Byron Sharp is right: chasing fleeting attention is a waste of money

Sharp is right: chasing fleeting attention is a waste of money

Professor Byron Sharp isn’t “smashing” attention metrics. He’s urging marketers to stop misusing them.


At Adelaide our inspiration to create evidence-based metrics to evaluate the quality of media came from the work of Byron Sharp, so much so that we named our company after the hometown of the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute. If there’s one thing we have learned about the Sharp doctrine, it’s the importance of understanding the nuances of Professor Sharp’s beliefs and perspectives.

“Want Loyalty? Get a dog,” a heavily cited quote from Sharp’s must-read How Brands Grow: What Marketers Don’t Know, has been oversimplified and misinterpreted by many to mean, “Loyalty programs are a waste of money.” In reality, Sharp is suggesting that advertisers don’t overinvest in loyalty programs at the expense of finding new customers.

In Sharp’s most recent talk at the Mi3-LinkedIn B2B Next Summit, we’ve seen a similar misconception play out. Without considering the nuances of his argument, it appears he is dissuading marketers from using attention metrics. As quoted in Mi3’s article, Sharp says that “paying more for more than fleeting attention is a waste of money.”

His perspective — that maximizing consumer attention and chasing fleeting exposure will fail to move the needle forward — is one we agree with wholeheartedly.

Unfortunately, this practice of making attention the target of a campaign rather than an input to understanding media quality and value, is a common pitfall for many marketers and researchers, especially those who are new to attention metrics. The biggest issue with this approach is that you can only optimize towards one goal at a time. So, if an advertiser is optimizing to the greatest possible attention, they are failing to optimize tangible brand and business outcomes, like awareness or sales.

A key tip-off that attention metrics are being used as an outcome is a reference to the duration, time spent, or seconds of attention. You’ll hear phrases like “attention seconds” or “attention time” in those cases.

To break this down further, advertisers must look at attention as a product of creative relevance, audience, and media quality. Each of these plays a different role in capturing and holding attention. Understanding  that, it is clear that blanket optimization towards attention is a flawed approach, as noted by Sharp.

Here is what happens when you optimize to the maximum amount of attention:

1. Creative: Optimizing creative to hold attention without a more nuanced view of why people are paying attention could result in a bunch of interesting or salacious ads that don’t actually drive impact.

2. Audience: Humans are more likely to pay attention to things we are familiar with. So targeting the people who are most likely to pay attention results in reaching people who are already familiar with your brand, not a good idea when attempting to drive incremental awareness.

As Sharp puts it, “I don’t want to do advertising and not be seen. But after that, paying for a lot more [attention]? No.”

3. Media: After eight years of working with attention metrics at Parsec and Adelaide, we have found that optimizing to placements that offer a high probability of attention outperforms less attentive media across a range of business outcomes.


Rather than simply maximizing attention, advertisers should optimize to the desired business outcome while taking into account the quality of media and the price they are willing to pay. To do this, attention metrics can be used to gauge the likelihood of attention by any person to any creative in a particular placement, and the likelihood of a subsequent impact like sales or brand lift.

At Adelaide we’ve seen a growing body of evidence that supports the use of attention metrics to optimize and properly price media, thereby reducing waste from inattentive media. For example, the Attention Council published a report showing dozens of links between attention metrics and advertiser outcomes.

The specifics of how attention metrics should be used are becoming increasingly important as they are deployed into production by brands and agencies, and scrutiny from industry leaders like Byron Sharp is critical to ensure their proper use.

Marc Guldimann is the founder and CEO of Adelaide, a company that aims to help brands invest more efficiently using attention data.

Media Jobs