Non-binary effectiveness? Yes, No, Maybe!

Exploring a broader form of effectiveness beyond the traditional metric of profit.

Simon Gregory, Chief Strategy Officer at BBH and Industry Judge at the IPA Effectiveness Awards 2022 asks if there is another way to think about effectiveness.

Last month I was lucky enough to attend the IPA’s Talent and Diversity Conference. Unsurprisingly there was a host of both well-known and upcoming talent on display talking about, er, talent and diversity. How to find, nurture and empower diverse talent to make a difference in our industry and beyond.

Ugo Monye touched hearts with his honesty, Afua Kyei inspired with her journey to the top of The Bank of England, and an ensemble of energy reminded us how important debate is (more of that sort of thing!). Alas, thanks to recent hours spent judging award papers I arrived with effectiveness on the brain.

There is frequently-cited evidence from different industries about the link between having more diverse talent and making gains in general business effectiveness measures such as productivity or innovation. More research on these questions specifically from the advertising industry will always be welcome. In my view, though, 'Diversify the culture, improve the numbers' is an irresistible argument and deserves time, commitment and energy to put into practice. 

Positive impact on culture 

However, greater productivity or innovation are ultimately in service of quite a traditional measure of effectiveness: profit. Should we be considering more? Couldn’t a positive impact on a culture - workplace or societal - be a measure of success in itself?

There has been much written about broader forms of effectiveness perhaps best aggregated by ‘Triple P’ thinking, reviewing performance across People, Planet AND Profit. This is a great first step and follows the simple truth that if we are measured – and ideally evaluated for a bonus – according to something, then we’ll see it as more important.

It’s hard to actually do it though, isn’t it? How do you measure the P’s other than profit? How do you blend them into your thinking? How do you make them important throughout a process?

Fellow BBH strats and others (hat-tip to Ben Essen) have tried a couple of different tactics on some different briefs and pitches and, for me, two things keep popping up.

Firstly, category relevance makes it easier to assess our performance against the planetary P – we can cut emissions for Audi whilst selling electric cars, or reduce plastic by promoting Wild as an environmentally responsible deodorant.

Secondly, it is much harder to assess when we’re being more effective at delivering to improve our performance against People.

There have been some success stories under the People pillar - such as our Ramadan campaign for Tesco lifting sales by 6% as well as feelings of representation and inclusion amongst British Muslims. But these gains often feel small in the grand scheme of things or a bit ‘Cannes-y’.

Another way to think about effectiveness

Maybe it’s just a case of every horse can’t run the same course. Maybe we need to think broader. Maybe there’s another way to think about effectiveness in this guise.

Step forward Isabelle Bale, Strategy Director from M&C Saatchi and her delivery of an excellent and compelling presentation on the perils of trying to see the world in a binary way. She spoke about how non-binary thinking could open up new approaches to planning, segmentation, and creativity. Yet it was her provocation on effectiveness that stood out to me: “Do you want results or just a graph that goes up?

She points out that as an industry we shortcut effectiveness to winning and losing and making charts look like they’re growing. Whereas other professional fields and academia emphasise the importance of learning, peer-review and accepting the grey (“Results can be ‘both’, ‘neither’, and ‘maybe’”).

Think how many Nobel Prizes have been awarded based on the thinking unlocking further success for others. Then think about the last whopping number you popped into an awards paper's Exec Summary.

Simon Gregory, Chief Strategy Officer BBH and Industry Judge at the IPA Effectiveness Awards 2022.

I like this as an approach. Take the same clarity and precision we use in finding success and apply it to other areas of questioning. Yes, let’s celebrate the numbers going up. Yes, let’s keep looking at Profit, Planet and People. But let’s also ask what did we learn? What did we help others with? What was the real achievement here?

It is often the uncertainty of creativity that I love the most. We don’t always know what will happen, least of all why it has happened. So the next time we go looking, let’s keep an open mind as to what success really looks like. Looks like I’ll be re-reading those award papers then…

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 The opinions expressed here are those of the authors and were submitted in accordance with the IPA terms and conditions regarding the uploading and contribution of content to the IPA newsletters, IPA website, or other IPA media, and should not be interpreted as representing the opinion of the IPA.

Last updated 07 December 2023