This is the story of how a simple and ubiquitous framework threatens to break advertising.
There are many tools and frameworks across strategy, marketing, and advertising.
Have you ever noticed which ones tend to be the most popular?
Is it the smartest ones? The clearest ones? The most effective? The most validated by research?
Of course not!
The most popular ones are those which are easiest to explain and learn, and most importantly — easiest to sell. Internally to teams, and externally to clients.
Unfortunately, even simple frameworks are often not as simple as people think.
When misused – which I see happening more and more often — GTB cultivates bad work, promotes non-strategies, mismanages creative teams, and sets them and their clients up for failure.
What’s the framework, and where does it come from?
If you’re reading this post, you’re probably already familiar with the formula, which can usually be found lurking somewhere in creative brief documents. Some even use it instead of a brief, but more often it sits in the section summarising the creative strategy.
There are various nuanced takes on it, but here’s the rough outline:
- Get [an audience]
- Who a) think / feel / do something or b) face a problem
- To [do something]
- By a) telling them the proposition or b) using a strategy
- For the “who” part, the think/feel/do path will usually be contrasted with the change you want to see in the audience. My preferred option is that “who” defines the problem the audience is facing, based on an insight or meaningful observation about that audience.
- I prefer “By” to articulate a concise strategy, but even if it is simply proposition-driven, that proposition should relate to an overall strategy. Also, when it’s proposition focused, it will usually contain some proof-points.
Though it’s been around for what feels like forever (at least to this strategist), the origins of the Get-to-buy framework are a bit obscure. It’s highly associated with eternal heavyweight BBDO, and last I saw was still part of their briefing template (but they are vast, so who knows…). I don’t know if it started there and couldn’t track a single/first origin. Feel free to point me in the right direction if you know.
Nowadays, it’s used far and wide, and its popularity in recent years has been boosted by prominent strategy educators (who aren’t responsible for how it’s used).
The formula reflects a fundamental dynamic in marketing — an audience in one state is influenced by a proposition or a strategy and (hopefully) shifts to a new state.
When used properly, it will capture the audience, the creative task and the strategy, driving it effectively and succinctly. It’s quick to read and simple to understand — no wonder it’s so popular.
So how does it break down?
Problems with GTB often arise when people oversimplify any or all of the elements, and especially when they try to use it to capture broader brand strategies. In worst-case scenarios, like the mythical serpent Ouroboros, the framework eats itself.
This useless incarnation of get-to-by, fluff removed, will essentially say:
Get people, to buy our service/product (/love our brand), by showing/telling them it’s great.
This is a common type of non-strategy — objectives masquerading as a strategy. In fact, it’s mentioned as one of the most common errors in Richard Rumelt’s indispensable “Good Strategy, Bad Strategy”.
The framework simply makes it look as though there’s thought behind it. But there isn’t. A closed loop, this kind of GTB isn’t adding anything or going anywhere. It barely, if at all, recaps a reductive version of a client brief.
Here’s an anonymised example found online in a blog post from a digital agency about “how to write a one-line strategy”.
GET: female or male online shoppers with an affinity for fashion and brands
TO: see [brand] as the no.1 online shop and build regular traffic to [brand.com]
BY: sending perfectly timed and triggered emails with conditionally personalized content
A moment, while I dislodge my finger from my eye…
The missing “who” is a red flag as it avoids saying anything meaningful about the broad audience. The “to” is a vague end-goal rather than a focused behavioural shift objective that can lead to it. The “by” is an unspecified best practice verging on wishful thinking (“I wish our emails were perfectly timed”) rather than any information about how the objective will be achieved.
I wish this was a rare “edge case”, but this is closer to what I have seen dozens of times in briefs over the last five years. Even without counting students or juniors!
Impact on creative development
What happens when an empty GTB framework hits the creative team? Well, it’s a non-strategy, so they can do whatever the F they want!
Before I go any further, let me say in their defence —it’s not unusual for creative teams to have to step up and try to plug gaps left by other departments, directors, or clients.
