Creative Development: Why Planners Should Love Research

‘We want to test the concepts in qual’ — every planners dreaded words. But they shouldn’t be. In the School of Planning’s most recent talk on creative development, Steve Lacey of SLS came in to defend the purpose of research, making the point that it’s not there to destroy, it’s there to help the work succeed, if used correctly. As planners, we should love qual research — it’s the biggest bridge we’ve got as the agency to the consumer, and afterall, our purpose is to give the consumers point of view, and always keep their needs in mind. The greatest planners have always put qual ahead of everything else, and it’s more important now than ever, with clients increasingly questioning whether London agencies understand the consumer outside of the M25. With the recent EU referendum results highlighting the ever growing north/south divide, it is more crucial now than ever that we truly understand the consumers needs.

Steve empathetically started by stating that he actually hates creative development research, when it’s done badly, which unfortunately is a lot of the time. Bad research mixes the creative idea with the execution, and sees the researcher playing ‘the grand strategist’, or even creative, giving their interpretation rather than allowing the consumer to give theirs, turning it into a political game. As such, some of the greatest ads have failed research, from Guinness Surfer, to Cadbury’s Gorilla. It turns creative development research into the agency swear word, making planners defensive, suits fearful, and creatives angry. It’s not the creative ego that makes people nervous, it’s the process — we end up asking the consumer to become the judge, jury, and executioner, creating a traffic light approach to research, which in turn makes qual like Millward Brown testing.

Steve then went on to highlight the problems, and solutions, to poor creative development research. Firstly, the client mindset. Clients are becoming more and more conservative — there are less and less clients who want to be famous, and more who want to be accountable, and as such they are becoming safer and using research as an insurance policy, looking for consensus from the consumer. But consensus is bad, it shifts the focus from idea to execution, and removes the drama, polarity and tension that often makes the best ideas great. Furthermore, we are increasingly being pushed on time, with ideas being researched late in the process, squeezing time to make amendments and let the research inform the scope of the idea. The consumers are treated as the holy grail, but more often than not, the consumers aren’t creative — they don’t care about brands, and they don’t care about advertising. And on top of that, they’re made to sit in a confined space for hours on end talking about s0ld focus on their first reactions and emotional response. Afterall, no consumer is ever going to analyse an advert, they are given 30–60 seconds to watch something in between tv shows and it either catches their eye and makes them feel something, or it doesn’t.

So there are lots of problems, yes. But fear not, Steve had lots of handy solutions and practical tips on how to make the research work in your favour. We need to embrace the tension, and this starts by educating clients on why tension and drama works. We also need to shift the focus from research being for the client, to it being for the creative — we don’t involve the creatives enough in the research process, but the idea is their baby, and we don’t want to be child snatchers, do we? The traditional model for creative development assumes a linear process, but it’s not. Rather than using research as a definitive answer, we should use it as an iterative process, perhaps doing a couple groups, then pausing to reflect and change the stim, before doing more groups. We need to define, explore, redefine, and then explore again.

Now for the practical tips, which Steve usefully split into the brief, the guide, and the stim, effectively creating the bible of creative development research, outlined below:

The brief:

  1. Involve the creative
  2. Explain the strategy
  3. Share the creative brief
  4. Explain what is the creative idea and the executional details
  5. Don’t tell them your viewpoint
  6. Ask the researchers to read up on the market
  7. Ask the researchers to think about the audience from a cultural perspective

The guide:

  1. Think about how the idea should be framed — sometimes its better not to frame it as an ad
  2. Ensure there is a rotation of ads
  3. Keep the warm up short
  4. Ensure the researchers don’t ask ‘what is your favourite advert’ — it sets expectations of the idea too high
  5. Don’t show a brand’s previous ads

The stim:

  1. Really think about the stim
  2. Make sure the scripts aren’t too long
  3. Write scripts in consumer language
  4. Mood boards are terrible!
  5. Try and keep things rough
  6. Narrative tapes are good because they feel like a story
  7. Use actors or professional voice artists — researchers don’t read them with passion, bring the script to life

This is the third write-up from the third Open Strategy ‘School of Planning’ event: Creative development — How to build and not destroy. Keep an eye on future events here.