PERSPECTIVE: Consumer groups can’t take place of agency judgment

What do you get for pounds 10,000 in advertising these days? Take your pick from a couple of days with an HHCL project team, a double-page spread in Campaign, a day’s commercial directing from the likes of Paul Weiland or a year’s parking space for the agency chairman in central London. Those with racier tastes might plump for 99 bottles of house champagne and ten admission tickets for the Blue Angel hostess bar.

What do you get for pounds 10,000 in advertising these days? Take

your pick from a couple of days with an HHCL project team, a double-page

spread in Campaign, a day’s commercial directing from the likes of Paul

Weiland or a year’s parking space for the agency chairman in central

London. Those with racier tastes might plump for 99 bottles of house

champagne and ten admission tickets for the Blue Angel hostess bar.



But there is one advertising commodity that money cannot buy and it was

referred to by the chief executive of United Biscuits, Eric Nicoli, in

last week’s Boardroom Players feature in Campaign: ’Judgment will always

be important in advertising,’ said Nicoli, warning darkly of the dangers

of relying on technical measures. ’I want to be important to my agencies

but it is a partnership; I don’t want people who respond because they

are afraid not to.’



How gratifying this must be for Nicoli’s agencies, and how right he is.

I used to think that there was nothing the matter with research, only

with the way it was handled. Now, having witnessed a few consumer groups

hard at work mangling ads, I find it impossible to avoid the conclusion

that research itself is flawed when it tries to be predictive. It is

good for explaining things that have happened, but to rely on it for

forecasting the success or otherwise of an ad, as most clients do, is a

very dangerous practice.



Just about every focus group that I have watched in action was being

listened to as if they were unlocking the secrets of the universe, but

it soon became apparent that they were bent not so much on giving their

views on ads as impressing the rest of the group - and on giving the

convenor the answers they thought she or he wanted. This is no more than

human nature but the organisers of the group were taking it all deadly

seriously.



I suppose the Campaign equivalent would be us deciding agency of the

year based solely on the most unstructured measuring system we could

come up with: let’s say the sum of the nominations for the Pick of the

Week slot which runs on the Leader page. (In which case, step forward

Bartle Bogle Hegarty.)



Not to mince words, I think it is stupid to rely on consumer opinion to

tell you how well or badly an ad will work. It’s like the probably

apocryphal tale of the man in the pub who was asked whether he was

influenced by advertising. ’Never,’ he replied. ’For instance, I drink

Guinness because it’s good for me.’



Which reminds me. Close observation of the United Biscuits reel enables

me to calculate that the Mr Motivator Go Ahead spot has not benefited

from that dose of advertising judgment so beloved of the company’s chief

executive. Still, you can’t have everything.



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