Warning: Your campaign (process) is broken

It is time to reset the campaign creation process and rebuild it from scratch. Here’s how to get started.

As a marketing management consultant for Fortune 100 marketers around the globe, I see a lot of marketing briefs. I see a lot of marketing plans. I also see a lot of fuzzy ROI / ROAS analysis.

In this post, I intend to illustrate the challenges in this area and suggest a better way to get more value from your overall campaign planning process. The framework I will propose applies to marketing organizations large and small.

Our industry’s standard campaign creation process broke years ago. Today’s ways of working were born in simpler times. There were infinitely fewer media properties, channels, technologies, and techniques to measure campaign performance. Despite the advertising revolution, we still cling to processes that no longer provide value. In many instances, these old-fashioned ways of working actually reduce creativity, accountability, and value.

Status Quo

Let’s start with a high-level overview of the campaign planning process as it exists today in many marketing organizations.

The Brief

Someone, usually a brand manager, will spend hours, weeks, and even months developing a marketing brief to provide to your various marketing agencies. If you own a small or medium-sized business, this might even be you. Creating the brief is a tedious process that is spawned from a more extensive business planning exercise.

It should contain all the relevant details about your campaign objectives that your agency partners will need to plan a thorough campaign that meets your needs. These will often include boilerplate language about the benefits of your product or service, a description of the target audience, and some discussion around the definition of success.

Agency Ingest

The ad agencies eagerly await the brief (or dread its arrival) so that they can get to work. At a good agency, they will spend time breaking down your requirements into their base components.

The agencies will then translate the description of your ideal customer into media audiences. For example, if your target customer is a left-handed, married woman, who earns $50,000 a year and likes to go fishing, your agency translates that into:

Women
18–49 years old
Earning $40,000 to $120,000
Outdoor Enthusiast
Sporting Enthusiast

Agency Data & Media

Using its team’s knowledge at scale about your type(s) of audience and the existing media landscape, the agency will generate a channel and a tactical framework. Essentially, this is the agency’s first swag at what they believe will be the most appropriate media mix to achieve your goals.

This framework will often be based on what the agency knows about historical media pricing, inventory availability, and high-level availability of the target customers.

Target Audience Creation

The definition of each target audience will be modified depending on the media channels that the agency proposes to include in the plan. For example, if research shows that television is an effective way to reach the target customer, the audience definition will be modified to match the targetable criteria in linear TV.

For example, specific affinities and household income bands are challenging to target precisely on TV. Consequently, the audience definition will be tweaked to fit the standard age, gender, and ethnicity targets commonly traded in TV.

In digital marketing, there is a much wider range of targeting options. Dare I say, perhaps even too many options. Consequently, your digital target audiences will have much more depth, nuance, and variability than traditional media channels.

Media Plan

The marketer receives the media plans back from the agency for their review. At this stage, the plans will vary in terms of detail, depending on the agency’s working relationship with the client. Some initial media plans are higher-level descriptions of the strategy supported by case studies and research, while others will get into the tactical level of executions.

Most marketers start with a higher-level strategy plan that must get approved before the agency puts together the specific tactical and media buying plans.

Once everything is signed off, the agency begins to activate the plans in the market.

Disclaimer: What I just outlined above is a massive simplification of the multibillion-dollar media industry. Furthermore, the ins and outs of how each marketer works with their agencies vary significantly from brand to brand. I get it. Please resist the temptation to light me up in the comments. That said, you’ve probably seen some parallels with how you work with your agencies and clients.

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What is missing?

Too much to possibly cover in one article, so I am focusing on the biggest challenges we face.

Brief Quality

Briefs are getting worse and worse with each cycle. I think the problem comes from a combination of brand managers being overworked, being too inexperienced for their roles, and lacking accountability throughout the process.

On the other hand, it is hard to blame them. It is easy to fall into lazy behaviors, especially if your strategies are rinsed and repeated from year to year. Marketers assume that their agencies know what they want because they’ve been working on their business for years. Why spend energy on something that feels like simply renewing the status quo?

If these behaviors have come to permeate your organization, it is challenging to fix this culture after the fact. It also tends to spread like a virus around the organization.

“If Bob only spends a couple of hours generating his brief, why should I spend all week?”

