Were now in the world of advertising? If anyone should know, it is Baysie Wightman. Ten years ago her legendary work on predicting teenage trends cemented the word “Coolhunt” into the marketing dictionary in America. It even surfaced here in Britain.
Today she has a new job. Her title is Director of Human Nature, a title bestowed on her by Arnold Worldwide of Boston, one of the world’s most innovative ad agencies, which has just scooped the global Volvo account. Wightman’s task is to get under the skin of advertising success in ways that have never been done before: to find out what makes people respond to an ad, even if they don’t know why they are responding.
In her previous existence, when the prestigious New Yorker magazine dubbed Wightman and her partner "The Lewis and Clark of Cool" after the 19th century trans-America explorers, she was working for Reebok, the sneaker company. Her marketing ‘exploration’ was largely grunt work, albeit far flung.
On behalf of Reebok, she took in cities as far apart as Seattle, Tokyo, London, Berlin, and New York sussing out what made teenagers buy the sneakers they did.
For the New Yorker article, laden with sneaker prototypes, she hopped into a cab - with a writer in tow - to test out the latest ideas with countless Harlem sneaker shops.
She also sussed out the key finding that kids didn't want multi-coloured sneakers with lots of gimmicks: they wanted authenticity. Her company brought back the Converse One Star from years earlier - and it became a major hit. Such was Wightman’s fame, that Danny De Vito optioned the New Yorker article as a movie, The Coolhunt.
Today, ensconced in Arnold’s head office in downtown Boston, Wightman is heading up an entirely new type of "Coolhunt". Arnold’s accounts include McDonald’s, Glaxo Smithkline, Fidelity Investments , Radio Shack, Vonage, the internet phone company and the Royal Bank-owned Citizens’ Bank, to name but six. They are the creme da la creme.
Her Director of Human Nature title is, according to the New York Post, the first such post in an American agency. Wightman’s task is to marry science to the traditional creative drive of an ad agency and hopefully in doing so, sail serenely over the all-consuming turbulence of today's media. In fact her core task hasn’t changed. Just as in the sneaker business, she wants to know exactly what is going on in consumers' brains. But this time she is calling in cognitive scientists, experts in neuroscience, psychology, linguistics, and ‘behavioral economists’ who focus on ‘choice set analysis’.
"There's a million ways to reach people now, and we want to be on top of that," says Wightman. "It requires a different type of consumer insight group to understand all the different targets and reach them. It used to be easy. If anything, agencies in the past erred on the side of being too general.
"The Department of Human Nature is in fact an evolution of a department we had at Arnold before called Brand Planning, which is a discipline in most ad agencies, account planning.
"But we now have the ability to know a lot more about how the brain works and that is where the science comes in.”
To illustrate how the scientists can give the creatives a kick-start, Wightman talks about one experiment, carried out elsewhere, where people were put on MRI scanners.
"They were given a glass of cola, without knowing the brand. As they drank it, you could actually see which part of the brain lit up. Then they were told their drink was actually a Coke - and a different part of their brain lit up. You could see what the brand name was doing to the brain. That's the sort of learning we want to bring in through this department."
Wightman has already started her own trial giving test volunteers MRI scans to asses the potential of going down this route before embarking on new campaigns.
“We have found out that people being tested don’t always give the right answer to their interviewers. They are not being dishonest. But their subconscious might be giving a different answer - which is picked up by their brain activity in the MRI scan - and this could guide their buying decision. For example, people may give ‘grown-up’ answers when in fact their brain activity indicates that deep down they are still reacting to certain stimuli as they did as kids. As for vegetarians shown a Big Mac, “you would be amazed in some cases at how their brain patterns light up.”
Overall, the research will be expensive, she believes, but worth it as she explains: "For example, teenage brains react differently from adult brains. They are still growing, so different parts of the brain are trying out new things to see what sticks.
"That's why teenagers are so fickle, so self -expressive. They are trying on new persona as their brains are growing.They process information in a different way from an adult. So we want to take that into account. We want our communications to work with the way their brain works."
Arnold has hired a cognitive scientist, Dr Lisa Haverty, and, says Wightman, she is already causing a stir in evaluating some ads by producing a score card for them.
