness, not media efficiency

  • Build your brand as an asset now so you can draw down from it later
  • Creative distinctiveness remains the largest active lever to shift effectiveness
  • ‘Media’ is not a solution in isolation

Avoid silos in your marketing organisation, think performance brand

In the past, ‘performance branding’ was often a cop-out compromise term that claimed to accomplish both brand and performance roles in one – while actually doing neither well.

Instead, think of performance branding as a single integrated spectrum of strategic marketing investment that can be dialled up and down depending on business needs. Use channels to their endemic strengths – TV and total video solutions for awareness, impact, and persuasion, digital and social platforms for segmentation and frequency reinforcement, search and commerce for sales activation. Your brand should be always-on.

  • Empower your brand to deliver both brand and performance outcomes
  • Brand should be always-on — remove the reliance on campaigns

Use theory as a guide, but test to your own standards

Neat standards of 60/40 brand to performance investment splits are a great starting point, but don’t assume them as universal truth. Investment ratios vary by product vertical, seasonality, and business needs. Use geographic or time-bound incrementality tests to figure out what works for your brand and business.

  • The universal ‘truths’ of Binet, Field, Ritson, Sharp, may not neatly reflect your market
  • Stretch and test theory across restricted geographies or audiences

Mark your own homework, don’t let interested parties do it for you

Don’t let your media partners grade their own homework. Find a reputable third-party partner or build your own multi-touch attribution and media mix models.

  • Add proprietary Multi-touch attribution and Media Mix Modelling to channel reporting and campaign tracking
  • Align measurement to business outcomes
  • Develop a universal scorecard, benchmarking digital to other media
  • Ditch clicks, CTRs, likes and other digital meta-measurements - they are not a good measure of effective media

Be a slave to your customer, not your technology

  • Technology should facilitate connection, not define your strategy
  • Focus on the data you can own
  • Harness the algorithms
  • Optimise to signals of intent, not a funnel
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Afterpay Case Study - AUNZ

Performance Brand

Afterpay has grown to a $30bn valuation faster than Facebook, largely on the back of partnership and product. The vast majority of Afterpay’s customers sign up through a merchant’s website, during the checkout process.

In order to increase new customer acquisition, logic would say that a strategy which drives more customers to merchant sites should yield growth. Even digital attribution would suggest this is the correct approach, with previous campaign benchmarks showing new sign ups increasing by 3,000% when digital media drove users directly to partner sites.

But reality looks different; our logic was flawed.

Performance activity was merely taking credit for sign ups and purchases that would have happened without our interference. The incremental uplift was minimal.

The reason for this is simple — we hoped that people seeing an Afterpay ad would click through to a merchant site and purchase something for which they were not necessarily in market for. This is a trap common to many media strategies, particularly in digital channels where it is possible to design intricate systems, targeted at highly identifiable audiences.

We revisited our approach, considering that people have numerous buy-now-pay-later (BNPL) options and countless, unpredictable pathways to making a purchase.

With this in mind, our objective became clear: how best do we influence people before their purchase? How do we differentiate Afterpay in a sea of payment options, enough to trigger a new customer sign up?

The relaunch of the Afterpay brand, ‘The OG of Interest-Free’, and the now iconic Bondi Mint Pantone was the perfect opportunity to test our new thinking:

  • A brand-new creative platform, built for digital channels, reinforced Afterpay’s position as the original of buy-now-pay-later.
  • An omni-channel media planning approach, with targeting built to maximise unique reach ensured we benefited from low costs and could over-index on engagement-rich mediums like video.
  • Optimising towards exposure and attention helped manage the single-minded Google and Facebook algorithms to drive true influence, rather than video game metrics like clicks and click though rate (CTR).

The results

10.8% uplift in new customers, making this approach 10x more effective than a traditional acquisition strategy.

But in addition, the brand-first approach yielded significant brand and commercial outcomes:

  • 60m impressions delivered
  • Brand metrics improving 2x over category benchmarks
  • Revenue growth from existing customers

Most importantly, Afterpay has a strategic platform for continued success — one that balances short-term commercial objectives alongside long-term brand building.

Key Takeaways

Brand drives performance

The influence of brand over purchase decision can yield short-term results but should be considered an always-on endeavour to maximise effectiveness.

Measure uplift over various timeframes

Aim to understand relative uplift and impact delay over different time frames in order to build benchmarks specific to your brand. Use these benchmarks to steer planning decisions in the future.

Work with known behaviour

Avoid the temptation of trying to steer people down a path with digital media. Funnels still have a place in planning, but generally don’t reflect the complexity of customer behaviour.

Illustrations by Lin Chen.

All opinions expressed throughout this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent those of AKQA or its affiliates.

Written by

Chris Hitchcock, MD, Media


Scott Symonds, Managing Partner, Media

AKQA San Francisco

Andrew Burger, Director Strategy and Innovation, Media