Engagement: Why the Advertising Industry Is Down On Its Knees...Again

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You can hardly open your inbox or pick up an industry trade without noticing all the spilled ink about "engagement" lately. And no, the stories are not speculating about Brad and Angelina or Jennifer and Vince.

The Advertising Research Foundation, American Association of Advertising Agencies, the Association of National Advertisers and the Magazine Publishers of America have all spent a lot of time in recent months wrestling with the definition of "engagement," Madison Avenue's latest buzzword.

In fact, the 4A's and the ARF are working together to define and then measure "engagement" across a variety of media. Their project name is worthy of a Tom Cruise summer movie sequel: "MI4," or "Measurement Initiative: Advertisers, Agencies, Media and Researchers."

This is all well and good, but a better acronym might be "MIA." What's missing exactly? Accountability.

At a recent industry meeting, Joe Plummer, ARF's chief research officer, was quoted as saying, "We're not sure about engagement as a currency," but the reports indicate that he and other industry leaders are firmly committed to further exploration and discussion.

Add that to the fact that Nielsen recently informed clients that it has released incorrect data for months on "length of tune," reportedly a surrogate measurement of "engagement" for some marketers, agencies and broadcasters, well, ya got trouble my friends, right there in New York City.

Despite our industry's leaders' best intentions, something has seriously gone wrong when we're reduced to talking about "engaging" consumers instead of selling to them, and the problem can be traced back to a few decades ago.

Beginning in the 1970s, our nation's top marketers started spending horrific amounts of money on creative, and then swallowed, hook, line and sinker, the bloated science of reach, frequency, awareness and recall.

Madison Avenue agencies told clients "the more bizarre your advertising, the more you'll stand out," and the more you stand out, the more product you'll sell. For years, marketers bought this pitch, and the money stream from corporate boardrooms to Manhattan advertising agencies flowed unabated.

But a funny thing happened in the '90s. With the rise of the Internet, agencies tried to apply the same wrongheaded science and measurement tools for their clients' Web marketing that they had used in the television world. It didn't work.

But years later, when agencies finally started applying tried and true direct response principles to the Web, the numbers started making sense and the cream began to rise to the top.

Marketers are increasingly aware that they are not getting their dollars' worth from Madison Avenue. More and more, marketers are getting wise to the super agencies' inability to deliver measurable results for all the money being spent on TV creative and media.

As a result, the institutional infrastructure the agency world built up over the years to defend mammoth budgets and expense accounts is now scrambling to come up with new measurement tools to further justify their existence.

You need look no further than the MPA's recently published guide to engagement, entitled "Engagement: Understanding Consumers' Relationships with Media," which has been distributed at industry conferences recently. It analyzes scores of media studies around 'engagement' and one of the many conclusions reached is startling:

"Higher levels of consumer engagement appear to correlate with stronger advertising results." Stop the presses. Does the study really suggest that when consumers pay attention to advertising, it generally means that product sales increase?

What marketers need, and what smart marketers are finding, is that there are agencies delivering compelling, cost-effective advertising and sales results that are measurable on a daily and even hourly basis.

But creating cost-effective campaigns that deliver effective ROI isn't necessarily easy. It requires smart creative and smart media strategy. Creative must be designed to educate and compel, as opposed to simply attract and brand. Media rates continue to increase even though viewership is fractured, so media must be bought and analyzed based on rates and response, not simply reach and frequency.

Major brands have taken notice how start-ups and much smaller operations have used direct response to build enormous businesses. Tremendous entrepreneurial brands such as Proactiv Solution, Bare Escentuals Cosmetics, Oxiclean and Total Gym, to name a few, were all built through direct response television, and they all grew because their managers cared about true measurability from the earliest stages of their marketing efforts.

It is because marketers are increasingly in need of accountability and measurability that direct response strategies are more commonly being employed. Advertisers such as P&G, Philips, AOL, The Home Depot and Sony BMG are increasing their direct response television spending because they are looking for marketing solutions that deliver real valuations for their advertising, and that don't necessarily rely on ineffective measurement models.

Perhaps there's nothing wrong with all the Madison Avenue talk about "engagement" with consumers. But like a bride-to-be who nervously awaits her wedding day, marketers simply want to close the sale and have their consumer bridegroom simply say "I do" today, instead of believing in the promise that they'll finally commit some time in the not too distant future.

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