You have more in common with young right-wingers than you think

Last year I was fortunate enough to work on a project that involved me talking to young, right-wing men in the UK, exploring the main problems they believed the country faced and what they felt was causing them.  One of the most startling things I learnt from this fascinating project was how much their views had in common with those of the liberal left.

One of the aspects of my job that I love is talking to ‘ordinary people’ week in and week out and learning about their lives and perspectives, enabling me frequently to debunk the perceptions of other members of the ‘educated, middle-class, liberal elite’, of which I would have to confess to being a member.  However, I must admit to a degree of nervousness as I knocked on the door of a 25 year old pipe fitter in Armley, recruited to the project on the basis of being against immigration and religious tolerance.

However, as we drank our tea and he talked about the problems in his country and community, I soon discovered that our perspectives had more in common than I would ever have imagined, a finding reinforced by every other interview I ran.  

What do young right-wing men see as the major problems we face as a society?  Homelessness, poverty, a shortage of affordable housing, violent crime and insufficient resources to support elderly care, the NHS and emergency services.  In short, they see the same problems as I do: a society that has become increasingly dysfunctional through their lifetime, with no sense of direction or prospect of positive change.

The difference comes when you talk about what has given rise to these issues.  While those on the liberal left might point to a complex cocktail of neo-liberal economics, the narrow class background of ‘the establishment’ and over a decade of austerity, for young right-wingers the answer is simple: immigration.

They believe that all of these issues track back to the demand placed upon the UK’s limited resources by letting in too many of the wrong type of ‘foreigners’.  In their narrative, the UK is “too soft” and allows in people who do not integrate, “sponge off” the taxes of hard working ‘British’ people, are given priority over “us” for homes and care, and get involved in crime.

So, while the liberal left and young right-wingers have very similar perceptions of the problems we face as a society, they have very different perceptions of the causes.

However, there is another respect in which these two supposed polar opposites are very similar, and that is in the contempt they have for the political class.

  • “The biggest problem is the crock of shit in the Houses of Parliament.  That’s where the ultimate responsibility lies.”
  • “The government doesn’t give a fuck.”

Politicians are seen as “completely out of touch” with ordinary people, and the problem is felt to exist across the political spectrum, with all parties being seen as equally self-serving and ineffectual. They feel no-one represent them and no-one will make things change, rendering voting in elections pointless.

Although they voted to leave the EU, Brexit has only deepened the disdain for politicians felt by young right-wingers, who see the delay and disarray following the referendum as laying bare the duplicity and incompetence of politicians.  With there being no alignment between party support and voting for Leave or Remain, young right-wing men feel that the traditional political conventions of Left vs Right have broken down and that society is no longer divided on the lines of political allegiance.  Once again, this is a view widely shared by liberal commentators in the UK media.

When asked what is good about the UK, the almost universal answer from young right-wing men was Britain’s history: an image of a ‘golden age’ when Britain was the greatest colonial power and “commanded respect” the world over.  It is this taking of refuge in an imagined past that provides the clue to the way out of the mess we all feel we are in.  People glorify the past not just because they see the problems of the present, but also because they can see no prospect of a better future.  

The final point that the liberal left and right-wingers would agree on is that this country and its politicians display a crippling lack of vision.  Young right-wing men talk of the absence of any sense of direction for the country or of what we are trying to achieve as a society.  Perhaps another clue came in the citing of Leeds United Football Club as a positive element in the community, for the reason that football was felt to bring diverse people together behind common cause.  It struck me that there is an absence of an equivalent to football in broader life and society – no sense of a shared societal goal that we can all can get behind, regardless of race or religion

While the divergence of opinion regarding the causes of our problems is tricky, it is important to recognise that immigration has become the scapegoat for a huge part of society that feels ignored, dismissed and disempowered.  Nature abhors a vacuum, and if that vacuum is not filled by a clear, coherent and appealing vision, it gets filled by the poisonous voices of Katie Hopkins and Tommy Robinson.

Having talked to people ostensibly at the other end of the political spectrum to me, people whose beliefs I would have expected to fundamentally oppose, I now truly feel that there is more that unities us than divides us.  The need is for someone to define and communicate to the nation a tangible vision for society that we can all buy into, giving us a clear shared purpose. Only then will we be able to let go of the past, because the future is somewhere we all want to be.  

The question then becomes: how can such a person emerge from a political system that has been exposed as being unfit for purpose? 


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Break the frame

Image of two hands framing landscape composition

Judging by my first two posts in this short series on the four principles underpinning effective qualitative research, it might seem that my experience of working in advertising agencies has informed pretty much every aspect of my approach to research.  However, in other respects, my approach is based on being fortunate enough to start my research career at a place I regard as the ‘University of Qual’, trained by a superb practitioner named John Siddall, who took the core principles of psychotherapeutic interviewing and applied them to market research.

From this I learned a number of techniques and practices that I take completely for granted and yet have found to be nowhere near as universal as they should be. Which gives rise to my third principle underpinning effective qualitative research.

3 Facilitate a genuinely open discussion

With the emergence to prominence of behavioural science, I can now see that many of these approaches are rooted in an implicit understanding of the true drivers of human behaviour and the power of the biases that shape it.  A prime example is the need to avoid any discussion of brand perceptions, advertising or the marketplace in research groups or interviews before introducing new brand or communications concepts, in order to avoid ‘hot-housing’ views that can prejudice responses.  For example, if you have a discussion about advertising before showing new advertising ideas, your research participants will inevitably have set a mental ‘template’ for what is ‘good’ advertising that will influence their response to anything you show subsequently.  The same applies to a having a prior discussion about the perceptions of a brand before you discuss potential options for its positioning.  You will have ‘framed’ the response and made it impossible to gain a clean read on your new ideas.  And yet so many researchers are insistent on the need for a ‘warm up’ discussion that gets people thinking about the matter at hand before introducing the new concepts.  This is so profoundly misguided, not least because, in the real world, people are never ‘warmed up’ to any marketing concept before they encounter it!

