CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE/MARKET RESEARCH SOCIETY - The latest MRS conference saw researchers attacking agencies

Before I launch into this, a bit of context is required. Each year the Market Research Society holds a conference with keynote speakers from the research community discussing new ideas and techniques. Tradition has it that the Account Planning Group hosts a debate at the conference - a sort of cross between sport (planner baiting), light entertainment and an attempt at seriousness. This year was no exception. Having spent the past few debates attacking the research industry, we decided to turn the spotlight on ourselves with the motion: "Ad agencies are always accusing researchers of lacking originality, but haven't they been doing the same thing in the same way for years?"

Vincent Nolan of 2CV Research proposed the motion and vividly demonstrated his point by showing an SR Gibbs commercial from 1956 with rushing mountain streams, snow and ice drawing an analogy between oral freshness and ice.

This was followed by a 2001 version - a current McLeans ad - with two youngsters kissing in an icy cavern to the tune of As Cold as Ice. So that was content dealt with. "I have been through more than 100 ad agency lobbies and boardrooms in the past 15 years,

he claimed. "And sometimes you have to pinch yourself to remember which one you are in." There goes style. And finally he accused us of being obsessed with the 30-second commercial and press ad.

This was a good opening for Louise Jones of PHD to mount her defence.

She cited many examples of original campaigns - from the now institutionalised Tango to the never-ending originality of The Economist executions. She contended that the impetus for much of this originality stems from media fragmentation, with the average person exposed to thousands of commercial messages in thousands of places, from the side of the Houses of Parliament to the bald heads of consumers. Her counter-attack was that "no research I have ever seen adequately measures the effect of the media idea or its placement on the communication". A cruel - but fair - accusation.

It was now up to Mark Earls of Ogilvy - famous for talking about "the creative age

- to try to twist the knife. He claimed that there have been only three genuine innovations in advertising during the past 50 years. First, the creative team, copywriters and art directors put together by Bill Bernbach in the 50s. Second, account planning, putting someone in to use the data and mediate between the account man and the creative boys to produce more effective results.

Third, separating media planning and buying, which he happened to think was a bad idea. Mark feels that "ad agencies are little more than factories for ads, and factories are the epitome of late 20th century business".

This left Merry Baskin, of Baskin Shark, to try and save our collective bacon. She based her defence on Darwinism - survival of the fittest. "Look at St Luke's, HHCL & Partners and Mother, all headlining, dynamic agencies who have espoused a different paradigm in terms of how they work and how they think, resulting in groundbreaking strategies,

she argued. After accusing Mr Earls of talking "oninistic nonsense", her parting question was this: "Why do clients hire ad agencies? Why don't they do it themselves (as with research)? Because they can't. Ad agencies are in the ideas business - it is their job to be original."

Of course, faced with a hall full of researchers, we were defeated, although many of the more fore-sighted ones sprang to our defence from the floor. But the experience left me asking myself a number of questions. Is it time for a more fundamental look at the way we work? What's the real evidence that 30 or 60 seconds is the precise amount of time needed to communicate a message? Are agencies factories for advertising rather than ideas houses and does this really matter? Replies to the APG at


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