FEATURE24 August 2012

An end to old struggles

Creatives and researchers are long-time adversaries, but the commercial realities of 2012 are forcing them to settle their differences.

“F***ing research”. That was a familiar refrain at this year’s Cannes Lions, the annual gathering of the great and the good of the advertising and creative worlds. If there is one thing creatives love to hate, it’s research, especially when it’s used to test whether their ideas are good enough.

Sarah Druce, creative director at MARS Y&R, says: “It’s frustrating when great creative concepts fall at the research stage, often because quant doesn’t deliver the requisite depth and qual often means a disproportionately loud voice from a small group. This is exacerbated by the fact that brands are increasingly risk-averse, and so are becoming over-reliant on the rational – namely, the safety offered by seemingly incontrovertible findings from research.”

Most people find rejection hard to take, especially when it’s their own ideas on the line, and doubly so when the verdict is delivered by focus group or survey. But research has the power to feed creativity, not just kill it – but only if applied sensibly.
Mark Tomblin, head of planning at Leo Burnett, says: “I think researchers and clients have to be more realistic and open-minded about what they are going to find and focus more on making that meaningful and useful to a creative campaign. If it adds value, great, but I’m not convinced that is the case at the moment.”

Calming the Mad Men

James Russo, VP global consumer insights at The Nielsen Company, has conducted analysis into the alignment of consumer behaviour and advertising effectiveness. He says research is needed to help brands adapt their messaging to socio-economic conditions.

“Only by understanding the dynamic of how viewers feel in these tough times can an advertiser remain confident in their ability to maintain consistently strong ad resonance throughout shifting economic cycles,” he says. “Viewers respond to ads that make a connection, and prefer when this connection satisfies their needs. Today’s advertisers would do well to create ads that engage audiences using insight as a focal point to realising this.”

The problem is, the insights – or, more accurately, ‘the research’ – usually come at the tail end of the process, once the idea has been developed, signed off on and worked up into a usable piece of advertising. Creatives hate research, quite simply, because it’s used too much as judge, jury and exectutioner.

Douglas Dunn, CEO and co-founder of Tuned In Research, went to Cannes this year and heard first hand some of the uncomplimentary language used to describe research. He is clear that the role of research needs to be redefined. “Research should focus on helping develop creative ideas rather than testing them,” he says. “Ideas are fragile at their earliest stage, so we need to provide safe environments for consumers to interact with them and see how they engage with them. The purpose of this is to feed into the inspiration cycle and provide insight that will enable creatives to evolve their ideas and make them stronger.”

James Hurst, head of digital at brand consultancy Figtree, agrees. “Good creative is the product of all that informs it. Good quality research deepens understanding, but a curious creative executive will augment research with opinion and experience.”

A working relationship

You don’t have to look far to find examples where research has helped the development of adverts, rather than hold them back.

In April, PepsiCo made quite a splash with its first spots in support of its Live for Now campaign, saying: “Pepsi conducted extensive global research, connecting with thousands of fans, and ‘Live for Now’ reflects the insight that Pepsi fans all around the world desire to capture the excitement of now – a mind set that is aligned at the very core with the brand’s DNA.”

“We look for big ideas with flair that move with agility, coupled with consumer insight and a strong execution. That’s the hard-headed commercial reality of 2012. Creativity leads to effectiveness and insight must be a part of that.”

Andy Fennell, chief marketing officer, Diageo

And PepsiCo is not alone in the drinks category. Andy Fennell, Diageo’s chief marketing officer, says: “We look for big ideas with flair that move with agility, coupled with consumer insight and a strong execution. Overall, execution is more important to get right than strategy but we want to have research to prove we are conveying the right ideas to the right audiences at the right time. That’s the hard-headed commercial reality of 2012. Creativity leads to effectiveness and insight must be a part of that.”

Good insights will do more than help create good ads, says Jonathan Mildenhall, VP global creative at Coca-Cola. “Good insight will create a culture of innovation that advertising is just symptomatic of, but which extends well beyond advertising and into the culture, the products, and the day-to-day activities of those companies. It’s why research plays a central role in our advertising.”

An example of this is Coke’s 2011 Reasons to Believe global advertising initiative, which focused on research the brand conducted to identify ways of positioning its “open happiness” philosophy against the negative events happening
across the globe (see box).

The truth of the matter

In creative development, the idea is king. Good ideas can be arrived at independently of thorough research of course, but Paul Garner, executive creative director UK at OgilvyAction, says: “Good ideas are based on a truth, so we always look for validation before we get too far into creative development.”

