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.