Investing in Creative to Stretch Media Budgets

The idea of “capturing” an audience is a dying idea. Very few brands have the resources to pound their messages into the minds of their audiences, and even the biggest spenders are finding it harder to interrupt their audiences’ daily rituals.

The brands that are winning and will win going forward are those that evolve from a paid reach orientation — one in which brands exchange money for connections — to an “earned reach” construct in which brands use creativity and relevant utility to earn a place in their audience’s lives and become worthy of sharing with peers. In essence, whereas once media spend was the killer app in marketing, it’s being replaced by creativity. The exciting part for brands is that, in this environment, the right approach can earn far more reach than a paid media play.

Is earned reach a new concept? No and yes.

It’s not that new in that its underpinnings derive from PR’s focus on obtaining unpaid editorial placements and the ideal of triggering the elusive yet powerful phenomenon of word of mouth. It’s always been a goal of any marketing campaign, but today, in an opt-in world with social media’s invitations to instantly connect, it’s becoming the lead force. It’s the keystroke equivalent of buzzing around the water cooler, copying and sharing an interesting magazine article, or starting a grassroots movement for a political candidate.

And, yes, it’s also quite new in that unpaid media has become a primary form of influence for marketers and a most valuable tool for agencies — whether they choose to organize around it and seize the opportunity or not. Since the dawn of TiVo and the increasingly larger role digital strategies play in marketing programs, the necessity of becoming both tactically (externally) and departmentally (internally) agnostic is no longer cocktail party rhetoric. Those who learn how to leverage these new behaviors will lead the industry into new behaviors of its own.

To really maximize earned reach, there are three emerging marketing principles to keep in mind. Moving from broad, external brand and audience strategies to specific, internal creative and operational considerations, these include:

Maintain an “other” orientation: For a marketing program to be sufficiently valuable to earn reach, it needs to be relevant and useful. To achieve this, bands need to shift perspective from selfish egocentricity — “How’s this good for the brand?” — to an unselfish other orientation — “How’s this valuable to someone in my audience?” This doesn’t mean that brands can’t establish messages and advance them in the marketplace. It just means that they need to do so with the sensitivities that we would expect from anyone who expects to take up our valuable time.

Connect at passion points: There are lots of things that people care about more than brands — their friends, their communities, music, sports, celebrity . . . the list goes on. When trying to earn reach, brands are served by connecting through these areas of interest, as the eyeballs come free. It may be harder to find ways to enhance existing rituals, or to be additive to an already valued experience, but in doing so, brands can leverage existing passions to provoke participation.

Invest in assets that matter: One of the disruptive elements of an earned reach approach to marketing is the relationship between the production budget and the media budget. The traditional ratio, where 10 percent of the media budget is allocated to production, was developed when paid media was the dominant way to connect with an audience, and the creativity of the marketing was considered more of an indulgence than a business imperative. Now, with the opportunity that earned reach represents, it is fundamental that brands invest in assets that matter to people — even if that investment goes against the grain of traditional ratios. Not making assets that really matter to people caps a program’s reach at the media budget the brand can afford. Think in terms of an asset’s potential influence, not paid impressions.

Will the marketing community rush to an earned reach orientation? The vanguard already has. The concept of earned reach is becoming central to the ongoing vitality of a brand and the development of any modern marketing program. Limited marketing budgets can now have unlimited ceilings, and it’s no longer a far-reaching idea to allow for instances where creative investments exceed media budgets.

Matt Jarvis is partner and chief strategy officer at 72andSunny. He can be reached at