Like the feature film director frustrated at imposed studio cuts to their masterpiece after audience test screenings, ad creatives have long been wary of the pre-test research process.
It works against the big, interesting or quirky idea, critics say, reducing creativity to a formulaic level. Yet large advertisers, especially the major FMCG companies such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble, remain wedded to the process.
Steve Henry, the former TBWA\London creative director and founder of HHCL & Partners, is the latest to point to problems. In his blog, on campaignlive.co.uk, he argues that "it's enormously difficult to get original creative thinking through research".
He cites ads such as Fallon's "gorilla" for Cadbury and "cake" for Skoda as examples of "odd" and interesting work that was aired despite research.
Russ Lidstone, the chief executive of Euro RSCG London, says that too often research approaches can "kill executional or strategic ideas dead without any understanding of the real objectives or the need to challenge, engage and interact". This, he says, is because the dominant research methodologies, both qualitative and quantitative, are based on inadequate and simplistic models of stimulus-response. "If a research process is designed to ensure consumers feel comfortable, then you don't get gorillas," he says.
Yet, there is a counter-argument that big ideas are made more effective by going into research. Deborah Mills, the European chief executive of the research company Hall & Partners, argues that the "gorilla" spot was improved by research (it was pre-tested by both Hall & Partners and Millward Brown).
Rachel Barrie, the director of strategy at Fallon, backs this up: "'Gorilla' was researched again and again. In this case, research didn't only help build the confidence to do something incredibly courageous for the brand, it told us some things we didn't expect - like older audiences loved it as much as younger ones."
Pre-testing of ads is also used by clients during the new-business process. A recent prominent example was the global Stella Artois pitch, which saw Mother and Publicis work go into research before Mother was appointed.
Pitch consultants argue that this is only the case in a significant minority of pitches. Paul Phillips, the managing director of the AAR, says: "We often have clients who build research into the process but very few clients use the pitch to buy work that will actually run."
However, some are beginning to feel that the practice is taking too much priority in the decision-making process on pitches and that paranoia of not scoring highly in research (and therefore losing the pitch) is leading to agencies being over-careful with their creative ideas. This can then lead to the same careful approach being used by both client and agency in the newly formed relationship when the business has been won.
Most argue that a lot comes down to the thoroughness of the pre-testing applied. Mills says: "It's how you interrogate and make sure the metrics and methodology are correct that is important."
Successful use of research ultimately comes down to clients employing it for the right reasons.
If it is used as a way of letting consumers make a decision for the client, or to ensure it has an excuse to hand if the campaign fails, then it can be hazardous. But if it is used as a way of informing and improving an idea with an open mind to interesting creative, then it can be an effective addition to the process.
- Feature, page 22.
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AGENCY CHIEF - James Murphy, co-founder, Adam & Eve
"Like gun control, this is a bit of a sterile debate. It's not about if you own the gun but what you intend to do with it that matters. Some use research as a crutch to make decisions and cover their backs. But the really effective way to use it is to look for learnings, insights or creative angles that you might not have thought of.
"There are things you can learn from research but it shouldn't be a crutch. If you talk to consumers, you can often hear something useful, but if you're asking them to make a decision for you, then you're in trouble."
RESEARCH HEAD - Deborah Mills, European chief executive, Hall & Partners
"There are loads of research techniques and some can really help make an idea that is campaignable and attached to a brand rather than just a piece of entertainment. After all, ads have to have a brand message.
"Research can't produce creative but it can give clients the confidence that an ad is worth the investment, especially if they are putting a large budget behind it.
"Research doesn't kill creative ideas and good ideas can get through - Steve (Henry) would say unscathed, I'd say enhanced."
AGENCY CHIEF - Russ Lidstone, chief executive, Euro RSCG London
"Like any tool available to agencies and marketers, in the wrong hands research can be very destructive, but, in the right hands, and used sensitively, it can be illuminating. But it is increasingly hard to research 'ideas' because 'ideas' today are so much more multifaceted and live in many different ways.
"For clients, research can be a useful way of helping to sell ideas internally and giving reassurance. But as people become fearful of making big decisions in the current climate, the danger is that research becomes the lawyer, the judge and the jury. The best clients I've worked with are those who use research to inform decisions rather than replace them."
CLIENT - Fiona Wood, head of research, COI
"It should be about nurturing and refining ideas and helping to guide creativity. With the kind of work we do, addressing target audiences that are hard to engage, understanding how creative is resonating with an audience is important.
"And we're now talking about a new communications reality where everything is on the citizen's terms, so understanding the mind of the citizen is vital.
"We do consider ourselves the guardians of taxpayers' money so research is always important in increasing effectiveness but it's about research informing rather than making the decision, and helping to safeguard creativity."