‘Framing’ is the bias we most have to fight against in research sessions.  Other ways in which we avoid it is through changing the order in which we explore ideas from one session to the next, and always asking open questions, to which people cannot give an easy ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer.  Another way I counter this bias in strategic development research is by not introducing positioning concepts as new ideas but as things other people have said about brands.  By framing the concepts as things other people feel, one ‘legitimises’ them and obliges research participants to engage with them, rather than simply dismiss them as ideas from a marketing department or agency that wants to sell them something,

I never cease to be amazed how few researchers adopt the kind of approaches to structuring discussions and exploring issues that avoid or compensate for the biases that affect every aspect of human behaviour.  To me, such methods are so fundamental to our practice that they are effectively ‘hygiene factors’, and should not be seen as characteristic of an unusual approach.

  • In the last post in this series, I will open the black box of analysis and explain why qualitative research is not about finding out what people think.
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What lies beneath?

HIdden depths

It has become fashionable to dismiss qualitative research as failing to appreciate a core truth from behavioural science: that the majority of human decision making is sub-conscious, and that it is therefore a waste of time asking people why they do, think and feel things, since they don’t actually know.

To which the expert qualitative research practitioner’s response will be, “No s**t, Sherlock”.  Any quallie worth his salt has always known this.  They don’t see research participants’ answers to questions, their reactions and their claimed behaviour as findings, merely as clues to what might really be going on beneath the surface.

Hence the last of the four principles that underpin my approach to qualitative research.

4       Get behind what they say

The purpose of qualitative research is not to tell us what people think, but to give us the raw material that helps us think.  The hard work that adds real value to the process is the stuff in the ‘black box’ that clients never see: the analysis.  It’s where the skilled researcher seeks out the patterns, tests hypotheses, finds correlations, and pieces together the jigsaw of motivations that account for people’s real world behaviour.

Again, I am astonished to so frequently hear research criticised for being mere ‘reportage’, when it is entirely clear to me that reportage is not research.  I don’t know why clients would ever accept such work, or recommission the ‘researchers’ that do it.  Our job is to give our clients a framework of understanding that explains how their ideas will work in the real world, a framework that should transcend the specific project and be applicable across a range of issues, because it is explains the basic drivers of human behaviour.  Our job is not to tell our clients “what people said in the groups”.

This is the reason I am reluctant to include quotes from respondents in my debriefs, because this to me suggests that they are what they say, when this is simply not the case.  Research participants can’t tell us what they think, because they don’t know. 

As I think about it, there are many other aspects to my approach that are perhaps not typical of other qualitative practitioners.  However, the point is hopefully made that there is rather more to this qualitative research mallarkey than meets they eye, as the following tale may help illustrate.

Five years ago, I was invited to run a two-day training course on qualitative research for the planners at a major agency, the aim being for them to learn enough to be able to conduct their own.  It honestly was not my intention, but the outcome was that the planners found there to be so much more complexity and nuance in qualitative research than they had realised, that they have consistently asked me to carry out the bulk of their research ever since.  

Having now thoroughly analysed the way I approach my work, I think I understand why.

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What’s the idea?

Colourful head

In my previous post in this short series, I talked about the first fundamental principle that underpins my approach to qualitative research: Be useful.  It sounds blindingly obvious but years of anecdotal evidence from my clients suggests otherwise.  

The second principle is less obvious, but no less important.


2       Focus on ideas

Very rarely am I researching anything finished.  Almost invariably I am working with early-stage product, service, strategic or creative ideas.  Nothing is concrete.  When I am working on product or service development projects, I often say to clients, “There is no such thing as a product, only a positioning”, since the very same product or service can be positioned in innumerable different ways, and only a few of them will make a relevant connection with people.  Brands, products, services and communications only exist in terms of the meaning they have in the minds of their users and buyers.

I think this perspective again stems from my years in advertising, where I spent every day in an environment that was not creating and developing anything tangible, only ideas.

An important implication of this for qualitative research is that we have to find a means of conveying these ideas to respondents in a way that gives them the best chance of being understood as they are intended, despite the fact they are a long way from being realised in a finished form.  This involves creating stimulus material to put before our research participants, and the mistake most qualitative researchers make is to try to make the stimulus look as much like the finished article as possible.

All of my experience tells me that, even when a TV advertising idea emerges intact from research, the final article will look substantially different to any detailed storyboard you showed to your participants.

However, not only is it pointless trying to produce stimulus material that is as close to the finished article as possible, it’s also actively dangerous.  Trying to make the stimulus material resemble the finished execution encourages respondents to judge the stimulus, thus being distracted by execution, rather than engaging with the idea it is intended to represent.  Inevitably, this can lead to very misleading responses.

In the first half of my research career, I would often find myself half way through a project discarding the stimulus material I had been given, whether it was for creative or strategic ideas, because it was getting in the way of my respondents being able to understand the ideas as intended. I would resort to simply talking through the idea myself, and I invariably found thgis made it much easier to people to engage with the actual idea we were trying to explore.  This led me to develop an approach I use for strategic development that I call ‘invisible stimulus’®, where I do not show respondents formal ‘concept boards’, but talk through each of the routes informally (actually using the precise language of very carefully worded concepts that we have prepared in advance).

I adopt a similar approach in creative development research, where I use the very least stimulus necessary to convey the idea.  For TV commercials, I will very rarely use key frames, other than for the endframe, most often simply reading out a carefully written narrative script.  Experience tells me that the mental image that people conjure up in their mind’s eye is usually a more faithful representation of the idea than the static and staccato renderings on a storyboard.

However, although I advocate using as little formal stimulus as possible, it is important to understand that there are no rules about stimulus material, other than: use whatever best conveys the idea.  This means that different ideas for TV advertising might need different forms of stimulus material, even in the same research session: one idea might actually need a full storyboard and pre-recorded soundtrack, another just a narrative script for me to read out, another a ‘stealomatic’ video.  Clients often get vexed about different types of stimulus material meaning we don’t have a ‘level playing field’, and I have to explain that the playing field needs to be level for the ideasnot the stimulus material.

The other key way in which we must address ideas in qualitative research lies in the need to separate idea from execution – and, within that: strategic idea from creative idea… from executional idea… from execution.  I am sounding like a broken record, as I report that, once again, my acute awareness of this stems from my years working in advertising and, in particular, at one of the hottest London agencies of the 1980s, GGT, where Dave Trott taught me practically everything I know about creative work.  One can only give good guidance on how to develop the work if one is able to draw this distinction, not only in the way one explores the ideas within the research but also in the way one analyses the feedback and presents the findings and recommendations.

