Picking up the recency gauntlet
The following letter from Erwin Ephron is a response to 'Erwin, I beg to differ' (Strategy MEDIA, Oct. 21/02, p. 10), an Op/Ed contribution on recency by Ed Weiss, VP, associate media director at Echo Advertising + Marketing.

Picking up the recency gauntlet

The following letter from Erwin Ephron is a response to ‘Erwin, I beg to differ’ (Strategy MEDIA, Oct. 21/02, p. 10), an Op/Ed contribution on recency by Ed Weiss, VP, associate media director at Echo Advertising + Marketing.

Dear Ed,

You are courageous, but not alone. Other media dons have been cross with me over recency. And I grant you that in my desire to be clear I sometimes over-simplify. But only in the belief that a log is preferable to a floral spray when the victim is drowning.

Recency isn’t really about continuity versus flighting. It is the idea that advertising builds sales by reminding consumers about brands they already know, when they are in the market to buy them. Because it deals with the consumer’s role in making advertising work, it has transformed our thinking about how to plan media.

Recency’s other contribution has been to focus advertising thinking on the next purchase and away from long-term effects, because if you don’t get enough next purchases, long-term effects don’t happen.

But enough chitchat. On to your list of particulars.


Is flighting better than continuity? An emphatic ‘no.’ Again, let’s simplify. I agree low weekly weight will lose some sales that might have been made if the weight were doubled or tripled. But the assignment is not to make every sale. It is to make the most sales across the year.

Media planning deals with allocating a budget. More weight or more weeks. More weeks will lose sales because of too little frequency, but more weight will lose many more sales when there is no frequency at all. And you can’t depend on Adstocks or word-of-mouth (more on this later) to save you when the competition is advertising.

Besides, you don’t need heavy weight to make the easy sale; you just need to be there with a message. Attending to the easiest sales and sacrificing the harder ones is the essence of recency planning. It is a ‘low-hanging fruit’ strategy. The more different people you can reach with a message over more different weeks, the more likely you are to reach people who are in the market at that time and the greater the returns to your advertising will be.

That’s why continuity works better than flighting. Heavy weight wastes too many messages on people who are not prospects at the time and leaves no messages for other weeks when they may be.

The empty box

The idea that recency is a packaged goods strategy because an empty box is needed to motivate purchase is too narrow a view. All products have ‘an empty box.’ The car lease is up, the telephone bill is too high, the dishwasher doesn’t work. For De Beers the empty box can be your wedding anniversary.

Each day, for some reason usually independent of the advertising, people are in the market for products of all kinds. Advertising makes sales by reminding that small group of consumers about a brand they are familiar with. There is little learning involved. Of course for certain new and innovative products, the advertising itself can create the need, but that is unusual.


As for frequency, recency does not eliminate it. The exposure that triggers a response is not the first exposure, but the most recent of a series of exposures. It works this time, because now that consumer is in the market. Continuous advertising creates a kind of frequency, which I call ‘presence.’ The advertising works by being there. These ideas apply to all products – cars, cereal, dishwashers, diamonds.


The solution to clutter is better creative, not heavier weight. And again don’t underestimate the role of the consumer, especially in non-packaged goods categories. It is consumer interest (often a transient state) that drives response. In spite of the clutter, you notice more car advertising when you are planning to buy a car.


Can word of mouth substitute for more continuous advertising? That’s a long shot. Even so, word-of-mouth is usually created by satisfaction with the product in use, not by the advertising. So to get more word-of-mouth, you need to get more people to use the product. Again the best way to do that is with more continuous advertising.

The competition

Heavier weight to shout down the competition is a dangerous cliché. If the competition has the same target, buys as well and has more money, heavying-up to match them is suicidal. You will not be able to advertise for much of the time they are on air and they will clean your clock.

If they have a similar budget, get them to flight. You will win.


Certainly new product introductions call for heavier weight, but this does not change the recency scheduling model. It substitutes a different marketing goal. A new brand is often willing to pay a premium to build sales faster. An established brand should not be.

Even then, recency tells how to schedule the heavier weight: Maintain moderate planning interval GRPs and shorten the planning interval from the week to the half-week or day. That will better control frequency.

My conclusion

Recency theory for packaged goods with a long history of awareness, certainly. Recency theory for everything else, I think so. It appears to be how advertising works.

Erwin Ephron, Founding partner

Ephron, Papazian & Ephron,

New York



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