Occasionally I have the enormous pleasure of judging New Media Age’s Interactive Marketing and Advertising Awards. And a very splendid awards scheme it is too, with this year’s kings of the digital castle crowned in some style last month. I get invited to fill the ‘enthusiasm-over-experience’ role of digital-curious advertising outsider. This usually involves gobbing off in a cavalier fashion and then being slapped down by people that actually know what they are talking about.

However, there is one territory on which I feel on more solid ground, and that is campaign accountability. And in particular the ludicrous way in which the digital community generally sets about proving effectiveness, a not inconsiderable criteria, both in judging these awards and in the current business landscape.
Let’s be direct about this. Judging by many of the less successful entries, the standard measure for return on investment would appear to be the difference between the cost of the campaign and the cost of reaching the same number of people in more conventional media. That is not a return on investment, that is the sort of haphazard disregard for accurate accounting that precipitated the current global financial crisis.
Indeed, any effectiveness metric that does not tell you the incremental profit that your marketing activity generated for the business isn’t worth the paper it is written on. Not click through, not cost per impression, not cost per response, not page views, not dwell time, not fanciful measures of engagement. Incremental profit. And if that seems an extraordinarily difficult thing for most digital campaigns to demonstrate, I’m heartily sorry. But it doesn’t make it any less imperative the industry resolves this question, because it isn’t going away.
And I lay the blame fairly and squarely on digital’s cult of accountability. Accountability sounds like a thoroughly noble endeavour because it suggests an appropriate use of the client’s budget and an ability to show what happened to it. It is also a really handy stick with which to beat advertising agencies and their big production budgets and legendary levels of media wastage. However, accountability is a bottom up measure of success, and in truth it measures efficiency not effect. If digital agencies show client how wisely they spent the budget against the competition and versus last year, advertising agencies look at what happened to the business and then try and show how their activity contributed to that success. In other words they approach effectiveness from the top down, a fundamentally different world-view.
In fact it is precisely this cult of accountability that is getting in the way of the digital community progressing from clever marketing handymen to the architects of brand success. After all what Chief Executive is really the least bit interested in how responsibly any one has used their money? What they tend to be concerned with is whether their marketing is having an un-ambiguously positive effect on the growth and profitability of the business. In response to Lord Leverhulme, who cares if half your marketing budget is wasted if the other half is shifting shed loads of product?
So long as the digital community clings to its obsession with accountability over effectiveness it will remain in the unedifying position of creating engaging brand fluff on the one hand and highly measurable but largely pointless direct response advertising on the other. If that sounds like a future to you then fine but I’d suggest changing the fortunes of a client’s business is a finer ambition to hold. And that is going to need proper measurement.

Image courtesy of Aussiegall

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