Judd Labarthe
Nov 18, 2016

The job to be done, or, what’s the problem with objectives?

An Effie-judging experience left Grey's Judd Labarthe pondering why agencies are so bad at defining the job marketing is meant to do.

Judd Labarthe
Judd Labarthe

I had the honour recently of serving as the Malaysia Effies’ chief judge. In that role I was interviewed, as usual, by a few business journalists, each of whom wanted, as usual, to know the secret recipe: What does it take to be effective in the first place, and how does this translate into Effie success? Knowing this question would come, and wanting to offer a fresh answer instead of reprising any previous year’s, I had given it some thought ahead of time, and so was ready with what felt like a clever analogy.

It went something like this.

“The recipe”, I said, “is deceptively simple. It’s a lot like cooking an Italian dish—there’s just a small handful of ingredients:

  1. A clearly defined business problem that if cracked would really benefit the brand or company
  2. A small set of equally clearly defined objectives that if achieved would solve the problem
  3. An insight into the brand, the culture, and/or the marketplace that offers a way in to achieving the objectives
  4. An idea that delivers the insight not just in what the brand says or does but also how, where and when
  5. And finally, results that show that the objectives were at least met, if not exceeded, and that it was the idea and nothing else that made this happen.

That’s it. Five ingredients. The trick, of course, is that they all have to be of extremely high quality—there’s no way to cover up a bad ingredient.

I don’t know yet whether the reporters will make use of this, but post-interview I couldn’t stop thinking about one “ingredient” in particular—the objectives—because they are arguably the most important of the five, because they reveal two of the great ironies of the Effie Awards, and because they represent one of the mysteries of advertising as currently practiced.

The first irony is this: in my experience judging more than a dozen Effie competitions at the local, regional and global level, winning is determined more by the strength of a campaign’s objectives than it is by the strength of its results. This may sound odd but in fact it’s logical. There is no 'good' or 'bad' result in the absolute; it’s the objectives that provide the most important piece of context for judging the strength of the results. If your objectives are clear, ambitious and important, you have a shot. If they’re not, you may overachieve like mad, but it won’t feel meaningful, and so won’t feel award-worthy.

The second irony is that in every Effie competition around the world, judges consistently observe that by far the weakest part of most Effie entries is…the objectives.

Huh? And this is for best-of-the-best campaigns. The ones that, as evidenced by their having been submitted in the first place, agencies and clients believed in and were willing to invest development, production and media funds in—not to mention Effie entry fees! Again, Huh?!?

Therein lies the mystery: Why do we get objectives so wrong so often? Why do we aim so poorly…or not at all? Why do we have such difficulty setting benchmarks? In a business whose only job is to drive change, do we even know which changes to drive? I think we did know once, but suffering the twin maladies of short-termism and data inundation, we’ve forgotten—forgotten how to define the job our work is meant to do.

The good news is, we know, or are in a position to know, more than we think. As Bob Hoffmann (alias the Ad Contrarian) reminds us, the fundamental objective of any campaign must always be “to sell more s**t.” Don’t be put off by the bluntness. The only reason for a business to invest in advertising a brand is to sell more of the brand being advertised. Isn’t it? Any other objective—building awareness, reinforcing or shifting perception—is just an intermediate step on the way to this.

So let’s agree to “sell more s**t.” How?

Again, we know, or are in a position to know, more than we think. For starters, we know that brands grow by building penetration—that is, by winning more than their fair share of buyers, especially light buyers, who constantly drift into and out of the category. This means campaigns need to drive trial.

We also know that most people shop by habit and, retail conditions permitting, will usually buy the brand they bought last time. So the best way to be the brand buyers buy next is to be the one they’ve bought before. (Which is a bit like the advice a doctor once gave me, to choose my parents wisely.) The next best is to be a brand that’s becoming too popular to ignore. This means campaigns need to build brand fame—to boost the brand’s “mental availability”, thus increasing the odds that buyers will think of that brand first when shopping the category.

And we also know, though we seldom admit, that people spend a lot less time thinking about our brands than we’d like. For the vast majority of buyers in any category, a brand is simply a time-saving mental shortcut. The implication? Campaigns shouldn’t try so hard to be persuasive (since most of what we’d want shoppers to know about our brands they’ve forgotten by the time they reach the shelf) but instead try much harder to be memorable, by building on the brand’s distinctive assets. Building distinctiveness means improving your chances that the people who bought you last time will remember it was you they bought—and thus can more easily do it again.

So there we have three core campaign objectives of fundamental importance to brand growth, any and all of which should feel at home in a campaign brief. Of course, in Effieland and beyond, what matters is not just what you’re reaching for, but also how much of it you hope to grab. And setting targets is another area of objective-setting that bedevils us needlessly.

I say “needlessly” because we’re surrounded by useful benchmarks, starting with the brand’s own historical performance. Aiming to do at least as well as the last campaign/quarter/year is a good starting point. How much more ambitious to be is up to you. If the brand is launching and has no history, look to the performance of sibling brands, of key competitors, of the category overall, or even of role-model brands in other categories. After all, we often hear things like “we want to be the Apple/Amazon/Red Bull of kitchen cleaners,” so look to those brands’ well-documented successes and translate them into useful metrics for your brand’s fame and distinctiveness.

Just remember that perception metrics and behaviour metrics need to be treated differently. Trial or any other measure of actual consumer behaviour can be taken at face value, whereas measures of perception or attitude such as fame and distinctiveness are less objective. So when setting targets for perceptual improvement, be sure to aim for numbers that are not just higher but also statistically significant.

What’s the job to be done? Simple:

  1. Build penetration, by driving trial
  2. Build fame—drive mental availability so people think of you when they shop the category
  3. Build distinctiveness—stand out more so people who buy you can more easily remember to buy you again.

Anyone drafting a campaign brief should start by defining these three objectives and setting targets for each using readily available benchmarks. You’ll be taking a huge step down the path toward effectiveness when you do. And who knows: maybe at the end of that path is an Effie with your name on it.

Judd Labarthe is VP/global strategy and director and head of planning for Grey/GreyDigital. The opinions expressed are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

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