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Market Research feature

By The Drum | Administrator

November 8, 2002 | 8 min read

It’s nothing unusual to overhear conversations about advertising. Whether it’s in the supermarket, the pub or sitting on the number seven, the group collectively known as Joe Public will quite often turn their conversations towards their favourite ad campaign of the moment. Is it funny? Is it catchy? Is the six-pack-enhanced male model gorgeous?

This is hardly surprising. In fact it’s pretty much the whole point.

There is one question that won’t be asked all that often, however, and it’s the question that every marketing director must have before the ad is approved: does the campaign actually work?

Needless to say, even with the creative talent in the advertising industry, mistakes can be made. Just because the creative team at your agency is proud of the wittiest ad they’ve ever created doesn’t mean it’s right for your brand. Which is where the world of market research comes in.

Part of the less glamorous yet very important behind-the-scenes stages of marketing, market research can be crucial in deciding which creative concept should be rolled out and presented to your target audience.

But, as clients wishing to research a concept before and after it runs, marketing directors are faced with a tough decision: should they trust their advertising agency to research its own creative concepts, or should they appoint an independent research specialist?

One of the main arguments for appointing an external market research company has been the possible bias towards the agency’s favourite creative concept. The issue of whether the creative department will ever be able to pressure a planning director into running with an ad that may not be the best for the client.

Jim Law, managing director of Market Research UK, says: “The difficulty is that advertising agency planners have suffered in the past, due to crude research, so they have taken it upon themselves. From a neutral point of view, they can have an effect on the input. As long as ad agencies are allowed to evaluate their own ideas there’ll almost always be a doubt about whether it’s impartial.”

This is refuted by those on the agency side of the fence, however.

Clive Rand, Strategic Development Director at Brahm, says that an agency should be allowed to research its own concepts, providing it does so with integrity. He says: “I think if an agency can keep its research function at arm’s length and maintain its integrity then it’s fair enough. I know in our case we are a member of the Market Research Society and we have to be completely upright and honest, but it all depends on whether or not you can retain that level of integrity.”

Others on the advertising agency front argue the long-term futility of fixing research. Clients, they say, could spot it a mile away and, needless to say, being caught lying by your clients is not terribly productive.

“At the end of the day, the goal is to produce effective campaigns for the client and we’ve found that market research helps us do that,” states Fiona Mitchell, planning director at Propaganda. “If we’re going to do market research and then not listen to it, what’s the point in doing it? It’s not in anybody’s interests to make it not an accurate reflection of the marketplace.”

There is also a valid argument for the ad agency to conduct the initial research. The flip side of the research being done by the ad agency is that it will have a stronger grasp of the creative process. If a campaign needs tweaking during the research the agency’s creative team are there to brainstorm fresh concepts and/or develop the existing ones.

Mitchell, at Propaganda, explains. “What we’ve found is that at the early stage it is useful for us to be involved with the research. It allows us to get a feel for the project. What we do then is what we call the ‘Propaganda Principle’. We sit down and draw things from the research. I’ve worked on the client side and I’ve seen that the ‘so what’ stage is quite often left on the shelf.”

Mitchell is backed up by Katrina Michel, the head of planning at CheethamBell JWT, who says: “Different clients like different things. Some like to sit in on focus groups that we arrange, some have global guidelines as to how their research is carried out and some want another opinion. One of the problems with having another opinion is all the work gets taken out of our hands, and we are unable to tweak the campaign on an ongoing basis throughout the research.”

Even the market research agencies themselves are keen to point out that the early stages of research can be aided by ad agency involvement.

Anne-Marie McDermott, the managing director of Queastor Research, says that ad agencies are capable of researching concepts prior to the campaign running, but afterwards they should step back.

“I guess I’ve got mixed views on this. I think predominantly it depends on what stage you’re at and what you’re researching,” McDermott says. “I think for creative development there is a case for agencies doing it themselves, providing they have research people. I think when it comes to testing campaigns it’s far better for market research agencies to do it because it lends it that bit more credibility.”

John Ardern, managing partner of the Really Useful Research Company, agrees. He states: “At the stage where clients and agencies are exploring markets then, frankly, it doesn’t matter who does the research as long as it’s done right. When it’s the planning stages, as long as it’s the right calibre of person conducting the research, that’s OK. But when it comes to researching after a campaign, I believe that should be done by someone independent.”

The post-campaign research seems to be the most contentious issue. Market research agencies argue that having the advertising agency research how successfully its own campaign performed lacks credibility. At the end of the day, will an ad agency want to admit if its campaign has done badly?

Phil Rushfirth, head of quantitative research at Nunwood Consulting, thinks not.

“The most obvious case against an advertising agency evaluating their own campaigns is that of objectivity. Roster ad agencies may not want to jeopardise a client relationship by telling the client that a campaign has failed, whereas an independent market research agency will report back on its findings without bias. Specialism is another factor to consider in this debate. Do ad agency personnel really know how to design a research framework that guarantees sampling accuracy and statistical validity? Some think they do. A poorly executed research project undertaken by an ad agency can and should reflect negatively on the agency and the brand it is trying to track.”

Some ad agencies, on the other hand, maintain that the post-campaign research they carry out is a key part of their campaign strategy.

Huet & Co is one such agency. Client services director Jenny Norton says: “We tend to build data capture into our campaigns, sitting down with the client at the start of the process and agreeing clear objectives and result expectations. We place a lot of importance on our direct response ability and there is no advantage to us in pulling the wool over anybody's eyes. Our clients are often party to the inbound response information, supplying it to us.”

Rushfirth, at Nunwood, suggests the road to credibility lies with the ad agency and market research company working together. He says: “By actively encouraging independent research, a creative agency demonstrates a reassuring level of transparency in the work it has produced. Furthermore, when independent research verifies the success of a particular ad campaign, the endorsement of a third party is much stronger than that of a self-assessment method.”

At the end of the day, it is you, as the client, who decides who should conduct your research. When it comes to creating an advertising campaign, the ad agencies are the experts. At the same time, market research agencies clearly are the specialists in researching those campaigns while and after they run.

Perhaps the ideal solution is to involve both ad and market research agencies in the researching process. With both working together you should feel confident that your ads won’t just be funny, catchy and have gorgeous models in them, but they’ll actually work too.

And that can’t be a bad thing.


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