APG Noisy Thinking: a planning surgery with Les Binet and Sarah Carter

The APG brought together Les Binet and Sarah Carter for a Q&A at Google HQ yesterday evening, the latest in their Noisy Thinking series. Billed as a “planning surgery” it was an opportunity to pose questions to and discuss the finer points of marketing strategy in a confidential environment.

It’s been a busy year for the APG: 2 books, a conference and a multiplicity of events. Members are getting their money’s worth.

Here’s 7 themes from the evening:

Binet & Carter How Not To Plan APG

#1 Don’t worry about alienating existing users when trying to get new ones

  • We discussed the hardy perennial of comms briefs: the aim of appealing to new buyers “without alienating existing buyers”
  • Their evidence shows this never happens: they have never seen any ad have a negative influence on sales
  • Alienation as an idea is flawed, based on 2 false premises:
    • Brands are important to people (they aren’t);
    • People who buy you are “your customers” (as Andrew Ehrenberg put it “Your customers are the customers of other brands who occasionally buy you”)
  • The violent re-positioning of Super Noodles – taking it from kids’ tea time treat to blokes post-pub grub – had the effect of increasing sales to all users. That’s how ads work.
  • Badly designed research will means provocative new ideas tend to be rejected. When you make an ad, people often end up liking it.
  • Research also underestimates herd effects. When people experience others really enjoying an ad this builds momentum.
  • Takeaway: Worry less. Build new brands through bold executions.

#2 Put communications LAST

  • We discussed a failed loyalty campaign, based on downloading an app to get a discount. The critique? An expensive way to reach a small amount of people, preaching to the converted, cannibalising existing sales, selling them at a lower margin. It got commissioned because it was a “cool idea.”
  • Put comms LAST not first: start with your business objectives:
    • How much you want to sell, at what margin?
    • Think about what behaviours want to elicit to get there (e.g. penetration vs. loyalty)
  • Advertising is a numbers game. John Lewis speak to most people in Britain multiple times at Xmas, investing in something like 800m impressions. A million impressions is a “rounding error” for a national brand campaign.
  • Takeaway: Marketing is about all 4Ps: get away from “1P marketing”.
  • Takeaway: recognise when the audience for any activity is the marketing community itself: “cool ideas” smack of empire building to me.

#3 Something is better than nothing: the mere exposure effect

  • You can think yourself into inaction, executional paralysis.
  • The biggest sin is not doing anything: 2 years off air is enough to kill a brand.
  • Consider the mere exposure effect: just putting a logo out there will have some effect; investing in 40m exposures even more. Move into the realm of great creative work and you’ll be 10x more effective.
  • Takeaway: check your ego and act.

#4 Ads don’t have to make sense

  • Changing the shape of Tetley teabags to make them round made them market leaders within 3 months. This was despite PG Tips’ iconic and long running Chimps campaign.
  • There is no rational defence: it was the same tea, people just quite liked the change. It felt cosy, the bags fitted in a mug. PG inevitably retaliated with the pyramid bag…
  • It’s a reminder that we live in a system 1 world: mints with holes and meerkats that speak Russian are not bounded in cost benefit analyses.
  • Takeaway: The magic of advertising is in the little things that don’t make sense. Fight to hang on to random illogical things that make people feel something.

Binet & Carter How Not To Plan APG 1#5 Think about “functional alibis”

  • Advertising works beyond the linear message > response paradigm it is often reduced to.
  • The Rowan Atkinson Barclaycard campaign used humourous vignettes involving things like burning carpets to illustrate functional benefits like purchase insurance. These “functional alibis” are just jumping off points for creatives to guide the execution – which actually work through swagger & humour.

#6 Stop worrying about maximising efficiency and ROI: worry about effectiveness

  • In 2011 the AA cut ATL brand spending – putting all their investment into DM, email & paid search. This was an offers-based strategy: hook people, then increase prices.
  • Highly efficient & profitable in the short-term, brand metrics went into free-fall. This led to commoditisation as people searched for the category not the brand. Discounts had to be deeper and existing customers lent upon harder; churn increased etc.
  • Analysis showed the brand would be insolvent within 5 years if the strategy continued.
  • Investment in a heavyweight ATL brand campaign reversed the decline (pic).

Binet & Carter How Not To Plan APG 2.jpg#7 Quant pretesting needs a rethink

  • Most quant pretesting methods work on a rational, linear, message-response model.
  • The best you can say for it is that it gets rid of the worst performers, lifting the floor.
  • The critique is that it lowers the ceiling: it dulls the lustre of anything original.
  • MAJOR VENDOR X state they get the same result from an animatic as a finished ad. Question: how can this be anything other than literally testing a message?
  • It is hard enough working out why successful ads work after they are live. The thought experiment of how successful ads might fare in pretesting makes the argument clearer. Example: the Hamlet photo booth ad (worth rewatching BTW) cannot be rationalised: the comedy is in the nuance, comic timing and casting.
  • Question: do we end up not doing humour if pretesting can’t allow it through its maw?
  • Question: what are we pretesting for? If it is executional guidance, isn’t skilled qualitative research best for this kind of nuance?
  • Takeaway: get a grip researchers.

A thought provoking evening. Thanks to Les Binet & Sarah Carter, Google for hosting and compere Matt Tanter from the APG.


About Simon Shaw

I'm a Director at an insight consultancy. I'm interested in marketing, market research & consumer psychology. The views expressed are not necessarily those of my employer.
This entry was posted in Advertising, Market Research, Marketing Research, Methods, Planning, Qualitative research and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to APG Noisy Thinking: a planning surgery with Les Binet and Sarah Carter

  1. Simon Shaw says:

    A WARC interview builds on these themes:

    “Much of advertising best practice is focused on advising people what to do; rather less effort goes into explaining what not to do, but there are valuable lessons to be learned from failure”


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