How do you measure an ad’s impact?

I remember walking into the Museum of Modern Art on one of those humid New York summer days two years ago, my six-year-old in tow, and finding myself in front of Vincent van Gogh’s masterpiece, The Starry Night.  As I stared at those blue and yellow swirls, the eerie twilight, the flamelike cypress, I felt as if the universe itself—or, at least, the Milky Way—was staring right back at me. For about 30 long seconds, I was oblivious to everything else. I didn’t care about the tourists who wanted me out of their way. I didn’t remember if my daughter was there.  I probably didn’t even breathe. I just stood there, mesmerized.

Perhaps in advertising we can never dream of having the impact that great art has.  That may well be unachievable in our profession.  But if our work is even remotely related to art—like a distant cousin twice removed—at least some of its impact can be judged by how much it moves the audience and leaves them mesmerized.

The thing is, while advertising may partly be an art, it’s primarily a business.   And as we all know, a successful business requires that its every facet be measurable, or else none of us get paid.  (I often picture van Gogh submitting his timesheets.)

So what on earth is a good, quantifiable way to measure advertising’s impact? For some, it’s product sales.  For others, it’s ad recall.  For many more nowadays, it’s the number of tweets and Likes (the new age word-of-mouth).

For me, the answer is a bit of each. (And not because that is the least controversial position on this fairly complex subject.)  I say that because product sales, ad recall and positive social chatter are all interrelated.  They are three integral aspects of a brand’s marketing story; take any one of them out and you wouldn’t quite see the full picture.

Let’s take product sales first. Achieving higher sales is the expectation of any client who hires an agency to create their ads. They want us to—in the words of one of my college professors—“move the merch.”  And if we don’t help them do that, they won’t want to keep us around for very long.  Besides, if our work isn’t influencing people’s desire to buy, frankly, we aren’t doing our jobs.  Which is why I believe it’s fair to include sales figures as a measure of an ad’s impact.

But before an ad can help sales, before it can register its impact on those bar graphs, it has to be memorable.  After all, if we don’t remember seeing something, we’re not going to get off the couch and reach for it. That’s why, when people with clipboards come knocking at our audience’s doors asking if they can recall our ad, we better hope we made something good enough for the viewer to remember.

When we do make something memorable, something that knocks our audience’s socks off, we get to hear about it.  In today’s day and age, we get to hear about it almost instantly. People start tweeting and they start to “Like.” They tell their friends. They spread the word.  Then, someday, they and their friends go out and buy what we’re selling. And when that happens, as the sales graph starts nudging upward, we get our little share of the credit. And once that happens, we take a break from our endless toil, wander into a museum, and find ourselves staring at art that leaves us mesmerized.