Close-Up: Is research failing to enlighten the ad industry?

Last week, the new IPA president accused market research of failing to drive real understanding. Chris Forrest disagrees.

RORY SUTHERLAND, IPA president; vice-chairman, Ogilvy Group UK

- Why do we need broader insights into consumer psychology and research?

Because it's our job. We don't exist to create advertising - that's merely a means: our only purpose is to change human behaviour and judgment in ways that are to the advantage of our clients. With broader and deeper consumer understanding, we can do this more effectively, more reliably, more frequently and in more ways. New work in behavioural economics should also help us celebrate our achievements in terms of the creation of real economic value rather than merely via proxy measures of success - allowing us to be rewarded in proportion to the value of what we do rather than the cost of doing it.

- What is wrong with current conventional market research?

It is far too narrow. And too preoccupied with attitude and conscious decision-making; for instance, assuming that attitudinal change precedes behavioural change, when many people believe the process works the other way round. It is also poorly suited to new media. Of course, it's quite likely that I am being unfair here, and wonderful, rock 'n' roll research is being done every day that we simply don't get to see.

- Why do we need an academic (scientific and economic) foundation to the business?

There are three answers to this, two high-minded and the third faintly cynical. They are all valid. The first reason is that real innovation often takes place where disciplines collide, and so exposure to other people in related fields is valuable in itself. Second, we need a wider vocabulary: marketing language is becoming a little like the language of astrology - terribly impressive to fellow believers, but not much use in a boardroom. Finally, it's a lot easier to charge a few hundred quid an hour for common sense if you speak in a Viennese accent and dress it up with fancy words like "heuristic". Sorry, but it's true.

- Why is our current understanding of how advertising changes behaviour limited? Why have ad agencies not explored the alternatives?

Paul Feldwick has a tremendous explanation for this. That, rattled by books such as The Hidden Persuaders, people such as Rosser Reeves (famous for pioneering the unique selling point) were so fearful of accusations of advertising being an underhand influence that they insisted on naive and hyper-rational models of how it worked.

- What are the better and more useful models of the processes by which communications influence behaviour?

Let's not confine ourselves to communications. Plenty of human behaviour takes place unconsciously and is a product of nothing other than unconscious imitation: we should seek to understand behaviour in the round, not merely in relation to ads or commercial messages.

- Why should research and development be at the core of what communications experts do?

Because if we don't do this, who does? Billions of pounds of public and private sector money are wasted because the plans are developed without a proper understanding of human nature or behaviour. Understanding behaviour is also central to the environmental question.

- What will happen if advertising does not introduce new models?

The worst possible outcome. Not that it dies - it won't die - but something perhaps worse. It becomes same-ish, cynical and boring.

CHRIS FORREST - Co-founder, The Nursery Research and Planning

- What is your response to Rory Sutherland's claim that he can learn more about the fundamentals of human nature from buying a book at the airport than from conventional market research?

That will always be true. Clients don't have budget for "fundamental human nature projects". You could learn more about the fundamentals of physics from reading Stephen Hawking's books than from conducting your own physics experiment. That doesn't mean you should feel disappointed your experiment was limited in scope and the earth didn't move for you.

Researchers also use airports and have gained a lot from the crop of post-(Malcolm) Gladwell books.

- Do you think we need broader insights into consumer psychology and research?

Constantly. Come to research conferences and you'll find people searching everywhere from Game Theory to Evolutionary Anthropology. The interesting research products Rory wants already exist. It's getting them bought that's the problem.

- Do you think that current conventional market research is too narrow and preoccupied with attitude and conscious decision-making?

Yes. Because that's the culture conventional research is selling in to. Read (Robert) Heath and (Paul) Feldwick's 50 Years Using The Wrong Model Of TV Advertising. Brand owners are more comfortable with an image of themselves as putting out rational messages, which consciously convince, rather than as Hidden Persuaders. Low Attention Processing seems to be how most advertising works, but it's about as popular with brand owners as (Professor Andrew) Ehrenberg's "weak" theory of advertising was a generation ago.

- Do you think we need an academic (scientific and economic) foundation to the business?

The IPA Effectiveness Awards provide an economic foundation. A scientific foundation would be wonderful. Advertising has always been more of an art than a science. This has enabled it to harness the instinctive emotional responses which science has now confirmed the value of. But this has also given it an image of being anti-science. If we could demonstrate scientific foundations in a user-friendly way, finance directors would kiss us.

- Do you think our current understanding of how advertising changes behaviour is limited? If yes, why have ad agencies not explored the alternatives?

Yes - it would be foolish to assume that we ever truly understand exactly what effect anything has on behaviour. The problem is that current models ain't entirely broke. They work in the boardroom. There's a disincentive for clients to ditch all those recall-based historical norms, which are their least bad way of demonstrating accountability internally. And once you've won the business on one model, why try and sell the client a different one? It would be great if the IPA built on the success of Magic And Logic by commissioning some definitive research into what Charles Channon called "the sociology of advertising decision-making".

- Why should research and development be at the core of what communications experts do?

Because Stephen King and Stanley Pollitt were right to believe that involving the end user can help make communications better.

- What will happen if advertising does not introduce new models?

We will never get properly paid for the extraordinary value we create.


- Theory Of Moral Sentiments

By Adam Smith/Published by Liberty Fund, Inc

Written in 1759, Adam Smith outlines his view on proper conduct and the institutions and sentiments that make men virtuous, laying the foundation for a general system of morals. Here, he develops his doctrine of the impartial spectator and the idea that society is held together by sympathy and shared emotions.

- A Treatise On Human Nature

By David Hume/Published by Oxford University Press

David Hume attempts to base philosophy on an observationally grounded study of human nature in this book. He explains how humans form concepts like cause and effect, external existence, and personal identity, and offers an original account of passions, explains freedom and necessity, with regard to human choices and actions, and explains how we distinguish between virtue and vice.

- Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth And Happiness

By Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein/Published by Penguin Books

The economist Richard Thaler and legal expert Cass Sunstein explain why humans make bad, unwise choices on important issues to do with our health, wealth and happiness. By recognising that people are susceptible to cognitive biases and blunders in their decision-making, it shows how people, called "choice architects", influence others' decisions without taking away options.

- Herd: How To Change Mass Behaviour by Harnessing Our True Nature

By Mark Earls/Published by John Wiley & Sons

Mark Earls challenges the assumption that the individual is the starting point for understanding human behaviour. Instead, he focuses on group behaviour - ie. the herd - to offer a better understanding of human behaviour, and argues that the most powerful influence on an individual's behaviour is, often unknowingly, other people.