Research: Friend or Foe?

Oh come on—of course research is our friend.

But some folks (particularly creative types) think of market research as a dastardly plot conceived by zombie hordes of humorless quants on a mission to destroy everything that is vibrant and alive in creative commercial communication.

Why does anybody think this?

Well, one theory is that these people are full of themselves. If I may ascend my deluxe model hardwood soapbox for just a moment, allow me to emphatically declare (using my double-stitched, Corinthian leather megaphone) that any communicator with a license to write embraces research as a gift from the gods of marketing.

Good research does not kill good ideas.

To put it another way: If an idea seems promising at first, but then dies because research reveals that it would not resonate with the target audience—well, that idea deserved to die. Come up with another one!

Has it ever occurred that a genuinely brilliant idea got sidelined because a data-dazed researcher didn’t grasp the idea’s awesomeness? Yes, this has happened. And we in the creative community mourn those fallen concepts every single day, in a special ceremony we don’t tell anybody else about. So act like you never heard about this, because you’re not supposed to know.

But much more often, research provides the essential raw material from which interesting communications are crafted.

As Houdini knew, you do your best work in chains.

The restrictions that research can introduce to the process of coming up with, say, a brand idea or a web video aimed at a tightly-defined audience—these restrictions are, paradoxically, liberating. We’ve all heard of the proverbial blank page that has stricken terror into writers since the days of papyrus scrolls. Well, the blank page is scary because there are just too many ways to fill it up. The creative imagination considers the infinite possibilities, and freezes.

When a researcher says “See this conceptual direction? And this one? Don’t go there. It won’t work,” a wise ideator breathes a sigh of relief. Good! Now I’ve only got to deal with 2.2 billion possible ideas, instead of, you know, infinity.

Good research versus evil research.

There is one kind of research that yields poor results. This is the kind in which a moderator presents, say, a storyboard for a television commercial to a panel of 10 people rigorously selected for their unique ability to desire $100 plus free snacks. The panel is asked to analyze something they have never, in their time on earth, spent a moment analyzing. They are asked to respond to a crude approximation of a spot—represented by drawings and a script, perhaps, or maybe with assembled stock footage. We should not expect a woman who works at a payroll processing company to be able to imagine the emotions evoked by a powerfully directed video.

In my long career I have spent many hours behind the one-way mirror, observing the behavior of the Legion of Free Snackers. To be fair, much of what I heard was quite useful. Open-ended questions about a category or brand can reveal things about the target’s predilections that you might never have guessed. I recall, for example, attending a series of focus groups in cities across America, learning that even rich people sometimes stay at Motel 6, and they have their reasons.

But the same people who enlightened me about their motivations for choosing the plain-but-perfectly-fine motel were also presented with some radio commercials written by my talented friend and colleague, David Fowler. These spots went on to become the first of a now-legendary radio campaign that drove millions of customers to Motel 6, and which is still charming radio listeners decades after being conceived. It’s surely one of the most successful campaigns ever. And yet, in the context of a sterile focus group room—even though stocked with M&Ms aplenty!—the assembled commentators rejected the soon-to-be famous radio commercials. They didn’t like voice talent Tom Bodett, nor his unfunny (to them) observations.

Research shows I should end this blog now.

I could go on, and I will surely do so in another post. But my good buddies in research tell me your interest is probably flagging at this point. Am I bitter? A little. I would like to go on. But if I want you to ever pay attention to me again, I will abide by the advice of my data-obsessed colleagues.