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Mediocrity: The Biggest Danger to Advertising Research

Posted by Doug Garnett August - 15 - 2011 - Monday

A recent AdAge article quotes Bernbach as saying “The more you research, the more you play it safe, and the more you waste money. Research inevitably leads to conformity.” (Link here.)

It’s sad that the creative community all too often comes to this conclusion – only to use the idea of non-conformity to justify all types of advertising sins.

Yet I understand what might lead Bernbach to take this position: too much research is born in mediocrity. Truth is that a great deal of advertising research is a bureaucratic ploy – designed to deliver bureaucratically controllable success.

This research becomes no longer about finding the keys to exceptional success. It’s cautionary research to help people keep their jobs and help executives develop “plausible deniability” for failures.

This research is no longer about weeding out bad ideas in order to put money to more productive use. It’s about killing ideas that might threaten the status quo. Or it’s about killing any fresh new understanding that might challenge the organization’s carefully crafted (but inadequate) theory about the consumer. (It’s my experience that every organization can discover new insight about consumers with exceptional research.)

Bureaucratic research is born in mediocrity & hides behind statistics. What’s most destructive about this research is it looks just fine and has all the bells & whistles. Beautiful reports are generated from (expensive) blue chip research firms. Statistical analysis claims to show exact margins of error and large staffs execute a bureaucratically perfect job.

But while statistical margins of error are extraordinarily important they mean very little. Hugely more important than margins of error is whether the survey participant answered the question we thought we asked. Because if they answered the wrong question, the research is 100% wrong – even if it claims a +/-3% margin of error.

This type of research may be needed within a corporation. But it leads to…nothing productive. It doesn’t find unexpected profitability. And it kills many good ideas just to find a few bad ones (that were probably already obviously bad). And it leads companies to eventually fail because it allows companies to stay within their safe zone.

YET, Creative Teams Err When They Echo Bernbach’s Quote. I seriously doubt if this quote reflects the depth of Bernbach’s true opinion – he’s much too savvy to have minimized research across the board. Still, I have heard exactly this thought parroted by creative teams across the world.

Partly, some creatives suffer a kind of research trauma – having had heard consumers questioned closely about things like the colors in the ad. (First rule of good research: Consumers are NOT creatives. Don’t ask them to critique creative choices.)

But that’s no justification to avoid research. I find that most often creative teams don’t really want to learn – they might find their work isn’t influencing consumers the way they thought it was.

Exceptional research is quite threatening and challenging – it reveals the unexpected. Embrace that truth and we find amazing power. But, its much more common for creative teams to circle up in the safety of non-conformity and write off all research.

Exceptional research is about learning. Research cannot, and will never, deliver the laser-like accuracy that too many executives hope for. But that doesn’t mean it’s a “failure”. Rather, research is about learning. Because if any creative team tells you they know all the answers you should fire them on the spot.

Let me try an analogy for research (from a reader of Western history).

Suppose it’s 1850 and you’re in Oregon wanting to go to Sacramento. There are no roads and there aren’t even established trails.

The successful strategy is to do research. Read everything you can on the territory and search out all the maps. Then talk to anybody who’s been over even part of the territory – guides, pioneers, Native Americans, and farmers. And then, build a strategy – a plan – based on everything you’ve learned – complete with alternative courses in case the plan has flaws.

Unfortunately, agencies too often just pick up a compass and head south only to starve in the wilderness, be killed by outlaws or be killed after encroaching on Native American lands.

And the most safety seeking corporations would prefer to sit and wait for 130 years hoping someone develops a camera to get a satellite image of the territory.

Marketing success takes the courage to look the truth in the eyes. Over the course of my career I’ve become more and more convinced that marketing courage is critical to success. But as any soldier will tell you, the courageous train and prepare themselves for action. And when the time comes, they act with little concern for their safety – because that’s what it takes to achieve their goal.

Unfortunately, I find the creative call to “non-conformity” is all too often the call to safety. What takes far more courage is sitting still and listening to consumers so you communicate with them in ways that get their attention better and lead to more action.

Do you use research courageously? If not, you’re leaving tremendous profit for your clients untapped.

Copyright 2011 – Doug Garnett – All Rights Reserved.


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Doug Garnett, DRTV and Technology Industry Expert

Doug Garnett is founder and CEO of DRTV agency Atomic Direct and a leading expert on innovative uses of DRTV, infomercials and other in-depth TV and non-TV messages to build brand and drive sales.

Doug has been working in and around the technology field for 27 years. After starting in aerospace, he spent 5 years selling and marketing supercomputers. Since shifting to advertising, his clients have included AT&T, IBM, Apple, Disney Mobile, Ugobe, Presto, and Netpliance.

Doug sits on the editorial board of Response Magazine, is an adjunct professor of general advertising at Portland State University, and is a member of the Jordan-Whitney Greensheet Panel.

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