May I have your attention, please?

A message from IPA Director General, Paul Bainsfair

Do you know what colour hitchhikers should wear? Do you know the best way to get people to read your emails? Do you know what is at the top of Amol Rajan’s Spotify Wrapped list? And do you know what one of the best gifts you can give is?

Now, this may seem like a strange set of questions to lump together (with answers to follow) but there is a common denominator here. And a reason why all this matters, increasingly, to us as individuals, as businesses and to our industry.

Yes, I am talking about attention.

If I was to ask how the past year has been for you, I suspect the vast majority would respond with ‘busy’. Understandably. We are all navigating the daily work-life juggle, underpinned by ongoing geo-political uncertainty and a turbulent economy, all turbocharged by our 24/7 connected culture. So how, in amongst all this freneticism, do we get cut through? How do we gain attention? Why should we pay attention? Why should we earn it, why should we invest in it and how do we gain value from it?

Over the past year, this is something the IPA - for whom our attention is focused on our agencies and ensuring your best interests - has been exploring.

Paying attention

Apparently, the best colour for a hitchhiker to wear is red. This is based on earlier studies of online dating sites. Essentially there’s something about the colour red which is really attractive to all humans - and animals incidentally - and hence in this context, garners attention. The wider point here is that we need to get under the skin of humankind; we need to pay attention to our consumers and the world around them – what makes people tick; what media do they choose - when and why; and what turns them on and what tunes us out.

Closer to home, as our number one asset, we must ensure we pay attention to the health and wellbeing of our people; this is how we grow our businesses from the inside out. As you’ll be aware, this is the core thrust of our IPA President Josh Krichefski’s People First agenda, for which he’ll be making some significant announcements in January to further this goal, so do stay tuned.

And, lest we forget our clients. Now, are you giving your clients enough attention; are they giving you enough attention? We know that when communication falters, when attention goes elsewhere, problems arise. Which is why initiatives including the ever-popular Pitch Positive Pledge and BetterBriefs guides are so vital in aligning with one another’s goals and expectations for mutual benefit. Not to mention the need to keep abreast of the latest developments affecting us all, such as in-housing.

Earning and investing in attention

Now it’s one thing for us to pay attention to people, but if we want people to pay attention to us and our work, we have a responsibility to earn it. Let’s not waste people’s precious time, mislead nor disappoint.

On this note, I recently had the pleasure of interviewing the BBC’s Ros Atkins whose art is that of explanation. In our illuminating conversation, Ros reminded us that effective communication is core to creating cut-through and that we should adhere to its core tenets: keep it clear, concise and relevant, and deliver it in a consumable way. And when it comes to your emails, he provides a useful set of rules (listen at the 31-minute mark), based on the assumption that just because your communicating, doesn’t mean your message will be read. Given that last year there were an estimated 333 billion emails sent and received daily around the world, I think that’s a fair assumption.

For our business, you may remember that the subject of attention is something that Peter Field, Karen Nelson-Field and Orlando Wood focused on at our IPA EffWorks session at the Palais in Cannes last year. Entitled The Triple Jeopardy, they discussed the strong link between attention and effectiveness outcomes and how, as Warc described, “ad effectiveness faces a ‘triple jeopardy’ threat of short-termism, failing to include real-life human behaviour in media strategies, and creative that appeals to the wrong side of the brain.”

The points they raise are as pertinent today as ever. Which is why, for long-term brand building, paying attention to the IPA Bellwether Report to see whether companies are investing in their marketing, and in which categories, is vital. And while the TouchPoints database will help with the understanding of human behaviour - as outlined above, to understand how to create the most attention-grabbing creative that results in long-term brand building success, Orlando’s Lemon and follow-up Look Out hold the clues.

Underpinning all of this is the ongoing cross-industry work we have been investing in with the AA and ISBA to build trust and to address our industry’s role in the climate crisis. Without trust and responsibility why should people give us the time of day?

Measuring and maintaining attention

What also struck me in my discussion with the BBC’s Ros Atkins are the parallels between his formula for his hugely successful explainer videos and the work we create. His use of narrative devices, scripting devices and digital techniques enable him to create a summary of the issue, assert what is true, and provide a story in a helpful and captivating way. Coupled with this, such is the speed of technological development, he stresses the need to constantly pay attention and evaluate the means by which we choose to communicate. And be willing to realise that it might have worked yesterday but to question, will it work today? This is something I’m sure many of us may have uttered to clients along the way… What got us here won’t necessarily get us there.

The benefit of such evaluation and subsequent development of ideas is something that we witnessed in the work of Tom Roach, Les Binet and Dr Grace Kite earlier this year. They have built on the findings from The Triple Jeopardy session to explore and develop the concept of ‘The 3rd Age of Effectiveness’. In this, they provide fascinating new evidence to show digital advertising is finally becoming effective, for which attention plays a core role.

As the fight for attention grows, it is clear that mastering our understanding and continuing to develop our digital skills and embracing new technology will be key. To get cut-through will require hyper-personalisation, delivered on a mass scale. Which is where AI is working its magic. Already we’re seeing how successful this can be from the widely welcomed arrival of our Spotify Wrapped lists. This is something that even got cut-through on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. For those that are interested, Into the Unknown from Frozen 2 was Amol Rajan’s most played song of the year, which he is clear to point out is all down to his young girls and long car journeys. I find it a somewhat telling title given Amol’s enlivening yet dystopian take on where we’re headed with regard to AI and technology, as told to us at our recent Eff Works Global 2023 Conference, in which he stressed the idea that humanity is at an epoch. Into the unknown indeed.

Gaining value from attention

There is no doubt that there is great value to gain from gaining attention. To get cut-through is a currency.

On the positive, as we’ve heard, the link between attention and effectiveness is strong and you only have to look at the treasure trove of papers from the IPA Effectiveness Awards for proof of this.

Gaining attention builds brands, which builds fame which builds longer-term success and, as Les Binet and Dr Grace Kite have so wisely articulated over the past year. reduces price sensitivity and increases pricing power.

And it is precisely this – the power of advertising to build brands and companies - that is now also eliciting attention from marketing investors. As we saw in the recent launch of our new research with Brand Finance and analysis by Ian Whittaker, a former City analyst, which revealed that "Strength of brand/marketing" is the factor most frequently cited by analysts (at 79%) when asked how they appraise and analyse the companies they cover. This is cited ahead of leadership quality and technological innovation. Positive news indeed.

At this point, it would be remiss to not also caution the flip side of attention. My old friend Dave Trott often points out that if you don’t get noticed, everything else is academic. To not get attention – to be ignored, ghosted or cancelled, or to attract the wrong kind of attention – well, it can be catastrophic. That’s why we must continue to assert the value and power of advertising to our clients, to Government and to society at large, and to continue our work regarding trust, sustainability and our environmental responsibilities.

One of the greatest gifts

As I wrap-up this rather long read, I’d like to take a moment to thank you for your attention. I hope you’ve found the points and resources I’ve raised of use. If nothing else, I hope you’ll be donning a red jumper, belting out your best Spotify hits, and perfecting your email formula.

Most of all though, I hope you’ll take away the message that paying attention really does pay back. As someone once said, “One of the greatest gifts you can give to anyone is the gift of attention.”

With this in mind, as we shortly sign off for Christmas, I hope you can give yourself and your family and friends the attention you and they deserve.

And as we enter 2024, we at the IPA will ensure we continue to focus our attention on the issues and initiatives that will help you to grow your people, your businesses and our industry.

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

Paul Bainsfair is Director General of the IPA

Last updated 14 December 2023