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Idea Killers

Posted on July 30, 2003 and read 6,951 times

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Research kills good ideas!

You probably hear that from agencies all the time. Research gets a bad rap from agencies, sometimes for very good reasons. But the truth is that agencies are also responsible for killing good ideas.

Think about it. In creative presentations, agencies typically come to the table with two or three ad ideas. The agency presumes the ideas are all good, otherwise it wouldn’t be presenting them. (Granted, sometimes sacrificial lambs are put into the mix.) However, there are potentially many ideas that never see the light of day. What about those ideas? Were they good? It’s very possible that some potentially good ideas were never brought forward.

The creative director’s role is to provide guidance and inspiration to the folks under his or her tutelage. Creative directors help nurture ideas to fruition, but they also kill ideas. It’s their job to weed out the bad and feed the good. Some CDs are better than others, so they’ll kill fewer good ideas.

Creative research is no different. Some types of creative research are better than others, and some researchers are better than others. Both research and researchers are too often painted with the same brush. This article’s opening statement should probably read: Bad research kills good ideas!

But let’s go back to the original assumption that all ideas presented to clients are good ideas. And by good I mean ideas that are better than average. It might be a fair assumption from the agency’s perspective. But is it the right assumption?

If all ideas presented by all the agencies in the past year were put on a scale from bad to good, and assuming they follow a normal distribution, most ideas would fall near the average with only a few ideas falling on the bad and good ends of the scale. So if research kills a particular idea, chances are that it was an average idea to begin with. In other words, the probability of killing a subpar idea (average or bad) is higher than the probability of killing a good idea.

Despite how it appears to us on the agency side, researchers aren’t in the business of shooting down good ideas. By and large, they don’t take sadistic pleasure in seeing someone’s creation destroyed. They actually get a kick out of seeing the ads they’ve been involved with on TV, billboards or in a magazine.

So what gives? Researchers are conservative by nature. They are protectors of assets, and they are in the business of reducing uncertainty. Taking chances is not in their DNA.

The one thing to keep in mind is that all research methodologies have inherent limitations. Having an intimate understanding of the limitations goes a long way in fostering good ideas. A good research partner can help in this department. Good researchers are skeptical of their methodologies. They do not bring forth a priori skepticism of ad ideas.

Good researchers are not dogmatic. They will acknowledge, and be honest about, methodological limitations. They will not hide behind them. And they can help overcome limitations through their experience, knowledge and intuition. To quote Einstein, “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Simply put, good research combines intuition with the best practices in methodology. If this philosophy is good enough for Einstein, then it’s good enough for the rest of us.

Success in using research as a guide to good advertising lies in choosing your research partner as carefully as you would choose your agency. Good ad ideas are rare commodities, which should only be entrusted to the most competent of researchers. The researcher you choose should have more than a passing interest in advertising. They should have a deep understanding of how advertising works and how consumers interact with advertising.

This last point can’t be overstated. Too often, researchers bring a cookie-cutter approach to creative research. There exist various advertising frameworks or models that have been shown to be effective, yet creative research tends to be designed around one model, namely, the persuasion model.

A discussion of the merits of the different advertising frameworks is beyond the scope of this article, so I won’t go in detail. Suffice it to say that it is the agency’s role to articulate and justify the chosen advertising model (i.e., how the advertising is intended to work), it is the client’s role to buy into the model and it is the researcher’s role to design the methodology in accordance to the model.

Research should never be the main driver of ads. It cannot make ads, nor should it replace creativity and judgment. And it isn’t a decision maker. Research is merely a tool. Used properly, research can be a guide to fostering great work.

And one last thing: If the researcher likes to play creative director, find another researcher.


Aldo Braccio
Head of Strategic Planning
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