Today more than half of the total stock market value of corporations lies in intangible assets such as brands ... The brand is the business. This statement by Shelly Lazarus, chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide at the World Effie Festival 2008, sums up why brand building is important for companies. In this climate of the brand imperative, advertising gurus converged on Singapore for the conference which celebrates advertising effectiveness.

The success of the brand is not always in the hands of the advertising agency or the corporation's marketing department. Simon Clift, chief marketing officer of Unilever, says that the current marketing environment is more exciting now than it's ever been. In the old days we used to choose which brands became famous. Now consumers choose because they can tune in and tune out on their own terms, and so you have to take risks in order to be noticed. If you're not noticed, you're dead.

Irreverence and ideals

Conference speakers came up with a variety of approaches as to how best to engage with the consumer through advertising and brand building. Lazarus - whose agency has handled campaigns that have successfully created an emotional connection with consumers - says that Ogilvy & Mather has found that if you can go from a big idea to a big ideal; if you can tap into a cultural truth; if you can tap into something in which society is wildly interested in at the moment, you have a huge opportunity.

Sir John Hegarty, founder, chairman, and worldwide creative director for BBH, takes engagement with the consumer one step further. When I look at the history of advertising, and I look at the things that have sustained over time, they have had irreverence at their foundation, because they challenge. I think great communication is about challenging, he says.

What irreverence offers us is a more stimulating way to create and capture people's imagination and attention. However, Hegarty warns, irreverence must be constructive. Not only must it lead people to question, but it must also create value. He points to Benetton's shock advertising as having failed in that regard. Yes, it shocked me to gain my attention - showing somebody dying of AIDS. It is profoundly irreverent, but, ultimately, I'm left feeling hollow ... What are you saying and do you believe it? If not, your vision becomes empty and meaningless.

Hegarty further argues that humour and wit play an important role in advertising as it draws people in, making them relax and listen. Humour and irreverence are interesting and powerful bedfellows. They feed off each other, creating opportunities to enhance each others thought. When put together, they become somewhat profound.

There is some debate, however, as to whether humour and irreverence are always appropriate. Prasoon Joshi, chairman and regional executive creative director, Asia-Pacific, McCann World Group, told INSEAD Knowledge that while humour has been proven to attract people, there is an overemphasis on it in advertising. Humour is a very good social lubricant. In many categories, humour can only play the role of breaking the ice. Further down, you've got to have an intense relationship to be able to get into [the customer's] life ... You can't constantly keep cracking jokes and expect the customer to be humoured by you. This is particularly the case for products that require some element of bonding with the consumer in terms of 'high-involvement' products, such as cars.

New media

While it was acknowledged that the new media provide many new and exciting avenues through which to engage with the consumer, there's a general consensus that this sphere is still limited as compared with traditional media. There are some instances when we've overestimated the importance of non-traditional media, and we've actually had to step back and go back to the battle on TV, says Clift of Unilever.

Lazarus questions the value generation of new media: A million people downloaded this from YouTube. What does that mean? What does that buy us? What is the role that plays in the total brand proposition? I'm sure it plays some role, but it's not obvious to me yet that because you download a clever film means your relationship with the brand has changed.

There was agreement that while new media opens new fronts for advertising, the fundamentals of communication are still the same. You've still got to break through all these media. You've still got to do things that people remember, Hegarty says.

Joshi highlights how little relevance the new media debate has to developing country markets such as India: Let's not forget that when the world is talking digital, you're talking about a country where many people are discovering television for the first time; who are watching or buying TV's for the first time ... in fact they're finding it fascinating enough to watch for many more years.

Effective advertising

The Effie Awards have been recognising advertising campaigns based on their effectiveness in terms of sales since 1968, and the issue of creativity versus effectiveness continued to be discussed at this event. Many speakers supported the idea of linking advertising agency remuneration to the number of sales made. While Clift says that Unilever already has such a performance-related incentive scheme in place, he told INSEAD Knowledge there are limits to being able to pay for creativity. If you can find a way for me that measures the value of an idea, then I would be delighted to somehow factor it in to our remuneration because of course, in theory, it's a brilliant idea. Making it work in practice risks distracting people who should be managing ideas and the advertising development process, [if] they are focusing a disproportionate amount of time on measuring how much we should be paying our agencies.

For the advertising veterans that attended, creativity and effectiveness go hand-in-hand. Ogilvy & Mather's regional effectiveness director, Tim Broadbent, says the firm builds creativity into the creative brief right from the beginning. Ogilvy's founding principle of we sell or else was perhaps best articulated by Lazarus' statement: We think of ourselves as salespeople too and if everything we do does not at the end of the day result in sales, then we have not done our jobs.