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Deep Dive 14 Jun 2022 - 7 min read

Why mental availability, ESOV are fading: Peter Field, Karen Nelson-Field, Orlando Wood warn ad industry faces triple jeopardy threat, effectiveness rulebook ripped up

By Paul McIntyre & Brendan Coyne
Peter Field, Karen Nelson Field, Orlando Wood

Peter Field, Karen Nelson-Field, Orlando Wood: Advertising is failing to build brands, fracturing the relationship between ESOV and growth. But there are fixes.

The global ad industry faces a three-pronged threat to its stated ability to drive growth, warn ad effectiveness, attention and creative cut-through luminaries Peter Field, Karen Nelson-Field and Orlando Wood. Long-standing marketing rules such as ESOV and mental availability are being undermined by the mistaken collective belief that left-brain, short range techniques - read performance marketing - will drive growth and encode memory structures, and that all channels are equal in delivering attention. "The mental availability fuel supply is being drained," warns Field. But there are fixes, and the three are heading to Cannes next week to unpack them. Here's a sneak preview.

What you need to know:

  • Peter Field says latest IPA Effectiveness data shows early signs that top tier brands and marketers are realising the “mental availability fuel tanks” are running dry.
  • He says CFOs also accept the evidence, where presented. But that recognition is far from universal. Most brands and agencies are still too focused on short-term tactics.
  • Worse still, brand ads have been subverted, with a narrow product focus and too little genuine creativity that appeals to the right brain, suggests Orlando Wood. He thinks that will end badly.
  • Karen Nelson-Field says attention is not a binary case of legacy versus digital platforms.
  • But the three warn industry has been obsessed with the wrong metrics for a decade or more, with serious brand health consequences.
  • They aim to prod the ad industry back on track at Cannes, unpacking research that for some may prove uncomfortable.

John Philip Jones formalised [ESOV] 30 years ago, and it’s been a very strong relationship. But it is breaking down. It's simply because the money hasn't been chasing the attention in the way that it once did.

Peter Field

Dubbed the Godfather of Effectiveness, Peter Field is heading to Cannes to make advertisers an offer they can’t refuse: Make ads that grow brands and recognise that we’ve been chasing the wrong metrics for the last decade, or pay the price.

It’s not quite a horse’s head in the bed. But brands risk the knackers yard by continuing to let “performance-think” undermine the fundamental principles of ESOV – that is, growing by outpointing competitors on share of voice.

Field, attention metrics pioneer Karen Nelson-Field and Orlando Wood, Chief Innovation Officer of System1, make the pilgrimage to advertising's Mecca next week to outline the scale of the problem – and suggest a fix.

Triple Jeopardy

Andrew Ehrenberg pioneered ‘double jeopardy’ within empirical marketing laws. Basically, it states small brands are penalised twice for being small – they have fewer buyers than a larger brand and their buyers are less loyal, tending to buy less frequently. Which is why most brands race for scale, recognising that the first yards are the hardest, but yield the biggest payoff.

But today’s marketers are at risk of ‘triple jeopardy’ – and not just smaller brands, argue Field, Nelson-Field and Wood. They see a collective failure to recognise that all impressions and channels are not equal and a near universal scramble for short-term performance at the expense of brand-building. Worse still, brands are replicating short-term performance approaches within supposed brand advertising.

The result is that they waste money, make bad ads, and growth eludes them.

Triple Jeopardy is three things: the withdrawal of money from brand and putting it into performance marketing and the short-term on a massive scale. That has drained the mental availability fuel supply, if you like,” says Field.

Then comes Nelson-Field’s attention work, “which is all about how we simply are not taking account of the different levels of attention that different, particularly digital platforms generate,” says Field.

“We've been buying impressions as if one impression on platform A has the same value on platform B – and that is what is broken down in the digital era, because we simply haven't until Karen came along, had any way of valuing these different impressions on different platforms,” he adds.

“We know from the work that she's published in recent years, they have radically different levels of impact … levels of attention. That is a huge area where the money hasn't been chasing the mental availability, frankly.”

The third pillar is Orlando Wood’s unpacking of how ads have changed dramatically as “performance-think”, in Field’s words, has overpowered creativity. That mindset has “permeated the creative corridors of agencies and just made creative people write different kinds of ads – because that's what everyone's been beating them up to do for the last ten or twelve years.”

