When’s the best time to plant a tree?

Paul Bainsfair’s lessons from a tough 2020.

As we come to the end of a turbulent year, IPA Director General Paul Bainsfair looks back on our year in advertising, picking out the core lessons for the industry to keep front of mind and detailing the accompanying IPA resources available to help grow the roots of your business.


The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second-best time is now.

And here, in this old Chinese proverb, lies the essence of one of the IPA’s springtime 2020 ad campaign headlines: ‘When to start advertising again? Three months ago.’ 

We know that brands that continue to advertise through tough times come through them healthier and stronger; they increase their brand recognition, strengthen their brand positioning and get ahead of the competition. It’s dispiriting that such spending may raise eyebrows in boardroom. In the long term, the hard data proves it’s more than worth the investment. In fact, as I commented following the results of last quarter’s Bellwether Report, because many advertisers don’t heed this advice, just maintaining spend at normal levels leads to a greater share of voice and in turn greater brand share. As our follow-up ad stated: ‘Talk to your customers. Before someone else does.’

At the IPA, we have been practising what we preach; we have continued to advertise throughout the year to promote messages to clients and the boardroom on the value of advertising and to flag to you our core learnings and accompanying IPA resources, reports and events to grow your businesses. Here’s a brief, and I hope useful, reminder:

Growing your business:

Emotion. The most rational thing a brand can use

One of the fool-proof ways to achieve long-term brand building is through emotion. The more you empathise and connect with you consumers through ‘fluent devices’, the more emotionally involved they feel and the more effective and long-lasting your advertising will be. You can Read Orlando Wood’s Lemon and his recent follow-up findings in Achtung!, that focuses on the online arena, to put these learnings into practice.

Just because people like your offers doesn’t mean they like you

Price promotions spark responses, not relationships. We must invest in long-term brand building and not just short-term sales activation. A careful balance, subject to your various brands, must be struck. You can of course find out more from Effectiveness gurus Les Binet and Peter Field in The Long and the Short of ItMedia in Focus, and Effectiveness in Context

It’s not about new business, it’s about a new business

The consumer landscape is changing rapidly, fuelled by lifestyle changes resulting from the pandemic. We are seeing an acceleration of virtual trends, new forms of value exchange across consumers’ data interactions, and more demand for more empathetic brands who embed human values and diversity at their heart. This, we think, will lead to a heightened importance on consumer centricity and the expected expansion of multi-dimensional marketing, with purpose-led communication to a growing spectrum of stakeholders.

Echoing this, Eve Sleep CEO Cheryl Calverley observed at our recent IPA Business Growth Conference, that there has been a massive consumer shift to online, fuelled by Covid, that has given rise to the ‘wise or suspicious consumer’. New consumers, that have previously avoided or been highly sceptical of online shopping have had little choice than to embark on ecommerce but are approaching it in different ways. They are relying on different sets of data and reviews regarding the products and business they are buying from.

But how will agencies deal with this new landscape? We – with thanks to the Foresight Factory’s IPA-commissioned publication The Future of Brand and Agency Relationships - think the answer lies in a pendulum of five core models of brand and agency relationships. Each of these models has its strength and weaknesses, ways of working, remuneration and measurement and varying degrees of growth potential. I urge you to take stock as to where you sit – or where you want to sit going forward - on this spectrum.

You can also pick up a copy of our free Brand Friction report that outlines a very useful four-step framework and formula to unlocking the potential value of Customer Experience.

Share of search – is this the metric you’ve been searching for?

All of these changes regarding the rise of consumer power makes Les Binet’s new metric all the more pertinent: using Share of Search to track the health and potential wealth of brands. The implication being that the greater the Share of Search, the greater the Share of Market. While the effectiveness guru himself admits it is highly nuanced, it does show significant potential as a fast, cheap and predictive metric.

Growing your people

Wow look at that, you’re already a name in the industry

As well as our 2020 ads focusing on maintaining marketing investment and advancing our craft, we didn’t forget our lifeblood: our talent. This year we once again took out full-page ads to announce the names of our successful 2020 IPA Foundation Certificate graduates. More than 16,000 industry folk have started out their industry careers via this seminal qualification, taking their first step to becoming the next big industry names. It is the most comprehensive way to help your new recruits get up to speed, fast and it’s not too late to sign up your people now for the 2021 UK-wide February exam.

At the other end of the business, our ad 'Your agency. Under new management' promoted our new tie-up with LSE on an MBA Essentials course to equip your top people with the commercial acumen to best understand your clients’ commercial needs. I can’t think of a more crucial time for your best people to be able to speak the language of the boardroom.

Growing our agencies

In this whistle-stop tour of our key 2020 messages, I think one of our most important ones, and one to end on, is this:

When the going gets tough we keep the tough going

In this toughest of years, we have never been prouder of you, our members. How you’ve enhanced our industry’s reputation for creativity and resourcefulness and how clients have recognised the value you bring even more keenly.  Our role has been to back you, as the power behind the practitioners, with a raft of unprecedented free services and to make membership of the IPA more relevant and effective than ever before.

We’re here to help you invest in your advertising, in your understanding, in your offering and in your people. We’re here to help you plant those seeds now, as those with the strongest roots can withstand the heaviest of storms.

You can of course continue to count on our support in 2021 – for which here are some dates for your diaries…

  • A Future of Fairness, 11 January – our upcoming diversity and inclusivity publication
  • The Importance of Inclusion and Diversity, 12 January - a discussion with Roxanne Hobbs on the business, emotional and personal cases for D&I.
  • A New Year address, 13 January - from our President, Nigel Vaz
  • Q4 2020 IPA Bellwether Report, 21 January
  • Reset 2021, 28 January – our IPA, ISBA and Ad Association Conference exploring how we can support the UK’s social and economic recovery, how we deal with the repercussions of COVID-19 and how we can deliver on our mission to rebuild public trust in advertising.
  • Making Sense - The Commercial Landscape 3.0 Lockdown Edition, early February – our TouchPoints publication looking at consumers’ commercial media consumption.
  • The launch of new IPA President Julian Douglas’ agenda, Spring 2021
  • Check out our IPA events page for more.

Until then, we wish you a safe Happy Christmas and a positive New Year. On which note, as an early Christmas present, and for a limited time only, we’re making some of our most recent, and some of our most treasured publications, free. So do take a look.

Last updated 01 May 2024