Campaign effectiveness is declining. One way to improve media planning is to use data more wisely to better understand the lives and needs of audiences and so help target marketing approaches more effectively within a real-world context. Using the campaign examples of LEGO Batman and Sainsbury’s TU, Rebecca Burchnall and Andrew McLean of PHD UK explain how you can successfully expand the boundaries of media planning.

Modern marketing practices often eschew recognised fundamentals in favour of perceived higher-level approaches. Campaign effectiveness, however, has witnessed the first consistent fall in some 20 years. The way out of this lack of effectiveness is to meld the contextual fundamentals of media planning with technological rigour.
Context is the notion that the placement of communications affects their interpretation and therefore the potential for effectiveness.

The relationship that your communications have with ‘where’ they are read/seen/heard is often referred to as the ‘framing effect’, a behavioural bias confirmed by a study (Deppe et al., 2005) where 21 subjects were asked to judge 30 newsmagazine headlines as either true or false. These headlines had to be judged within four separate magazine brands with varying credibility and, as expected, the more credible the publication, the more susceptible the belief that the headline was true.

Context directly addressed the world in which these pieces of communication had to inhabit. Meanwhile, within that world, the slow burn of ad tech resulted in increasingly advanced ways of audience planning, smarter targeting that minimised wastage and made a quicker-to-substantiate link between marketing cost and ad effectiveness. The march of progress into that technology – when advertising budgets were heavily under scrutiny – was based around the mission to further reduce acquisition costs with more tightly defined audience targeting, the logical conclusion of that further down the line being programmatic advertising.

Through the progression of technological advancement, we are speaking to the right people first and foremost. Second, within a semi-relevant context, and third, with a message adapted from one that was researched, pored over and thoroughly optimised. To a certain degree of annoyance, this is oft repeated: right person, right place, right time, right message.

But is that enough? How ‘right’ really are our assumptions? Does the notion of achieving those four variables not contradict the realities of human behaviour? What we say we do, and what we actually do are often coloured by our own expectations of what we think people want to hear.

If right person, right place, right time, right message is the advertising end game, then campaign effectiveness over the past ten years should have remained on a steady upward climb, things should be getting more and more effective – more right places, more right times, more right messages served up to more right people. But that is not the case. The IPA Databank of case studies shows a continuing decline in average campaign effectiveness (average number of very large business effects) since 2012.

Reasons given for this include overly tight targeting, and a short-term obsession fuelled by tactical activations, and even a lack of proper marketing training. Whatever the reasons, it seems there is a larger, simpler explanation relating more to human nature: the ambiguity effect. We tend to stick with what we know. The answers to our problems do not typically come from something that we are not already comfortable with, and a bias towards the status quo results in an adherence to an increasingly stale formula.

The notion of getting everything ‘right’ seems to have burnt out. It is a monolithic lack of respect for your audience in the first place to assume people are waiting around, hands in pockets, ready and eagerly waiting for your preciously crafted message. Approximating that you’re hitting the right person at the right time underestimates the rest of the workings within that equation and it dramatically devalues context.

Whether or not culture has moved on, people certainly aren’t as enamoured with advertising as it seems they used to be, bombarded by a million and one advertisers trying to chase mental availability. Are our messages just not appropriate to the context in which they are now being viewed?

So, what’s the solution? How, as a collection of businesses, do we halt a long-term decline in campaign effectiveness? Do we rely on better technology, more relevant content, a more emotive TV ad? Any of the latest buzzwords, blockchain? We have a tendency to be confounded and amazed by technological progress and what we could do, rather than what we should do. We are passionate, pro-technology, fascinated by the latest must-have item. We are often over-reliant on the tactics and execution rather than the strategy, just because we can.

We should be cataloguing our marketing approaches more effectively; we should be paying more respect and attention to our audiences’ lives with our targeting capabilities; we should be paying more attention to context within media planning.

Yet, we seem to have created a zero-sum game between targeting and context, as if neither of those facets has previously been achieved without trading one off against the other. Would it not be a better approach to take them both in tandem to advance our planning approach? By applying more rigour and understanding around our audience’s lives, we can plan around not just the anticipated context, but the received context.

Take the various contexts in which our advertising can be interpreted, in order of creation. Why are we communicating, what do we want the outcome of this interaction to be? Who are we talking to? Depending on whom we’re talking to, could lead to several different interpretations. What are we saying as a result? What will elicit the outcome we require? Where do we activate – the environment we are in (classical media planning context as demonstrated in the framing effect), such as channel/location? When? At a simple level, our audience’s daily routine – the commute, TV dayparts/drivetime, etc. At a more advanced level, weekly/monthly movements around larger cultural events. How? This is different from ‘where?’ as we consider the delivery method, video/audio/static etc.

Rather than siding with either the person being targeted or the environment within which they are being targeted, we should be asking: how do we ally data with context to build a more predictive and realistic notion of what the likely context will be?

