How we slowed down the connection between consumers and creatives


Nothing, I repeat nothing connects a planner and therefore an agency to the people that its is trying to understand better than qualitative research. Instinct is always a great starting point and data is often incredibly powerful but qualitative research, the beliefs, attitudes and stories of real people, told directly to the planner is the umbilical cord between agency and consumer.

Through qualitative research undertaken by the planner flows a true understanding of people’s lives, their relationship with your brand and the wider category and their response to your communications and activity. It provides the equivalent of a fibre optic broadband link driving insight and understanding right into the heart of the agency from planners that have far more power internally and respect externally because they have the ‘data’ at their finger tips and on the tip of their tongue.

Indeed one can argue that undertaking and delivering their own research is in many ways what keeps a planner objective and in the unique position of being half inside the agency and half outside – able to represent the agency point of view but also push back against it when it is not aligned with the best course of action for the brand.

So you’d imagine that up and down adland planners young and old would be setting off on the mid afternoon trains from the capital to the rest of the country, stimulus in hand, to establish those connections between real people and the brand’s behaviour and activity.

But alas no. While the divorce between advertising and media agencies is much talked about and much lamented, the decision to shear planners of their role as qualitative researchers has gone un-mentioned and un-missed. And now we have a generation of planners that can turn their hand to a decent one on one interview but simply don’t have the skills to facilitate group discussions and even if they do have not been properly trained and do not undertake them regularly enough to become well practiced in the art of understanding the responses and dynamics of a group in full cry.

It is not clear whose stupid idea it was to stop planners doing research and I mean proper research with a robust methodology and paid for by the client not the ghastly ‘quick and dirty’ efforts that populate pitches or are motivated by self serving agencies desperate to prove some creative wheeze or other. Certainly some clients began to feel that planners simply were not ‘objective’ enough since they were in the pay of the agency. While the emergence of insight departments led to a new set of people within clients that acted as gatekeepers to the research process and who sought their own research relationships away from their marketing teams.

There is one sure way to ensure the lack of objectivity in a planner, starve her or him of the raw material of visceral consumer response, sit them behind a one way glass or gazing at a debrief. There is nothing more likely to make a planner speak truth unto creative power than the experience of having your work taken to pieces in front of you by the rabid denizens of Solihull. Instead planners are left arguing the toss with researchers that, with a few notable and welcome exceptions, are not greatly practiced in the way creative ideas of conceived and brought to life.

Moreover, by severing the link from consumer to planner to creatives and splicing together many more steps, stages and voices we have slowed down the flow of energy, insight and corrective feedback into the creative process from fibre optic broadband to a dodgy dial up service with a crossed line or worse to the pony express.

Planners must, I repeat must get out there and be with people. They need to stop fiddling with their social listening tools (powerful though they are) and properly listen to the people that they want to understand and ultimately influence – both on their terms and in more formal research settings. Ladies and gentlemen the 4.55pm to Manchester beckons.

With thanks to Jane Cunningham for the original inspiration to write this post

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11 Replies to “How we slowed down the connection between consumers and creatives”

  1. “…..not the ghastly ‘quick and dirty’ efforts that populate pitches or are motivated by self serving agencies desperate to prove some creative wheeze or other.”
    Guilty as charged. But always at pains to point out the superficial stupidity of it!
    Good post. Thanks!

  2. Sigh. This won’t be as good but

    In some ways, I agree with you. Planners MUST get out there and be with people. Into the world to see real people and understand them. How they live, and speak and shop. Spending a few months living in smaller town USA has very much changed how I think about the country, if you can really even call it a country. If as a planner you have only ever been in London / NYC then you know very little about the nation, because they are not all similar. in fact, after 5 years in NYC I would say I knew even less about America than when I arrived, because context infects you.

    But also not.

    But focus groups are very flawed research methodology. An entirely artificial context of paid respondents who are being paid nominal amounts of money, hence inherent selection bias and so on.

    Group dynamics, the questions asked, the bizarre and terrible setting, the one way mirror all contribute to creating very misleading ‘insight’.

    If the only time a planner spends outside London/NYC is in focus groups or at clients meetings then we are truly fucked.