Maintaining a culture that values quality and depth in a marketing brief helps to maintain a high standard of excellence in the long run. Treat your briefs like the authoring of the constitution by which your teams will live for the next fiscal year.

Causal measurement

Oops, that’s the sound of readers heading for the exits because I just dropped a big nerdy word. I know, I hate math too, but data does not lie.

This subject gets my blood boiling. In every single campaign brief, marketers should either:

A) Define the outcome that they expect and how they expect it to be measured;

or

B) Explicitly require the agency to come up with a measurement framework that relies on causal, incremental performance.

Allow me to simplify.

  1. What does the brand want to happen?

  2. How will the brand know it has happened?

  3. How will the brand know the media caused it to happen?

I’ve reviewed countless briefs and plans that gloss over this area. Unfortunately, nothing could be more critical because, ultimately, this part of the process tells you if your campaign was a success or a failure. Furthermore, it can illustrate areas for improvement for upcoming campaigns.

Instead, we get lost in the vagaries of engagement rates, cost efficiencies, and conversion rates and call it “good enough.” Frankly, not enough marketing professionals are proficient enough in measurement and attribution.

Here’s an example of how absurd this way of thinking is.

Marketing Manager: “We spend $50,000 on the campaign and we had 40% more people in the restaurant than we did the last 10 weekends!”

Owner: “The campaign did that?”

Marketing Manager: “Of course, we spent the money and bam! People poured in.”

Owner: “What was the date last Saturday?”

Marketing Manager: “May 5th.”

Owner: “You realize we are a TexMex restaurant, right? Was it your campaign or the fact that it was Cinco de Mayo that caused the spike in sales?”

Marketing Manager: “Well we had a great click-through rate and engagement rate on our digital campaign. We got really great rates for our drive time radio spots. And we got over 900 likes on Instagram. Sooooo yeah, I feel pretty good about it.”

Owner: “If you say so.”

Photo by Yuanbin Du on Unsplash

Did any part of that make sense? Were the owner’s questions actually answered?

No, they were not.

Instead, the marketing manager threw a bunch of vague, positive stats at the owner of the restaurant to make the case that the campaign was the reason the restaurant was busy over that holiday weekend.

You would not allow fuzzy math in any other part of your business, right?

Why should media investments be any different?

  • How many incremental (causal) restaurant visits did the campaign generate?

  • What’s the cost of each incremental visit?

  • What is the incremental change in consumer sentiment?

Answering these questions is supposed to be hard. Otherwise, everyone would be a marketing genius. Nevertheless, it’s vital. If you find yourself falling into the trap of allowing rudimentary measurement on your campaign, work your way out of it ASAP. Quality measurement justifies your investment, allows you to forecast business outcomes accurately, and validates your marketing strategy.

Most metrics are not KPI’s

If there’s anything that’s available in abundance, it is metrics. In today’s media, metrics are everywhere. Generally, that’s a good thing. Access to more metrics and data should help us make better-informed decisions.

The term “key performance indicator” (KPI) is the most over-used term in the modern marketing industry. Specifically, most so-called KPIs are not truly KPIs; they’re just metrics.

In particular, note the word “key” in the term KPI. By definition, a KPI needs to be a quantifiable measure that demonstrates how effectively you are achieving your business objectives.

If you have a marketing objective to get a lot of clicks and likes, then ok, you got me. Clicks and likes are a great KPI in that case. However, if your actual objective is to sell stuff or increase awareness of your brand, then clicks and likes are not real KPIs for your business.

PPI and EPI (FTW)

Potential Performance Indicators and Early Performance Indicators, For the Win. How’s that for an acronym mic drop?

Allow me to suggest two new performance indicators, PPI and EPI.

I advise my clients to gather a list of what they believe to be PPIs. These are metrics and measures that might show us if we are on the right track toward our marketing objectives. Nothing too crazy here; just use logic and common sense.

If someone watches all 30 seconds of your TV commercial, are they likely to be more aware of your products? Yeah, probably.

If someone clicks on your ad, is there a solid chance they will buy your products? Maybe, it sounds reasonable.

Does that mean you have hit your marketing objectives? Of course not.

Next, from our pool of PPIs, we take the best candidates and run some tests using basic experimental design. This means comparing the behavior of a group of people who were exposed to one of our ads against a group that we confidently know did not see our ads.