My final point about researching ideas concerns the need to talk to the idea creators before one moves into preparing stimulus material.  This never fails to give me a greater insight into the origin and nature of the idea and its parameters for development, which is essential to the development of the appropriate stimulus material and to being able to give useful feedback to the people who will, ultimately, have to act on the research findings.

This applies as much to strategic concepts as it does to creative ideas, so I work very hard with clients to ensure their brand positioning concepts are as clear, single-minded, coherent and distinct as possible before they are put into the research, as well as being written in plain English.  Too many researchers accept what they are given, when the extent to which you can give clear direction coming out of the project is closely linked to the quality of the ideas that go into it.

Ideas are our meat and drink.  Brands are ideas.  The ways in which they make relevant connections with people are ideas.  In qualitative research, we always need to find ways to ensure ideas stay front and centre.

But there is no point expending all this energy on ensuring we represent ideas faithfully if we do not then explore them in a way that elicits meaningful responses. I address this issue in my next post about the fundamental principles underpinning effective qualitative research.

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Four principles underpinning effective qualitative research


Back in the day, when COVID-19 was ‘The Chinese Virus’, an agency planning director asked me for some input into an article they were writing about the value of qualitative research to campaign development.  They asked me to answer this question: ‘What are the principles behind your approach to qualitative research and what led to you develop your unique proposition in the first place?’

It had never struck me that my proposition was ‘unique’.  However, a recent quote from another client suggested that they were not alone in their perception…

  • “Thanks for an enlightening debrief delivered in masterful fashion. You’ve restored my dwindling faith in qual research (not the methodology, but what passes for ‘practitioners’ these days).”

… so I sat down and gave it some thought: is the way I approach my work different to the way other qualitative researchers do it? And, if so, how? And why?

Perhaps significantly, at a time when the prohibition of face-to-face research is encouraging a greater focus on methodology than ever before , none of the four guiding principles I unearthed is concerned with the platform or forum that one uses to acquire data from our research participants.  All four principles concern the conceptual approach one takes to one’s practice, irrespective of methodology.

1       Be useful

This should be blindingly obvious, but it doesn’t appear to be for many qualitative researchers.  Research is merely a tool that helps brands develop more effective connections with the people who buy and use them; it is not an end in itself.  So, if the research output does not give you the clear insight and understanding you need to make informed decisions about the best way to proceed, it’s not doing its job.

Fundamental to my approach is the experience of being an account handler in London ad agencies in the 1980s and sitting through research debriefs only to think, “Great.  Thanks for nothing. What the f*** do we do now?”.  Time and again, researchers would leave the agency’s ideas in tatters and provided no route forward.  When I made the move into qualitative research, I was determined never to leave my clients in this position.  Since then, I must have delivered over 600 debriefs, and I am gratified that the most consistent feedback I receive afterwards concerns the clarity of direction I have provided.

  • Thanks so much for all your hard work this year, we really appreciate your clarity and honesty.
  • On behalf of the board, I’d like to thank you for the excellent job you did. We were all very impressed with the thoroughness of your work, the insights it afforded us and the clarity with which you communicated outcomes. It has really moved the project forward.
  • Your help was invaluable throughout the project and the clarity of the consumer debriefs was second to none.

Another reason why I take this approach is that my 6 years as an account handler taught me how difficult it is to get good work out the door.  Agencies have a tough enough job as it is trying to get clients to run with the original, challenging ideas that many brands require if they are to make effective connections with their customers, without research making life more difficult.  So, I see my job as finding ways to help clients and agencies build ideas that work, rather than being to stop ideas that don’t.

A critical part of achieving this is taking people on the journey with you.  Often the research will challenge an organisation’s accepted wisdom or an agency’s coveted idea, most obviously in the recommendations but even at the outset, when one sets objectives and defines what the research can and cannot be asked to deliver.  I have to make it possible for people to accept my perspective, since there is no objective truth in qualitative research (nor is there in quantitative research either, but that’s a whole other matter) and mine is an opinion, albeit one based on thorough analysis.  So, part of the clarity I provide lies in constructing an implicit narrative through the debrief, that leads my clients to the same conclusions as I have reached, making my recommendations easier to accept and act upon, even if they contradict hopes and expectations.  What this means is allowing the research to tell its own story, rather than squeezing the findings into a set format.  I am always amazed when I see debriefs from research agencies that are structured the same way, regardless of the project.

So, there’s the first principle: Be useful.  Researchers often talk a good game on providing ‘actionable’ findings, but the feedback from clients suggests that not all are walking the talk.  

You can read about my second principle here.

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Coca-Cola’s ‘new’ brand purpose – how to be right and wrong at the same time

Screenshot 2020-02-26 at 11.06.37

3-minute read

You will have seen in the marketing press that Coca-Cola recently unveiled its new brand purpose, ‘Unite and uplift’, alongside its new ad, ‘Could I be wrong?’. At the same time Walter Susini, Coke’s senior vice-president of marketing EMEA, observed that ‘Unite and uplift’ is not really new at all: “We’ve had this brand purpose for 134 years. We’ve just been refreshing it depending on what was relevant in society at that moment in time.”

Well.  Kinda.

Around the turn of the Millennium, Coca-Cola was Movement’s biggest client.  The time came when I had worked on Coke for longer than anyone who was actually employed in Coke’s marketing team!  I was very clear back then that Coke’s values distilled to the essence of ‘Unifying’.  Its unique quality was its ability to help people make a connection with each other, through the fact that the brand was recognised as embodying values that everyone wished to embrace.  The iconic status of the brand was key to its ability to do this, the very sight of it evoking these values for people the world over, by virtue of being so widely recognised and understood.

However, for much of the 21st Century, Coca-Cola has studiously ignored this, taking the brand on an aimless trek through a forest of strategic and creative distractions.  The failure to support the brand’s core equity in a consistent way over this time means that Coke’s positive values are less widely recognised and understood now than they were then. However, at least the brand appears to have returned to this fundamental truth.  Better late than never, I guess.

That said, I think Coke has tripped itself up in a couple of respects here.

First, its purpose is not single-minded.

