Is the Obsession with Attribution Killing Brands?.


Today’s marketers are under immense pressure to deliver, and fast. Every month, they sit in front of (non-marketing) members of The Board and report on the performance of marketing channels. That includes defending the relevance of top-of-funnel, digital channels that cannot prove an instant return on investment, yet, in actual fact, contribute a great deal to the overall success of the marketing strategy.

In this scenario, it is all too easy to suddenly find yourself in a position whereby your multi-channel digital strategy has been hacked away to leave budget for the channels that are perceived to be the only performers – usually SEO and PPC as they typically carry the credit for the final conversion.

To overcome this and truly see success from digital channels, the industry needs to take a step back and remember the fundamentals of marketing.

My background in the ad industry and first love is ‘Big Idea’ marketing. This refers to the mantra that all marketing should be born out of (and underpinned by) a single, compelling thought. Once the Big Idea has been determined, this is then rolled out across all advertising touch points, creating one single, seamless and, above all, consistent message. It’s the kind of advertising that makes people sit up and pay attention, that emotionally connects us with our favourite brands; the kind of advertising that propels brands to achieve long-term, sustainable growth.

But therein lies the deal-breaker and (in my opinion) single biggest challenge with the approach to digital marketing today: ‘long-term’.

In the years since I have joined this industry, it has changed beyond all recognition. Digital has truly taken off and, with that, a plethora of new advertising mediums were born (cue buzzwords such as ‘native’ and ‘programmatic’). Understandably, some education was (and is) needed for marketers to understand how these new media should be used as well as how performance should be attributed.

Unfortunately, instead of providing this education, media owners promised absolute measurability in real time – a transparency you can’t achieve with traditional advertising channels such as TV, press or OOH. What’s more, they also promised instant ROI - no more waiting to see the impact of your advertising. Sounds great, right?

Little did these media owners realise that they were fuelling a colossal shift in the understanding of how marketing fundamentally works. Today, we see a trend of short-term, single channel activations replacing long-term, integrated campaigns, giving rise to a wealth of low-impact, fragmented and diluted brand messages. It is all too easy to become obsessed with dissecting, analysing and optimising the performance of small-scale, short-term activity and, without ever realising it, lose sight of where the big impact is really made.

So, Where Did It All Go Wrong?

There is now an expectation that marketing channels (in whatever form, and no matter how short-term) should provide an instant return on investment. Where that isn’t evidenced, marketers are quick to pull the offending channel from their strategies. Would you have pulled the Cadbury’s Gorilla Advert from TV after a month because you couldn’t attribute, with certainty, sales to this channel? How about the Old Spice ‘The Man Your Man Could Smell Like’ campaign? These campaigns are famous for their success for three simple reasons: they were long term, they were integrated and they were born of Big Idea gold!

The point is, awareness raising channels, such as TV, have always had a vitally important role to play in assisting conversions and, therefore, growing brands and revenue. So, why do we question the value of awareness raising channels in digital?

This short-term, reactive approach to marketing is a barrier to success. We need to step back and remember the fundamentals of marketing; remember the funnel and how, as an industry, we must speculate to accumulate. That means loading the funnel by investing in long-term awareness raising campaigns and positioning your other marketing channels so that they are ready to continue the process of driving these prospects towards the point of conversion. With all channels carrying one single, compelling, consistent message.

Importantly, remember to adjust your expectations of what you should expect in terms of cost and return from channels that operate at each stage of the funnel:


If you only leverage channels that target those at the bottom of the funnel (i.e. those that are ready to purchase from you right now), you are fishing in a very small pool indeed. Failing to add new customers to the top of the funnel means that, over time, that pool will continue to shrink and, eventually, your bottom line will be impacted. This is the equivalent of investing all of your marketing budget in Point of Sale (POS) advertising… great for instant quick wins from people that are already in your store, but useless for driving new customers through the door. The fact we are now playing in a digital arena doesn’t change any of the rules, the same principals still apply.

What Should Marketers Do?

Future-proof your marketing by investing in top of funnel activity that raises brand awareness and introduces new customers to your brand. In the digital world, that could look something like this:


Understand (and accept) that this process takes time to realise results, but that it pays dividends and will lay the foundations for sustained brand and business growth.

So next board meeting, when you are asked by your CEO how much return the native activity you’ve been running has generated, tell them that this channel is playing a role similar to that of TV advertising. It is raising awareness. Its performance is not to be looked at in isolation every 30 days, and it should not live and die by the number of conversions it, alone, has delivered.

In 2018, dump the reliance on short-term marketing tactics. Play the long game and remember these four things:

  1.  Invest in fewer, larger-scale and longer-term activations 
  2. Ensure all are under-pinned by a single, compelling thought
  3. Base your media mix around the funnel (and please don’t neglect the top of the funnel!)
  4. When analysing results and reporting to The Board, take a holistic view of the campaign – is the strategy as a whole (not individual channels) delivering results? 

If you need support with your digital marketing strategy, get in touch on 01233 467 800 and have a chat with one of our digital experts.

Julia Charlton Thumbnail
Julia Charlton
Head of Multi-Channel Marketing
Julia has over 11 years’ experience in marketing strategy to Sagittarius, having built her career working with a broad range of brands across multiple sectors, including beauty, travel, home and garden, healthcare, public sector, FMCG, electronics and sports/entertainment.
Julia Charlton Thumbnail

Julia Charlton

22 May 2018 - 8 minute read
share this

stay in the know, stay ahead.

Get the latest from the agency, including news, events and expert content.
find out what we can do for you
read some of our case studies