Advertising Research: The Loneliest Profession

Or, why the modern Don Draper needs a sidekick


Sure, it’s unlikely Don Draper could land an agency job today. Still, advertising is a practitioner-oriented field, and this has held true since the Mad Men era — it’s driven by the people who make it, not those who study it, or consume it. The result, a divide between academics and agencies.

The advertising researcher (i.e., market researcher) is the nerd lost in the middle.

For professors the problem starts at home, since determining what constitutes “the literature” of advertising in academia is extraordinarily difficult. Despite more than a hundred years of study, advertising remains a scattered and underdeveloped subject. Drawing on various frameworks of other, more established disciplines, advertising grounds itself in communication studies, psychology, sociology and more recently, neuroscience, too.

Without a foundation of its own, the field is condemned to borrowing theory in perpetuity (and it’s unclear when psychology will have its ink blots returned).

But academics aren’t the main issue, rather it’s the relationship between professors and creative directors. As it turns out, these groups don’t get along.

The theoretical distance between university halls and the avenues of New York is a real concern. Theories about how advertising works established by industry giants of 20th century such as Ogilvy, Bernays, Burnett (i.e., the inspiration for Don Draper) are now canonized on Madison Ave, but still haven’t been adopted by academia. Conversely, many in adland disagree with, or outright dismiss, the academic journals—as demonstrated primarily by the lack of Creative Director bylines, and their empty office shelves.

The “academician-practitioner gap” ends with the lack of understanding about adland theories, and vice versa. It starts, however, with a fundamental differences between why either side think and talk about advertising at all.

Like any good murder mystery, motivation is our way in. The ethos of academia colors the mindset driving the work, seeking to discover the beautiful, immutable regularities of the human psyche. This is fundamentally at odds with the industry point of view, which states simple, we’re here to make money for our clients and win awards.

Different motivations among those who study advertising (visual necessarily oversimplifies)

But, wait. There’s one more piece! The thing that ties this all together: people who buy stuff.

Enter the advertising researcher (and a bit of shameless self-promotion). Unfortunately, with non-descript titles like ‘business analyst’ we often sit alone in the metaphorical lunch room of adland. A lack of elbow patches keep us from brushing shoulders with professors at Harvard. The pocket protectors stifle invitations for black tie and bourbon at W+K.

And that’s just wrong. Not to invite myself to the party, but what I need to tell you is that I’ve brought cake. There’s untapped potential for bringing together the different perspectives of academic and creative by putting consumers at the center of the equation. And it’s us nerds who are best positioned to help make that happen.

In market research we think a lot about theory and we spend all day, every day with the consumer. Our role centers on the intersection truth and commerce. Specifically, the practical application of theory allows us to better understand the needs and wants of people who buy stuff. Or more simply, we interpret voice of the consumer.

Advertising researchers can serve as the voice of the consumer.

Indeed, practical application is the most significant barrier.

Many agencies find they have little practical use for “the literature” because the impact of the color yellow on consumer outcomes reads to them as BS. Further, copy writers and art directors tend to approach advertising as a craft rather than a discipline, placing process ahead of theory. Or at least that’s how they (usually) describe it.

From the researcher’s point of view, however, much of what goes down on Madison Avenue is indeed grounded in theory. At the core of practitioners’ theoretical framework rests something called “the mutation effect,” which asserts that advertising has long-term transformative effects on its audience, requiring advertisers to continually reinvent their tactics.

The advertiser places context at the center of their thinking. They claim that “even basic theoretical ideas about how advertising works must be reconsidered given the context of strategy, product category and time period” (Nyilasy & Ried 2009). The advertising researcher marries theory with context, and practitioners may use this point of view to yield more impactful more award winning results from the creative development process (i.e., a role similar to account planners).

Put more simply, the modern ad man or woman says “if you can’t give me something fresh that’s grounded in contemporary culture, I probably don’t care.” In this way our platonic-ideal of Don Draper is still very much alive and well. But, in today’s world, they might consider hanging out with us nerds a bit more, because we know this stuff and we don’t hesitate to share our notes.


I write about advertising and culture from the POV of an advertising analyst for the I Love Charts collection on Medium. More at languageofbrands.tumblr.com

First Article in series: “Warhol Was Wrong About Advertising & Art.”