‘Unite and uplift’.  Sorry, which is it?  Is Coke’s purpose to unite, or is it to uplift?  Surely, if it unites people, it will give them emotional uplift, so ‘uplift’ is superfluous.  You may see this as pedantry, but there’s a good reason why I’m a little obsessive about single-mindedness, in statements of brand purpose as much as in brand propositions.  The intellectual discipline involved in working out the single thing you stand for is important, because it enables everyone who has to bring it to life to be 100% clear on the focus.  Any ambiguity creates a weak spot that can disrupt or even destroy the coherence required for effective brand behaviour.  In this case, being single-minded would, for example, remove the opportunity for someone to come along and say, “Yeah, but what about the uplift bit?  Why don’t we see someone enjoying the drink.”  Trust me, it’ll happen.  I’ve been there.

The second stumble concerns execution.

As Susini observes, “The world is more divided than ever”, so the time is right for “the brand that wants to bring people together”.  The new ad, ‘Could I be wrong?’, by Wieden & Kennedy London, is a good piece of work.  It’s very watchable and employs a strong visual metaphor, with the world literally crumbling around people as they argue with each other about everything. The stumble comes 1 minute in, when Natasha Lyonne intervenes with her advice that “If you asked yourself, ‘Could I be the one that’s wrong?’, maybe things could change for the better”.

Screenshot 2020-02-26 at 10.55.38

Really?  It was going so well.  Why does Ms Coke (ooh, look, she’s a red-head) have to arrive on the scene and preach to us?  It’s a clumsy and didactic intervention by the brand, when it could and should have conveyed its point in a far more subtle and allusive way.  When she then goes on to say, “Hey what do I know?”, it’s almost as if the brand knows it’s overstepped the mark.

That said, I do like the fist-bump/dynamic ribbon transition at the end: a clever way of integrating the core proposition into the brand identity.

So, it’s 7 out of 10 to Coke for rediscovering its strategic core – but failing to nail it single-mindedly. And it’s 7 out of 10 again for producing advertising that refreshingly (see what I did there?) has a creative idea rather than shows us hip ‘real’ people living ‘authentic’ lives – but then dropping the ball with clumsy brand integration.

However, I could be wrong…

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Why your advertising should be MAD

Putting together a reel of TV ads that I have helped develop during my 30 years in qualitative research has brought to mind many important lessons about brands, advertising and creative development. But one over-riding theme leapt out of the screen, a central characteristic of every ad in the reel: they all had a genuine creative idea.  

Screenshot 2019-01-29 at 15.09.46

Why is this even worth noting?  After all, it has been proven time and again that the most effective advertising is creative advertising. So, surely brands and their agencies wouldn’t let an ad out the door if it wasn’t built around a strong creative idea.

If only.  We are surrounded today by ‘idea-free’ advertising: bland, undifferentiated ‘wallpaper’ that leaves the viewer unengaged, uninvolved and unmoved. My kids fear the ad breaks when they are watching with me, knowing that at some point I will be shouting “Where’s the creative idea?” at the screen, lamenting its absence from 30” of… what?  They are so accustomed to this explosion that, when a car commercial appears (for these are perhaps the most consistent offenders), they look at me, waiting for the rant to start.

One can posit innumerable reasons for this parlous state of affairs: the dead hand of international advertising; the misguided emphasis placed by modern marketers on short-term sales effects over long-term brand building; client risk aversion; a loss of confidence and assertiveness on the part of creative agencies; ignorance of the relationship between creativity and effectiveness. The brutal truth, however, is that a client who spends money on advertising without an idea will almost certainly be wasting that money and short-changing the brand.

Not every ad can be a Sony ‘Balls’ or a Honda ‘Cog’.  But every ad should aspire to be more than the strategy put on the screen, or the brand purpose spoken over some generic visuals, or some reflection of the ‘real life’ of the ‘consumer’.  Without a creative idea, it is that much more difficult to cut through the noise with distinctiveness, drive emotional relevance and establish the memory structures that build brands and influence perceptions and behaviour in the long term.

All of this is easy to say, but much harder to do. What even is a creative idea?  And how do we know when we have one?

What is a creative idea?

Smarter people than me have endeavoured to define what a creative idea is, but here’s my tuppenny-worth.  A piece of advertising contains a creative idea when it simply uses a lateral way to convey the brand communication.  If one assumes that the strategy upon which the advertising is based positions the brand in a way that is relevant and motivating to its target (which is, of course, by no means a given), a strong creative idea is one that conveys the brand proposition indirectly in order to drive greater impact, engagement, involvement, brand linkage and memorability than would be the case if it was conveyed literally.  Creative ideas are much more than what the brand ‘says’; they are about how the brand ‘says’ it. To go back to the master: Bill Bernbach cited the example of this famous and successful press ad for a correspondence course that ran for years starting in the 1920s, asking “Would it have been as effective… if it had said, ‘They admired my piano playing.’?”

Essentially, creative ideas make advertising more interesting.  As Howard Gossage said of print ads:

“People don’t read ads. They read what interests them, and sometimes that’s an ad.” 

We should also remember – and this is something that seems to have been forgotten by most modern marketers – that the creative idea itself can say as much about the brand as the message it conveys.  The fact that a brand communicates in a clever and original way reflects upon it very positively and can, when done consistently over time, help build emotional associations and values that can strengthen its connection with ‘consumers’.

Looking through my reel of 15 ads, every one of these ads contains a genuine creative idea. And when you begin to think about the nature of the idea, you begin to see many of the lateral approaches characteristic of strong creative ideas.  The ads here make use of metaphor, exaggeration and contrast; almost all employ hyperbole and many use fantasy. None of them ‘tells it straight’.

Many of these ideas work by deliberating pushing the brand proposition to the limit.  I have advocated before that strategists should aim to think laterally about the propositions they put into briefs; here, we see creatives thinking laterally about how to convey the propositions.

Very often, the idea dramatises the answer to the question: what is the most extreme thing that could happen to prove this proposition true?  I suspect this is not a question that good agency creatives are even aware of asking themselves, but something they do intuitively.  And my reel shows some of the crazy answers they get: supermodels would attempt to destroy a car; cats would kill for a milkshake mix; a repair man would push your car miles across fields.  And by this lateral dramatisation, the advertising lands the proposition in a more compelling and rewarding way.

In 13 of these 15 ads, the dramatisation is completely unreal – the action we see would never happen in ‘real life’: shipwrecks and crashed aircraft are thrown out of the sea; a caped drinks bottle on a stick ‘flies’ through the sky; opposite sides of a street slide across the road to meet in the middle.  When would any of that actually happen?

