Taking Measure: The Five Stages of Ad Failure

When a campaign fails to return the hoped-for return on investment, many marketing organizations go through the equivalent of the five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, anger, depression and (hopefully) acceptance. Corporate leaders who champion marketing effectiveness programs need to understand this process. They will also need to help their staff invest themselves in a new, fact-based process of managing marketing programs.

The concept of the five stages of grief was originally presented by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her 1969 book, On Death and Dying, as the Five Stages of Receiving Catastrophic News. In her analysis, grief can occur with "any significant change of circumstance." A marketing organization that suddenly finds itself having to justify its contribution to corporate profit has certainly had a significant change of circumstance - and will undoubtedly feel a loss of freedom in decision-making and loss of immunity from hard financial evaluation.

The marketing response to this loss usually follows Kübler-Ross' five stages.

Denial is often the initial reaction to the first unfavorable financial analysis of marketing performance. "That can't be right" and "I just don't believe it" are common responses. (Ironically, financial executives who are convinced of marketing ineffectiveness use the same phrases when modeling analysis shows a positive ROI.) These reactions are typically followed by a re-examination of the methodology and data and a deep dive into the statistics behind the findings. Some marketers will acknowledge the results, then ignore them and move ahead as planned.

When these efforts fail to change the results, marketing moves to the next stage - bargaining. The process begins with an appeal to reframe the interpretation of the results. "Just because it isn't paying back doesn't mean we have to cut spending; there are other reasons to do advertising" is one common argument. Another is, "The model doesn't measure the long-term impact of marketing on brand equity, so if we assume twice the effect in the long run, then it pays out, right?" In response, the analyst must be steadfast and clear in his or her recommendations.

The next two stages, depression and anger, often intertwine when marketers begin to realize that they can't bargain away the results and must deal with the reality of failing programs and the potential of significant budget cuts. Luckily, most professionals manage to contain their emotions, at least in public. Nevertheless, their frustration comes out in the form of rhetorical questions like, "How can we possibly turn the business around if our budget is cut and we have no money?" or as assertions that people are out to get them: "Finance is just waiting to use this as an excuse to slash our budget." If the negative reactions are contained to a few individuals, the organization can move on quickly. However, if they spread, it can become difficult to advance to the final phase: acceptance.

Acceptance often begins with comments like, "We paid a lot for this study and we have nothing better, so we might as well use it," or, "Assuming just for a moment that the results are right, what would we do about them?" Complete acceptance does not have to come all at once. Real buy-in is typically built over time as recommendations are implemented and results are validated in market. Sometimes a test market or secondary research will be used to validate the findings, but acceptance is ultimately marked by action.

With acceptance, marketers must be careful not to let the pendulum swing so far that they expect the models to make decisions for them. When I hear clients refer to the model rather than the business dynamic it represents as justification for a decision, I get concerned. The models should not become a black box that offers answers without understanding. Models should be viewed as powerful support aids, to be combined with other research, experience and good judgment when making a decision.

Just as a person dealing with a loss must move through the stages of grief in his or her own way and time, marketing departments will progress in different ways and at a different pace. Corporate leaders who understand the stages and recognize the indicative behaviors can play a critical role as "grief counselors" to help guide their organizations to acceptance, resulting in more effective and financially accountable marketing programs.

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