He means a narrow-focus, chopped narrative with product positioned above people and words on the screen. Just in case people aren’t paying attention for long, perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Blue chip marketers are getting this now, big time. But I don't think my money's on it being a general trend ... [and even those blue chip CMOs] have teams of people that have only ever worked in digital. They need to be helped through this, because their understanding has all been about what digital platforms do and particularly short-term thinking.

Peter Field

ESOV not dead yet

The notion that spending more than competitors and growing by achieving ‘enhanced share of voice’ or ESOV is not dead, says Field.

“The problem is that the metrics are fundamentally flawed. Once upon a time, the market knew that a dollar spent on, say TV, had a different value to a dollar spent on outdoor in the sense of the impressions that each created. But the market adjusted that with the cost of these things – and at the end of the day, a dollar spent on any medium kind of more or less evened out,” says Field.

“We had this nice general relationship between share of voice and share of market, between extra share of voice and growth in share of market. John Philip Jones formalised [ESOV] 30 years ago, and it’s been a very strong relationship. But it is breaking down – and Karen’s work more than anyone else’s highlights why that is,” says Field.

“It's simply because the money hasn't been chasing the attention in the way that it once did, because the market used to be able to take account of all of these differences. That sure has broken down. But it is fixable.”

Essentially, I think we have been largely misguided for the last several years, possibly ten, but it is starting to correct itself … [But yes] mental availability has been affected by the choices that people have made around the platforms that they buy against.

Karen Nelson-Field

Nelson-Field: Beyond legacy versus digital

Karen Nelson-Field says her work in attention metrics is now unearthing consistent patterns in the data on which to build forecasts, which should help marketers better understand how and where to get best attention bang for buck.

“We've moved on from finding new findings. Now we see systematic sameness every single time: I've started to see mathematical patterns in the research that we do,” she says. “When that happens, then you can start to build outwards and can build predictions; you know what to expect and you can make changes.”

Nelson-Field underlines that the argument should not be reduced to ‘digital media bad, legacy media good’ from an ESOV or attention perspective. But she says marketers need to be aware of choices that will lead to growth, or otherwise.

“I don't talk about digital versus legacy. It's largely to do with the functionality of the platform. There are some legacy platforms that are fantastic and there are some digital platforms that are not. It's more about where people have put their money to date and being able to understand the nuances – not just at the platform level, but within the formats,” she says.

“Essentially, I think we have been largely misguided for the last several years, possibly ten, but it is starting to correct itself … [But yes] mental availability has been affected by the choices that people have made around the platforms that they buy against.”

However, Nelson-Field’s work with her firm Amplified Intelligence finds that even some platforms that do not typically drive mental availability may have “pockets” of success, because “different age groups, different types of people do behave differently … So the piece for us is to move beyond ‘Platform A versus Platform B’ and look for humans that pay attention and different outcomes that we can model against”.

[Ads are now] full of short, sharp cuts. It's very mechanistic. It has words on the screen. If people are shown, only bits of them are shown or you see them staring at you down the barrel of the camera. And all of this kind of advertising … is pushing people away, it causes people to detach from the work.

Orlando Wood

Platforms wagging the agency dog

Shifts in creative advertising over the last 15 years have accelerated sharply in the last five, says System1’s Orlando Wood. The results aren’t pretty.

“We've seen some pretty dramatic changes that are making advertising less enjoyable, less watchable, frankly, and not the sort of advertising by and large, that puts your brand into long-term memory,” he says.

Ads are now “full of short, sharp cuts. It's very mechanistic. It has words on the screen. If people are shown, only bits of them are shown or you see them staring at you down the barrel of the lens of the camera. And all of this kind of advertising … is pushing people away, it causes people to detach from the work,” he adds.

Moreover, says Wood, it removes what he sees as the Holy Trinity of brand building.

“That's fame – so salience, the ability to bring the brand to mind, to leap above any other; Feeling – the affect heuristic. Feeling helps orientate our attention, but it also helps to put things in long-term memory and to make one choice more obvious than another; and fluency – so distinctiveness of the work involved,” he suggests.

