Q: Recently, I went to a research debrief with my client. The
results were so good - giving the ads such a thumbs-up - that I came
away throwing my hat in the air. I was preparing to greenlight
first-class air tickets, rooms at Shutters On The Beach and a production
budget of £1 million-plus, when my tearful client called. He was
distraught at how awful the research results were. Same room. Same
debrief. Different planet. What should I do?
If it's the first time you've encountered this phenomenon, you've been
lucky. What you witnessed was a perfect demonstration of "selective
As you must have noticed from your bi-annual chats with junior
colleagues, people hear what they want to hear and screen out everything
that is not to their liking. I once fired a person with such sensitivity
that he left the room thanking me for my unqualified endorsement.
He'd heard what he wanted to hear and had blocked out the rest.
In the case you outline, the first fact you must face up to is that you
and your client went to the debrief in totally different frames of
You went longing to hear good news; he went longing to hear bad. He
won't have told you so - they often don't - but he'd never liked this
approach in the first place. So he was ready to pounce with delight on
any shred of support for his instinct; and was equally eager to screen
out anything that challenged it. You, just as unconsciously, felt
exactly the same.
Research debriefers are no fools. They can sense within seconds where
each member of their audience is coming from. Furthermore, as
professional students of selective perception, they know exactly how to
weave into their narrative just enough contradictory hints, hopes and
caveats to flatter an entire spectrum of prejudices, however mutually
The professional researcher, concerned as any good businessman should be
with repeat business, wants everyone to feel that they were right all
You say your client was distraught. He was not. He was pretending to be
distraught. Deep inside, he was exultant.
Never again make the mistake of believing that a positive research
debrief will convert a sceptical client into an enthusiast. The only
advertising worth researching is that about which the client is already
Q: My daughter is now of the age where she is inquisitive about my job.
Having told her I make ads, she thinks I make them all. She particularly
likes the one where the bloke falls asleep over his pint (I don't
understand it but she claims to) and she's told all her mates it's down
to me. I don't want to break her heart and come clean, but equally I
don't want to lie - even though I do that for a living.
Oh, tut. What is all this unseemly talk about lying? Wash your mouth out
at once or you will never be offered a fellowship by the IPA.
Wait until your daughter comes back from school with the news that
absolutely everyone else has a mobile phone. This is your opportunity.
Instead of the bedtime story, acquaint her with the all-important
distinction between falsehood, exaggeration and hyperbole.
Reassure her that you were not misled by her claim. You know for a fact
that there are several other children at her school who have yet to own
a mobile phone and so, technically, she was lying. But, as an
intelligent being, you were able to decode her claim as legitimate
hyperbole. You were therefore not misled and so no harm was done. Such
is the nature of human communication.
By now she will almost certainly have fallen asleep but, if not, you
should find it relatively easy to relate this lesson to your own
profession and your occasional use of hyperbole when describing it.
Jeremy Bullmore is a former chairman of J. Walter Thompson, a director
of Guardian Media Group and of WPP, and the president of NABS. He writes
a monthly column for Management Today. A more serious look at problems
in the workplace, it both inspired and complements On the Campaign
Couch. Address your problems to him at Campaign, 174 Hammersmith Road,
London W6 7JP. Or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.