This is where research can add the most value, as demonstrated by the PepsiCo and Coke examples. The research seeds the germ of an idea that the creative can develop.

Such thinking is beginning to make inroads into ad agencies, and SapientNitro is one such firm. It uses an approach called “Idea Engineers” which uses research to inform briefs and generate ideas.

“We use participatory design and ethnography as key qualitative tools – the former leveraging the consumer’s inherent creativity and the latter unearthing real time, in situ insight into behaviour and need states,” says planning director Omaid Hiwaizi. “Rather than test creative, we prefer to adopt the ‘permanent beta’ approach which is essential to making rich digital and multi-channel campaigns work – you need to deploy, measure and iterate in real time to make things successful.

“Core to how we work is the generation of experience maps, which document customer journeys in terms of need states, platforms and pain points. These are augmented with ecosystems, which present a footprint of customer interests, core media channels and need states. These inform the insights and experience principles, which drive the creative brief.”

Marco Scognamiglio, CEO of Rapp, is another who sees advantages in this approach to research and creative development, as a means of “generating real-time emotional insights that help to create inspirational insights and ignite creativity”.

Media agencies are also increasingly big fans of research and other forms of intelligence, and researchers are being drafted in to help develop their offerings in this area. One example is Arena Media, which recently acquired Work Research and made co-founder Justin Gibbons a creative director. He is responsible for integrating behavioural economics into Arena’s planning processes and previously developed PHD’s neuroplanning system.

Gibbons says: “It’s nonsense to say that research is just a vehicle to rubberstamp a concept and that’s why creatives hate it. The industry has moved on so much over the years and research isn’t just a beauty parade anymore.

“Good research offers a broader palette of insight that inspires creativity based on consumer behaviour and attitudes. This captures buzz, which is what all brands want and it’s why media agencies are able to be part of the conception of ideas nowadays. We can plug into the intelligence behind an idea and make sure it works from the start.”

Arena’s rivals are also investing heavily in their intelligence assets. WPP’s Mindshare Worldwide recently unveiled CORE, a platform designed to help with decisions about marketing spend, audience targeting and creative optimisation. The platform is powered through a data-sharing arrangement with firms such as Nielsen and MySupermarket.

Interpublic Group has also set up Magna as its media research arm, offering a Value Index to help marketers predict ad recall.

Vincent Letang, executive vice president and director of global forecasting at Magna Global, says “demand for insights to influence media ecosystem strategy is affecting how creative decisions are formed”.

And research is changing too. As Tuned In’s Douglas Dunn, says: “A key focus for us is creating new, digital ways to deliver insight that actually helps the creators of these big ideas.” Online communities are a particularly favoured tool. “They become a fluid test-ground for communications campaigns which better enable us to understand areas of resonance, build on them and ultimately produce more impactful work,” says Dunn.

How Coca-Cola used research as a platform for creative development

Coca-Cola ran its global “Reasons to Believe” campaign at the end of last year to persuade consumers to look at the brighter side of life. The idea behind the campaign was to help the world believe in a happier and better tomorrow as part of Coke’s “open happiness” theme.

The campaign debuted in South Africa in December and was based entirely on research conducted in 2010. Coca-Cola South Africa president William Egbe explained: “We ran an investigation globally to see how strong our reasons to believe in a better world really were. The results of the research were both astonishing and touching and thus resulted in a global campaign focused on inspiring optimism and encouraging positive action.”

“The research plays the role of being visible and simply overlaying communication of the simplified statistics of optimism. This is an instant connection with the audience with a high emotional quotient involved”

The campaign ran globally highlighting the research’s findings to a backdrop of a choir of young people singing the Oasis track Whatever. Coca-Cola then seeded some of the ‘reasons to believe’ found in the research through television adverts, billboards, grocery stores and newspapers. Online fans could share their own reasons to believe, some of which featured in a branded book.

Egbe says the research-led approach worked because it was “simple yet inspiring.” He added: “The research plays the role of being visible and simply overlaying communication of the simplified statistics of optimism. This is an instant connection with the audience with a high emotional quotient involved.

“The campaign aims to remind the world that it is no longer enough to merely see the glass as half full, we need to go out and fill it up. In essence, it is up to each and every one of us to take responsibility not only for our own individual lives, but also for our destiny and the bigger destiny of our community, our country and our world. Despite the wars, diseases and economic and social challenges in the world today, there is a ray of hope – the possibility of inspired optimism among us to bring about positive change.”