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Research: Creative Friend or Foe?

Posted on May 8, 2012 and read 1,748 times

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kamo Research: Creative Friend or Foe?  Kamogelo Sesing
Creative Group Head
TBWA\Hunt\Lascaris

So, it’s a sunny South African Friday afternoon. Five of us are huddled around the boardroom table, staring at the telephone that sits in front of us. Faintly you can hear the sound of creatives enjoying a few drinks at the agency bar downstairs. I’ve been here before. Eagerly awaiting the call from a potential piece of business you just pitched, to hopefully tell you that you’ve just been appointed as their new ad agency.

Alas, today is not to be our day. Hence this will be more of a rant than an article.

I recently came across a quote by Henry Ford that reads, “If I had asked them what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.” I found that so poignant given that according to the potential client, the reason we lost that pitch was because the research didn’t test so well.

It has always been my assumption – or rather educated guess – that if you show people something they’re unfamiliar with next to something familiar, and ask them to choose, the likelihood of them choosing the familiar is almost guaranteed. It’s human nature. We always retreat to what we know.

Unfortunately, in a business where standing out is half your battle won, sometimes you need to do things that are foreign or unfamiliar to people. That’s how you break through the clutter. The predicament is that the large majority of normal, everyday people are not break-through-the-clutter inclined, so we can’t expect them to inform our decisions as to what will lead to new and fresh territory. Yet these are the people you’ll generally find in research groups. This is the problem with research; it puts creatives in a position of being led by our consumers as opposed to us leading them.

Our job isn’t to necessarily sell people the products they want. Our job is to sell people the things they don’t even know they want yet.

Even the late great Steve Jobs echoed the sentiments of Ford when he said, “If I had asked people what they wanted no one would have said the iPad, iPhone or iPod.” They probably wouldn’t have even been in the same realm if you’d asked them to describe it. Yet he did it. He went with his gut feeling and everything that told him that he was doing the right thing. Today very few people can dispute the resultant impact that his thinking has had on the world.

A Creative Director I once worked under used to say, “If it makes you uncomfortable, then you should probably do it.” I’ve always loved working by that rule because it always leads me somewhere different.

Let me put it this way: what do you think would happen if we pulled an average person off the street and said to them, “Okay, so in the ad we’re going to have a gorilla on a set of drums doing a rendition of Phil Collins’ ‘Something In The Air Tonight’… oh, and by the way, the ad is for Cadbury’s chocolate,” they would tell you that you’re crazy. But as we all know, that piece of communication worked like a charm in every way possible.

Look I get it, we’re dealing with our clients’ money and as such, clients like to feel comfortable and have surety, and unfortunately research provides that. But comfort and surety are firmly grounded in the familiar and the done-before and we all know what that does to brands. You become staled or fall into a sea of sameness.

Sometimes though, we are our own worst enemies because let’s be honest, the real reason a client would engage research on creative work would be because they’re not 100% comfortable. Which means they don’t trust your ponytailed, skinny jean-wearing creative agency ass.

Most of the brands that create breakthrough work do it not because they have better creatives who can sell better work, but rather because the client has a strong and unwavering trust in their ad agency. Their agency is not seen as a supplier, but rather a partner and an ambassador for their brand. So when creative work is sold – no matter how crazy it is – the client knows that the agency is doing it in the best interests of the brand.

So while I may sit here and point fingers at research companies, a simple glaring truth does exist that if we, as creatives at agencies, fostered stronger relationships with our clients based on trust, then the need for research could be eliminated in some situations. Not all the time. Just sometimes, because while it might be the bane of our existence, and while it may not be the most infallible system in the world, it does sometimes ‘keep us honest’ as creative people. Because sometimes one can ‘overindulge in a creative wank,’ and miss the entire point of what the ad should do, which is move products off shelves.

Yes, this is me deciding to not be a complete ass, and throwing you research people a bone. The funny part is that we agencies jump for joy when the work has ‘tested well with the target market.’ But truth is we shouldn’t be happy because all it means is that we’ve given them ‘the familiar’. But, I digress.

I started out this article saying that it was more of a rant than anything, but I think it is more of a message to creatives. I’m no guru but I know one thing for sure, and that is: what we do is not a science. You can’t quantify or measure it with charts and graphs, so let’s try allow as little as possible of that to happen. Sorry research guys. That was a shot at you.

I’ll tell you this much; if the guy who came to the focus group only because he heard that snacks would be served gets to be the determining factor on whether I make my ad or not just one more time, someone is getting shot.






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