Utilising a more predictive thought, we can construct a deeper understanding of our target audience’s lives and meld it with a better understanding of the received context. Looking deeper into received context (at PHD we refer to this as ‘rhythms’), we can construct several ways to place a message into the context of the natural ebbs and flows of people’s lives.


This way of thinking was put to good use during the launch of The LEGO Batman Movie, a campaign we refer to – for reasons that will become apparent in a moment – as ‘Batman Barges In’.

LEGO Batman Banner

It’s often noted that a constraint is sometimes the best element of a brief because it galvanises a team against a common enemy. This brief had several constraints. How do you confer comedy and authority at the same time – across a broader target audience than its predecessor, The LEGO Movie; and amid a competitive landscape that threatened to take the majority of our 16–34 audience away? We needed to get the UK familiar with LEGO Batman’s personality in advance of his first standalone film and make him as relevant as possible with 16–34-year-olds as fast as possible.

Thinking of the traditional context of an ad break, there are key ‘eyes up’ moments. The classic first/last in break are still important but we felt the need to go beyond that. Sponsorship idents that signal the start of a show would be ideal but lacked the impact across a variety of audiences that we needed. The phone comes out and all attention is lost. Except if you carry the authority of LEGO Batman.

What better way to convey LEGO Batman’s authority than for him to become part of the Channel 4 nightly schedule presentation line-up, dovetailing him with our audience’s viewing experience rather than jamming him in, enabling the opportunity to demonstrate his legendary comic self-assurance.

And he did just that. Over the course of four nights, with 18 separate TV show intros – all written to be contextually relevant to Channel 4’s most popular shows – the campaign allowed LEGO Batman to ‘barge in’ and take over Channel 4’s continuity announcements with style. The result? We were able to introduce LEGO Batman to 40% of the UK population in a highly contextual environment in just four days.

Underrated mediums, those that often don’t find themselves on a typical media plan because no one asked whether it was possible, tend to be led by audience context. Of course, the fundamentals of context don’t solely exist in the realms of more traditional media; the specific issue we’re trying to resolve is channel neutral until defined.

Sainsbury’s TU

One such specific issue lay within Sainsbury’s clothing range, TU. How could we balance the value and quality it was already known for, with deeper fashion credentials and understanding of the size of the range? A classical context argument would be to simply normalise the position of TU within fashion, something they had already taken advantage of and was in place. Looking further into understanding the audience took us down a different path.

The growth of personalisation within fashion has been evident over the past decade, as manufacturing processes adapt and evolve, and the desire to get a range of sizes/colours that are ‘you’ has grown also. Aligning that with our desire to communicate TU’s broad range represented a key opportunity. Additionally, helping to lead people by aligning our objective to broaden our fashion credentials with the most fervently requested content: style guides or trends for the fashion season ahead.

So how do you bring together four complex facets, and reduce them to simplicity? The connection between range and personalisation, fashion credentials and user-desired content could best be illustrated through personalised dynamic creative. We used layered content (from video to blog posts, to stylised content, to fashion guru Gok Wan-led content, to product carousels), aligned to ad-server rules/decisions and specific audiences (either bought programmatically or remarketed to via a DCM tag), and built a single-source solution delivering personalised content. This was based on the user’s level of historical affiliation to the TU brand, their position in the purchase funnel, target audience traits and onsite behaviours. Thus approximating the context in which TU would appear within that user’s experience and allying technology and context to create effectiveness and an experience that was greater than the sum of its parts.

There seem to be consistent practices on utilising context and technology:

  • Neither context nor technology are the ending or the beginning; they are the means to answering problems.
  • Everything starts with a well-defined and understood problem.
  • Complexity is the issue that must be reduced.
  • Ask what are the behavioural traits of your audience above and beyond their interaction with media. Use modern understanding of behavioural biases to form a predictive base aligned with realized data to understand the environment in which your communications will live.
  • Empathizing, and separating yourself from the day-to-day analysis of consumers, is fundamental in truly understanding the context in which our communications are received.
  • Context or targeting is not a zero-sum game. How can the best facets of both be harnessed?
  • There is no specific channel solution; until the problem is best considered, the channels exist in neutrality.

The bottom line is that campaign effectiveness is declining for an array of reasons – too many changes over which we lack control, and for an industry that espouses control at every turn, that is a problem. Often, we are not in control of the context in which an ad is viewed; this has been as true in the past as it will be true in the future. We can dictate the where but not the sum-of-its-parts interpretation of the entire experience. There are simply too many variables to portray an accurate picture of how a message that was dutifully researched will live in the real world.

What we can do, however, is build a more realistic understanding of an audience backed by data. Uniting a predictive notion of the context in which that message will be received through developing a greater respect and understanding of the lives of consumers and, importantly, respecting the rigour and effectiveness that advertising has been built upon

This article was first published in Admap magazine in June 2018.