No 10's response to its Brexit ad blitz impact shows it's too easy to fall back on reach

In the modern digital world, where impacts are cheap and unreliable, incremental reach has become devalued

There’s something close to optimism in the ad land air as the "uncertainty" of 2019 is replaced, at least for now, with a measure of certainty. We’re leaving the EU for better or ill and some delayed plans are back on the front burner.

With that in mind, analysts are looking back on the 'Get Ready for Brexit' campaign of October 2019 and asking whether the £46m of taxpayer money spent was worthwhile. Putting aside the fact the ad blitz ultimately prepared the public for a deadline that was never met (a Brexit extension was granted by the EU last October), did it achieve its objectives?

Well, if the objective was for people and business owners to seek further information on how to actually prepare, then The National Audit Office (NAO) suggests it did not: the figures show that those seeking information about Brexit did not notably change as a result of the campaign.

However, the proportion of UK citizens who reported that they have looked or have started to look for information on Brexit did not notably change on the back of the push. It ranged between 32% and 37% during the campaign and was 34% when the campaign stopped.

Of the extensive report into the campaign's effectiveness, the bit that caught my eye was the Cabinet Office (responsible for Brexit preparations) response. It claimed grandly that the campaign reached 99.8% of the population, with average opportunities to see the range of billboard, print, TV and online adverts an impressive 55 times. The implication being that this delivery was a measure of success for the campaign.

I’m always sceptical when reach and frequency are offered as evidence that advertising was worthwhile. The opportunity to see an ad is not a view, and it’s a long way short of advertising awareness. It’s a measure of the total impact delivery across all platforms, with an effort made to dedupe for total incremental reach.

And in the modern digital world, where impacts are cheap and unreliable, it’s become devalued to the point of worthlessness.

Prior to the advent of Mediaplanner+ which uses IPA Touchpoints Data to deliver multimedia coverage and frequency, agencies used a formula that was both simple and inaccurate. If TV reached 60%, and radio reached 60%, then 84% of people were exposed in total. The assumption being that 60% of those who didn’t see it on TV heard it on radio (60% + (100%-60%)*60%)=84%). That is clearly flawed, for instance people who watch a lot of TV might also listen to a lot of radio so deduped reach could potentially be a lot lower.

Mediaplanner+ introduced actual deduped reach from various JIC systems and purports to be a much more accurate measure. Conveniently however, if one inputs a national 60% reach campaign on TV (140 adult ratings), combined with a 60% reach campaign on radio (400 adult GRPs), it combines to give… 84% reach of adults. So pretty much exactly the same result as the old fag packet excel formula we used to use.

But even if the figures were accurate, reach does not convert to ad awareness without an effective media vehicle, creative cut-through, a digestible message and a host of other factors I don’t have space to list.

Worse than that, modern reach calculations assume all exposures are equal. So 140m digital banner impressions bought for £50k on an exchange with 50% viewability are given the same weight as 240 adult TV ratings costing ten times that amount and with 100% in view (and no bots in sight).

Facebook has managed, by dictating reporting language, to convince some media planners that video impressions are the right metric for measuring the reach of their campaigns. However, a recent Ebiquity study showed that of 5.3m Facebook video impressions, only 35,000 were audible and completed. That’s much less than 1% of the impacts having genuine value. Unruly did much better with 2% of impacts having value.

Given these flaws, why was the government focusing on reach and frequency, when a quick look at YouGov Profiles from October 2019 reveal that 75% of the population claim to have seen Government adverts on preparing for Brexit? Its own research pitted a figure of 73% too; both are significant numbers, and ones that could be used to indicate an advertising success story.

Especially if you’re Dominic Cummings. Six weeks after these ads ran the Conservatives won a landslide General Election victory built on a Brexit platform. So that’s £46m well spent surely?

Simon Crunden is managing director at Republic of Media. He tweets at @SimonCrunden

Join us, it's free.

Become a member to get access to:

  • Exclusive Content
  • Daily and specialised newsletters
  • Research and analysis

Join us, it’s free.

Want to read this article and others just like it? All you need to do is become a member of The Drum. Basic membership is quick, free and you will be able to receive daily news updates.