You could describe the action in these 13 ads as ‘mad’… and maybe this is an acronym that can point us to strong creative ideas:

MAD: ‘Make Advertising Drastic’ – or maybe ‘Daft’, ‘Dangerous’, or even ‘Dada’ – take your pick.

But even when the action isn’t MAD, there is still an idea that pushes beyond the proposition.  The insight in Rothco’s Christmas ad for Tesco Ireland is as brilliant as it is simple: that the huge effort mothers put into making Christmas a great occasion for their families is generally taken for granted.  The strategy picks this up and runs with it, pointing out that Irish mums deserve their families’ thanks; and then the creative idea goes one step further by asking: what is the strongest way of showing someone how genuinely grateful you are for what they have done for you? Answer: you bother to sit down and carefully hand-write a letter that expresses your sincerest feelings.

Similarly, the BT ad – the first in the ‘BT Family’ campaign that ran for 7 years – is not MAD.  But it does use an interesting trick to convey the simple and rather pedestrian proposition that BT’s services can help family life work smoothly.  It does this by exploring the converse, in answer to the question: when do families really not run smoothly?  Answer: when they are broken families.  In this ad, BT’s wireless broadband helps to bridge the gap between the children of a divorced mum and her new boyfriend.  Of course, it was executed with wit, charm and empathy, but there is a very smart piece of lateral thinking at the heart of this idea.

Creative ideas are often characterised by the cross fertilisation of two apparently disconnected notions. In much the same way that a strong brand proposition is born out of the overlap between a human truth and a brand truth (AKA ‘consumer insight’ and ‘brand properties’), a creative idea is often born out of bringing together the brand proposition and a notion from another field that is apparently completely unrelated.  As Jeffrey Baumgartner puts it, “Whenever two or more notions come together to create a unique, all new notion in your mind, a creative idea is born”.

What have caped superheroes got to do with smoothies?  What have overworked musicians got to do with lottery winners? What do graffiti and street signs have to do with a fizzy drink?

In every case, you can build a bridge between these notions and the brand proposition. You are helped by the fact that the apparently unrelated notion typically sits in people’s sub-conscious with a range of associations that your creative idea can retrieve in the service of your brand. And, provided that bridge is not too long or rickety, it can form the heart of your creative idea.

For example, we know that supermodels are recognised as icons of beauty, but we probably also think they are accustomed to being the centre of attention and may well be pretty vain too.  These associations give the advertising permission to stretch the point, and show supermodels being seriously hacked off at our brand’s beauty drawing attention away from them (yes, I know the Corsa looks pig ugly now but, trust me, it looked pretty funky when it was launched back in 1995).  So, the bridge between the Corsa and the ‘unrelated’ notion of ‘Supermodels’ might be ‘envy’ – envy of the attention a rival beauty receives at their expense (this is not, of course, to ignore the pun in the use of the word ‘model’).

What comes to mind when you think of caped superheroes?  They right wrongs and save those in peril from the bad guys.  So, the bridge in the Innocent smoothies ad is ‘rescue’ – Innocent will rescue the peckish from evil doughnuts!

How do we know when we have a strong creative idea?  

I’ve kept you too long already. So, I will address this question in the second part of this article, suggesting ways in which we can work out whether the ad concepts we are presented with contain a genuine creative idea or not. Who knows, maybe the day will come when my children need no longer witness their father ranting at the screen as they sit with me during a commercial break.

Posted in Ad testing, Advertising, Communications, Creative development, Creative ideas, Market research, Qualitative research, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

6 reasons why I still love this job after 30 years

AnalysisIn 1987 I jumped ship from my job as an account supervisor in advertising to become a qualitative researcher.  It was much more a case of escaping from a problem than running to a solution.  But qual turned out to be much more than a refuge, rapidly becoming a happy home.  I found my place, and 30 years on, I still love this job.

The very nature of qualitative research is to ask ‘why?’, so I’ve been thinking about why I like this job so much.  I think it can be distilled down to six reasons.

1. You get paid to think

In how many jobs is this true?  The value-add in qualitative research lies in your analysis, interpretation and, ultimately, your opinion; which, if you do a good job, is listened to, respected, and acted upon.  In the world of work, this is a rare and rather remarkable privilege.

Of course, this is no God-given right.  If you are going to pursue a successful career in qual, your clients have to trust your thinking – trust that your interpretation is accurate and that your judgment is sound.

To misquote Oscar Wilde, “I have nothing to declare but my interpretation”.  In qual there are no facts.  Instead, there is a huge volume of soft and malleable raw material that you have to carefully analyse to find the links and the patterns in order to derive meaning and extrapolate the implications.  This is all down to interpretation.  As it happens, quantitativedata is not objective fact either and is still open to interpretation, but there can be no question that qual ‘data’ is intrinsically more amorphous and fluid than quant.  So, while a client always has to place their trust in the interpretation of any researcher, quallies operate with much less visible, tangible support than quanties.  This means qualitative researchers have to work even harder to ensure they weave their understanding into a clear, compelling narrative that creates credible meaning for clients.

Ultimately, not even this is enough to sustain a career in this business, because the recommendations you make based upon your thinking and interpretation come to be tested in the market.  You can only sustain a career in this business if the actions you recommend deliver results.  This puts huge pressure on your ability to combine analytical and creative thinking to define the best route forward.

Bring it on.

2. You keep learning

You get paid to think but you also get paid to learn.  Fast.  And in-depth. If you have a genuinely curious mind (an absolute pre-requisite for a quallie), this is a great job.

With every project, you have to gain a deep understanding of what drives behaviour and attitudes in relation to the market and the brands within it, and you rarely have more than two or three weeks in which to do it.  Last week: malt whisky; this week: mortgages; next week: condoms.  It’s an intense, immersive experience and, by the end of the project, you will likely know more about consumer motivation in relation to a brand than do most of the brand team.

Having spent intense periods exploring and thinking about consumer behaviour in specific markets, in great depth, many times, experienced researchers become an extraordinary repository of knowledge and insights just waiting to be tapped.  Very often, a qual researcher will have worked longer on a brand than anyone in Marketing. Coca-Cola was my client for 20 years and I never worked with anyone there who had been at the company for this long. No-one had the depth of understanding that comes from 20 years of talking to consumers about Coca-Cola and Diet Coke, which is why I was eventually asked to distil two decades of learning into definitive reference manuals for the brand and insight teams.

