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Arguing for ad spend doesn’t have to be an uphill struggle. Here are 12 fresh approaches

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By Sam Bradley | Senior Reporter

November 7, 2023 | 11 min read

As more and more advertising spend is directed towards digital media, agencies face an uphill battle pitching for higher levels of investment. We speak to indie and network leaders about how they approach the problem.

A person hiking up a hill in sunlight

How should agenices make the case for bigger ad investments? / Unsplash

Despite the knowledge that TV and radio are effective, that they help build sustainable long-term brand equity and contribute to sales, marketers are today investing more in exclusively digital channels; according to a recent study, four out of five ad dollars now go to digital channels.

Against the temptation to put what budget you do have into retail media networks, performance channels or paid social (and pressure from shareholders and CFOs to keep costs low), how can agencies make the case for investment?

We asked a dozen indie and network agency leaders for their advice.

How do you solve a problem like… arguing against the tide for advertising investment?

Richard Clay, head of strategy, Zenith UK: “At Zenith, we talk a lot about finding new ways to solve old problems. Persuading businesses to grow their ad spend is an age-old problem. We solve it by being an empathetic commercial partner that helps our clients find new ways to reduce the risk associated with spending money on advertising. In some instances, this means helping with measurement so clients can better demonstrate the commercial return of advertising to their finance team and board; in other cases, we remove the risk associated with advertising entirely and make the client’s business KPI the only metric in town and trade media on a guaranteed outcomes basis.”

Brent Buntin, chief growth officer, Code and Theory: “It’s important to remember that the global GDP has still grown and the consumer economy is still spending. Brands that pulled back during the past year lost the chance to grow their market share because the demand did not relent. At the same time, clients have learned there are many different ways to build brands and that it doesn’t have to be through traditional advertising media. Most won’t argue with the idea of customer-centricity, yet as an industry, so much of what we talk about is centered on ad spend. Customers want great products and experiences, not necessarily great ads. In 2024, brands should be thinking about how they can grow long-term affinity, loyalty and advocacy through services and experiences – some sort of value exchange. At the end of the day, clients can spend what they have to acquire customers, but they won’t retain them if their consumers’ expectations aren’t met and a witty ad isn’t going to help in that scenario.”

Sid McGrath, chief strategy officer, Wunderman Thompson: “The biggest issue our industry faces is how some clients are remunerated – on an annual basis to hit a specific set of KPIs. Unsurprisingly, to safeguard their jobs and bonuses, they can fixate on the current year, resulting in short-term thinking and spend in instant-response media channels. Yet we all know – and I mean that we all know now – that short-term spend doesn’t equate to long-term brand building. It’s robbing the brand equity bank, ready for the poor soul who follows to pick up the pieces. Clients need to appreciate they have a duty of care to the brands they look after, many of which have been around before them and will hopefully exist long after them. So-called ‘investment’ in short-term and small-minded media feels like a dereliction of that duty.

Stevie Archer, executive creative director, SS+K (part of M&C Saatchi Group): “Marketers are like hamsters pressing the drug button: they need immediate results in the short term, even though it can be corrosive long term. So, you have to fight numbers with numbers. According to a 2021 study, 94% of a brand’s pricing power is driven by how meaningfully different the brand is perceived to be. And when only short-term sales activations are used, perceived quality drops. So, start smart, small, with a limited investment and build a numbers-backed case. And always reassure clients that it’s not all-or-nothing – brand-building tactics can and should live side by side with performance.”

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Justine O’Neill, senior director, Analytic Partners: “Advertising creates value for brands – especially during economic downtimes. 60% of brands that increased media investment during the last recession saw ROI improvements with growth in incremental sales and longer-term brand building. To define growth, marketers should set clear goals aligned with the business and analyze how investment will help support them. That way, key business stakeholders, such as the CFO, will better understand its impact. When arguing for ad spend in 2024, scenario planning can help marketers factor in external changes, competitive actions, or pricing measures, so businesses aren’t spending blindly and can swiftly adjust when unknown events occur.”

Steve Hastings, chief strategy officer, Isobel: “When markets are in turmoil and rival brands are in distress, opportunity lurks. There is plenty of evidence that says a brand can gain market share more cheaply in a recession than in a bull market – and come out of the recession faster. A recent survey quoted by the IPA suggests that investment managers now look at the strength of a brand and its marketing before they look at the quality of the management team. So keep your brand strong, keep momentum with visible spend and keep the money people happy. After all, you cannot save your way to success.”

Sarah Baumann, managing director, The Wild (part of Jungle): “This depends on which cliff you’re watching the tide from! From where I’m standing, the trend towards increased digital investment is eminently sensible, even more so if at its heart is a robust, consistent social strategy. The reason why? Social builds brand. We have to stop thinking of digital and social as driving performance and the old ATL channels as building brand. UK adults are on their phones on average three hours a day. That’s an incredible amount of access to build your brand and drive sales – if your strategy, content and execution are good enough. And the ROI will be measurable enough to keep the CFO happy.”

Andrew Southcott, group managing director, Captivate Group: “For big brands in big categories with big budgets, you can win the argument with data (Paul Dyson at Accelero has a presentation that nails this), but for most others, the TVC won’t pay for itself. Don’t push water uphill and deploy your budget into other channels where you can win and anyone trying to win the argument by proposing reusing your TVC as a social asset… please don’t, it doesn’t work and you’ll make your below-the-line agency cry.”

hannah march

Hannah March, chief growth officer, Fold7: “Despite industry recorded ad spend, several studies suggest marketers know the value of brand building and that budgets will start to shift over the next 18 months to reflect this. CFOs, however, may take longer to convince to beef-up those budgets accordingly. I would suggest we can turn towards some of business’s biggest threats – disruptors, obtaining talent and the cost of living crisis, for example – as threats that can be alleviated by the power of branding and the right communications.”

Chris Woodward, chief executive officer, CTI Digital: “In a lot of organizations, there is a limited amount of the kind of big picture, long-term thinking that drives sustainable outcomes. So, it’s unsurprising that in these economically challenging times, many brands are deploying a relentless stream of low-value, low-return and easily measurable ‘performance’ activities. Agencies need to demonstrate to their clients how moving away from this approach and rethinking their budgets is the smart choice. By investing in brand activity, clients can drive long-term differentiation and awareness, while targeted performance comms, ideally harnessing tech and AI, can convert demand in a cost-effective and agile way.”

Ed McLarnon, senior vice-president, regional experience strategy, Rapp: “To get out of the trap of short-termism, agencies need to reframe their services, tying them to long-term commitments that brands have already made in terms of data and technology spend. That helps shift the focus from short-term campaigns that can be turned off and on to creative being an essential component of overall business transformation programs, with much longer-term investment commitments behind them.”

Christian Cocker, executive strategic planning director, RPA: “If the tide of advertising investment is currently waning, it’s worth reminding your clients of this and reframing it as an opportunity they could miss out on. It’s the perfect time to get more share of voice while everyone is tending to cut back – which means that every dollar they invest in the brand will have greater value. It’s like your client gets to shout louder when everyone else is speaking quietly. Play to your clients’ fear of missing out. The real risk is following along and getting swept out in the tide.”

Want to join future conversations on The Drum? Give me a shout via sam.bradley@thedrum.com and I’ll clue you in on next week’s debate.

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