Thinktv conference: Short term-ism, the rise of left brain advertising, and a sweary Mark Ritson

Thinktv Canada brought together a collection of international heavyweight speakers from the U.K. and Australia at its Media, Marketing & Effectiveness conference in Toronto this week.

The afternoon event at the Carlu was highlighted by a high-energy presentation from Australian marketing professor and brand expert Mark Ritson about the 10 drivers of advertising effectiveness. His 94-slide (!) presentation lasted nearly two hours, punctuated by liberal use of profanity and some comedic digs at fellow Australian marketing professor, Byron Sharp.

It was complemented by a presentation from U.K. researcher Peter Field (pictured) about the “creative crisis” being created by a focus on short-term marketing strategies, and an engrossing talk from System1’s chief innovation officer, Orlando Wood, about how the digital age has led to a rise in left brain-led advertising that has been stripped of its humanity.

Peter Field: Awards show judges are picking more of the “wrong” creative

In a presentation entitled “The crisis in creative effectiveness,” Field—who, along with research partner Les Binet has conducted extensive research into ad effectiveness—said that advertising emphasizing short-term business gains has grown significantly in recent years, accounting for as much as half of the work honoured at leading awards shows like Cannes.

“We’re transferring all the creative awards from the kinds of campaigns that use creativity wisely, to the kinds of campaigns that waste it,” he said. This, he cautioned, is “immensely destructive” to brands, since they’re choosing to learn from bad creative practice.

Field began his presentation with a dire warning to the audience: Marketers and agencies are killing the value of creativity because of an increasing focus on short-term. “We had better damn well do something about it before the CFOs and CEOs of the world discover what we’ve done, because then they’ll stop investing in creativity, which has in the past been the single most important engine for growth that we’ve had.”

Field said that creatively awarded campaigns have gone from delivering an average of 1.9 “very large” business effects in 2008, to about 1.4 in recent years. Creative, he said, is increasingly being used to fuel short-term gains and has been hijacked for activation at the expense of brand-building.

“The obsessive interest in places like Cannes is with this short-term sales activation model—the serving of tightly targeted behavioural prompts in a timely and relevant manner.”

He singled out Burger King’s recent “#ScaryClownNight” work as indicative of the type of work that is increasingly being lauded by awards shows (“this is hot sex” for judges, he said) but is actually a “grotesque waste of some very talented creative people’s time.”

Field said that the campaign is not strategic, but a tactical offer for free burgers that commits a cardinal sin of advertising by using key brand asset of its major competitor. “It’s a promotion for free burgers,” he said. “I don’t need high-end creative to [give away] free burgers. If you allow me to give burgers away for free, I’m pretty sure I could get some action going.”

The effects of such tactics rapidly fade away, he said, requiring brands to keep serving them up “simply to stand still.” An “enormous” number of global businesses are caught on this marketing treadmill, he said.

It’s imperative to have a combination of brand-building and tactical work to drive business results, he said. Using the IPA Databank (a repository of more than 1,500 detailed case studies in the IPA Effectiveness Awards) for reference, Field noted that combining the two produces an average of 2.4 very large business effects, compared with 1.5 for campaigns with a low level of branding and a high level of activation.

Field also demonstrated the “gulf” between good and bad creative practice using the IPA Databank of creatively awarded long-term campaigns: High performers typically saw nearly three very large business results over the course of their campaigns, compared to 0.5 for low performers, while achieving yearly market growth of 1.6% compared to 0.2% for low performers.

Orlando Wood: The rise of left brain advertising

Wood, chief innovation officer of System1 and author of the new book Lemon, gave a compelling, slow-building presentation outlining left brain/right brain thinking and how it has changed culture through art, architecture and, yes, advertising.

The left brain, he said, is goal-oriented, reductionist and despises ambiguity. The right brain sees the world with “broad and vigilant attention,” understands the implicit, and can grasp concepts like novelty and contradiction.

He argued that the digital era—with its tendency to “sanitize, centralize and specialize”—has fostered a predominantly left brain approach to creativity that has stripped advertising of its humanity and, perhaps most importantly, its ability to entertain. In other words, Wood argues in Lemon, advertising has turned sour.

Wood shared his findings from an analysis of 620 commercials that appeared on the British soap opera Coronation Street between 1989 and 2019, with researchers given no prior knowledge of the year they first aired.

The findings revealed a steady decline in hallmarks of right-brain thinking—such as implicit communication (ie: knowing glances), a clear sense of place, and plays on words/subversion of language—between 1990 and 2020.

In its place, he said, is creative work that appeals more to the left brain, with an emphasis on qualities such as a highly rhythmic soundtrack, freeze frame effects, abstracted body parts and adjectives as nouns (“now-ification”).

Further analysis of 200 TV ads for from the U.S. and U.K. found an average of 3.4 left brain features in contemporary U.S. advertising, and just 2.6 right brain features, compared with 3.9 and 2.3 respectively in U.K. advertising.

An analysis of 100 U.K. ads that ran as pre-, mid- and post-roll on YouTube found that the pattern is even more pronounced in digital video, with an average of 3.9 left brain features in U.S. YouTube ads, compared with 2.3 right brain features.

Mark Ritson: 10 drivers of effectiveness

Ritson’s presentation, based on analysis of nearly 6,000 Effies case studies, revealed what he identified as the 10 key drivers of advertising effectiveness, ranging from research (#10) to brand size (#1). “If I was to rewind my career 20 years, these are the things I wish people had explained to me earlier than now as to what I should be doing to have the most effect.”

Among the drivers:

— Sufficient excess share of voice (ESOV): ESOV is a “pretty inescapable” aspect of brand management, said Ritson. ESOV is determined by subtracting a brand’s market share from its share of voice, with a positive result contributing to ESOV.

Throwing more dollars at advertising can contribute to a higher ESOV, said Ritson, but it won’t necessarily translate into extra market share in the short-term. “If you just go double the ESOV all year, you’re not likely to get yourself an extra 10% market share, or we’d all be billionaires.” Ritson said that achieving a 10% ESOV in one year could likely equate to 0.5 to 0.7% growth in market share.

By increasing its ESOV by 16 between 2013 and 2019, European discount grocer Lidl moved from a 3% share in the U.K. to 6%—equating into about US$4 billion in increased annual sales. “You have to invest to get growth, and if you under-invest in your brand, whatever else you’re doing, the forces of gravity will work against you,” said Ritson.

Codification: While only #3 on his list, Ritson called it the most “practically applicable” for brands. He defined codification as using the “codes”—or distinctive brand assets—that are an inherent part of good brands, such as KFC’s Colonel or Veuve Clicquot’s distinctive yellow label.

“Most of you work for brands that have got great codes—you’re just not using them enough,” he said. “The question you should be thinking is ‘Which codes do I have,’ and the more important question: ‘How can I use them all the fucking time?’ to be more distinct.”

While cautioning brands not to use too many codes (a logo plus three or four should be sufficient, he said) he urged marketers to employ codification to the point where “people come to you and say ‘You’ve blown it.’ Do it some more. Trust me, you cannot over code-ify all of your touch-points. Try it. You’ll only make money.”

Ritson’s presentation also concluded with a harsh truth for smaller brands: Being a big brand, with deeper pockets and greater salience, is the #1 driver of effectiveness. “This is not a story of defeating Goliath,” he said. “This is the story of Goliath continuing to smash the shit out of small brands, because it’s not fair.

“It’s unfortunate for those of you that are middle or lower than average size, good news for the bigger boys and girls, but one of the greatest reasons why you build a brand is it gives you an unfair advantage in future effectiveness.”


Chris Powell