Brand vs. Direct: Must We Choose?

My distinguished colleague Gene Del Vecchio sent me some insightful follow-up thoughts to my post last week on advertising. Gene’s credentials in this area are much deeper than my own, with more than thirty years of advertising experiencing rising to the level of SVP at the renowned agency Ogilvy & Mather. He is an award-winning expert on advertising research, and also a successful author of non-fiction and fiction books, including the data-driven breakthrough Creating Blockbusters!

Gene’s point was that the distinction between brand and direct response advertising is a label, sometimes artificial and not necessarily useful except by executives managing ad budgets, often on the agency side. As simply stated as possible as handed down by legends like David Ogilvy and Leo Burnett—the individuals, not the agencies—all advertising has a single purpose: to sell products. Image is nice, awards are nice, clever memories are nice—but if the shirt doesn’t sell, it’s a cruddy shirt ad.

Gene summarized his point of view as follows:

The distinction between “branded” and “direct” is a red herring. If I advertise a movie on Thursday, I expect people in seats on Friday. Isn’t that direct? Sure it is. Simply because the time delay was 24 hours instead of 12 seconds, people are likely to say otherwise. These two disciplines need desperately to merge into ONE that both brands and sells. They are kept apart because many clients view them as silos. Adding to this is that agencies often hold these disciplines in two different groups with separate profit & loss responsibilities. Brand account managers at agencies don’t want to give up money to their counterparts in direct, and vice versa. Agencies also tend to have their highest profit margins in television ads, more than direct response campaigns, thus the agency business model with its higher overhead tends to favor the bucket called brand advertising. This is a battle on three fronts: 1) a philosophical battle of what is brand vs. direct; 2) a mechanical tracking battle regarding how to measure the effect of each; and 3) a business model battle regarding how agencies make their money.

Creating BlockbustersGene is a wise and honest fellow. I admire his candor which is firmly grounded in extensive experience. Surely an account executive would argue his or her job is always to do what is in the client’s best interest, but if they are doing what they believe is in the client’s best interest and it happens to be on the more profitable side of the agency’s business, one would have a hard time criticizing that as anything but a win-win. Rather than argue the potential conflict in an agency’s interest vs. that of the client, I find it more interesting to consider whether Gene’s suggestion that the distinction between brand and direct marketing has become anachronistic, and that this is yet another topic where we ought best to Think Different.

Few who have survived long careers in media would argue that brand advertising is meant to do anything other than sell products, and in that respect it has the same intention as direct response advertising. Long before the internet or digital platforms were available, long before the 1000 television channel universe, marketing budgets were allocated by clients as an acceptable percentage of total sales volume, invested in multi-platform campaigns that included TV, Print, Radio, and Outdoor. Sales expectations were set to evaluate Return on Ad Spend (ROAS). The concept of buying a carefully constructed and flexible campaign was investment driven, leading some forward-thinking corporate heads of marketing like Sergio Zyman at Coca-Cola to begin thinking of themselves as CMOs, or Chief Marketing Officers. If funds were invested and returns did not appear, they were accountable, and yes, these jobs have always been volatile. When CMOs turn over, ad agency accounts often come up for review, also a very volatile affair. While some agencies like Ogilvy and Burnett were well-known for keeping clients for ten, twenty, even thirty years, it was not because of Clio Awards, it was because of sales results. Anything less than accountability and ad business would be in jeopardy.

As more technologies became more available to CMOs and award-winning TV commercial directors found paths to becoming movie directors, a notion of image advertising entered the equation—as if to suggest that some advertising was meant to sell and some advertising was meant to make you feel good about a brand. Gene’s argument, with which I concur, is that makes no sense at all. If the advertising does not result in sales growth relatively soon—the car ad putting a perspective buyer in the showroom, a movie ad putting weekend butts in seats— it really doesn’t much matter how people feel about the Chevy brand or the Indiana Jones brand.

The job of an ad is to create action. A nice step in that direction might be a feel-good moment, but without action, no one paying for an ad cares a hoot about ” feel good.” Clients pay for an ad for a reason, and they don’t much care about trophies or “best-of round ups.” If the stuff they advertise is stuck in the warehouse, they are out of business. There are no more ads to buy next year, just burned creditors seeking liquidation crumbs.

At the same time advertising options became more creatively interesting and diverse, direct response mail and television infomercials touted their accountability. You mailed this many pieces, it cost you this much, you got this many orders, your cost per acquisition was at your target, live long and prosper. All of that may have been true, but with response rates worth celebrating at well under 5%, it was hard to argue the same kind of waste identified in TV epic brand spots wasn’t to be found in direct marketing initiatives—if you can get a 5% response rate, why can’t you get 10%, or 50%, or 100%? Why do we have to accept the old adage that in any campaign 50% of your ad dollars are always wasted, you just don’t know which 50% went up in smoke? And why can’t your direct response campaign have a residual brand effect, so that even if you don’t buy now, you might buy later, and if you do buy now, you might remember to buy again later? How do these urban legends become generally accepted principles, simply because they produce positive return on investment, however marginal?

Along comes perhaps the most important advancement in advertising since the thirty-second TV spot—the internet keyword ad generated by search engine marketing—and suddenly we begin touting 100% accountability in advertising. You pick the words you want to buy, you set your parameters for the auction, you pay your bill, and you get your orders. Perfect, right? Well, not exactly. You still pay for a lot of clicks that produce no value, factoring these as negative offsets to the profitable transactions of the campaign, and you feel a little better because you only pay for the clicks, not the impressions. The question is, can you or should you be getting residual brand or feel-good value for these unprofitable clicks, and if you aren’t, can you at least get some residual or byproduct brand value from the impressions that people are seeing even though the are costing you nothing? If you can, you have discovered advertising nirvana, which is precisely Gene’s point on bridging the applied and artificial distinction between brand and direct response marketing. Gene calls this finding the Golden Goose:

The key for both brand and direct response marketing has always been this: SELL IN A BRANDED WAY. TV, radio, print, and outdoor should create an image that sells. Internet clicks should create an image as they sell. That has been a rallying cry at agencies for years. Have they attained it? Sometimes yes and most times no. These two tools should also work in concert, together, as part of an overall strategy, and not thought of as mutually exclusive. The trick is to find the right balance of each, given each brand’s strategic objectives and its consumer’s decision-making process. The blend creates a consumer driven contact strategy, where you cannot tell where brand leaves off and direct begins, because they are part of the same whole.

I like the way Gene is thinking here. I find his approach to be liberating and aspirational. Will it be easy? No, but why should anyone in media get paid for what is easy? Can we get better at what we do and make our tools and platforms work harder for the people paying the bills? We better, or we ought not expect our invoices to continue getting paid. As the world becomes more flat, the notion of separate creative buckets becomes harder to defend. It’s time to be less defensive and get on offense, applying higher level creativity to more difficult problems of client advocacy, focused communication, and customer call to action.