In 30 years, there’s scarcely a category in which I haven’t worked, from HIV infection in the 80s to social media in the Teenies.  All of that knowledge accumulates and builds over the years to give you a massive head start when it comes to tackling any project.

Of course, in every job you (hopefully) continue to learn the skills of your trade.  But it’s not easy to think of another in which you learn so much about so many different things in such a short space of time.

3. Every project is different

I calculate I must have worked on over 600 qual projects, and I honestly do not recall having found a single one boring.  Even the most apparently mundane categories or brands have their own points of interest when you start to delve into consumers’ perception and motivations, be it custard or lawn seed.

Even the projects that are superficially similar are unique: this comms idea will be different in some way to any other you have ever looked at, even for the same brand; the relationship this given set of consumers has with this category will differ from the relationship they had with the other category you explored with them last year.  Plus, it’s not just the market, brands, consumers and marketing ideas that differ; so too do the clients and their challenges.  The brief might resemble others you have received but, when you start to dig into the brand and market context, the marketing objectives and, indeed, the broader business issues and company culture, no two briefs are ever the same.

Rather wonderfully, this equips you with an incredibly rich experience base. While no two projects are the same, you have a fantastic reserve of experience that can inform your approach to any challenge.

Additionally, working across so many categories and brands inevitably means frequent exposure to the inner workings of a diverse range of companies.  Being able to gain this level of business insight is also an unusual privilege, giving you wonderful sense of the breadth of corporate cultures.  That said, there are some clear common themes, many of which are none too positive. But that’s a subject for another post!

4. You find out what real people are like!

You don’t have to work in an agency to live in an ivory tower.  Frankly, all of us who are fortunate enough to have an interesting job with prospects, own a property, go on skiing holidays, be a member of a gym or eat at independent restaurants are living in a different world from most people in this country.  Our social groups overwhelmingly consist of people from the same very narrow horizontal slice of society, a segment of people with similar incomes and perspectives.

One of the great joys of this job is getting out and talking to ‘consumers’ all over the country and learning first-hand what ‘real people’ are like.  When you talk to them about how they relate to a market or a brand, or when they respond to a brand positioning or a communications concept, they do so against the background of their upbringing, lifestyle and values.  So, despite the fact that the subject matter is some aspect of marketing, you incidentally absorb a sense of the nature of people far beyond the topic at hand.   In so doing, one becomes armed against the lazy generalisations about ‘ordinary’ people one encounters in the media, and sensitised to the implicit elitism that can be found amongst one’s peers.

I genuinely think it’s a huge privilege to be able to talk to ‘ordinary’ people, day in and day out.  It keeps you grounded.  When I worked in advertising, I was always fascinated to find out what the people our work was ‘targeted’ at actually did with it, how it fared in the real world.  This was a key part of what attracted me to qualitative research when I was looking to escape from being an account man.  Little did I know that the experience of talking to ‘respondents’ would help me understand people and society in a much broader context.

It also acts as a sanity check against the BS of modern marketing that would have us believe different consumer segments, corralled together on the basis of marginal data differences, possess significantly distinct characteristics, be they ‘Millennials’, ‘Generation Z’ or ‘Affluent Anythings’ (yes, really), failing to represent the inconvenient truth that people are both simpler and more complex than these misleading groupings would have you believe.

Fortunately, the marketing world seems slowly and reluctantly to be waking up to the reality that Big Data only tells us so much; if we want the kind of real understanding that can inform marketing activity, we have to look at the kind of Small Data that only in depth qual can provide.

Try talking to some real people. Then you might learn something. Something real.

5. You can say ‘I did this’

My 6 years in advertising were spent as an account man.  I learnt a huge amount and acquired a range of skills and a depth of understanding of creative communications that I put into practice constantly in what I do now.  However, one of the the reasons I jumped ship was that I could never point to anything and say “I did that”.  There was never any tangible product of my labours – something that would not have existed had it not been for me.  Don’t get me wrong; I think account management is a great job for the right person and it takes a very particular set of talents to do it well.  But it’s mainly about oiling the wheels, making it possible for other people to achieve things.

Every single project I handle has an end product that is a unique result of my experience, understanding and vision.  The ‘same’ project, exploring the same issues amongst the same target for the same client would look different if someone else had done it.  That might be a bit scary for clients, but it’s wonderfully empowering for the researcher.  If I get recommissioned, it’s because I did a good job and my client trusts me to do another.  There’s nowhere to hide, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling.

6. You get to work with bright people

Having said that I would keep my perspectives on corporate culture for another post, one overall observation I will make here is that many (if not most) companies do a great job of compromising the ability of bright people do a great job.

Nonetheless, whatever the constraints, and however handicapped they may be by corporate culture, they remain bright people.  I have found my clients almost invariably a pleasure to work with.  Almost by definition, good people who work with brands and in agencies are interested in the world around them, in human behaviour and in ideas, and how to bring them together.  As we well know, one of the main qualities of interesting people is that they are interested.

I have sensed sometimes that insight managers feel they are the only sane people in a business gone mad!  They feel they work in companies that have lost track of the realities of their markets and behave in a way that betrays a lack of understanding of the people that ultimately pay their wages: customers.  Sometimes there is an almost palpable sense of relief when the findings from research support a perspective that they had been unable previously to get the business to listen to.

I am fortunate enough to work a lot with agencies too, where I have encountered some of the brightest and most creative people it has been my good fortune to meet.  The relationships I have built here have probably been helped by working in advertising at the start of my career, giving me an understanding of creative ideas and a very clear sense of the struggles involved in trying to get good work out of the door.

30 years in, I’m happy to say I like my clients more than ever!  If it is true that you get the clients you deserve, then I am a doubly happy man.

As I reviewed this article, I noticed how many times I had described aspects of what I do as a ‘privilege’.  I may not have become the Formula 1 driver or architect my 12 year old self had in mind, but if I still regard so many elements of my work as a privilege, I guess I would have to conclude that things haven’t worked out too badly.

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Why is Movement like Stormy Daniels?

Gagging order

Now, keep up! Stormy Daniels is not the sequel to the Beast From the East, but the name of the porn star Donald Trump’s lawyer paid in exchange for her silence about her extra-marital affair with The Donald in 2006.

