Mention the word ‘research’ in the creative department of an ad agency and you may hear the sound of swords being drawn.
Historically, creative people have often feared and scorned research for misunderstanding them and their ideas. In the glory days of TV advertising, everyone had a story to tell about the best ad idea ever, being shot down in research.
I remember when HHCL released the famous Tango Orangeman ad in the early 90s, there was lots of chatter around town that it had bombed in research but luckily valiant admen prevailed and the ad aired. I’m not sure the story is true – I don’t even know if the ad was researched – but that was the mood back then. And the ad’s still worth a watch for a laugh.
Times have changed but the two camps often still circle each other cautiously. Why is this? It doesn’t really make sense.
Creativity is all about questioning and challenging. Questioning the world around us and the way people think and behave. Challenging the status quo. Looking for alternative interpretations and answers. Presenting thinking in new light. Creativity when put to commercial purposes, such as advertising, is all about questions. As the legendary Robin Wight of WCRS advised, “interrogate the product until it confesses to its strength”. That’s research.
In trying to define research, I think most would agree that it’s logical, precise and analytical. People talk about it needing to be representative – if it’s not, it’s anecdotal, and suddenly it isn’t valid research anymore. It has to exist in a rigid framework. Creativity, however, is intuitive, subjective, impossible to define and measure – so as a process, perhaps the opposite of research. But is process important? To a point, but really it’s about the results.
Research has the power to catalyse creativity and point it in the right direction. We worked with a fitness brand on a new app some time ago. The client came to us before they’d confirmed exactly how the app would work – which was the right time to ask questions. We kicked off with some research around fitness apps in general: what worked, how people used them, and perhaps the most important question: ‘how do you know when you’re making progress towards your fitness goals?'.
We thought we’d hear back about lots of sophisticated technical features and benefits, how the apps motivate and measure performance. What we actually heard was that the key measure of all apps in the category was either a set of bathroom scales or a mirror. From app to analogue! That little leap of insight became the brief and springboard for creative thinking about how the app would really work. Without the research, the product, and brand, would probably have tried to outsmart competitive offers at a tech level.
The creative world shouldn’t fear research. Research is a great tool. When it goes wrong it’s because of human error. It’s not about simply asking punters if they think a product or an ad is any good. How can they be expected to understand all the target audience and commercial objective nuances that lead to a particular idea?
On top of that, any normal sane person is going to be a bit suspicious when stuck in a windowless room and interrogated about a lemonade ad by some bloke in thick glasses. Done right, however, research reveals insight, not ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answers. And insight is the perfect partner for creativity.