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'Byron Sharp sounds a bit like the old economy'


What do you believe in? Is it in focusing on generating as much reach for your brand as possible, so at least something will stick along the way? Or are you proponents of the concept of "attention," which suggests that some commercial messages are easier to remember than others? In other words, are you Team Byron Sharp or Team Ritson?

A fascinating discussion has broken out between renowned marketing experts Mark Ritson (professor and columnist at Marketingweek) and Byron Sharp (professor and author of the legendary book How Brands Grow). You might be asking yourself why you should care about any of this. The answer is simple: this discussion touches upon the very core of your business. Let's take a closer look at the issue.

Degrees of attention (or not)
A few weeks ago, Professor Sharp gave a lecture in Sydney, during which he said two things that his peer did not agree with. First of all, Sharp claimed that there are no degrees of attention. If you have something to sell, you buy advertising space and it does not matter how many people see or hear your ad; reaching them in a superficial manner is enough to plant a seed that will germinate slowly. If people run to the store immediately, that's fine too. To paraphrase Ritson, he says this idea is ridiculous because there are indeed different types of attention. An advertisement shown during your favourite TV show or in the middle of a captivating magazine article is more effective than an online ad seen while mindlessly scrolling through your feed. According to Ritson, Sharp's claim is incorrect and he gives the example of a billboard under water, which attracts "somewhat" less attention than one on the side of a motorway into London or Amsterdam. "Sharp is wrong. About the value of attention in general. And about the specific need to engage with audiences more to ensure longer periods of attention. There is a growing accumulation of evidence from the likes of Lumen, Dentsu and the inestimable Professor Karen Nelson-Field to demonstrate the point. And it's crucial that marketers are following the debate, because it has major implications for what they do."

Secondly, Sharp criticises the 60:40 rule that is said to be the outcome of a study conducted by Les Binet (60 percent of your budget should be spent on building your brand - e.g. a TV commercial - and the remaining 40 percent on advertisements designed to generate sales). You've surely seen that rule before, in practically every PowerPoint presentation for clients, right? In his lecture, Sharp claims that Binet's study was poorly conducted using data that just happened to be available and that the outcome is therefore meaningless. "Les Binet is a lovely guy, and I would say a good friend of mine, but the 60:40 rule really is terrible, very misleading. 60:40 is supposed to be the magic formula for you. Spend 60 percent of your money on advertising, whatever that is, no one's really clear, and 40 percent on activations. But people have no idea what activations really are and there are no guidelines. So really, you can spend whatever you like. But it sounds good to have a formula. If you actually read Peter Field and Les Binet's first report on this, they analysed a very weird data set, which is award submissions. If you wanted to solve this issue, you would never use that data. But why did they use it? Because that's the only data they had... It's not a scientific law, but I think a law that holds is that where there is demand, there will always be supply. And there was demand. People wanted a number."

Team Ritson
Han Roode, head of strategy at M2Media, believes the discussion about the different degrees of attention is a valid one and he therefore agrees with Ritson on the matter. "What Sharp says sounds like the old economy to me. When I look at the standard (IAB) figures on digital advertisements, 50% is not even visible. That is why we have, for example, our own adserver where we guarantee a minimum of 75% visibility. This is the first step. It is worth noting that we are only looking at visibility here; we're not even taking attention into account, which differs per type of medium." He cites various factors that increase the attention given to a commercial message: the surroundings, the creative impact and the visibility. "You mustn't overcomplicate things; without attention, nothing happens. It's that simple. You cannot read a newspaper with your eyes closed. Every day, we are bombarded with anywhere from 7,500 to 10,000 ads." He believes Sharp is clinging to the old era of TV and Out of Home. "At the time, you could simply buy reach, but the playing field has changed. When you look at research data like we do at M2Media, you will know that the qualitative surroundings are essential. There is a major difference between offering people a bag on the beach in Spain or in the PC Hooftstraat."
He also says it requires specialist marketing knowledge and expertise to reach people at the right time for the right cost. "It all begins with visibility. The next step is relevance and then comes creative impact. Each of these steps contributes to the overall effect. There are three degrees of attention: no attention, latent attention and active attention. With the latter two, you can expect a greater impact on your brand." Publishers like DPG focus heavily on attention, which makes sense when you consider their positioning relative to the American platforms. "Attention is a much better predictor of effects than reach. Researchers are taking a close look at this issue, which is good for our business."

Never seen the data set
Sharp's second point is about Les Binet's study, which supposedly proves that you should invest 60 percent in mass communication and 40 percent in online marketing. "I feel a bit conflicted about that. Les Binet came up with this rule, but I have never seen the data set he used for his research. In our experience, the strength of your brand boosts conversion, i.e. the stronger your brand is, the more effective the use of performance will be. We have already talked about the sponge: you can try to perfect your performance all you want, but if your brand recognition and image are not up to par, there is simply nothing more to be gained. However, the ideal ratio depends on the product category and the life cycle of the brand. Sharp does have a point there. I firmly believe in the principle of having the two methods reinforce each other, but the ratio should be determined on a case-by-case basis."

In other words, researchers have their work cut out for them in making the world of marketing a bit more professional. It is high time to further study the concept of attention with the help of good data and develop a better formula than the 60:40 rule; one which also takes the product category and the product life cycle prominently into account. 

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