I was reminded of this talented actor’s relationship with the Leader of the Free World as I reflected on the projects I handled in 2017, my 30th year in research. With Movement’s turnover up 33% and 50% of projects coming from new clients, it was another good year; but owing to a combination of client NDAs and self-imposed gagging orders arising from working on politically or commercially sensitive projects, there is only so much I can reveal about the work I handled…

Logos 2017

A brief on briefs

As with 2016, it wasn’t all qual research. The year started with a fascinating brief to design a brief. A senior creative I had worked with in 2016 referred me to a fast-growing agency that wanted a consultant to help it define a template for all its creative briefs. This was a classic case of small business growing pains: the company had grown fast and won several impressive clients, but having different partners briefing different creatives in different ways was becoming unsustainable. With new staff joining, there was a pressing need to establish the discipline provided by a using a consistent format that everyone could understand and work with.

So, I took the brief about the brief and asked as part of the brief that they send me some examples of their briefs – are you following?! I could draw on over 35 years of working with creative briefs from a huge range of agencies, as well as the abundant experience of many fellow researchers and consultants, but it was clear that creating a briefing template was only part of the job. A new briefing template would be meaningless without a defined briefing and review process; and the briefing template would only be adopted if it was developed in partnership with the key stakeholders and fully understood by everyone who would have to write or respond to it. This would require not only that everyone understood the meaning and role of every part of the brief, but also that they understood how to write a really good brief in the first place.

So, having developed a template with the senior management team, I then ran a workshop day with the agency’s strategists and creatives to ensure it was fully understood and to practice applying it to some live projects. It was a very successful day; the partners tell me they “got great feedback from the session” and that the brief is being successfully applied to inspire its new campaigns.

  •  “The brief template is working well and the training means there is more rigour in terms of both writing and pushback.”

An explosive proposition

Talking of workshops brings me to Latitude, an agency specialising in luxury branding, which commissioned me to facilitate a workshop in Singapore, aimed at developing a positioning for the 1500 hectare Special Economic Zone of Tanjung Lesung in Indonesia, overlooking the Sunda Strait and the legendary volcanic island of Krakatoa. Latitude’s founder, Mark Jory, has a little black book to die for, from which he put together an outstanding group of expert workshop participants. Over 2 days, we generated some fantastic ideas (a selection of which are pixelated below!), which I then worked with Mark to develop into an outstandingly distinctive and relevant positioning for the new development.


Mark and his team recognise that an effective brand positioning is much more than just an external marketing entity, and should inform and guide the development of the product and service itself.  I can’t wait to see the work it inspires.

Sound decisions

I was also fortunate enough in 2017 to work as a brand consultant for the iconic high-end audio brand, Bowers & Wilkins. This 50 year old company based in Worthing was bought in 2016 by Eva Automation, an American tech business with great ambitions to blend Bowers’ extraordinary skill in sound reproduction with its own cutting edge wireless technology. Simon Greenman, with whom I had worked at MutualArt, was brought in to lead digital marketing, and he commissioned me to write the brief for a pitch to find an agency to create new brand and product campaigns, starting with the launch of the new PX wireless headphones. This allowed me to put into practice my thoughts on how briefs should be written, walking the fine line between providing creative inspiration and being overly prescriptive.

Agencies are used to having to wade through opaque, unfocused and unresolved client briefs, so it was gratifying that this one received very positive feedback from all involved. After pitches from a small selection of excellent agencies, we awarded the business to Droga5. There are exciting developments in the pipeline for the new Bowers & Wilkins, running hand in hand with the task of unifying two very different corporate cultures. If any agency has the strategic and creative skills required to meet the challenge, it will be Droga5.

Redefining a brand for today

What do you think of when you think of SodaStream? Do you think of it as a brand perfectly positioned to provide an answer to the critical environmental issue of plastic bottle waste, as people increasingly choose sparkling water as a palatable way to drink the water they need to be healthy?

Or do you think of this?


1970s SS

The opportunity for SodaStream is significant and, through an idea generation workshop, qualitative positioning development research and subsequent quantitative concept testing, all designed and executed by Movement, we identified a cut-through positioning that will help the brand maximise its relevance to today’s consumer. I can’t wait to see the campaign that results.

  • “Thanks again for today – we all really enjoyed the [workshop] session and the team has been singing your praises and raving about how well facilitated the session was!”
  • “Thanks so much for yesterday, it was really interesting and the proposed concept [coming out of the qualitative research] is a really exciting one.”

What, no ads?

The qual for SodaStream continued a trend in the shifting balance of Movement’s projects towards strategic development research. In 2017, 80% of Movement’s research projects concerned strategy development, and even the creative development projects had a significant strategic dimension. An unfortunate side effect of this is that there isn’t much to display in Movement’s shop window. However, four creative campaigns have seen the light of day.

The Tesco Ireland brand campaign was the product of no fewer than four stages of diagnostic, strategic and creative development research with consumers and staff.

  • “Thank you for all your help with this. You really kept us on the straight and narrow. It was great having you on the journey.”
  • “We really couldn’t have landed it as well without all of your input so thank you very much indeed! It’s been so great having you on board throughout!”

Family still

Pernod Ricard commissioned me to run groups in the USA and Ireland to develop a new international campaign for Powers Whiskey. Although these two countries have very different whisky cultures, the research helped the client and its Dublin-based agency, Rothco, pinpoint a core proposition and define a creative direction that would resonate in both markets.

  • “Thanks for a great job today. Lots of clarity and direction for the team here and at Rothco.”

Powers The Boldest 48 Sheet ROI

Ireland was my second home for much of last year, just as in 2016. As well as working on Tesco and Powers, I handled strategic development research for the Irish National Tourism Development Authority, Failte, and creative development for Irish National Lottery’s Lottogame, which promises to result in a fabulous campaign.

  • “Thanks for all your work. Great to hear a researcher who actually gets insight!” (on Failte)
  • “Great debrief. Huge amount to think about. Really great that we got to an emotionally powerful territory… everyone is very pleased.” (on Failte)
  • “That was a fantastic piece of work; not only for the way you ran the groups, but the way you really added value. It’s far exceeded our expectations. Thank you.” (on Lotto)

36 business flights in one year may be small beer if you work for an international research company; but it’s a fair few when you are a freelancer whose business focus is the UK!

