Advertising research and risk appetite

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Reference to advertising research in Pandeymonium and a response in Brand Equity triggered some thoughts about the topic. When in advertising, I have been part of research of two kinds: actual face-to-face meetings with end consumers (through market visits, attending focus groups) or sitting through presentations of research findings. The research was of two kinds: category research and advertising research. The former was meant to be a deep-dive into the category, a user’s behaviour towards it, her triggers and barriers in product or brand usage and so on. The latter was about testing advertising stimulus of some kind. I mostly enjoyed the former and hated the latter. It is also a humbling, learning experience to meet real, end consumers in their regular, everyday environs.

In his book, Piyush Pandey came down heavily on advertising research and rightly so. I didn’t think he was trashing research in general – in fact, he was all for it. But he valued research among end users or potential users at a macro category usage level and not as using them as critics of advertising material.

Such category-level research often helps in crafting creative ideas. Some of the bright, talented creative partners I have worked with, preferred & enjoyed this kind of research too. They would use such inputs to craft a communication strategy. In his book, Truth Lies & Advertising, John Steele talks about the consumer research which led to the communication strategy and the creative execution.

Truth Lies & Advertising

You can see how a creatively designed research into consumer habits about a category unearthed such refreshing, business-building ideas for the brand. I too have found a few such ‘category exploring’ research on macro topics like food habits, beauty regimens etc., interesting and often useful. On the other hand, it is always frustrating to sit through presentations sharing consumer feedback on advertising stimulus. Such stimuli, in the form of animatics usually, can never match the finished product. No animatic can do justice to the emotions of the Google Search ad, the subtle humour of the Fevicol bus ad or the jaw-dropping special effects of the Honda ‘hands’ ad. Emotions like hope, despair, confidence, joy, indifference and can be best captured when magic happens: when the power of the audio-visual medium is made best use of by skilled, creative folks.

My grouse with research like LINK (God, how I hated it) was that it was ‘forced’- every frame of an ad was dissected. Audience reaction was analysed in an unnatural situation; too much was read into graphs plotting interest levels across a 30-second ad. And the fate of many interesting ideas was sealed. Worse still, bits and pieces of various scripts were put together to create a mishmash.

Marketers are unlikely to give up pre-testing advertising stimuli and rely solely on gut feel and individual judgement in approving creative. As mentioned in Pandeymonium, it takes a special kind of client to do so. Seasoned marketers will continue to rely on methods like LINK to pre-test their ads. A number (the LINK score) will continue to decide the fate of very many scripts, especially in FMCG. Does it mean that such marketers are not as smart as those who do not rely on pre-testing? Not necessarily. It is just a reflection of how risk averse one is. ‘Safety in numbers’ (some may call it a CYA strategy) is a reality for them too- they can justify an approval of production & media budgets based on some ‘data’. It is not uncommon to see budgets of Rs 1 crore+ (approx USD 150000) just on film production for ad films. Add media budget roughly 5 times that and you need to justify that amount to someone. Having a LINK score helps.

I wonder if marketers pre-test long format films meant for YouTube – I guess not. It would be interesting to get feedback from teams who have executed such films.The investments in such are in production and online promotion through social media. I guess it not as expensive as running a campaign on television and hence the appetite for risk is higher. But when it comes to mass media campaigns, ad pre-tests will continue to decide the fate of many creative ideas. Sigh.

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