“So what I’m going to talk about [at Cannes] is the nature of attention, and how it is narrowed in this digital age, and how the nature of the work we’re creating is very close up. You see the product really in your face. It’s quite stressful to watch that kind of advertising – or anything that close up – for too long … and it’s not the kind of work that builds mental availability.”

More right brain required

Wood is a subscriber to neuroscientist and philosopher Ian McGilchrist’s theories around how the “divided brain” works.

“He talks about how the right hemisphere [of the brain] is very broad and vigilant in its attention; it grounds us in the world and the people in it; is responsible for sustained attention and alert to stuff that's out there at the edge of our awareness, just slightly off stage, if you like,” says Wood.

“And it's this right hemisphere that presents the world to us and it passes things over to the left hemisphere for this focused attention to be brought to bear – this narrow beam attention.

“So what you find is that the kind of advertising that creates and establishes great brands intuitively understands the nature of the right brain – which understands metaphor, understands humour, understands music, all the things really that create great brands that alert us to the advertising, to the work itself and to the brand,” says Wood.

“Yet we've been doing less and less of that and we've been creating ads for this narrow beam attention, which is what the left hemisphere is all about.”

The upshot, he says, is screens crammed with “the sort of very close up advertising, a fascination for things over people, the written word – a mechanistic kind of advertising that is of no interest to the right hemisphere of the brain.”

If brands want to attract new buyers and grow, they need to rebalance, Wood suggests.

“If you're trying to talk to people who may not be in your category yet, you can't assume that they're going to be interested in this left brain advertising. You have to create advertising for the right brain that assumes no inherent interest in it, but that instead creates interest in that brand and in that product.

“That means advertising, by and large, that involves the living [i.e. people not products] doing interesting things in a definable place,” says Wood. “Not always, but mostly those are the sorts of things that capture our attention, elicit an emotional response and put things into long-term memory.”

The only people who might feel slightly miffed may be the diehard performance marketers. But we're never going to please them. They think there is nothing that a timely promotional message at the eleventh hour of decision-making can't achieve. That, of course, is totally flawed. And if we piss a few of them off, then so be it.

Peter Field

So what should Cannes judges be awarding?

Telling the ad industry at Cannes it has become fixated on short-termism and is making bad ads as a result may not go down too well. Are the trio concerned that their message may cause the industry some discomfort?

“Maybe some of the creative judges at Cannes might feel a little uncomfortable at some of Orlando's observations about great creativity,” says Field. “But we’re not trying to make people uncomfortable. We’re trying to recognise and reward the people who are getting it right and direct the people that we do not think are getting it right.

“We're certainly trying to redial 'performance think' back to something that's a little bit more balanced, where we understand how to build long-term mental availability. You don't do that through the narrow structures of what works best in performance marketing,” says Field.

“So I suppose, the only people who I suspect might feel slightly miffed with us might be the diehard performance marketers. But we're never going to please them. They think this whole brand world is a load of tosh, frankly, and that there is nothing that a timely and relevantly-served promotional message at the eleventh hour of decision-making can't achieve. That, of course, is totally flawed. And if we piss a few of them off, then so be it.”

Award show judges – and advertising itself – “probably needs to think more about advertising as a medium to entertain people,” according to Orlando Wood.

“Entertainment is hugely important in long-term effectiveness, lasting effects. It's like putting on a show and we're not putting on a show in the same way that we once were. I think we're probably telling people what to think. I think we need to put on a show, a show that entertains people, that's full of human vitality, wit and charm, because that's the kind of advertising also that respects its audience, and that doesn't seek to shock,” says Wood.

[Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO founder and copywriting legend] David Abbott, among various people said things along these lines – that you shouldn't be outrageous, you need to be plucky, but not outrageous. And I think we're treading a fine line at the moment. We need to get back to the notion of entertaining people.”

What’s the fix?

If advertising has lost its mojo, and brands and agencies are mistaking cheap reach for impact, what’s the fix? Field, Nelson-Field and Wood are not giving up the goods just yet.

“The outcome will be that we want to reverse the triple jeopardy. We want to reverse the triple penalty and make it into three things that we can do to reverse the trend. And the three will work together,” says Nelson Field. “So let me just say we will leave [the industry] with three optimistic outcomes.”

All will be revealed next week at Cannes. Whether the sermon is headed may take slightly longer to determine.

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