Mad over metrics, or looking for stuff where the light is better


English: John Wanamaker
Smarter than Don Draper?

Consider this statement from a renowned retailer:

“…Another experience that goes largely in ordinary advertising is the waste of money.  There have been many calculations concerning the vast sums of money expended upon advertising in this country.  I do not recall what their magnitude is, but the figures compiled by observers are really astounding.   I think if we could manage to analyze that expenditure…we would find that a vast percentage of it, probably one-half, is entirely wasted…”
 

Was this WalMart’s lament at the last shareholder meeting?  Or,  perhaps JCP’s excuse for its continuing doldrums?  Neither, dear reader.  It was part of an industry speech by none other than John Wanamaker (pictured left), founder of the late, great Wanamaker’s department store, in…1898.

100+ years later, the issue still hounds marketers, albeit pared to the more sound-bitey:  “Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half.” 

When Wanamaker wailed about advertising, the term “marketing metrics” was unheard of.   There was no TV, of course, and “social networking” meant getting together for tea with your neighbor.

Even more than half a century later, in the 1960s (the Mad Men days) there were only three TV networks and three national news magazines to consider.  With limited venues and a high captive audience, advertising was, as a “Don Draper” type quipped: “like shooting fish in a barrel.”

Those halcyon days are now clearly over, as expanded communication venues and, especially, social media, provide an audience of mega-millions.  Expectations are high:  there are so many more fish to shoot!

However, this has created a climate where marketers wish to quantify everything.  How many Followers, Pokes, or Likes did we get today?  How many unique viewers visited the site?  For how long were they engaged?  What was the conversion rate of the ad?  There is barely a company today not pondering their metrics, or, how to measure the effectiveness of their PR, advertising, social media, and myriad other marketing activities.

There is even a new crop of “consultants to consultants” looking to advise agencies how to win big by “generating metric reports that dazzle!”, or by offering “100 Ways to Keep Clients Happy and Budgets Intact” (without having to bribe them with booze, drugs, or game tickets, we assume…)

One such group recently advised to be careful how we use nouns vs. verbs in our metrics reports, as they can dramatically “affect the effect.”  No wonder self-professed “AdHo” George Parker, a veteran of the already-waning Mad Men era in the 70s, says we’ve all gone mad over metrics.

He claims we often measure things without considering what it is, exactly, we are looking for.   And if we were to find it, what does it all mean?  He clarifies:  “It’s like a guy losing his car keys in the garage but going into the living room to look for them because the light is better there.”

This “looking for stuff where the light is better” trend rings true.  Truth is, marketing programs should be measured, but not all marketers should or know how to do the math. (Actually, the only old math they need to memorize is:  REACH + FREQUENCY = IMPACT.  It still holds true today.)

Never having made it to Statistics 101 in college, they certainly don’t have time to deal with it now.  They just want a good story to sell.  “Put up a realistic number that makes us look good”  they beg, preparing the slides for the upcoming stockholders meeting.

On the other side, we have recently slogged through an extensive (and expensive) report by a respected university. It contained complex, multi-page regression analyses to help justify the client’s advertising campaign. (People, it’s just advertising!)

Of course, there’s no harm in searching for brightness where the light is dim.  If, say, your post-campaign survey reveals 40% of consumers “seldom” buy your product and 20% “sometimes” do, then you can probably safely say 60% are “frequent purchasers.”  We used to call this a minor statistical enhancement.  Now, it’s metrics.

In summary, good advertising is part science, part art, and lots faith.  There are things that we can’t put an immediate number to, but we just know are right.

They sound and feel right, and we get the right reaction to it.  That’s the emotion “metric” the best ad-makers have always gone for.

John Wanamaker knew that, and that’s why, grumbling, he kept up his ad spending to build one of the most successful retail chains in the world.

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