Advertising and brand communications: The year in review 2011-2012
January 2012

“Flat is the new growth.”

When the financial analysts start using black humour to justify their pessimism, you know it’s going to be a tough year.  And so it turned out to be.  Squeezed between the constricting influences of a 2010 World Cup hangover and a global depression that simply wouldn’t take the hint and go away, advertisers and their agencies scrabbled around to see what could be done with the leftovers and the petty cash that constituted so many of this past year’s brand budgets.

The answer, of course, was not a lot.  Production budgets were culled as existing campaigns were made to perform well past their original sell-by dates.  Media and channel experimentation wilted in the face of “safety first” strategies.  Juicy creative pitches were thin on the ground as marketers retreated behind their brand barricades, muttering unflattering comments under their breath about it being better to stay with the devil you know.  It’s therefore little wonder that whenever I asked people to describe the highlights of the past 12 months, the question was usually greeted with a long pause, a puzzled frown, and a reluctant shrug of the shoulders.  This wasn’t a year to remember.

Gongs and Glory
Gloomy though the year may have been, the cloud cover was not entirely unremitting.  At the 2011 Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity (formerly the Cannes Lions International Advertising Festival), South African agencies acquitted themselves well, and none more so than Network BBDO who scooped the Grand Prix in the radio category for their “creepy-comic” campaign for Mercedes-Benz and the car’s accident avoidance capabilities.  The agency had other radio winners this year as well, prompting founding partner Mike Schalit to claim – with some justification, and not entirely tongue-in-cheek – that Network BBDO is currently the best radio agency in the world! 

Other statistics to come out of this year’s Cannes festival revealed that South Africa was rated as the 13th most creative nation in the world, with Johannesburg clocking in at an impressive 14th position in the ranking of most creative cities.  But fast forward a few months to the 2011 Loerie Awards, and we find Johannesburg suddenly being overshadowed by Cape Town in terms of local creative performance.  Three of the top five Loerie agencies this year (measured using the points for awards ranking system) were from the mother city, FoxP2 emerging as the overall winner despite still being defined as a “small” agency (less than 40 staff), with Ogilvy Cape Town third and Jupiter Cape Town fifth.  The missing top slots were filled by Network BBDO, whose second place reflected a further strong showing – and another Grand Prix - for their Mercedes-Benz radio campaign, and DDB who came in fifth, mainly thanks to their work on McDonalds.  Cape Town’s ascendancy might have been further entrenched were it not for the surprisingly lacklustre Loerie performance of perennial award winner (and last year’s number one), King James.  Alistair King and James Barty’s disappointment must have been tempered, however, by the strong new business acquisition drive that King James successfully mounted this year, clinching the Santam, McCain’s and British Airways accounts, among others. 

FoxP2’s top dog status was earned through the much-admired “Love To Meet You” anti-drink/drive campaign for Brandhouse, as well as the straight-talking advertising approach created for the new insurance brand, Frank.  But if agency watchers were expecting that FoxP2’s management would now start to get serious about building a presence in Johannesburg, they were blindsided by an announcement made shortly after the end of the Loeries celebrations, revealing that FoxP2 founding partner and Creative Director, Andrew Whitehouse, will start a sister agency to FoxP2 in New York City. He will team up with Matthew Bull, ex-Lowe Global CEO to form the new agency - the Bull-White House.  It should have opened its doors by the time you read this.  New York, watch out.

Brand budgets: does size count?
Turning our gaze to the client side of the fence, we find that Brandhouse was the most awarded advertiser at the Loeries, but it was brands from two categories that didn’t have a single representative in the creativity top ten – mobile phone networks and banks – which set the pace commercially in 2011.  Readers of the major newspapers could be forgiven at times for thinking that there was only one brand game in town, as the phone companies took double page spread after double page spread in their determination to gain competitive advantage by showing how big their muscles (if not always their intellects) can be.  Between Vodacom’s R200 million rebranding to Vodafone red, Cell C’s controversial “leaked” response, MTN’s ongoing Ayoba mantra, and Telkom’s visually distinctive drive to get its 8ta mobile brand accepted as a viable player, there was hardly any advertising space left over for mere mortals.  And what little there was quickly got snapped up by the big four banks, none of which exactly covered themselves in glory for setting new standards for insightful or creative communications work.  FNB’s radio campaign featuring the eternal loser Steve may have been effective, but it soon became extremely irritating to many, while Standard Bank’s animated typography was a classic case of a triumph of style over substance.  Nedbank is fast losing its green mojo and failed to exploit the gaps left by its competitors, while ABSA was conspicuous only for the remarkable achievement of being the blandest and most forgettable of all the big banks.  Little wonder that the Capitecs of this world are finding fertile ground in which to grow their brands.

