Lessons about research in advertising from a bike crash and a kebab

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Picture this.

You’re on a hugely inefficient Dutch bike with a comically large basket. It’s a Wednesday lunchtime and it’s absolutely pissing it down.

You’re going at decent speed: it’s Whitechapel High Street. Too fast, you’ll skid. Too slow, and the road rage directed at you would have you feel as though you’re on the wrong side of natural selection.

Completely seduced by a hefty and heavily-sauced kebab, a large teenage boy steps into the road. It was your green light.

Front brakes slam.

In the next few seconds, which feel like an eternity, you experience the wonder of flight. One of those moments that lasts a few seconds but feels like forever – like going through customs, even when you don’t have contraband. And then you land, with absolutely no grace, partially on the road, partially on the kerb, and partially in the teenager’s kebab that he was so enjoying. There’s a bit of blood, but it’s mostly orange burger sauce on your not-so-ladder-free tights.

The next thing you hear is the boy’s disappointment through the medium of a groan as he looks down at what was his lunch.

If you’ve imagined this much this far, then you can imagine what I experienced the other week.

What was strange was that in that very moment, I didn’t feel relieved that the boy hadn’t been knocked over; that I wasn’t run over by the van who swerved out of my flight path, or smug I had a helmet on and nothing was broken. Those things all came later.

Instead, I was overwhelmed with guilt for coming in between a boy and his kebab. Now, that seems completely daft, but it was my gut reaction. A gut reaction I’d never anticipate.

It reminded me of an interesting QI tidbit I’d come across. That is: the concept of the alpha male, popularized by wildlife biologist David Mech in the 60s, is a fallacy. Why? Mech studied captive wolves rather than wild ones. When you do experiments on packs of wolves in captivity, normal behaviour goes completely out of the window.

The point here though: this analogy translates onto how we come to our conclusions - normal behaviour ceases to ensue in controlled environments. (And in case you were wondering, it turns out that the heads of a wolf pack are simply the parents.)

In a controlled environment, the thought of coming between a boy and his kebab would be the last thing I’d anticipate worrying about. In the wild, things were different. Experiences tell you more about your System One than a survey does.

We can resolve this by getting up from behind our desks and finding people more organically. People actually love telling you about how they think and feel when they’ve not been lured into a strange conference room in Skegness, under the pretence of £25 and some plain digestives.

It’s not always easy finding people; creativity isn’t just reserved for those with the word in their job titles.

Once upon a time, I did an MPhil thesis on the history of the East London curry house in 1971. I needed to find men who had been in these curry houses around then, and I needed their memories. I tried Bangla Facebook groups, emailing known Bangladeshi authors, loitering around East London Mosque for the Imam, and asking men who currently ran curry houses. I wasn’t very successful.

With the threat of failure, I downloaded Tinder and hung round East London for a while. With undertones of ‘I’m really here for your dad’, I met some lovely Bangladeshi suitors, who eventually did introduce me to relatives. It uncovered far more than I could have thought of by myself, and was far more interesting than trying to spin a story out of a few newspaper clippings. Beyond the satisfaction I got collecting it all, the direction of my output was much better.

Off the back of the split nature of London vs. the rest of England regarding the outcome of the EU referendum, Ogilvy & Mather, from 2016-2018, launched ‘Get Out There.’ It was an initiative where planners and account people got on trains to places of statistical interest to explore (eg. Boston, Lincolnshire, which had the highest number of Brexit leavers, to Mid-Ulster, so great that 93% of their population have either returned or never left). Their findings lived on a blog you can find here. Sadly, it's now inactive.

The best ideas aren’t the ones that get made for others in the industry to marvel over. They’re the ones that get talked about in the street, at work, in the pub or in your homes. If we never leave our desks, how can we hope to connect with people, whose behaviour we’re being paid to influence? You never know: we might discover something new. We might also spend 30 minutes discussing the price of the Freddo bars with Edith from Eccles, who still eats them despite her diabetes.

Before my bike accident, I was always absolutely certain that a positive correlation existed between those who voted for Brexit, and those who dislike cyclists. But things do exist outside our petri dishes, and when we experience things and talk to people, we get out of our old way of thinking. I fear that the boy I ran into might just dislike cyclists by the virtue of his experience. Hopefully, he takes a bit more care while crossing roads, and saves kebabs for the dinner table.

Sara Barqawi is a strategist at M&C Saatchi. She tweets on @SaraBarqawi

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