Why we're getting it all wrong with small budget campaigns

27 May 2022

Why we’re getting it all wrong with small budget campaigns

As logical as it may seem, going for ‘bang for buck’ by concentrating smaller spends into short durations, a single media channel and ‘cost effective’ digital media only leaves marketers with poorer commercial results.

In 2020, on behalf of Cannes Lions and WARC, I published a major study of advertising effectiveness called The Effectiveness Code. I analysed nearly 5,000 advertising campaign case studies from between 2010 and 2019, covering brands large and small from all over the world.

The point was to add to our understanding of what works when it comes to using advertising to create commercial results like growth in sales, market share and profitability.

One of the most interesting findings was that campaigns (whatever their budget) became more effective when they were run for longer durations and spread across a broader range of media.

Campaigns that run for very short durations (under 3 months) and concentrate around just one or two media channels are significantly less effective than campaigns that run for longer periods (6 months+) and are spread across many media channels (4 or more). We called this ‘the principle of Creative Commitment’. The more duration and media channels we commit to a campaign, the more effective it becomes.

As this chart shows, the ‘amount’ of Creative Commitment (expressed as a Creative Commitment score of between 3 and 15) correlates very tightly with the amount of ‘very large business effects’ – i.e. significant gains in sales, market share or profitability - driven by the campaign:

With the help of Peter Field, one of the world’s leading effectiveness researchers, we were able to look at specific effectiveness outcomes.

He found that as Creative Commitment increases, campaigns are much more likely to drive high penetration growth – i.e. bring more new customers into the brand:

And he found that Creative Commitment had a massive effect on a campaign’s ability to grow a brand’s market share:


This research supports significant prior analyses which have found that campaigns ‘accumulate’ effectiveness as they run. That campaigns ‘wear in’ over time. Their effectiveness is usually moderate at first, then they become more effective the longer they’re run. Meaning that when we run campaigns for very short durations, we only benefit from those moderate results, rather than enjoying our campaign’s full potential.

Prior analyses have also found that multi-media campaigns are more effective than single-media campaigns. That the same kind of ‘cumulative’ effects we see from longer durations also happen when we spread our budget over a few different media. By doing so, we reach a more diverse group of customers, and these customers take our message more seriously when they encounter it in a range of different places.

For smaller advertisers, this can seem at first like a depressing finding. What if we don’t have the budgets to create long-running campaigns in lots of different media?

When we’re working with smaller budgets, we tend to default to a series of beliefs. One being that we should aim for ‘maximum bang for buck’ by concentrating our spend into a short duration and a single media – rather than ‘spreading thinly’ across a longer duration and many media.

We usually also default to using ‘cost effective’ digital media, and communicating product benefits clearly and rationally rather than using creative work that engages peoples’ emotions.

My more recent examination of the Creative Commitment data suggests that these default assumptions are, in fact, wrong.

That, even on smaller budgets, advertisers generate better results when they spread those budgets across longer durations and more media (despite anxieties about this spread being ‘thin’) and use broader-reach above the line media and a more emotional approach.

In our data, we can separate out and specifically analyse campaigns with smaller budgets.

We have campaigns with media spend of more than $20 million, right down to campaigns with no media spend whatsoever, and which spread through PR and social sharing alone.

And so I looked at the group of campaigns with media spend of $500,000 or less. Granted, from a New Zealand perspective, this is still a relatively large media spend. But on a global level it’s very much the ‘low budget’ range, and gives us good insight into how campaigns at the low end of a relative spectrum perform.

Here’s the data showing the effectiveness of campaigns of under $500,000 in media spend. It very clearly shows that those campaigns of very low Creative Commitment (i.e. run for under 3 months and in one media) are much less effective than those with moderate Creative Commitment (i.e. run for a year and are spread out across 4 or 5 different media):

The missing bars are because, at low budgets, very few campaigns have high Creative Commitment.

The clear outtake here is that ‘spreading thin’ does not decrease our effectiveness – it significantly increases it. We’re better to spread our investment out, as counter-intuitive as that may seem.

I also found that small budget campaigns, more often than not, lead with the kinds of new, digital media that are considered to be very cost effective, as they’re significantly cheaper to buy. But that in fact, the campaigns that lead with broader-reach above the line media like TV are actually much more effective. Cheap, it turns out, does not mean good value:

I also found that small budget campaigns are more likely to use rational creative work that seeks to persuade with product feature or benefit information.

But that those campaigns that instead seek to engage with consumers’ emotions – that is, they primarily seek to ‘leave positive memories of the brand’ by making consumers laugh or cry or think – are the more effective:

Going back to media choice, it’s easy to deliver rational information over digital media. But much harder to engage people emotionally, which is where media like TV excel.

What does all of this tell us?

This was an illuminating piece of research as it really challenges the assumptions we make as marketers when we’re choosing how to spend a small budget – adding to the canon of marketing mythology that has been proven misguided in our age of greater access to marketing effectiveness data.

It might seem to make logical sense that a small budget is best concentrated into a short duration and one media channel, and best spent on cheaper media and on straight-forward rational messaging.

But the data shows that this isn’t right at all.

My encouragement to smaller brand marketers is to consider this evidence, and to explore ways of using your budget more effectively – namely spreading longer and wider, resisting the temptation of always using digital media, and going for consumers’ emotions.

Meet the expert

James Hurman is a homegrown advertising effectiveness expert. In a previous life an advertising strategic planner, he’s now founding partner of Previously Unavailable, a full-service innovation partner to ambitious businesses, working across every aspect of product, business and brand creation.

James’s work has won more than 50 marketing effectiveness awards, he’s served on numerous creative effectiveness awards juries and published a book called The Case for Creativity.

James runs the Master of Advertising Effectiveness; an online learning programme designed to give marketers a deeper understanding of evidence based advertising effectiveness principles. If you'd like to learn more about what makes the most effective advertising then check out the programme here.