Thwarting mother nature

Erwin Ephron, partner at New York media consultancy Ephron, Papazian & Ephron, is known around the world as the father of recency planning. When he first started preaching his approach in 1995, he says many in the industry interpreted the idea that 'a single exposure can have an effect on which brand a consumer will buy' to mean, 'oh boy, now advertisers can spend less money.' Ephron soon disabused them of that notion by explaining that advertisers don't need heavy repetition, but instead they need more weeks of advertising.

Erwin Ephron, partner at New York media consultancy Ephron, Papazian & Ephron, is known around the world as the father of recency planning. When he first started preaching his approach in 1995, he says many in the industry interpreted the idea that ‘a single exposure can have an effect on which brand a consumer will buy’ to mean, ‘oh boy, now advertisers can spend less money.’ Ephron soon disabused them of that notion by explaining that advertisers don’t need heavy repetition, but instead they need more weeks of advertising.

Ephron has had a long career consulting, speaking and writing about how best to manage media. An honours graduate with a degree in art history from Swarthmore College and an MBA in economics from New York University, he made a dramatic departure from his interest in detecting art fraud when he took his first job in 1956 at New York advertising trade publication Media Decisions.

He then moved to ACNielsen, where Ephron says he was the only director of press relations whose job it was to keep his employer, Nielsen Ratings, out of the press. There he developed his interest in media research, which opened the door for director of research roles at agencies BBDO, Carl Ally and his own Ephron Raboy & Tsao, before setting up his current firm.

Recency is pretty much the accepted theory of media planning today after dethroning the frequency-planning model popular in the 1980s. Rather than flighting an entire ad budget in 18 weeks, as was common at that time, Ephron says advertisers get better return on their ad dollars if they spend the same amount of money over more weeks.

In addition, Ephron says make sure that schedules are dispersed across networks, programs and day parts and aren’t doubled, tripled and quadrupled in a narrow time period.

‘Nothing is as frustrating to viewers as seeing the same commercial they saw eight minutes ago that was irrelevant to them then, and having to sit through it again. It’s like bleeding to death. That’s one reason why people change channels.’

Q: What is recency planning?

A: Recency planning isn’t about reach and frequency or radio, television and magazines: it’s about how we think advertising works in the mature, competitive consumer markets of the kind we have in the U.S. and Canada.

Recency was an antidote for frequency planning, which thought that short-interval repetition was important because people learn from advertising. Repetition teaches brand messages and ultimately people succumb and buy the brand. That may have been true in the ’60s, but today people don’t learn much from advertising; ads are usually for brands they are quite familiar with and they have much better things to do with their time.

What advertising does today is it reminds people of familiar brands at a point when they’re ready to buy them. That’s when advertising works. In a sense it’s a nudge, or an intercept strategy.

An ad for Kellogg’s Special K works much better if you’ve just run out of breakfast cereal than it does being repeated five times in the evening when you really don’t care. That’s basically what recency is about.

Q: Was frequency similar to the way teaching was handled in school – repetition to learn your ABCs?

A: Sure. And I think it’s a very understandable model because advertising has messages and messages teach. I think that frequency worked in the past when markets were growing.

I remember when my mother had a washing machine but didn’t have a dishwasher. She watched Westinghouse Studio One with Betty Furness who kept on extolling the virtues of a dishwasher. My mother couldn’t believe it because she felt when the drum twirled the dishes would break. So she watched the program for about a month, listened to the messages and then, finally convinced, went out and bought a dishwasher.

Today, my wife couldn’t care less. She’ll buy a dishwasher when hers breaks and she’s not particularly interested until that happens. That’s the way it is for many consumer products.

Q: With hundreds of conventional, specialty and digital television channels to choose from, is recency still valid in this over-populated environment?

A: I think recency planning helps advertisers deal with fragmentation. Fragmentation means smaller ratings so you need more units. That’s not the same as frequency. More units, depending on how you buy them, can give you the same levels of reach (a measurement of the unduplicated target audience exposed to an advertising schedule) as fewer units. It’s a matter of dispersing the schedule to help reduce duplication.

Fragmentation is an enormous problem. Frequency today is crabgrass because of fragmentation. No matter what you do it grows, so the imperative really is to buy reach – to try and thwart mother nature and get as much reach out of the schedule as possible. Fragmentation need not eliminate reach.

Q: How is that accomplished? By knowing the target consumer better and cherry-picking the right media vehicles?

A: Buying reach is simply buying dispersion. The way you get reach is by not concentrating on a few programs or a few networks or a few time periods, because then you contact the same people again and again. What you do is if you’re buying cable, buy 15 cable channels instead of four. If you’re buying network television, buy three networks instead of two, buy 20 programs instead of 10. That will increase reach.

It’s one of the paradoxes of the business. High ratings can reduce your reach, not increase it.

If you buy Thursday night on NBC on all the high-rated shows, those programs reach largely the same viewers. You’re much better off buying lower-rated shows on NBC, ABC, CBS and Fox at the same time. The average rating will be lower, but the reach will be higher. That’s an example of why dispersion is important.