The more strategically savvy creative teams will first push back and demand a better brief with a clear strategy. Failing that, they’ll try to figure out the strategy on their own. (Sometimes they might get it right.)
But in many cases, even good teams will be tempted by the implicit freedom of a non-strategy. They’ll likely end up with something interesting but that doesn’t quite deliver. Because they are creative, the result may show some distinction — but without much relevance or integrity. At worst, they’ll go off on tangents and let random passions and trends guide them or go completely off brand and brief (what brief?).
Creative thinking flourishes with clear direction. A strategy-free GTB results in rudderless creativity. In my view, a lot of misdirected energy, frustration and disappointing results can be avoided if people start using GTBs correctly – that is to say, strategically.
So how should we use the framework strategically?
Strategic thinking must be embedded in every element.
- Start with a clear audience that is connected to a proper segmentation. Provide information about it that can guide how we engage with it.
- Never skip the ‘who’ part. Say meaningful things about that audience. Perhaps describe the problem they’re facing, their needs, or their existing perception. Possibly mention the context or CEP (category entry point) where we engage with them. Preferably, refer to an insight or a deeper truth about their situation.
- To develop a strategic ‘To’, you need to identify the behavioural change you want the audience to go through. The behavioural change is typically something that supports your end goal and is realistic within the campaign (keeping in mind “strategy is a weak force”). A specific change in perception, a learning, or even a small action progressing them along the customer journey can work here.
- The ‘By’ part of your GTB is the heart of the creative strategy. Like most strategies – it should answer the question ‘how?’. This should never fall into the trap of a closed loop or a bare assertion. How do we make this change realistic? What are our creative actions?
- · Especially if your ‘By’ is related to a proposition, add the fifth element of ‘Because’. “Reasons to believe” to ground the proposition are mentioned in some versions of the template. That said, sometimes it will already be integrated with the strategy in “By”.
For example, a GTB for Snicker’s iconic “you’re not you when you’re hungry” campaign, in its original form (2010), might read like this:
- Get active young men, 16-28
- Who are out and about, playing and socialising, typically in groups, and looking for something to satisfy their hunger so they don’t fall behind, or worse — embarrass themselves in front of their peers.
- To recognise Snickers as a superior choice to satisfy their hunger on-the-go, so they can keep up with their friends.
- By dramatizing the effects of feeling “Hangry” in a humorous but emotionally meaningful way.
- Because Snickers provides the best combination of satisfying while being an indulgent treat — alleviating hunger while keeping spirits high.
If you insist on having a super concise one, this version could work too, although I suspect you’ll need to provide more detail in the brief of the briefing session.
GET young men WHO want to keep up with their friends, TO see Snickers as a superior solution to satisfying their hunger on-the-go, BY humorously showing them what happens when they are “hangry”.
When you stay strategic, the creative direction stays clear and teams can work within a well-delineated playground, thus improving your chances of positive outcomes.
Avoid empty loops and other non-strategies by staying mindful and strategic the whole way through.
* Appendix: citation needed / “How do you know?”
For those reading this who wonder how I can preach with such certainty…
I’m not just another 20+ years strategist. Thanks to two side-hustles, I get a unique perspective about the preferred tools of our industry.
As the strategy mentor at The School of Communication arts, I see dozens of client and agency briefs assigned to the school every year.
In my D&AD creative strategy masterclass, for nearly four years, I have met a significant cross-section of our industry: over 400 people of all experience levels from over 100 agencies, major and small, as well as diverse client organisations, from the UK and abroad.
I can say confidently, at least in the UK, but often beyond — nothing has come close to the popularity of this framework. Especially as the core strategic element of creative briefs, and increasingly at the template level.
In over half of the cases, the get-to-by framework is used incorrectly, and the result is 50%- 100% devoid of any strategy. Not even a bad one. I’d go so far as to say that non-strategies are the most widespread form of bad strategy in marketing. Just a little more attention to creating strategic ‘get-to-bys’ could save us from this plight.
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