COVID Strategy Requires Balance

Marketers are always looking for ways to maximize efficiencies, and in today’s current climate, it’s more essential than ever. Many brands are in retreat from demand-gen or “offline” channels in favor of the low-commitment reliability of digital channels. While digital marketing can appear to be the safe option to market your business in the short-term, it has its risks — marketing quickly becomes inefficient without the correct balance of online and offline marketing efforts.

Grumpy Greg

In 2013, I was working on a large CPG account at a well-known agency. The client’s business was 150 years old; a US household name with a well-known portfolio of brands. We had a gnarly old media planner on our team, Greg. We got on well, but to others, he came across as kinda frumpy. He always wore a jacket, was obsessed with diet coke, and only seemed to really come to life when he was talking about media and MRI. By the time I met Greg, he must have built a thousand media plans, and he knew media research like no one I’d ever met.

Image: Getty Images

It just so happened that the year I started was the same year one of this client’s flagship brands decided to put all of their advertising dollars into digital. At the time, digital had been growing rapidly, social media was still a thrilling buzzword, and smart clients “knew” traditional media was no longer needed to reach millennial moms. Media consumption patterns had changed, the old rules didn’t apply, and going 100% digital was just a smarter, more efficient use of budget. Greg pushed back hard to no avail, telling them it was madness and that they were abandoning decades of experience and knowledge. It was offline that had made these brands what they were! He was disregarded as behind-the-times, and the all-digital plan proceeded.

“They were abandoning decades of experience and knowledge. It was offline that had made these brands what they were!” 

Fast forward a year, as the annual planning cycle resumed. The brand manager came into the meeting room and — kudos to her — walked straight up to Greg and candidly began the meeting with: “You were 100% right. Last year was a disaster. Let’s not do that again this year.” Needless to say, Greg had their full attention in the next planning cycle.

Offline Media’s Role in a Digital Landscape
Image: Photoplan

Marketers’ defining tendency may be to rush towards shiny new objects without considering their true value in the context of the bigger picture. (The bigger picture is selling your company’s product as effectively as possible.)  Rather than jumping on the next new fad, here at Oxford Road, we are focused on data and empirically-supported recommendations. There is actually a ton of data and research on the role of offline media in a company’s strategy, but most of it is ignored by marketers.

Image: Getty Images

Consider the work of the Ehrenberg Institute, popularized by Byron Sharp’s How Brands Grow (perhaps the most important marketing book of the last twenty years — or ever, for that matter). Their comprehensive body of research demonstrates law-like patterns in different markets and categories all over the world. Sharp’s first insight: new customers are a prerequisite for growth. This implication on media strategy: broad reach media play an essential part in meaningful, mid-to-long-term growth for almost all brands.

But the analysis of the relationship between offline and online media goes far beyond Sharp’s work. Binet and Field’s Marketing in the Era of Accountability analyzed 30 years of data from the IPA’s database of the most effective marketing campaigns. The publication changed the London advertising landscape for good, had a palpable influence on US strategy, and is still rippling out to the rest of the world.

“Digital and offline media work best together. They compliment each other and work synergistically. Neither is a substitute for the other.”

Subsequent editions of Binet and Field’s work have looked at short vs long-term needs and approaches, as well as changes that have occurred as digital has matured. However, the general findings have not changed — digital and offline media work best together by complementing each other and working synergistically. Neither is a substitute for the other. Campaigns that work really well over the medium-to-long term (defined as 6 months or more) typically have a balance of both offline and online media. These are campaigns that drive significant revenue growth, margin growth, market share gain, or some combination of these and other factors. (It is actually by being able to create, grow, or defend margin that marketing makes its largest contribution to corporate profitability.)

Online media is great at tracking and converting lower-funnel leads, but terrible at creating them. Online media is not good at creating demand, building awareness, or creating emotional connections and desirability. Therefore, a digital-heavy strategy may help in the short-term, but it comes at the cost of failing to fill your upper funnel, and is likely to seriously damage your brand’s mid-to-long-term health. In fact, after over a decade of research into marketing effectiveness, Binet and Field concluded that short-termism is the greatest threat to effective (i.e. profitable) marketing today. This view has been echoed by Harvard Business Review and Sir Martin Sorrell, among many other people worth listening to.

Marketers ahead of the curve are already aware of the importance of correctly balancing online and offline media spend. Look at the trend in the chart below comparing TV spending among Amazon, Alphabet, and Facebook. Perhaps you think these guys are dumb. Or perhaps you think they’re paying attention to good quality data, and following them would be a smart idea.

Oxford Road’s strategy team is always available to our clients to guide them on the best allocation of their marketing dollars. Each approach is individual, tuned to their product,
existing market conditions, category dynamics, and best practices from our proprietary performance marketing database. But all of this is always underpinned by the very best of empirically-derived marketing data available.

Unlike many marketers, we do not work on intuition, follow the herd, or rely on unfounded assumptions about media and creative strategy. That approach means setting yourself up for failure, especially in today’s climate. We agree that your marketing strategy should shift in the wake of the COVID pandemic, but if you’re tempted to sacrifice offline media in favor of the cheap, short-term efficiencies of an all-digital campaign, let us be the “Grumpy Greg”, urging you to keep a healthy balance of both. Also, there are tremendous opportunities in offline right now. Marketers who take advantage will reap the rewards in the short-term — but also in the medium- and long-term.

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