As long as the control and exposed groups of people are representatively equal in all other ways, and there is no selection bias at play, we can calculate the difference in performance.

A better way

Let’s shake the process up and approach it from a better angle. Start with the desired outcome and work backward through every step of the process. This diagram illustrates the proposed new framework for creating campaign briefs and plans.

Campaign planning diagram.

What outcome do we want?

Sounds self-explanatory, no? You would be shocked (or maybe not) to know many campaign briefs do a poor job of defining the desired outcome in clear terms.

Before you write a single line of your media brief, you should define a clearly articulated outcome.

How will we know if it happened?

Once you have your outcome defined, how will you know that it actually happened? Once again, this seems like an obvious question. In practice, this is where things start to get murky.

Is your goal a 5% increase in direct sales?

  • How will you know the sales occurred?

  • Does your e-commerce platform track person-level sales?

  • Does your ad server get notified for every conversion at SKU level?

Do you have an awareness goal?

  • How will you know if consumer awareness has changed?

  • What vendor do you plan to use?

  • How will you know that someone was actually exposed to the ad(s)?

Figuring out the detailed logistics of capturing the desired outcome is critical. These first two steps often make or break the success of the campaign downstream. Take these steps seriously!

How will we know if the media caused it to happen?

Remember when I said that this stuff is supposed to be hard? Here’s a great example. As soon as you start throwing terms around like “causal measurement,” you lose a lot of people.

Unfortunately, this is where the value lives. This is the part of the process that proves your case and makes the findings bulletproof. You must figure out how you will know if the media caused the desired outcome to occur.

I purposely present this separately from the attribution model step (below) because it is so important.

What is the best attribution model?

Whew, ok, so far so good. Hang in there with me!

In the previous step, we identified the causal events that will show whether the media drove the outcome. Now we need to build the model. This step becomes super data-science-y, so I am not going to get into the weeds.

However, this is the step where you will program your model to account for things like normalizing data, throwing out wild outliers, making adjustments to account for underrepresented populations, etc.

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Here, you will also decide if a simple last-touch attribution model will work for your business, or whether you need something more complex like a multi-touch model. Remember, both model types should be causal in nature and only use viewable impressions (not served impressions).

Which media channels can be measured?

These next few steps are subject to some debate, particularly regarding their ordering. I put this step here because I prefer to scope in my media channel selection based on the attribution methodologies I want to use.

Once you know how you will measure the success of the campaign (as a product of all the previous steps), your list of acceptable media channels will shrink. The list of suitable media suppliers and platforms will also scale down significantly.

You’ve done a lot of work so far. Don’t screw it up by selecting media channels that are unmeasurable against your model.

Within the measurable channels, how do we reach the target customer?

Within the measurable channels you identified, where does your audience live (so to speak)? This is where you should begin to segment your audience and your buy.

In the previous step, we started from the entire universe and scoped the campaign into a set of channels and publishers to allow maximum measurability. Now it is time to forecast the size of the audience(s) you plan to reach within the channels.

What do we tell them when we reach them?

Time to get creative! Congratulations, you finally delivered an impression to the right customer, at the right time, in the right place (just threw up in my mouth a little when I wrote that). So, what’s the creative you plan to show them?

This is also where dynamic creative can come into play if you plan to use DCO.

Define your modify and abort procedure

We are nearing the end, but do not start celebrating prematurely. THIS. This is the #1 most overlooked step of any media brief and campaign plan.

In short, if the campaign is tanking, what are we going to do?

  1. Make sure to define your abort thresholds. In other words, if the EPIs fall below the defined level, you will pause or cancel the campaign.

  2. If you do need to cancel the campaign, what is your plan B? It is probably not a good idea to just sit on the budget. Figure out how to redeploy that marketing spend into a more effective channel immediately.

  3. Communicate the plan to all involved. Everyone involved in activating the campaign should be aware of the “abort” procedure, and what will come next.

Not every campaign will be successful. There will be campaigns that suck for no readily apparent reason. As long as you have a backup plan, the downside will be minimized.

Execute

Sign on the dotted line, and deploy your campaign.

I hope you’ve found this helpful. Please feel free to let me know your thoughts, or debate me (I love a debate) in the comments below. Or Tweet at me, and let’s all level up. -TL