by Martin MacGregor (@MartMacG) I first heard the phrase “earned media” about 10 years ago. The ad industry started to realise that, after years of battering consumers with one-way messaging, if the content moved them enough, they would share it and talk about it. This wasn’t anything new, but there were suddenly a growing number of digital platforms that made it very easy — and measurable.

Instead of being a nice-to-have, campaigns started to evolve with earned media at the heart — highly demanded by clients who, understandably, loved the idea of free media. Ever since, the key debate when constructing any media strategy has been getting the balance between paid- and earned-media right. Facebook’s recent algorithm change has further exacerbated this as digital platforms try and monetise what has traditionally been seen as earned media.

Of all time

Which brings us to Donald Trump. And probably the greatest earned-media campaign of all time (OK, that does sound a bit Trumpesque but, in this case, it’s probably true).

Trump has stated openly that he doesn’t really believe in advertising and, in a reversal of all previous presidential campaigns, has held back most advertising right until the end — and overall his adspend has been massively down. He has stuck doggedly to his earned-media strategy from the Republican primaries, allowing Hillary Clinton to outspend him, at some stages up to 17:1 on TV ads.

Pundits have been scratching their heads but, as with everything else, it’s clear that Trump has rewritten the rule book on presidential-campaign media-buying strategies. At the core of earned media is the premise that, if you own the news cycle, you own the news. And no one is any doubt that he has achieved that.

EFF election campaign

South Africa has had a recent example with the EFF election campaign, where its earned-media potential was masterfully handled in a way that almost felt tighter than Trump’s often random and bizarre strategy.

Diving deeper into the spend figures in the US, Trump only started TV spend three months before the election and, with three weeks to go, had only spent 36% of what Mitt Romney had spent at the same stage in 2012 — and only 33% of what Clinton had spent.

So what is the lesson here for brands? It’s very simple: earned media, by definition, needs to be earned.

Grabbed attention

Whether you like him or not, the content that Trump has consistently put out over the last year has grabbed attention and been debated ad nauseum. That it has resonated enough to get him this far means he has certainly hit home with enough of a target audience.

On the contrary, a lot of brand content that one sees out there does anything but grab attention and has very weak resonance. Brands’ obsession with the potential of earned media often results in an over-hyped ‘conversation’ which stretches the credibility of a link between the brand and the content.

If a brand wants to behave in a Trump-like headline-grabbing way, the behaviour needs to be hyper-relevant and highly credible to what the brand stands for — otherwise it will just be shouting in the wilderness. More often than not, a well-planned and -optimised paid-media plan will work much harder, something which Brand Clinton has most definitely understood.

Time to be more realistic

It’s time for brand teams to be more realistic about their earned-media potential. And to realise that they are definitely not Donald Trump.


Martin MacGregorMartin MacGregor (@MartMacG) is managing director of Connect, an M&C Saatchi Company, with offices in Johannesburg and Cape Town. Martin has spent 18 years in the industry, and has previously worked at Ogilvy and was MD of MEC Nota Bene in Cape Town. He contributes the monthly “Media Redefined” column, in which he challenges norms in the media space, to

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