    We need to be sending people into the world, report back, but who has time/money for that? I’m lucky I can work from the road and explore as I go. Creative sabbaticals in between projects.

    As you point out agencies don’t have time/budget for focus groups and clients increasingly take that on themselves with research companies, to avoid distracting their agencies and burning through more expensive more billable time. Christ, I sat in a procurement conversation with a huge global brand where they actually asked to remove the strat hours entirely – just bill us for the ideas.

    What a world. Clients want to do more and pay their partners less.

    Don’t get me started. Well, here are some thoughts on that:

    Anyway, focus groups tend to tell us things we already know. Because of how they done. Blah blah drunk lamppost blah blah. And forget creative pre-testing – what a waste of time.

    “Hey would you buy more toilet paper if I showed you this drawing of a cartoon bear that will say a joke?”

    But I know you aren’t advocating that stupidity. How come film is so much more common and cheaper around the world but we can’t find a way to produce 10 spots put them online see what flies for broadcast? We can. It can be done.

    We just got some very thorough qual back for a global CPG client, testing out some routes for programs. It’s, as I said, thorough and detailed and seems to have been done well. And it mostly tells us things that were obvious when we got briefed. But now we can substantiate them I guess. The thing is, even thought we are in the industry, and therefore not like real people, most things most people say are common sense [even if common sense happens to be nonsense in some contexts.]

    The massive problem with research, esp qual – as we’ve discussed – is that it so often gives very dodgy results

    Now, that’s not to say it can’t be useful. I’m not a hater, I just want things to be better. To be done better. To not rely on tools and techniques we’ve been using for 100 years. Again – I’M NOT SAYING WE SHOULDN’T TALK TO REAL PEOPLE. I’m not even saying we shouldn’t do focus groups.

    But we need to watch them as well, see how they live, see how they shop.

    Experienced, trained facilitators have always known about the problems and can navigate them to try and pick apart some ‘unspoken human truths or need’.

    But so rarely is this how it’s used. Mostly it becomes pitch theatre that miraculously props up the creative idea. Shocker. This is, I suspect, why client began to pull research back inside the machine anyway. I’ve seen so much ‘qual’ esp in the US, used to substantiate, not to inform.

    With social the utterances are unsolicited, for a start, so more ‘real’. The promise of social – not that we are there yet – is qual at scale – the combination of quant and qual for clarity.

    Anyway, Richard, I love you as always, the industry needs more of you, lots more, who still care about what we do, and how we do it, and training young people, and all that. I almost gave up. But I didn’t. And I won’t.

    I should be spending the summer in London [and around the UK ;-)] so would love to buy you a beer and catch up and argue. It’s been too long.

    This has turned into a postcard. I miss the old days, when social made us social and people left thoughtful comments and made us all nicer and smarter and it felt like things were moving forward.

    Love FX

  3. Faris,

    You are in cynical mood aren’t you.
    Where to start?

    I do not advocate focus groups, I advocate qualitative groups discussions. Focus groups are the bastard offspring of qual’ based on an attempt to constrain discussion to a set of questions dictated by the client and in which the only focus is on the answers rather than on the interpretation.

    Qual’ doesn’t necessarily mean group discussions, I am interested in all interactions between real people and planners. I love ethnography, depth interviews, sleep overs, chit chats etc. But group discussions have their place allowing you to work with a group of people and try and interpret their attitudes and beliefs.

    Qual’ has a selection bias and all sorts of interesting group behaviours – I love the mess of a group in full cry. The only issue is if you take group discussions at face value rather than use it as inspiration for a better understanding of things.

    No one should do qual’ in viewing facilities. Its a shame that the practice is moving in this direction and away from in home work. Qual’ should be in ‘natural’ environments as far as possible.

    Social listening is great – or ‘social reading’ as it should properly be called. But part of the issue is that it is unmediated so difficult to work with and its limited to the written word at the moment (though photos and video are helpful). It’s additional data but no replacement for ‘getting out there’ and sitting with people.

    I don’t love creative development research. I prefer qual’ for strategic development but the truth is that you always learn stuff about work when you sit down and listen to people talk about work.

