Friday, 23 March 2007

Objectives are for wimps.

What should be my objective of this post? To fulfil a deadline, to entertain you, to get you to read till the very end (where there is a fantastic joke), to encourage debate? Or maybe I should just start writing and work it out at the end?

In the words of the Pub Landlord, the point is this; why do we spend so little time thinking about the objective for communication? And why, instead, do we plunge so quickly into strategy?

We go to lots of strategy meetings and we read (or intend to read) lots of strategy documents. We might even want to join the IPA Strategy Group (who are an excellent bunch of strategists). But when was the last time we got invited to a meeting about objectives? The answer is, rarely. It even sounds a bit odd; ‘a brand objectives awayday’.

Strategy, by definition, is not an end in itself. People often talk about this with reference to the downstream, executional end that strategy must serve. ‘A great strategy must inspire great creative work’. Indeed it must. However, the real end that strategy serves is upstream. Strategy serves objective; doh. So having an objective for communication must precede strategy. Having an objective tells us how to evaluate strategy. It also tells us how to judge levels of success. But most fundamentally, having the right objective means you have properly defined the problem and are therefore more likely to be successful.

I will always remember the tale of the tomato farmer whose tomato farming machinery was too big to pick the tomatoes. But instead of defining the problem as having the wrong machinery (and having to spend millions to upgrade), he defined the problem as not growing big enough tomatoes (needing only minor investment). A problem well defined is an objective well understood.

So, if it is so important, why do we not talk much about objectives?

Because we believe that objectives are easy to define, and the sooner we can get on with the hard graft of strategy the better.

The truth is that defining the right objectives for communication is a tough job. Of all the many wonderful things (e.g. awareness, positioning, word of mouth) that communication can do for brands, which are needed for the brand in hand? Conversely, what are the things that we should not ask communication to do because they are best achieved by other business levers (e.g. distribution, npd, price). And within campaigns we have to very clear about the objectives for the individual media channels that are used, and how they relate to each other.

One of the dangers in objective-setting is that people often dwell in the land of interim measures and that’s why they seem easy to write.

By way of analogy, if the objective set by Dick Fosbury in the high jump was to complete a perfectly executed Western Roll we would not have heard of him. A Western Roll is an interim measure of success. Instead, he set himself the objective of ‘jumping as high as possible’. Enter the Fosbury Flop. Not only did getting the objective right achieve a better result, it released creativity and freedom into the strategy.

I’ve seen many objectives for communication that are the equivalent of asking for a Western Roll. Indeed some are quite literally interim research measures. ‘The communication objective is to get good pre-testing scores’, or, ‘create impact’ or, ‘be viral’ (when it is perfectly possible for successful communication to be the exact opposite of all those things).

We must spend more time interrogating objectives. They must have a solid route back to the commercial ambitions for a brand. Otherwise we are in danger of shooting at the wrong goal.

More disturbingly, there is perhaps an image problem getting in the way. Strategy is seen as a higher value input than objectives. Strategy trumps objectives. Indeed, Google returns 150 million results for searching the word ‘objectives’, but 305 million for ‘strategy’. So, in fact, strategy is twice as valuable as objectives.

Objectives are described rather plainly as ‘straightforward’ or ‘simple’. Whereas, strategy is ‘insightful’, ‘brilliant’, or even ‘genius’. Objectives get ‘checked’, strategy is ‘analysed’.

Objectives are easy, but not very deep or mysterious. Objectives are, in fact, for wimps. They are a bit sissy. No-one got hired for coming up with some great objectives.

Strategy, on the other hand, requires enormous mental effort to unravel its complexities. Strategy is for winners. It has military connotations. It is macho. Hollywood would make a movie about strategy.

Anyway, back to my objective of writing this piece. It is to encourage you to read the new IPA Best Practice Guide to Communication Strategy within which the importance of objective-setting is a prominent section.

And for those who read till the end for the joke, I achieved my objective.


Malc Ross said...

Lovely Tomato Guy.
Nice article.

richard h said...

A couple of observations:

1) As a business we have educated clients to expect that advertising's effects happen only over the long term rather than delivering tomorrow. No wonder that we have all become dependent on interim measures then if none of us believe that advertising has a demonstrable effect on immediate sales. This is a mess we ahve got ourselves into.

2) Indeed I recently came across a client organisation where all the bonuses related to interim measures and not sales - may be this is part of the problem.

3) Objectives are problems. Communications love to solve problems. But in today's PC brand world there are never problems only opportunities. This has made people lazy about clearly defining the problem that they want communications to solve.

4) People aren't prepared to go to the source of the problem and solve it there because that is often unpalatable (usually politically with both a small and big 'p'). So they become content to solve superficial problems.

5) Er thats it

Rob said...

I think that one of the issues surrounding 'objectives' is that corporate objectives often deviate from commercial ones. For example, we hear statements like "let's increase sales by 25%" and at the same time "reduce our impact on the environment". In that example which objective is the more important? More often than not sales will be driven at the expense of the other objective. And the solution? A brief for a piece of comunication that straddles two sets of objectives. Finally, there is a great book by the founder of Patagonia called 'Let my People Surf' which is about the importance of corporate values and is better written than this post. It is a great read.

Anonymous said...

It has also occured to me that while pitch briefs are full of commercial objectives, very few people understand how to use communications to make sure that they are achieved. And certainly decisions are rarely made on the basis of whether work is likely to meet those objectives.

Anonymous said...

where can i read the new IPA Best Practice Guide to Communication Strategy??

Anonymous said...

very commonsensical and most agreeable and usually avoided. Its funny as to how human behaviour concentrates on the more difficult part rather than the more important one :-)

Nearvision said...

At this far corner of the advertising world, Bangladesh to be precise, we define objectives in marketing terms, i.e. "create a stepping stone between the bottle and the sachet in rural the shampoo market", then try to figure out a way to fit it with the global/regional directive, i.e. "launch a new philosophy that rides on Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, Shakira and Priyanka Chopra". Not very entertaining, I guess.

Anonymous said...

Have often been thinking exactly about this issue!

The problem is: it's - a s always - a matter of words and how a sentence sounds like. If planners/clients would get more examples how objectives should "sound" + how different objectives "sound" differently, more sharp objectives would be set.

Same is true for "ideas". The more we know how ideas "sound". The more good ideas are born.

So: is there a list of objectives anywhere on the net?



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