Here I am doing whatever the inverse of sticking it to The Man is, sitting on a beach just up the way from Arambol, which the India edition of Lonely Planet describes as being the place where the hippy 60s finally decided to hide after being chased out of San Francisco and Carnaby Street. I am reading about how better to sell stuff – in your face hippies. Basically I’m Don Draper in that scene where he goes out in Greenwich Village with his mistress and her beatnik friends – only significantly less well dressed, less suave and less attractive.
Anyway, aside from the well known Ogilvy title I am seen reading above, I also found the time to get through the second half of this collection of Stephen King’s musings (this one, not this one) which I’d started a while back and not had the time to plough through. I’d say it’s pretty essential reading for anyone involved in brands, advertising and research – King is best known for inventing Account Planning (although Stanley Pollitt got there at a similar time from a different direction) but he was also ahead of his time in quite a few other ways. It’s a chastening/infuriating read at times for someone as intimately involved in quant pre-testing as me – but broadly King was passionate in his advocation of research and a radical and avant garde voice regarding its intelligent use.
This is certainly a text I’ll return to in future posts, in particular, I think there may be parallels between the problems creative agencies were facing which Account Planning set out to solve and some of the future of MR soul-searching we’re currently going through. In this post, though, I’m interested in King’s assertion that we should be seeking research that inspires rather than research that directly instructs decisions in the chapter ‘Applying Research to Decision Making’.
Aside from the obvious hyperbole of blaming the decline of Britain’s share of world exports over 30 years (at least in part) on the misuse of research (a fairly brave thing to do at the 30th anniversary conference of the MRS – can’t imagine there was such a forceful challenge to research’s use at #res10), the paper reveals, in King’s inimitable gentle, considered style, a number of home truths (he tip-toes up to you, then hands you an atom bomb). The theme of the conference was essentially how research can better influence decisions and in that context King delivered this polemic:
It seems to me that the researcher must be seen as an expert on What is, not what to do about it. Despite the demand for him to produce results that in effect take decisions, we should insist that his real role is to interpret and bring to life what goes on in the world. He cannot possibly know enough about all the other factors that lie behind decisions to be justified in advising marketing people what to do.
Even today this is fairly counter to what many clients are asking us to do – but I think there is an important distinction between attempting to influence decision-makers (i.e. being one of the factors King mentions that marketing people can use to inform decisions) and attempting to direct them (i.e. assuming we are the only, or even primary factor they should consider). I think the unerring and unending focus on actionability in research leads us ever closer to the latter.
There is a second problem here, which is central to King’s argument. This pursuit of actionability makes it more likely that research findings will focus on the negatives and kill inspiration and innovation rather than celebrate positives and drive new ideas through. The reason for this is that it feels much more ‘actionable’ if you’re saying ‘these bits are broken, this is how you need to fix it’ than it is to say ‘these bits are brilliant, run with them’. There is a sense with the latter that you’ve added less value.
This was brought home to me in my own work recently. I asked Anupama Wagh-Koppar, one of the daughters of King’s Account Planning revolution at JWT, to come and talk to the team about the creative development process, how different agency roles contributed to it and how research helps. It was a really useful presentation, particularly for the junior members of the team who would do a lot of Link but may not be aware of how much investment has been made by the creative agency before the ad even gets that far. At the end of the session I had asked Anupama what one thing we could do better to aid creative development. Her answer was that we need to talk more about an execution’s successes.
This led me to think about the sort of presentations we typically write. Of course, positives aren’t ignored, we would always talk about what has worked well – but in the desire to ensure decision makers know how to ‘fix’ any issues that arise, the diagnosis of what hasn’t worked is typically deeper. Comprehension for example, if lacking, is diagnosed in great depth to see if we can iron out any misunderstandings. If comprehension is good we will skip over it in seconds – we’re unlikely to look in detail at exactly why this execution has been well understood when others haven’t – the assumption being that this is fairly obvious – of course, if it was obvious, we wouldn’t ever have a comprehension issue. Anupama’s assertion was that for a creative team, the ‘fix’ is as likely to be a function of accentuating what worked and why than changing or circumventing what hasn’t worked.
Even the much celebrated idea that our findings should be ‘issue-focussed’ implies that we are looking for negatives and how to fix them, not looking for positives and how to celebrate them. I don’t mean this post to be unduly pessimistic, there’s plenty of inspirational work out there – but are we doing it often enough and are we successfully celebrating it when we do? As King had it almost 20 years ago we should be ‘preaching the values of occasional beautiful research’. For the most part, I’m not sure we are.