Testing to destruction - Is creative development research helping or hurting your advertising?

Chrissy Blackburn
By Chrissy Blackburn | 29 January 2024
Chrissy Blackburn.

Consumer research at the creative development stage can be hugely valuable when it’s used to develop and strengthen creative ideas. But research in the wrong hands can be a deadly weapon.

That’s because even with the best intentions, many researchers are not equipped to do it.  And clients often rely on it to pick a winner.

Five things to consider when you next decide “we need to test it”:

1. Do you really need research?
What decision would you make if you couldn’t afford it or if there isn’t time? The answer will surely be staring you in the face. Or simply going through this exercise may provide you with more focus for the research and help you pose more specific questions for it to answer.

Ideally you will have done some research upfront and already know a lot about the target market, the job the advertising has to do and the environment in which it has to do it. Timing is everything.

2. It’s not a test
We’re not testing creative work, we’re studying consumers to gain a better understanding of how they are likely to respond to the advertising messages.

Asking consumers to give the ad a score out of 10 or asking them what they would likely do as a result of seeing this ad (narrative tape and storyboard) is an all-too-common research method and a dangerous practise when used as absolute measures to pick a winner.

Scores can be misleading. The boring, familiar ad wins hands down because it’s “informative and straight to the point and easy to understand”. The low scoring, funny ad just wasn’t that funny in a storyboard with a dry read narrative and the researcher concludes that the humour was “too sophisticated for this audience”. The polarising idea, they say, is “too risky”.

But with a few tweaks, it could have provided the cut through this product needed.

Forget the scores, use a skilled researcher that understands the language of creative ideas and adopt a learning rather than a testing mentality.

3. Use research stimulus that best executes the idea – even if that means comparing apples with pears
A “test-like” approach dictates that all material should be presented in the same format - apples with apples, so you don’t give one idea an unfair advantage.

But a storyboard may work for one idea and disadvantage another. A narrative tape can strip the magic out of the idea and it might not be the best way to bring it to life, especially if the idea relies on humour. How did the creatives explain the idea to the
client in the boardroom? Maybe do it just like that in the group room.

Each idea should be presented in the format that most clearly conveys it. This is not biasing the results, it’s simply helping consumers to understand how the commercial is meant to be.

4. Separate strategy, idea and execution – or risk throwing the baby out with the bath water

There are only three areas where communications goes wrong – strategy, idea or execution.
1. Strategy: are you saying the right thing to the right people?
2. Idea – is the idea bringing the strategy to life?
3. Execution – are there executional details that can be changed yet maintain the integrity of the idea?

A skilled researcher will understand the difference between idea and execution and be able to identify problems and opportunities to optimise the work. Relying on a score out of 10 on which idea consumers like best won’t help you do this.

Trust your creative agency
Many of today’s marketers appear to have lost confidence in creativity, hiding behind the focus group mirror hoping consumers will make the difficult decisions for them and the work, more often than not, suffers as a result.

Qualitative research is an aid to judgement, not a replacement for it. The consumer perspective is only one part of the information gathering process yet too many times it is used as the judge and jury.

Use the research to learn about your customers – for illumination not support. And trust your agency to provide guidance not just research fodder. Creativity is the ultimate differentiator for business so nurture it at all costs.

Chrissy Blackburn, Founder and MD of strategy consultancy West 82nd

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