Close-Up: Live Issue - Why research is a key ally in the quest to make great ads

A collaborative and open approach that involves creatives, advertisers and researchers can only result in stronger advertising, Dan White writes.

Shrewd marketers have always researched their advertising before "going live" in order to check how well it will resonate with consumers. No matter how creative, an ad that fails to strike a chord with the target audience and link to the brand could prove to be a waste of money.

Conversely, an effective ad campaign will pay for itself many times over, so advertisers want to be sure they are getting it right.

Yet inserting something as mechanical as quantitative research into the free-flowing creative process was never going to be easy.

Over the years, many advertisers have shoehorned research into ad development as a "pass or fail" mechanism before the ad goes live and the real money gets spent. True, this approach can prevent ineffective ads being used, but does very little to foster creativity.

Communications research has moved on significantly in the past few years, balancing the need for accountability with the need for creativity. Love it or loathe it, accountability is a fact of modern business. Jeremy Bullmore, the WPP advisory group member, summed this up perfectly when he said: "When millions of pounds are at stake, clients want more reassurance than just 'Trust me, I'm an art director'."

Research is now used to highlight the powerful role creativity plays in an age when consumers have increasing control over what they watch, when they watch it and where they watch it, and advertisers need to ensure their creatives are not "screened out". It can be used to help advertisers get past people's personal firewalls, and also maximise the chances of having their messages passed on virally.

As well as looking at impact, message take-out and persuasion, pre-tests now gauge the emotions that are elicited; the degree of personal relevance and distinctiveness; and the potential for social currency - all key contributing elements to a big in-market sales effect.

By getting involved earlier in the creative development process, and encouraging a spirit of collaboration between creatives, researchers and advertisers, we are becoming an ally in the often difficult journey towards great advertising, rather than an irritating hurdle in the way.

For this reason, round-table talks in workshop-style debriefs are preferred to the traditional (and, yes, I admit it, extremely boring) show-and-tell approach. As a result, the quality of the campaign created is almost invariably much better.

Ads that have been enhanced thanks to a collaborative approach include the Guinness "noitulove" campaign and the famous surfer ad. These are clearly excellent campaign ideas already, and research doesn't change that. What it does, though, in many cases, is unlock the power of the idea by, for example, changing the timing, the voice, the tone of the ad, or clarifying something viewers might have missed.

Research conducted by Sadek Wynberg Millward Brown for Dove's "campaign for real bea-uty" advertising is another good example of where a collaboration enhances creativity. The researchers found that while the strategy of debunking beauty stereotypes was globally relevant, local norms of "real" beauty varied. For example, the women's underwear in the original "firming" campaign needed to be much less revealing in the US than it did in Brazil.

Research helped the team make the creative idea come alive locally by guiding them on how to convey "real beauty" in a relevant and aspirational way, and without losing the impact and distinctiveness of the strategy.

Pre-test research for communications is as essential as a dress rehearsal. It provides feedback from a live audience, which helps the performance to be fine-tuned before the doors are thrown open to the paying public.

- Dan White is the communications research director at the market research company Millward Brown.

LIMITATIONS OF RESEARCH

Leon Jaume executive creative director, WCRS

I always make decisions on clients' spending by asking myself what I would do if it were my money, so I'm sympathetic to anything that could safeguard the investment. Sometimes, research can clearly help, but only if the limitations of its methodology are acknowledged.

There are three main limitations for me. First, the environment is invariably artificial. You simply cannot, and never will be able to, replicate the way people actually "encounter" advertising.

Second, the power of advertising is often in the detail. The casting, the photography, the music, a nuance, a smile, a something. Those details are rarely available when the ideas are being tested.

And, third, more than most aspects of our business, research methodology has remained seemingly locked in a time warp. Twenty years ago, I used to sit in the dark behind a two-way mirror in Leeds with a table full of orange food, mouthing "You're a genius" at a photocopier salesman who gestured approvingly towards one of our ads with his can of Heineken. I've done exactly the same in the past six months.

So, on this last point, I'm glad to hear that progress is being made. Workshop-style discussions at the right stage in the process are more likely to elicit useful insights than a show-and-tell approach. Maybe they will be even more far-reaching than the discovery that Brazilian women wear smaller knickers than Americans.

Ultimately, the value of research depends on accepting and understanding two things. First, whatever the methodology, it is a guide, and not a guarantee; and, second, it will only ever be as good as the person who interprets it.

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