    AB testing is no substitute for understanding what is going on.

    No one uses qual to understand likely behaviour – or if they are they are morons.

  4. Hello chief!

    Well, kind of, but I’m only cynical because I care ;-)

    Ah. Well then. I guess I misread that then. Sorry. We, as usual, probably, in violent agreement.

    I fear I’ve not worked with planners like you. I’ve seen so much research facility group discussions, across lots and lots of agencies.

    I like social reading – that’s very nice.

    And yeah, agreed – it can’t hurt to talk about it.

    I guess it just bakes my potato when it makes or breaks things. Or worse, bleeds ideas to the kind of shouting and pointing advertising that makes up so much of the work in the USA. ;-)

    Sorry that comment was a bit long wasn’t it.



  5. Great post. But, do planners really not do this? I’m slightly flabergasted, and rather sorry for you all, if that’s the case. Is this a London thing, I wonder?

    At the Leith Agency in Edinburgh, where I work, all 6 of us planners do qual research all the time. Sometimes this is to shape the strategy of our own campaigns (the Scottish Government’s Detect Cancer Early campaign strategy was hugely influenced by about 20 groups, and many depth interviews with cancer patients and health professionals – all conducted by our agency planners; and our planners have been super-busy doing the research to inform the ticket pricing and marketing strategy for the Glasgow Commonwealth Games).

    And sometimes we do qual research for clients who don’t want any communications, but just value our planners for their qual research and strategy skills (we did a really interesting qual / strategy project last year understanding how people experience fear of crime and the impact this has on their lives, including a photography project with the participants).

    We don’t tend to do creative testing on our own creative work, for all the obvious reasons. But I remeber one time when I’m so glad we did. I completely dumped my initial strategy (to do with reporting kids setting fire to stuff) after realising we’d got the barriers all wrong. As the moderator I could work with people then and there in the groups to crack the real issue – where an independent researcher might just have come back and said ‘sorry, the creative work’s not right’).

    Perhaps we’re lucky that our Head of planning comes from a qual background and has nurtured the skills and passion for getting out on the road, living on prawn sandwiches for days on end, spending long tedious hours transcribing recordings, and inviting conversations with total strangers about everything from leaking nipples to very expensive whisky, to whether you’d report a drug dealer.

    Qual research isn’t perfect as a methodology as people have noted above. But ‘not perfect’ is very differet from ‘not worthwhile’. Surely the value a decent planner brings is being able to stand back and take stuff from qual, from quant, academia, social media, instinct, experience – whatever – and find the real human story behind it all.

    And if you really want to build the connection between creatives and target audience, get the creatives involved. One of our young creative teams recently joined the planner in speaking to young people and families directly affected by knife crime. They’re a hugely talented team, but they’ll be the first to tell you that they felt differently about every aspect of the project once they’d sat eye-to-eye with the people at the heart of the brief.

    So get stuck in folks. Just go easy on the prawn sandwiches.

  6. Oh dear I’m a couple of years late in commenting on this, and not because I’ve spent that amount of time analyzing the transcripts (though you’d be amazed how many moderators spend no time analyzing transcripts – costs money/time you see).

    I’m with Richard on this and recognize why Faris has the view he has. As a planner who joined BMP in 1983 I saw first hand (and had to learn how to do it properly myself, with guidance from the many gurus in Paddington), how brilliantly effective qual research was at both informing strategy, and in creative development. Indeed a fundamental reason why it was so good for creative development, was because the planners doing it were capable of interpreting responses in a strategic context, and of separating responses driven by strategy from those driven by idea and execution.

    Faris is a very smart guy, but a prisoner of his generation. By the time he entered the industry, pretty much all “qualitative research” globally had degenerated to the US-style “focus groups” he has experienced and describes so well. Sorry but that process bears no relation whatsoever to qualitative research. We could discuss at length why this has happened, but have to accept the sad truth.

