OPINION1 February 2011

Dodging the bullet


To say ‘research kills creativity’, as Simon Cowell did recently, is a gross simplification, writes author and consumer behaviour consultant Philip Graves. Done right, research can make a valuable contribution to the creative process.

It’s the nature of journalism, and people, that complex debates are distilled into dichotomies. Things and people are black or white, good or bad, nice or nasty. Inevitably the complex truth will be somewhere in between and will depend on who you ask, when you ask them and how you phrase the question.

Research, of course, takes many guises. Those who think it can play a useful part in the development of a new product will feel outraged at Cowell’s assertion. Those who agree that research is the enemy of creativity will think back to the report they received that said respondents rejected an idea that they passionately believed in, or to the times when a product was launched in spite of research and went on to be successful – Doctor Who, Baileys, Absolut Vodka, Red Bull, Budweiser and Marlboro to name a few.

Where research gets it wrong, and becomes the enemy of creativity, is in its use of consensus and its belief that people can provide a reaction to something new when it is stripped of the context that is so crucial in determining how someone will react to it. I am all for anyone talking to anyone else about anything; silence and vacuums are not good environments for creativity. Speak to most successful entrepreneurs and you will discover that the insights, observations and reactions of other people have shaped the destiny of their products. However, the opportunity in such encounters is for one or two comments to trigger an associated thought in the mind of the person with the vision to create something new, rather than a collective response determining whether an idea sees the light of day.

Placing new product development research in the hands of a third party makes little sense and, in the absence of context, evaluating new concepts through consensus is demonstrably futile. If it worked then the majority of new product launches would be a success, when in fact the opposite is the case.

That research has been asked to fill the gap between creativity and commercial action is no surprise. Frequently in large organisations the person taking the risk on something new is not the person who has created it. It’s easy to stand up for an idea that you’re “really excited about” when your future is more linked to your ability to persuade the client the idea is a good one, rather than its ability to perform in the commercial environment that the client will be judged by.

Some researchers (who in turn earn their livelihood through the commissioning of research) are inclined to propagate the idea that they can evaluate creativity and, by implication or assertion, predict the future success of an initiative. Such people might do well to consider whether what they’re offering is being supported by an intrinsic belief in the mechanisms that underpin it, or something more objectively robust.

The irony is that by being more honest about the limitations of research in certain areas, the opportunity emerges for better research to be applied where it can provide insight and for that research to be valued more highly (by virtue of it not being wrong so often). Understanding exactly what people are currently doing is undervalued, in part, because it is frequently misdiagnosed. Similarly, developing and overseeing the processes to evaluate the actual impact of new ideas, to isolate their impact and ensure organisations learn from them, provides researchers with an opportunity to add real value to their clients’ businesses. In the space between these two areas there are limited opportunities for insight: they exist, but they aren’t what most of the research industry has been suggesting.

So, while I agree that a lot of research has been allowed to corrupt the creative process it doesn’t have to be that way. But for people looking for a simplistic dichotomy, “research kills creativity” is probably as close as you’ll get.

Philip Graves is a consumer behaviour consultant and author of Consumer.ology: The Market Research Myth, the Truth about Consumer Behaviour and the Psychology of Shopping.