Red box thinking: Rabbits and budgeting

Published: February 22, 2017

“Communications planning and budgeting requires striking the right balance between meeting short-term targets and laying the foundations for long-term impact.”

The Chancellor’s Budget is famous for its rabbits. Remember George Osborne’s £12bn boost to spending on infrastructure? Or his reform of stamp duty that he said would leave 98% of buyers better off?

Well, Philip Hammond says he’s different. “I suspect that I will prove no more adept at pulling rabbits from hats than my successor as foreign secretary has been in retrieving balls from the back of scrums,” he commented during his first Autumn Statement last year.

The Budget has always been a balancing act of political expediency and economic ambition, with policies at both ends of the scale coming good or turning bad during the reign of past Chancellors. Up until now, Hammond has tried to tip away from eye-catching gimmicks towards rather less sexy talk of inflationary pressures and resilience. The fact that this will be his first and last March Budget before reverting to the practice of having just one Budget a year (in autumn) is a further sign perhaps that when he talks of a ‘long-term economic plan’, he means business.

Communications planning and budgeting also requires striking the right balance between meeting short-term targets and laying the foundations for long-term impact.

New research from the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising (IPA) shows that marketers have increased their budgets for the 17th successive quarter. More of this money is shifting into digital media, with online marketing platforms recording a net balance of 12.1% for the fourth quarter. This is understandable given the rate and success of new technology, but it does provoke a focus on short-term metrics. Brands are looking to drive a greater ROI at channel level while postponing their bigger investment decisions, the report says.

Too much short-termism weakens the “link between creativity and effectiveness”. This is a mistake. Creative ideas can fuel campaigns across multiple media, often reaching a wider audience over a longer period. And creatively-awarded campaigns are, on average, ten times more effective.

Yet creativity can be a hard thing to plan and budget for.

Highly creative work cannot be summoned at will; it must be nurtured. This is inherently risky as it requires testing ideas with limited or no prior history of success; and results in the inevitable failure of some of those ideas.

Creativity does not mean sitting pretty until inspiration strikes. It requires endeavour and encouragement. That’s why a great deal of time and effort must go into the development stages of any creative project, particularly campaigns designed to demonstrate thought leadership. It’s important to invest in practical and analytic steps that unearth bright sparks as you go along.

That said, a creative process rarely unfolds in entirely sequential or predictable ways and the best laid plans often face unexpected complications and set-backs. Like the Chancellor, communications professionals can help build their case for reallocation of budget towards creative projects by:

Building cross-organisation support: Just as Hammond will try to see off any major concerns before entering the chamber, you’ll have an easier ride of it if you can bring key stakeholders on board as early as possible. Demonstrate how a creative, long-term approach will help everyone achieve their objectives.
Appealing to both creativity and process: In the same way that Osborne recognised it was his role to be the Treasury technician to David Cameron’s showman, it often pays to appeal to your audience in more ways than one. Appeal to the head and the heart.
Fostering a collaborative climate: While Whitehall budget negotiations may be more antagonistic than collaborative, creative processes should evolve through ongoing dialogue with your stakeholders to solicit good ideas and address issues of mutual concern. People are more likely to support ideas that they ‘own’.
Articulating and presenting ideas in an engaging and accessible format: Last year’s budget red book weighed in at 148 pages of text. Need I say more.

We wait to see if Hammond will take a risk and announce longer-term investment in areas like infrastructure, or instead opt for immediate, crowd-pleasing headlines with cuts to tax and housing costs.

In the meantime, why not take a look at how you’re investing your communications budget, and see if you have the right balance between short-term expediency and long-term impact.

And, just for a bit of fun, why not give our ‘fill in the blanks’ budget game a go … there’s a prize in it!

Fill in the blanks

Jessie Nicholls
Senior Consultant

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