How Much Creative Is Enough?

Clients ask their agencies certain questions when setting out on a campaign for the first time:

Which media should I use? How much of each media should I use? How long do I have before I have to make a decision on a schedule? What are my cancellation options if we decide to pull the plug (oh, shudder!)?

One of my favorites, and the one I’m going to address here, is:

How many different creative units should I run on a given campaign?

Ah… it’s like sitting in a client meeting, circa 1999. This question and the ever-popular, How much should I be spending?, are the ones that sit at the top of a client’s list.

Yes, it makes me feel warm and fuzzy, reflecting on better times, reminiscing about open-bar parties, Hornblower cruises on the San Francisco Bay, lox and blini, and all varieties of ice sculptures…

You’ve pretty much answered the question yourself if you use the “it depends” caveat. I once had a client that ran the same creative for almost a year and never saw its response rates drop. Of course, that assumes response as an objective. But it did continue to perform terrifically for damn near a year.

It is a good question to ask. You don’t want to have too many different pieces of creative and dilute the impact any one of them might have. At the same time, you don’t want to limit your chances of attracting different potential consumers with a variety of messages and images.

In traditional media, some conventional wisdom holds that the “wear out” threshold is somewhere at a 20-25 times frequency for your first audience quintile. That’s traditional media-ese for “heaviest fifth.” Quintiles of media usage break down as follows: heaviest, heavy-medium, medium, medium-light, light. I know, it sounds like the milk selection at a Whole Foods supermarket.

For online, until you can break down a potential frequency distribution against a unique audience, the quest becomes how many creatives you should rotate for a given impression guarantee. I’ve always used the rule of thumb that 10,000 incidents of a unique piece of creative in a unique placement (e.g., blue.gif runs for 10,000 impressions in the underwater basket weaving section of a site) will give you enough statistical evidence to determine whether your creative is performing. This, of course, is tricky, because it doesn’t take into account the unique audience. It still doesn’t really answer the question, How many creatives should I run if I just bought 100,000 impressions?

The answer is: Hell, who knows? Depending on the objective, particularly if there is some response metric being used to measure success, you should have at minimum four pieces of creative ready, regardless of the impression level. That way, you can set up a benefit versus offer message test and have one piece of back-up creative for each to either rotate in to replace the loser of the first test or to serve as a test against the control creative for whatever message category wins out (i.e., the winner of your first test).

It goes like this. I’ve got a banner that is red and says “Run Faster!” I’ve got another piece of creative that’s a blue banner that says “Jump Higher!”

That means I’ve got two formats (blue vs. red) and two messages (“Run Faster!” vs. “Jump Higher!”). But I should also have ready in my stable of options a blue banner that says “Jump Higher!” and another red banner that says “Run Faster!” That way, I can test not only which format might be doing better for my online campaign, but also which message in combination with that format. The thing about all advertising is that, though there is experience and research that can be used directionally to help us predict what works and what doesn’t, you never really know what is going to work in your particular case until you try it.

Another thing to think about if this question does come up is just why the client is asking. Certainly, there are considerations of waste that can motivate this question. But you might want to be sure of your client’s commitment to making its online work for it. If the client asks this question, it could mean it’s skimping on a production budget, in which case it is time to reevaluate the whole objective of the campaign and whether the online medium is right for the client at all.

Planning the Buy will return on Tuesday, January 8th. Happy holidays from ClickZ!

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