Squaring the circle: You can win awards as well as customers

That old advertising chestnut about creativity and sales performance being mutually exclusive is still heard in many marketing corridors, fostered by timid, unimaginative clients and by agencies whose trophy cabinets are echoingly empty.  Ad hoc comparisons of the winners at Loeries with those at the APEX awards for communications effectiveness have often shown there to be brands common to both lists (Exclusive Books, Volkswagen and Allan Gray for example), and yet still the doubters are unconvinced.  But this year saw some powerful new evidence to support the argument that creativity can be a pivotal component of a campaign’s efficacy when for the first time data from the Gunn Report (the global benchmark in creative league tables) was merged with the results from the IPA Effectiveness Awards (the UK equivalent of APEX). The conclusions were unequivocal.  435 campaigns over a 16 year period were assessed, showing that creatively awarded campaigns are seven times more efficient than non-awarded ones, and that this level of heightened efficiency rises further with increases in creativity: campaigns picking up five or more creative awards are three times more efficient than those that win between one and four awards. Back on home turf, 2011 saw an unprecedented number of entries for APEX , and it is to be hoped that studies such as the IPA/Gunn analysis will help to cement further the burgeoning relationship between creativity and communications effectiveness that APEX celebrates.

Mark Zuckerberg, what have you done?
Few advertising or branding conversations in recent months would have failed to mention the dreaded phrase, “social media”. Marketers – and many agency people too – froze light rabbits in the headlights when confronting this unimaginably powerful new suite of digital platforms.  The sheer scale of the numbers involved (we’ve all seen those neat videos showing how social media statistics are rapidly taking over life as we know it) was in inverse proportion to the average brand manager’s ability to harness this new medium.  Some hastily set up a presence on Facebook and Twitter, or uploaded TV spots onto YouTube, hoping that some unseen hand would magically transform this stab in the digital dark into a tsunami of virally-driven consumer support, while others adopted the tried and tested ostrich strategy.  Very few South African brands seem to have cracked the code that will allow them to open the door to successful commercial exploitation of the new social media platforms.  But perhaps this is not a uniquely South African shortcoming; there is an increasingly apparent groundswell of international opinion that questions the suitability of social media as a brand communication channel in the first place, these Doubting Thomases pointing with scarcely concealed glee to the limited number of undeniably effective digital case studies out there – take away Old Spice, T-Mobile and a couple of other oft-quoted favourites, and, so the argument goes, there’s really not much in the way of supporting evidence left.  Has the Facebook emperor got no clothes?  Maybe next year will be the one in which social media as a brand building channel finally comes of age.  (But I’m not holding my breath).

Legislation, regulation … devastation?
It is common cause that the explosive growth of social media has led to a shift in the balance of power between marketer and consumer, in favour of the latter. The ability to dish out brickbats and bouquets literally at the speed of light, and to search for and find countless facts and opinions about brands with equal speed, has disempowered the unprepared marketer, big time. But it seems that our government still believes that the consumer’s hand is not yet sufficiently strengthened, and this past year saw the threat of significant further regulatory interventions by the public sector in the hitherto reasonably unfettered mechanisms of marketing.

The Consumer Protection Act, which came into effect in March 2011, is the most visible example of this trend towards weakening the marketer’s ability to define and control brand behaviour.  The CPA aims to protect the disadvantaged and the vulnerable, and is in effect a Bill of Rights for consumers.  And while it is seen by many as a convoluted and draconian piece of legislation which will inflate the cost of marketing (and thus the price of brands), the CPA is just a mild irritant compared with the upheaval that will be caused if the suggested ban on alcohol advertising goes ahead, not to mention the similar communications restrictions that have been proposed for fast foods and other “unhealthy” categories.  The past twelve months saw this debate reach new levels of intensity, and it can only be hoped that some form of judicious compromise can be reached as an alternative to the wild wielding of a blunt government blade that can only leave as many injured as are benefited.

And the winners are …

My subjective highlights of a low year?  Great campaigns were certainly thin on the ground, but two campaigns in the automotive category stood out.  The first is the Volkswagen Passat “Darth Vader / The Force” TV spot, not just because it is a very engaging piece of storytelling, but also because it was mature of Ogilvy to resist the “Not Invented Here” argument, accepting an internationally-sourced campaign as the flagship for such an important brand launch.  Range Rover’s campaign to introduce the Evoque gets my second automotive thumbs up, for its innovative channel strategy (strong use of social media) as well as for its courage in initiating the campaign fully a year before the vehicle hit the local showroom floors.  Brandhouse’s “Love to meet you” spot deserved all the accolades it was given, and is that all-too-rare phenomenon, a commercial that really makes you think twice about ingrained social behaviour.  Internationally, T-Mobile’s “event/commercials” just get better and better, and it will be interesting to see how they can improve on this year’s marvellous Heathrow “welcome home” spectacular.  Intel, under the banner of “sponsors of tomorrow” produced a couple of hilarious TV commercials which showed that some IT companies at least can look beyond the features and specifications of what they manufacture to find a proposition that really resonates with the main market and not just the nerds.  But finally, I doff my cap to Andrew Human and his Loeries team for taking the probably unprecedented step of an awards programme commissioning its own TV spot to rail against the scourge of bad advertising.  Not only that, but by persuading none other than a besuited Riaan Cruywagen to take to the jacuzzi with a bevy of bikinied blondes, Mr. Human bows out from managing South Africa’s premier creative awards on an undeniable high.