There are ways to buy reach within a fragmented environment that work. Mixing media is another way to buy reach in the face of fragmentation. That’s why it has become so popular.

Q: What is the importance of relevancy, the placement of messages in the proper environment – knowing your consumer and where to find them?

A: I think targeting in television is abysmal and it’s partly a problem of the nature of the medium. Television doesn’t target particularly well. You’ve got men, women, young, old: that’s it. The way the guarantee system works, you can only buy large targets because those are the only ones that are guaranteed.

An example. Let’s say you’re targeting the 18-49 demo, which makes up roughly 63% of the U.S. population. The product being advertised is used by 35% of the population and the 18-49 age segment indexes very high. So among 18-49s, there’s perhaps a 40% penetration of the product. But 60% of the 18-49 demo are not the target. Those are false positives. Those are people you’re targeting but are not of much value. Then there are people who are of value who you are not targeting. The people over 50 who do use the product.

Demographic targeting is a very blunt tool and not a good way to plan media. That’s why fusion is quite interesting, where you can get user data and plan television based on that rather demographics.

Q: Does that mean buying by product need and use rather than age and gender?

A: Yes. There are times when television can be targeted far better against groups like that. You see it in pharmaceutical data – where the volume of television viewing among an ailment group can be significantly higher than among the target demo in general.

Take asthma. Asthma affects about 19% of the population. Asthma sufferers are younger, 18-34. That age group doesn’t view as much television as the population in general. But people who have asthma who are 18-34 view more television than average because they’re not as active. So there are specific cases where you can demonstrate how misleading demo targets are by planning with user data.

Q: Ad clutter and large ad clusters are big issues for Canadian advertisers. What can planners do with media buys to cut through this clutter on television?

A: Clutter has been with us since Original Sin. I think by and large the definition of clutter is ‘the other guy’s commercial.’

Advertisers understand that clutter is the price they pay for cheap television. They have choices. There are stations and channels that run fewer commercials than others and that tends to be reflected in the price.

Clutter is also a problem of shorter commercials, not that more time isn’t being added, but it’s the volume of commercials as well as the number of minutes that is the problem. If there are eight commercials in a row, even if they take only four minutes, it seems cluttered. And the advertiser’s message is damaged because consumers can only retain so much.

When you look at the clutter problem and ask the question: are advertisers willing to pay 10% higher price for 10% fewer commercials? The answer is no. So, who’s kidding whom? It is a problem but it’s a business problem, not an advertising problem. And I think it has to be looked at that way.

One of the things that makes it a little easier for advertisers is the importance of relevance. When a commercial is relevant to you, you tend to notice it. The answer to clutter is better, more relevant creative, commercials that attract attention. Commercials that you see versus a sea of commercials you don’t see. That’s really the solution to clutter, but it’s a tough solution because it’s hard to do.

Q: Recency or short-term effects may stimulate product sales but doesn’t brand building require long-term? Can a new product launch be successful if planning is done using recency rather than frequency?

A: There you’re talking about something slightly different. You’re talking about the business plan. Pharmaceuticals for example. If you sell a prescription drug to somebody – for an ailment where the consumer doesn’t die, but never gets well and has to stay on the medication for a lifetime – that’s a lot of money.

Here the issue is not the cost effectiveness of a media plan, it’s how many consumers can you convert in a short period of time to start the revenue stream. That model doesn’t work for soap or automobiles, but it works for certain kinds of products where the consumer lifetime value is reasonably high.

In those cases, what recency planning would say is never heavy-up weight because all that does is force frequency. Instead, shorten the planning period. Before recency when you had a new product introduction you would run 150 points or 200 points a week for the first two months, instead of the 75 points a week the brand would run on a sustaining basis.

Instead of that, recency says plan Monday through Wednesday, Thursday through Sunday. Run 75 points in each of the half-weeks because that will control frequency better. It means people will not see three commercials in a row. Remember, it’s not how many; it’s when. Shorter planning intervals help to control the ‘when.’

Q: Accountability is a popular buzzword today. How can media buying be accountable? Is there any way of linking the media buy to product sales and brand awareness?

A: Accountability is difficult for advertising in general, although marketing-mix modeling is showing promise. The problem is that the perceived results of a campaign – for example sales and brand awareness – are the product of many forces, not just media.

I think media accountability has another dimension. Is the client getting value for his dollars? That’s the auditing area. The advertiser works with the agency to create a media plan and it has to be a sensible media plan relating to the advertising and marketing objectives in terms of targeting, seasonality, choice of media, choice of reach goals, etc.

After that is done, accountability is essentially monitoring the buy to make sure it delivers the plan. Today that’s the biggest issue, because plans are written, plans are approved – but often plans are not executed as written or approved.

If you want 70 points a week for 36 weeks, that’s an important element of the plan’s design. To get 100 points in week one, 20 in week two, 30 in week three, 85 in week four – although it will come to the plan total at the end of the year and the cost per thousand will be right – is not the plan.

It’s the monitoring of the delivery of advertising weight, reach and frequency that’s one of the key metrics for evaluating the performance of the media AOR. But there is no one accountability number.

It just doesn’t work that way.