Wightman says: "She looked at one ad for a financial services company and said, “I bet this will work much better with women”. We ran the ad with a data testing company and had them cut the ad with men and women - and she was right. Women gave it much higher scores."
The explanation, says Wightman: women's brains can process a lot of disparate information and make sense out of it: "Men don't want to be bothered with all that stuff. The fact that financial service ads were interpreted in different ways by men and women was a surprise. We didnt know that. The answer is to make separate commercials, depending on where the ad is going. We are also going to brief creatives, 'if your ad is targeting men, for example for a sports channel, don't load it up with information.”
An example of that was a Timberland ad for the European market, aimed at men who love the great outdoors. It showed a solitary man in a vast landscape. There are no words.
“Particularly online, we now go out with two ads for the same product, one targeting men and one targeting women.”
Wightman has no doubt that the advertising medium of the future is online.
"Right now I think YouTube.com is the fifth largest network here in the States after, NBC, CBS, ABC and Fox. People watch it all day long. The thing is that you could never reach people at their desk. Now at their desks they are clicking on YouTube and watching things. Smirnoff made this whole video specifically for YouTube about WASPS rapping. It's hilarious and it's been viewed about a million times by people who are exactly the target: every WASP is clicking on this. ”
The power of the internet is borne out by reseach instigated by Wightman on where young people are getting their daily doses of media. “The only medium to have customers throughout the day, from 8am to midnight, was the internet, with peaks at 8am, noon and 4 p.m. TV had an impressive solid block between 5pm and midnight but “real” newspapers had spotty coverage between 8am and 1pm and nothing thereafter.”
But fragmentation of the media, both in the UK and the USA, may not be all bad for advertisers, says Wightman.
"You can look it as a problem or you can look at as a great opportunity to tailor your message exactly to the person you want to receive it. By tailoring the message precisely to match your target customer, he or she is going to welcome it, not block it out. So that is an opportunity. "
She envisages as many as eight different commercials, finely tailored, for any one promotion. Expensive for the client? "Yeah. But mass marketing is a blunt instrument. We would rather be successful. This is a return-on-investment culture nowadays. The great days of ‘50 per cent of your advertising works and 50 per cent doesn’t work - and you don't which is which’ - are over. Everything is becoming measurable.”
People zapping out the TV ads with TIVO is another problem for the modern TV advertiser. Wightman has an answer;
“One thing we've done is making the product name visible as you are going though the TV ads. As you are fast-forwarding through the ads you can still see them."
"A lot of our targets read newspapers online. In financial services we still use newspaper, but it's not a huge amount of advertising. Magazines are good but expensive. Basically the heavy lifting of the future in advertising is going to be online. The website can tell a story. Once you have got them there, you can engage them."
But it's not all over yet for traditional media.
"In a recent study on where people got their news from, we were surprised that 70 per cent of respondents still got it from TV. The next highest, 13 per cent, was the internet and newspapers were at 12 per cent.
But the internet has a great added advantage, one that Wightman believes will be crucial. "Within the population we have always had these sub-cultures. Now we have the tools to reach sub-cultures and, because we can, clients want us to do just that.
"We can send a message that's going to reach them perfectly. That's why we bringing in the ISTS - scient-ists, anthropolog-ists, and behavioral econom-ists - to help us understand how the customers’ brains work.
"A big place in media planning is now channel-planning: how to actually reach the consumer. We can now send a message to somebody at four in the afternoon that says, 'Have you thought about what you are having for dinner tonight?”.
“You can do that. You should do that - online or in the elevator, on the way out of the office. It’s said that the whole nation's food decisions hang in the balance between four and five. So we can send the right message at the right time to a narrowly-defined party . It's still more art than science but it is becoming more scientific."
Chris Colbert, is chief marketing officer at the agency search consultancy Pile and Company in Boston. He says: "I think the more science we can appropriately integrate into advertising which is ostensibly an art, the better. Historically, advertising hasn't been scientific enough. The operative part of that is appropriate. If you over-science this thing, it sucks the emotion out of the system -- and what sells is emotion. It's a balancing act.” .
Wightman's grandmother, Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman, was a giant in the world of women's tennis. She won an Olympic gold medal, a Wimbledon doubles title, 44 national tennis championships and founded the Wightman Cup .
If Wightman brings this latest Coolhunt off, it will be game set and match once more to the Wightmans.