Research: Friend or foe in the creative process?

Mark Hobart
By Mark Hobart | 20 March 2023
Mark Hobart

Mark Hobart, Managing Partner, TRA Melbourne

Negativity about the perceived tension between research and creativity is not uncommon. It’s often thought that you shouldn’t include a public perspective in the creative development process and some believe research stifles creativity – and there's merit to this argument.

Research can be a double-edged sword. Used ineffectively or at the wrong time, research can indeed kill good creative (and give research a bad name in the process!)

However, when done right and combined with an understanding of people and context, good market research can support and nurture creative ideas, revealing new insights and lead to even more impactful and effective campaigns, that truly connect with people.

The key to success is strategically incorporating research into the creative development process, without compromising the creative idea.

It's time to reframe our thinking and see research as an asset to creativity, not a liability.

Timing is Crucial

Timing is everything when it comes to creative research.

Early research is ideal for identifying market gaps and tensions and unearthing powerful insights to help inspire the creative idea.

Mid-stage research is perfect for exploring creative concepts and refining them before going into production.

Late-stage research is ideal for evaluating the impact of the campaign and optimizing performance.

Throughout the entire process, research can be a powerful tool to settle subjective disputes among stakeholders - and focus on the development and execution of a powerful idea that truly hits the mark.

Setting Clear Objectives

It might sound obvious but setting clear research objectives is key to unlocking useful insights. Without clear objectives, research can surface irrelevant data that helps no one and muddies the waters. Worse still, it can kill good ideas.

The research objectives will depend on the stage of the creative development process. Here is where I completely agree with the concern that many creatives and planners have about research stifling creativity: Asking consumers if they like an ad concept is not helpful, and the answer to that question should certainly not be what the decision to progress an idea should be made on.

Put simply, the public don’t have the ability to judge a creative idea, particularly in the early stages of the creative process. At that stage the ideas are conceptual and nowhere near a finished advert. Asking the wrong questions, such as any variation of “Do you like this ad?”, is counter-productive – there is simply no compelling evidence that appeal alone is a useful measure of creative effectiveness.

Instead of asking people to judge or critique a creative idea, the research questions should support the development of the idea. Ask the right questions,  such as: what’s the intended message? How is the message relevant to you? What’s new about the idea? How does this an idea fit with the brand? - will prove far more insightful.

A good researcher can prioritise the measures which marketing science tell them is driving the mental availability of a brand: brand distinctiveness, differentiation from other advertising and salience (recall of brand and message) - especially as related to category entry points.

Building in human understanding

Having clear objectives and asking the right questions is necessary, but not sufficient. Humans are complex, and simply taking feedback on a creative idea from humans at face value is destined to ruin a good idea.

True insight comes by understanding context. Good research practice is to overlay what people say with both the cultural context that shapes the audience’s beliefs and attitudes, and the psychological principles shaping their behaviour in the research process context.

When the lenses of cultural insight and behavioural science are applied to research, the insights around the creative ideas are far more powerful and helpful for creative refinement.

Collaboration is Key

Building a respectful relationship between the creative agency and the research agency is also a critical variable.

By working collaboratively and with mutual respect, both parties can ensure the research is conducted with a clear understanding of the creative objectives; where both parties are invested in the success of the campaign, while remaining clear about their respective roles in the process.

The Bottom Line

Market research is not a roadblock to creativity - it's a tool for unlocking new insights and enhancing creative ideas. By using research strategically, setting clear research objectives, applying an understanding of human influences and building a culture of collaboration between the creative and research agencies, there are only upsides in the effectiveness of the resulting campaign.

Research is a powerful asset when used effectively after all isn’t the ultimate dream to create campaigns that are both creatively bold and connect with the people the brand is aiming to address.

comments powered by Disqus