I think the world has gone a bit research crazy. Ever since the new
government got in, the word ’focus group’ has entered our everyday
vocabulary. But I’ve seen more pound notes burned on market research
than I’ve had lunches at the Ivy.
So it seems a little off that I’d use this column to talk about a lack
of research - or at least a lack of data or crunchiness. Where? In the
business closest to my heart: advertising.
I was at a conference last week where I was inspired by guys from Tesco
and Shell talking about their future plans and what they based them on:
I was struck by the contrast with data-averse advertising agencies. At
companies like Tesco, relevant facts are not just known, they are
finger-tip available. Just how many jars of dill pickle sell per square
foot in Plumstead versus Penzance. And on a bigger scale, exactly what
is the competition up to at home and on a global scale.
By contrast, how many managers in advertising treat their own company as
a brand at all? Whenever we advise clients we ask them basic questions
such as, are we seeking to grow the market or simply take share? Yet in
an over-supplied market like ours, which agencies are overtly following
a market growth strategy? An onlooker could be forgiven for thinking a
hell of a lot of agencies are blindly scrabbling for a tiny increase in
Similarly, when advising clients, we’d ask for data on user perceptions
of the brand. For example, I saw an innovative presentation recently
about relationship auditing. It was designed to provide objective data
on business relationships (for the likes of a Tesco and a supplying
I was asked if I thought ad agencies might use it to track their big
client relationships. I was unsure. It struck me again that while we
base so many actions on behalf of our clients on what the punter thinks
and wants, there’s not too much formal questioning of what our customers
think and want.
Listening to those client marketing directors, I got to thinking about
the calibre of our own marketing directors. Does marketing have a seat
at the top table in agencies? Are agencies practising what they
And if not, is there a connection with how the business is faring versus
other competitive sectors?
Tesco swatted Sainsbury’s by being passionately committed and fabulously
professional. By this I mean Tesco knew exactly what it was seeking to
achieve, why and how. In advertising we have huge dollops of the
passionately committed, but just how strategically driven are we? We
have the ability - we do it for our clients.
The implications are strategic but also affect everyday things such as
fee negotiation. In a negotiation between Tesco and a supplying
manufacturer, the currency they deal in is hard fact - cost of goods,
margin, brand competitive performance. Are we setting the agenda via
transparency and knowing exactly what the key numbers should be?
I applaud Rupert Howell’s goals for his IPA stint and don’t believe that
they’re over-ambitious. One of the ways to stand tall and proud as an
industry is to be state of the art. Some of the businesses I was
watching the other day certainly were.
Carol Reay is the former deputy chairman of Grey.