This piece was written by Rich, and first appeared in Research Live in January, 2011
Glance over the shoulder of any commuter reading a self help book, and you’ll learn that the foundations of success in business and life are built in large part upon the strength of our relationships. So as well as reaching for the phone and making clumsy apologies to most of the people they’ve ever met, qualitative researchers should consider the relationships they have with clients and the ad agencies they use.
The client, their ad agency and the qual research team are supposed to work together to ensure the best possible campaign is created. But the relationships bonding this trio can fail to satisfy and, sadly, the qual researcher is the one typically left as the odd man out in this disappointing ménage à trois.
Ad agencies often pull in a different direction to qualitative research companies, and they’re not afraid to show it. The moments immediately after the research is conducted often reveal an ad agency’s indifference to qual. Let’s assume those in the viewing room actually found the time to watch the session rather than conducting an informal meeting about something else with their backs to the screen. If the research demonstrates that the ad ideas are on the right path, you might get a nod of appreciation. However, if the participants were grey with apathy, the complexion behind the screen will almost certainly be unappealing too. It doesn’t mean there was anything wrong with the research or the moderation – it might just be that the material you asked the audience to debate and assess wasn’t up to it. Nevertheless, you can expect to return to the viewing room just in time to hear a dismissive voice informing the client that this research (or for extra flair, all qual research) is basically a waste of time, and that the reason the ideas have not been well received is because consumers can’t be trusted to tell us what’s what when it comes to ads, qual researchers are invariably useless, the ad agency’s vision has gone over everyone else’s heads and ‘it’s all in the execution anyway’.
And it doesn’t end there. The research may culminate in a report full of genuine actionable insights and all the other sexy things that qual research should be packed with, and yet the negativity of the ad agency types remains relentless. They’re covering their backs and frustratingly, they’re probably doing it rather well. Even if the findings and recommendations are explained clearly and politely, the client seems unable or unwilling to challenge them. Why aren’t they pushing back? How is the ad agency able to wield such power when the client makes the decisions and holds the purse strings?
These clients haven’t truly bought into the need for qual research, otherwise they would have assessed the views of their audiences at the outset of the development of the campaign and continuously from there. Furthermore, the ad agency has to be a genuine part of the research. We need them to buy into our research as much as the client if all three parties are to work together to unlock consumer insight and create an ad campaign that will achieve its goals. If an ad agency is able to develop and test its ideas with consumers as they draft them they’ll stop viewing qual research as an irritant and be less likely to attempt to derail it. If we all get closer to the customers in the early phases of development, rushed research on shoddy ad concepts when it’s too late to make meaningful revisions would be most likely be avoided.
How things should be
I’d like qual research teams to be part of the debrief meetings in which the ad agency and the client discuss the implications of the research, which is not always the case. But we can’t really expect the ad agency to buy into the value of the research team via some hastily arranged groups as the campaign nears its launch – it’s not fair on them or anyone else. We need clients, and perhaps the industry as a whole, to start embracing innovative methodologies much more.
We read in industry magazines and hear at many client meetings that the focus group is on its last legs and has been for years, but I’m not sure I believe the hype. In reality, clients regularly turn down challenging methodologies in favour of the standard group option (which the research team only put in the proposal in case the client was too nervous to take a risk on anything a bit fresher).
Focus groups still have a valuable role to play and we shouldn’t dismiss the technique simply because it has been used for years. Nevertheless, if we want to gain ad agency buy-in and do better quality ad research, we should be engaging consumers in much more interesting ways, together, continuously and much earlier in the life of an ad campaign.