Effectiveness Brand Strategy Marketing

Creatively awarded ads, once effective, are now officially average

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By Andrew Tindall, SVP

May 21, 2024 | 9 min read

Award-winning ads aren’t as effective as they used to be. Have we got worse at picking them, or is something else afoot? System1’s Andrew Tindall brings the data.

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The sun’s out, your mates keep coming into work hungover, and LinkedIn is packed with fake out-of-home ads. You know what that means? It’s awards season.

It is the most wonderful time of year when the ad industry pretends it isn’t on its knees, crippled by hourly pay and grinding procurement processes, where we all hold hands and celebrate creativity.

Despite my obvious cynicism, I believe it is brilliant that marketers want to champion creativity, and not just because it’s quite nice. Paul Dyson’s robust data shows that creative quality is one of the greatest multipliers of marketing profit, second only to brand size.

But these awards are subjective, and by whose standards are we judging creativity?

Can we see the effectiveness wood from the creativity trees?

Unfortunately, I’m writing this because I’ve found data to confirm the nail in creativity’s coffin. Well, not all creativity, just the stuff we’re intent on awarding. It’s the end chapter in the book that Peter Field has spent 20+ years writing with the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA).

About 15 years ago, in ‘Creativity and Effectiveness,’ Field shared a powerful finding. Creatively awarded campaigns made extra share of voice (ESOV) more efficient. Winning work, on average, gained market share about 12 times easier than non-awarded campaigns of similar spending. Good work worked, and judges knew how to pick it.

However, in 2019’s ‘Crisis in Creative Effectiveness,’ Field shared how creatively awarded campaigns paid back more in the long term. Notably, these campaigns were now citing short-term metrics as their main objective. This shift from focusing creativity on the short and not fame or brand, coupled with a dramatic reduction in spend put behind creatively awarded campaigns, led to a troubling trend.

Creatively awarded campaigns were less effective. They were closer to delivering similar market share effects as campaigns not awarded for creativity.

Note an important detail: market share is the holy grail of effectiveness. It’s what all our other goals, hopes, and metrics need to reach.

I’m joining the advisory council for Cairns Crocodile Creativity Awards this year, but an obvious question hangs over me. Has the effectiveness of creativity really carried on decreasing past 2018?

Well, that's easy to solve. I asked all my marketing mates to tell me what they thought about creativity and effectiveness. Just kidding. I did what any trained marketer would do: ask the consumer. I dipped into System1’s database of 100,000+ ads tested with over 15 million consumers to understand their branded emotional reaction to campaigns.

We use this data to create our Star Rating, which we’ve shown with the IPA, to predict how effective an ad will be in the long term. The more intensely positive viewers are left feeling towards a brand after an ad, the higher the Star Rating, as it influences that important System 1 buying behavior. All on a simple scale of 1-5 Stars.

Luckily, Orlando Wood (our CIO) has also been rather interested in this topic for a while now. Between 2010 and 2018, he tested the most creatively awarded campaigns that had an element of video to measure their Star Ratings. I then studied the following few years to see whether it trended downward. I think you know the direction of travel but perhaps not the velocity!

Creatively awarded advertising is now as effective as the average ad.

Some might find this all rather fluffy, with claims around long-term market share growth, fame and brand building. So, let me put it in brass tacks for you.

We’ve mapped ad Star Ratings to WARC’s global effectiveness database and shown that campaigns scoring one to three Stars with consumers, which are now the majority of recent creatively awarded campaigns, return way below half the return on investment (ROI) when compared with ads that score four and five Stars.

This isn’t a creativity hit piece. This is a rallying cry for creativity to no longer be considered “non-working spend.”

It’s an attempt to understand what needs to happen next.

That’s difficult.

We’ve known marketers have been shit at picking winning ads empirically since 2016. In ‘Marketers’ Intuitions about the Sales Effectiveness of Advertisements,’ a group of researchers, including Byron Sharp *thunderclap, cat hiss*, showed that marketers could pick out effective ads 51% of the time. AKA, it’s about as good as flipping a coin.

The answer must be the inclusion of effectiveness metrics in creativity awards–creativity that works, or the business of creativity, as Sir John Hegarty calls his new course.

Some awards are starting to do this by adding ‘Creative Effectiveness’ categories, but the dream would be for all categories to have some sort of effectiveness criteria. This means demonstrating that a campaign achieved the objectives it set out to do and ideally bringing the consumer’s POV into the judging room.

Why should we bother measuring the effectiveness of creativity?

This is a fight worth having. Creatively awarded campaigns that get it right and focus on long-term emotional brand building are still 16 times more likely to bring major profit growth in IPA’s database.

Creativity attracts young, diverse talent to marketing. It is a superpower that needs to be wielded to fight what Peter Field and Adam Morgan are now calling ‘The Cost of Dull,’ the extra £10m media spend it costs UK brands per campaign to make boring ads achieve the same effect as interesting ones.

Beyond that, it’s pretty damn obvious that the explosion of second screens and digital media has had its part to play in this 20-year trend. This no longer has to be a lucrative media problem: ‘What stage is best for our brand-building show?’. It can be a heroic creative solution: ‘Which brand-building shows can we now put on the stages available to us today?’.

We’ll quickly find the answer is already ringing in our ears. Because creatives have been doing it since the dawn of advertising - we must entertain for commercial gain.

That’s why I’m rather optimistic about Cannes Lions this year. WARC’s ‘Creative Impact’ agenda is exactly what we need. It demonstrates the power of creativity when put to good use, highlighting the marketing superheroes out there doing it. Because as Uncle Ben says to Spider-Man, clinging on for his last breath, with great power comes great responsibility.

Let’s try not to fuck it up.

But you already know that, don’t you?

Because you’ve read this far and care enough to be part of the solution. Let’s hope there are enough marketers like you left to fight this good fight.

Read more from Andrew here.

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