“Let’s put it into research” is seldom a popular exhortation in creative departments. With it goes the suspicion that the creative idea will be watered down, compromised or, one way or another, made flabbier.
I have some sympathy for this point of view. I have seen great ideas mauled by clumsy research. I have seen brilliant work jeopardised at animatic stage by iffy link test results, only to go and break all records once the client has decided to carry on regardless. But I have a confession to make. I have never seen a great idea ‘killed’ by being put in front of some research groups.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that I haven’t seen lots of ideas “die” in research groups. But that’s because, I’m afraid, they deserved to die. At the early stage of creative development there tend to be one or two front-runners, and three or four ideas that might euphemistically be described as also-rans, or “activation ideas” as they are now known. 99% of the time, a couple of focus groups, and a competent moderator, will quickly establish precisely what most of the agency team knew all along. Only two of the five routes had any real potential and, invariably, it is these two routes that sail through the early rounds of research.
The birth of qual
I don’t think my experience is atypical. The industry is not awash with stories of the “ones that got away”. Often, when a great idea is rejected, it is rejected at pitch stage (I bet he drinks…” was originally pitched to the Milk Marketing Board, so the story goes. Two of the greatest ideas I’ve never made also fell through at pitch stage – but at least they’re still in the back pocket). Indeed, it is worth reminding ourselves, how qualitative research developed – or at least what I was told when I joined the industry. The story I heard was that planning, itself a relatively new discipline, had decided that a new creative research technique was required in order to circumnavigate the conservative instincts of suits and clients. (Just as today, strong planning departments correlated closely with strong creative output).
The new technique, like most good ideas, was tremendously simple. Instead of complicated blind tests and quantitative questionnaires, we would go straight to customers and, with a few bells and whistles such as projective questioning, ask them informally what they thought of our ideas. In modern parlance, we went straight to source. In marketing jargon, qualitative research was born.
The success of this approach depended on two key ingredients. The creative judgement of the British public and the standard of moderation. The latter may vary in quality, it rather depends on who you commission. Or you can keep it closer to home, get some training and moderate the research yourself. It’s cheaper that way – though less objective.
“The overlap between ads that run as mainstream media campaigns and ads that win awards is getting depressingly small”
In contrast to the variable nature of moderation, the other key ingredient to successful research has in my experience been utterly constant. I have sat through a multitude of research groups (indeed I sit next to a meeting room that doubles up as a viewing facility), and I struggle to remember a time when I have been disappointed by the creative judgement of the British public.
When doing ad research, I still like the discussion guide to start with “name some ads you like” as part of the warm up. Invariably, the ads that are most liked are the best ads – the ones we talk about and admire in the village. The ones that polarise, that entertain, that are original, that get noticed and win awards (albeit the overlap between ads that run as mainstream media campaigns and ads that win awards is getting depressingly small). By contrast, the ads people don’t like are patronising, predictable, conventional and conformist. The ads, in other words, that everyone soon forgets.
So, if you have a bold, disruptive idea, my advice isn’t to avoid research, but to run towards it. Get it in front of your public as soon as possible. If you are reluctant for this to happen, you may want to ask yourself why. What are you running from? People are going to see your ad eventually. Advertising is not a secret form of communication. At least not yet.
Written by Charles Vallance, founder and chairman of VCCP in Campaign Magazine.