  7. Hello!

    Adrian sir! Thanks much for the kind words, and what you say is perfectly true. By one of those lovely strokes of chance, I was deleting some emails from one of my innumerable “other inboxes” and saw your comment. The timing is perfect, for I have somewhat come around on the subject, and indeed just finished a consulting project on qual research for a lovely qual research agency, which was doubly enlightening. Because what they do, when they can, is creative, sensitive and brilliant.

    I was indeed a prisoner of my generation of agencies. Agencies, if they do primary research at all, across half a dozen I worked with / at, in NYC, and London, don’t do any qual at all, but do often view those terrible focus groups I described.

    And I had conflated the two. But/ As a consultant, a core part of our approach is in depth interviews, in situ as much as is possible. And very structured group discussions we call workshops. Both qual, both indispensable to our work. It’s only now that I’ve started my own agency that I understand the value because inside the large systems, it simply no longer happens.

    Dearest Thea. Indeed, what you fear is true. Planners do not do qual in advertising agencies, in London or NYC. They may view it, but they do not do it. I’m sure there are exceptions. I speak only from my experience, and from the insight gleaned from during the project from dozens of interviews we did with CSOs, qual researchers and buyers of the market research, who all said the same thing. [Two of the CSO were also at BMP back in the day, as it happens. Many of the best senior planners in the industry seem to have been.]

    This is because there are now plenty of standalone market research agencies, esp in London and NYC, and insight managers on the client side, who have their own budgets and their own agencies. So no brand manager is going to use their ever dimnishing budget to commission standalone research. Indeed while in NYC I came across several client negotiations that asked specifically to not pay for planning at all. Just give us the ideas and that. Sigh.

    It was very demoralizing. Being told you are a cost, not even really the fee generative part of the companies you work for. Not the product. I began to believe it to be true. But, after recovering a bit, and starting my own company, and having constant enquiries and strong business for three years now, I have realized that it’s all part of the con of the large agencies in NYC, making you believe you aren’t worth anything, can’t do anything on your own. Now our clients ask us to come and guide their agencies, and we work with lots of agencies on their own research, strategy, planning, and creative processes as well. It’s awesome.

    Naming no names, but at one VERY LARGE agency I worked at, instead of doing even groups, they would just loosely script vox pops and get people from the agency to pretend to be respondents. I don’t mean occasionally – I mean almost exclusively. It was heartbreaking.

    I sort of gave up hope for a long time for the industry, because speaking to other planners, this wasn’t even that unusual. Because there is no budget for it. Because procurement. Because time. Because because because.

    I have literally never encountered a situation as you describe where an advertising agency is commissioned to standalone research. It sounds wonderful and I wish you the very best.

    Ultimately, I fear our industry has decoupled from real people, as many like Dave Trott have observed, and the lack of actually ever talking to actual people is part of that.

    Anyway, my ADMAP column next month will touch on this stuff.

    Much Love, the newly invigorated and less cynical, independent, itinerant, free, Faris.

  8. This piece, by the way, was helpful in enlightening me. I came into the industry just after the turn of the century…

    Focus group’ has always been the American term for what was originally known as a group discussion in the UK, and as research – like everything – has become more international there has been an inevitable merging of terminology and also methodology (American groups tending to take a more face value/ systematic line than the humanistic/ psychological approach used in Europe).

    One of the legacies of this development has arguably not favoured the research industry, thanks to somewhat pejorative journalism at the time implying that Blair governed ‘by doing what the focus groups told him’. This tended to suggest that focus groups were purely about eliciting views rather than sensitively interpreting and analysing feedback, undermining the skill and value of properly run qualitative research.

    In turn this has made it easier for managers and others to do their own ‘focus groups’, unaware that they are not really doing qualitative research at all and at worst, generating poor quality and misleading information because they lack the necessary research skills.

    (This is perhaps reflected by Diageo’s launch of its 2012 Consumer Planning Team manifesto ‘Say No to Focus Groups’, when what it really meant was ‘say no to doing qualitative research badly for the wrong reasons’.)
    Even today, it is not uncommon for qualitative researchers to feel a bit uncomfortable about saying they ‘do focus groups’, given the slightly lightweight connotations now attributed to one of the key tools of our trade which were not characteristic in the days of ‘group discussions’.

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