What do have jogging mums, borrowed dogs and Welsh jeans have in common with a Sharp Side Part?

The other campaign that has emerged into the light of day is for Facebook for Business. I love B2B research. The relationship between corporate culture and the people who run and work in a business is a rich and fascinating topic and one that is poorly understood by many comms agencies. This project involved developing a campaign to help SMEs appreciate the potential of Facebook as a tool for business growth. I had the privilege of talking to some inspiring business owners who have seen their lives transformed by using Facebook for Business to promote their start-ups, such as Hiut Denim, This Mum Runs, BorrowMyDoggy and Kings Barbers Club. Moving on to talk with groups of small business owners in the UK (not France because, as George W Bush told us, “The problem with the French, is that they don’t have a word for entrepreneur”), the research endorsed the strategic thinking behind the campaign and provided detailed support to reinforce its communication.

Facebook Let's Get to Work 2018

The new campaign has gone live with some evolved creative but remains true to the fundamental strategy, and Facebook was hugely appreciative of the human insight that the research was able to bring to what is still a very technically driven culture.

  • “This is gold; hugely rich information for us, really valuable.”

Is it really 30 years?

So, 2017 marked 30 years since I made the leap from ad agency account management into the world of qualitative research. Today I feel hugely fortunate to have a job that I find endlessly stimulating and to work with smart and supportive clients, as well as to be so busy that I don’t get to review of 2017 until it’s 3 months into 2018! Like any good reality show, it’s been an ‘Amazing Journey’: I’ve learnt so much, and every week I learn more. As I head into my 4th decade in the business, I hope to share some of this in further posts this year.

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The 6 fundamentals of effective creative development research


Research is often blamed for the destruction of great creative ideas. And to an extent it’s true: the wrong type of research, undertaken with the wrong aims and executed by the wrong people, can be disastrous. But, handled in the right way, research can make a big contribution to the development of great creative ideas. What is needed to get it right?

1          The right context

Research should never be used as a substitute for judgment or to ‘make’ a decision.

Too often, research is simply a hoop to jump through, or it’s done so that marketing has something to “cover its arse” if things don’t turn out well. This is nonsense. Any member of the marketing team who shirks responsibility for poor campaign performance by saying “The research said it would work” should be fired – you don’t employ people to “do what research says”, but to think and make judgments. Similarly, research should not be used to resolve a disagreement, be it between the client and agency or within the marketing team.

The role for creative development research is to help the client/agency team understand how the ideas are working and hence how they could be optimised in order to deliver fully against their objectives. This applies whether you are researching one idea or several. It’s not a “beauty contest” and you’re not trying to “pick a winner”.

So the context is critical. To get the most out of development research, there needs to be a shared desire on the part of agency and client to learn.

2          The right objectives

It is essential that development research has objectives that it can realistically achieve.

Development research doesn’t tell us what will happen, or what to do; it’s not predictive (nor is quantitative pre-testing, but that’s another story). Respondents can’t tell us what they will do; they can’t even tell us what they think – only what they think they think, which isn’t the same thing.

While development research can tell us the potential of an idea for engagement and how integral the brand appears to be, it cannot tell us how good the branding or impact will be in the finished advertising. Nor is development research in any way the ‘real world’. It’s a lab. Attempts to make it closer to the ‘real world’ are misguided, and often backfire.

But none of this makes creative development research any less valid or valuable. It’s the best way we have yet found to gather the depth of understanding that can enable us to create informed hypotheses about how the finished advertising might work.

The research objectives should reflect this. We are not ‘measuring’ or ‘evaluating’. We are exploring how people process the idea so that we can form a view on how it can best be developed to achieve its objectives.

3          The right methodology

The specific methodology needs to tailored to the needs of the project.

However, more often than not, the stimulating environment of good ‘old fashioned’ face-to-face group discussions remains the best context in which to generate the rich feedback that enables us to understand how ideas are working.

The way in which the creative ideas are explored can be tailored according to the nature of the ideas, with different lines of questioning being adopted for whether they are intended to drive empathy or identification, or work through ‘persuasion’, for example. We can easily provide respondents with scope for non-verbal responses too, where appropriate.

Some clients worry about vocal or opinionated individuals dominating the discourse, but simple Private Response techniques easily overcome this issue.

4          The right stimulus material

I spend a lot of time working with clients and agencies to ensure we are using the right type of stimulus material: material that allows respondents to process the idea as intended, rather than respond to the stimulus.

I have written about this extensively elsewhere, so I will keep his brief. The role of the stimulus is to convey the idea as faithfully to respondents as possible, and this means that the nature of the stimulus may well need to vary from one idea to next. One implication of this is that, in the case of TV, the idea that all the stimulus you are using to explore different ideas must be to same level of finish is nonsense.

Often, less is more. I have found that storyboards and key frames often obscure rather than clarify comprehension of a TV script, and that a vividly written narrative description creates in respondents’ minds a much more faithful impression of the finished ad than a bunch of Magic Marker boards. But, even with narrative scripts, one has to work very hard  on refining the narrative, in order to take out extraneous distractions or, for example, avoid elements that give the game away earlier than the ‘rug pull’ that would occur in the finished film.

To be able to recommend the most appropriate stimulus material and the best way to explore ideas, the researcher must fully understand the ideas they are researching. This means interrogating any previous research as well as getting under the skin of the strategy and the creative brief.

What it should also mean is talking to the creative teams who have come up with the ideas. This sounds like heresy to many and, despite my best efforts, happens all too rarely. And yet, whenever I have managed to make it happen, I have always found it absolutely invaluable, giving me a greater understanding of the idea, how best to convey it, and where the parameters for development lie.

5          The right TIME

Ideally, creative development research should be done when there is still time to fail!

There is little point commissioning research when you don’t have the time to act on the findings. It may be that the creative idea is fundamentally flawed or, worse still, that the strategy isn’t right, necessitating a rebrief. But even if this isn’t the case, you still need to leave enough time to respond to the guidance emerging from the research, in order to optimise the creative work before moving forward to production.

6          The right researcher

Finally, these principles mean nothing without a researcher who understands them and has the skills and conviction to apply them.  The right person would probably be a researcher who has worked with creative ideas for over 30 years and blends creative sensitivity with strategic understanding to provide crystal clear development guidance.

Any suggestions…?

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