Marketing: Ideas that show their worth on bottom line: Design awards highlight the difficulty of working out the impact of the creative input in launching products

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AT A PRESENTATION dinner on Tuesday, companies as diverse as Boots, London Regional Transport, Psion and the National Theatre will learn whether they have won one of the awards for design effectiveness that are presented annually by the Design Business Association.

These and similar awards given by the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising and the Public Relations Consultants Association are supposed to recognise measurable contributions towards the bottom line rather than creativity.

But ascertaining the effectiveness is difficult, because design is bound up with all the other activities in the development and launching of a new product.

Cases such as that of Dairy Crest, whose Frijj flavoured fresh-milk product is on the design awards short-list in the packaging design category, are rare: its design was successful so quickly that a planned advertising campaign was delayed for three months.

An ineffectual public relations campaign could to be discounted, so there was nothing but the design to account for Frijj's expanding the entire market for such products by 30 per cent and becoming market leader within seven months.

In general, design, advertising and PR are less easy to separate and evaluate. This confusion was one reason why the Confederation of British Industry organised a marketing forum that would bring together speakers from each of these disciplines.

It seemed that the event might shed some light on the relative contribution that each activity made to the success of a product. However, the three speakers carefully chose as case studies those rare examples, like Frijj, where one can be pretty confident that the only thing that changes is the thing being measured.

The three - Mike Walsh, chairman of Ogilvy & Mather, Bryan Brown of the Marketplace Design Partnership, and Julia Thorn of Paragon Communications - advised companies to regard these activities as manageable, if not measurable.

Design, public relations and advertising are all creative activities subject to personal inspiration (or the lack of it). Some executives assume that for this reason, they cannot be managed in a conventional manner.

Like other business procedures, they can be broken down into a sequence of key actions, and as such they are subject to management, like any other business activity.

'Treat it like any other industry; treat it rigorously,' says Mr Brown.

Mr Walsh places emphasis not on after-the-fact evaluation of the effectiveness of a completed campaign, but on continuous evaluation of work in progress, by means of agreed hurdles that represent a client's objectives and expectations at each key stage.

This is an admission that effectiveness cannot be measured to any meaningful extent - and by implication that past successes in such creative activities cannot be held up as models for current jobs. Better to set clear aims, quantified where possible, and work diligently to meet or surpass them.

The degree to which aims and achievements can be quantified is a sore point in all fields. Apparently solid statistics can mask a web of confusion. For example, people surveyed at considerable expense will think they remember a product from seeing an advertisement on television even though that product was only ever the subject of a print campaign.

On other occasions, sensible numbers are all but impossible to come by. Mr Walsh points out, for example, that 'likeability' is a key part of an advertisement's effectiveness. But how do you measure it?

A more fundamental difficulty lurks behind the assumption that these activities should be compartmentalised for analysis. As Mr Brown says: 'Design should be undertaken in conjunction with advertising and PR, so it is hard to evaluate its sole effect.'

Admittedly, measured effectiveness can be used by designers and advertising agencies to impress clients. But really, design, advertising and public relations are what we are always told they are - part of the marketing mix.

'It is difficult to isolate performance. It seems far more important to harness them together in an integrated marketing programme,' Mr Brown says.

'It's an interesting dilemma,' says Laura Haynes, managing director of the brand consultancy Beresfords Design, and chairwoman of this year's Design Effectiveness Awards judges.

'Each aspect of the marketing mix has to pull in the same direction. But they affect their audience in different ways. There are areas of key overlap, but there are also areas where design has some specific objective to achieve.'

The challenge for clients is to recognise where the effects of design, advertising and other activities are separable - and hence perhaps measurable - and where they are best left in the mix.

(Photograph omitted)