Everyone in marketing has heard about The Long and the Short of It (TLATSOI) and its authors Peter Field and Les Binet. But, as their grand theory reaches its 10th anniversary, the implications and applications of one of marketing’s most important ideas continue to evolve. As an early and enthusiastic fan, I’d like to detail the story so far and attempt to take it one step further down the road.
Step 1: Know the origins
It’s a decade since Field and Binet plundered the IPA Databank to publish their famous monograph. The two authors had already established separate reputations in the industry. And they were already a well known duo thanks to their 2007 trailblazing study of advertising effectiveness, Marketing in the Era of Accountability, and 2010’s The Link Between Creativity and Effectiveness.
But TLATSOI was something different, something special. Field and Binet had begun to tease out the short-term flaws of marketing theory in earlier work, but the data had not been available to make any strong conclusions. Funding from Thinkbox and access to the IPA’s database of award submissions offered the duo a chance to properly examine the balance of long-term and short-term thinking.
The thinking behind TLATSOI was built from a database of just under 1,000 campaigns. Critics continue to suggest these award submissions represent a skewed sample and that the self-reporting format of much of the data nullifies any empirical validity. But despite these issues, the idea of ‘the long and the short’ struck a chord with marketers because it emerged at a very particular moment in the history of the discipline. The emergence and growth of new digital media formats was revolutionising much of marketing thinking. But along with some genuine advances and improvements, this digital turn also favoured a focus on shorter, almost immediate timelines.
There was an astonishing array of insights packed into TLATSOI. The primacy of TV, the value of mass marketing, the proper appreciation for excess share of voice, the importance of creativity, the impact of emotion – all of which were later to become big lessons for the decade ahead. But at the core of the long and the short were three incredibly basic, but inestimably important observations.
The long and the short of it, like everything in marketing, should be media-neutral.
First, that there were two connected but distinct approaches to communications. The long of it was all about the top of the funnel, a three-year-plus timeline and an emphasis on brand building. The short of it was more about the bottom of the funnel, a 12-month or shorter horizon and a focus on sales activation.
Second, that these two dimensions were both important to commercial success but had to be balanced in an appropriate manner to deliver the best results.
Finally, it was clear that since the start of the new millennium, too many organisations were adopting an approach that was too short term for their own commercial good.
Step 2: Know the difference
Once you know the back story, the most immediate challenge is to recognise what the long and the short look like ‘in the wild’. It’s a challenge that throws many marketers, who seem unable to discern what is long and what is short. Even the Dark Lord himself, Byron Sharp, confessed to confusion last year. “People have no idea,” he observed during a talk in Australia, “what activations really are and there’s no guidelines.”
There are guidelines, of course. If you care to look. They are blurry at the margins because, as we will see later, the long and short are not binary. Both, by definition, serve the same ultimate purpose. But they do so at two completely different speeds. Every brand beats with two different pulses.
The short of it, sales activation, is easier to identify. It’s anything that attempts to evoke an immediate response from the market. Visit our website. Buy our new burger. Test drive our latest car. Or, as in the ad below, purchase a sofa while it’s at this special, special price. These, and a million other claims, are exemplars of the short of it.
In contrast, the long of it is any communication that intends to create long-term memories, which might then result in enduring changes in human behaviour. Building awareness of our coffee brand with consumers who do not know us, yet. Driving consideration among consumers who don’t think our beer is for them, or for this occasion. Getting consumers to think our premium brand is premium.
These and many other objectives don’t ask for an immediate response and that might be the simplest way to identify them as the long of it. Instead, they look to set up the market in a manner that will later benefit the brand – especially if this longer-term brand advertising is complemented by the appropriate amount of shorter-term tactics further down the funnel, to activate these consumers later and engineer a sale. Here’s an example:
Many marketers confuse the long and short with tactical absolutes. They ask which media are superior for short activations and which ones are for long-term branding. This is the wrong approach. Because while some media suit one end of the sausage over the other a little more, any medium can serve either master, or both.
This issue comes up a lot when marketers shoe-horn digital media into an exclusively short-term tactical box. It does work well there. But there is no reason that digital media cannot also perform brilliantly as long-term brand-building tools too. The long and the short of it, like everything in marketing, should be media-neutral.
Step 3: Understand the bias
With all the effectiveness implications associated with TLATSOI, it is easy to forget that it originated with the identification of an emerging industry crisis. When TLATSOI was published in 2013, its foreword from the IPA’s Janet Hull described the “major threat” that short-term metrics were now having on the long-term profitability of brands. She worried that too many marketers were “sleepwalking towards a precipice”, totally unaware of a perilous shift away from longer-term brand building and towards an overweight approach to short-term activations.
This wasn’t hyperbole, either. I remember the Advertising Council, the equivalent of the IPA Down Under, announcing at its annual prizegiving a few years later that it would not award a gong for best long-term effectiveness campaign, because none of the submissions that year had been particularly effective or especially long-term enough to justify the prize.
Why was this? Why did marketers swing so short? It was a function of three main forces.
First, the phalanx of new, exciting digital suppliers pushed their ROI credentials and in so doing pulled clients towards shorter-term horizons. Second, an emphasis on proving the value of advertising and marketing squeezed many marketers towards more immediate and easier-to-measure sales spikes – the kind usually delivered by shorter-term activation campaigns. Third, that same trend worked in reverse to reduce investment in longer-term brand-building efforts that demanded more advanced statistical skills and seasoned marketing knowledge to justify them.
The incremental nature of long-term brand building campaigns was meant to be their strength, but in the increasingly short-term world of marketing it became their downfall. It took time for brand campaigns to be developed and then fully deliver on any sales impact, and that was simply not something that most marketers could justify or deliver.
By going short, most marketers did make more money in the upcoming year, but most also started to lose potential profit in year two and onwards. But their effectiveness myopia obscured them from seeing this tragic state of affairs and wedded them to making the same mistake every year that followed.
The greatest management thinker of them all, Peter Drucker, explained all of this 60 years before the publication of TLATSOI. “You have to produce results in the short term,” he wrote in The Practice of Management. “But you also have to produce results in the long term. And the long term is not simply the adding up of short terms.”
Too many marketers were taking a 12-month, or shorter, horizon and sailing their ships in a sub-optimal direction as a result. The great irony of this focus on ROI was that, having adopted a shorter-term approach, almost all of the marketers that did so ultimately destroyed much of the profit potential of their brands.
Step 4: Appreciate the harmony
One of the most important gifts that TLATSOI bestowed upon marketers was not only a warning of the impending threat of short-termism but also the provision of a potential solution. By assessing which campaigns from their data set had performed optimally in both achieving long, short and overall commercial success, Field and Binet were able to propose an optimum balance of long and short investment. A brand spending 60% of its communications budget on long-term brand building and the remaining 40% on shorter-term activations would be more likely to prosper, they claimed in 2012.
That metric became initially more famous than the title of the book that contained it. For the first few years of the last decade, Field and Binet were more commonly associated with the ’60:40 rule’ than anything else. This was unfortunate. Because, although the 60:40 precept was broadly applicable, it was a crude average made up of many different categories, brands and strategic situations. Correct in general but askew in most specific situations, that 60:40 average was later broken into more granular advice that depended on contextual factors like brand size, maturity, category and a host of other factors.
These days, most trained brand managers are aware of these sensitivities, while…
Read More: Brand-building ads boost short-term sales, and now you can prove it