FEATURE1 January 2002

Special Report Media: Form-fitting solutions

Marshall McLuhan was ahead of his time when he declared that the medium is the message. Andy Barlow explores what place this dictum holds in the qualitative research process.

For most researchers, the preoccupation of media research is measurement, and thus it tends to deal with reams of data and in-depth quantitative analysis. But the area of media can be presented in a slightly different light by highlighting the impact media has on the nature of advertising communications and what impact this has on qualitative research.

Over the past few years the world of the media agency has undergone sweeping changes in terms of its focus and perceived importance. Media used to be the last aspect of campaign planning that was considered, and the specialism was perceived to be the province of a bunch of number-crunching dealmakers.

Of course, this aspect of media still exists (someone has to buy the space and time), but slowly media agencies have developed their role and borrowed a lot of ideas and approaches from qualitative researchers. It’s not only client companies who’ve created insights departments, media agencies have them too. Now the emphasis is on how best to connect with the target audience, rather than simply on «how many times will they see this ad».

No longer should we think solely about ratings, frequency and opportunity to see (OTS). Instead, we should be thinking about how we can reach viewers and readers through the relevant media at the right time, in the right mood and in the right place – when our brand’s message will be more compelling or when consumers will be more amenable to listening.

What’s brought on this change? The well-documented fragmentation of the media landscape is the most obvious reason – having to make the media work harder to intercept the chosen target consumer. But it goes further than this. First, McLuhan’s dictum that «the medium is the message» (ie, the nature of the medium – television, outdoor, magazines – used to communicate the advertising message, adds a great deal of extra meaning to that message) is even more true today than it was in the 1960s. Second, certain specific media channels (magazine titles, TV channels, websites) are becoming brands in their own right and thus lend their brand values to the commercial messages they carry.

Old-fashioned thinking about media selection concentrated on the efficiency of a medium in reaching a large percentage of the given target audience for the least «cost per 1,000». But nowadays, media are as likely to be chosen for their intrinsic communication value as for their value for money.

It’s not news that any given media channel can speak volumes in its own right. For example, putting your ad on TV has always suggested stature and credibility for your brand and given reassurance to the buyer because it’s known to be an expensive medium – the on-pack flash «as seen on TV» speaks volumes.

Media channels transfer values to the brand and can communicate an attitude or a tone of voice very effectively. The Tango soft-drink brand took six sheets in the Underground to lampoon Coca-Cola’s «Eat, Drink, Sleep» campaign. The nature of the environment – and the guerrilla tactic undertones it conveyed – did as much for the brand as the creative idea itself.

None of us failed to miss the Wonderbra executions on 96 sheet posters. It was probably one of the most salient, eye-catching campaigns in recent years. But it was not only the creative idea that did the job, it was also its environment. Would it have said as much about the attitude of the Wonderbra brand had the ad appeared only in the women’s press? No. The 96-sheet billboard itself smacks of confidence, boldness and exaggeration. These qualities transfer themselves to the brand.

This way of thinking about the media has huge implications when assessing advertising and communications – especially for creative development research. Typically, the focus in this research is on the creative idea and the execution. All too often the media element is overlooked or left till the very end of the group. This is not enough.

Of course we need to fully understand the creative idea, but we also have to involve the media planners from the outset of a project. We need to understand their suggestions for breathing life into the agency’s work and what their visions are for the media strategy.

How the consumer is to be exposed to the idea is central to evaluating the potential effect of the advertising and building a stronger brand commitment. By appreciating the importance of connection with the consumer we can add value to our feedback and assess work in the most holistic way possible.

The second media issue that we as researchers need to think about is that some media are becoming strongly branded in their own right. TV stations are increasingly creating programming philosophies and identity campaigns in an effort to differentiate themselves and to communicate what they’re about. The most successful has been Channel 4.

But it’s not just TV that has become brand savvy. We see strong brands in every medium from Loaded magazine to Capital radio. What we’re experiencing more and more is that these values are transferable to the brands whose advertising they carry.

So not only should researchers want to know which type of media is to be used, but what titles, channels and stations too. This way we can bring the idea to life in groups. We can go in with a clear view of how the media is to contribute to the campaign response, which avoids a blinkered focus on the creative above all else. We can begin contributing a wider understanding of the dynamics at play for any given campaign, by involving the media planners and buyers and by implementing new and innovative techniques to assess the reaction to ideas in various media formats and environments.

Where does (or should) media fit during campaign planning and what’s the our role in the developmental process?

As has been demonstrated, we should consider the media strategy and planning process as a central part of the briefing, research and debrief stages of qualitative brand and communications research. The briefing should be a «super brief» where our first aim should be to understand the creative idea itself via the creative agency and then to clarify how this is proposed to be brought to life by the media strategy. The research itself should then be designed to be sensitive enough to take «how you might experience this idea» into account. The key question should be: «Can we pre-create a multisensory, multimedia experience to help convey the brand’s ultimate vision?» Finally, at the analysis and debrief stage, our thoughts on the contribution of media should be truly integrated, thus reflecting the current thinking about how a creative idea and a media delivery are inextricably linked.

Andy Barlow is qualitative account director at Hall & Partners Europe Ltd.

January | 2002