Nobody learns from history – or research

Some characters in the wonderful Doonesbury comic strip recently hatched the idea of buying up the intellectual assets, for peanuts, of defunct dot-com companies.

Some characters in the wonderful Doonesbury comic strip recently hatched the idea of buying up the intellectual assets, for peanuts, of defunct dot-com companies.

I have been musing on a similar plot. My idea is to buy up research reports from consumer marketing companies no longer interested in them.

As you may know, marketing research is designed, commissioned and carried out at vast expense. The top-line results are rushed into presentation form at breakneck speed awash in gallons of midnight oil. They are presented breathlessly to a packed boardroom, and then, instantly shelved, forgotten and their very existence expunged from human memory.

I figure if anyone can still find the stuff after a sort of protracted archeological excavation at the file storage company, they should be more than willing to let it go for about oh, three cents a pound. Max.

Then, having absorbed the insights and lessons from the good research, I intend to sell the executive summaries back to the same companies for ten thousand dollars a page. And then repeat the cycle, forever and ever.

I think it’s bulletproof, frankly. In my experience, the answers to all marketers’ most pressing and costly problems of commission and omission are gathering dust in the form of research reports which did not suit the agendas of the executives who commissioned them.

Have you ever heard any client say, You know, let’s revisit those fascinating insights we gleaned in the big research study five years ago, and recommit ourselves and the agency to their abiding truths? Yeah, I didn’t think so.

All research is history. And as nobody learns from history, nobody learns from research either. As Niall Ferguson, the hot Brit historian observes, in recent history (1920) a western army entered Baghdad, announced that it was there to liberate not to occupy, and was savagely attacked and forced into ignoble retreat for its trouble. He doubts anyone in the Bush administration has ever heard of this debacle.

For the speech I gave recently to the, ahem, Professional Marketing Research Society, Qualitative Division, I re-read David Ogilvy’s last book. (Damn if Ogilvy isn’t getting smarter, even though he’s dead.)

He speaks of the fundamentals, the formulae that research vindicates time and again as productive of compelling advertising. He says try mentioning this to ad agencies. They’ve never heard of the fundamentals. Mention formulae to them, and their frail creative souls shrivel.

When you see the quite astonishing new TV spots from Hewlett Packard, oops, I mean HP of course, I suspect you will be knocked sideways by the breathtaking wave of tulip blooms that burst through the asphalt street pavements. And the dolls and monsters who silently ride trains and subways to the toy store in Times Square are so wistful, so beautifully framed as to bring a tear to yer eye, a tug at yer heart, in appreciation of the rich vein of genius at HP that enables FTD Florists and Toys R Us.

Sorry. The disconcerting part is the damn HP signature. I just can’t get past HP being what you put on bacon at breakfast.

Likewise, kay eff see is beancounterspeak for Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is an ad for something crisp and mouthwatering called Kentucky Fried Chicken, children. Say kay eff see. Okay. Admit it. Your mouth is dry as an auditor’s disclaimer.

Ries and Trout, the quite brilliant guys who invented positioning, possibly The Most Useful Advertising Insight of the 20th Century, devoted a whole chapter in The Positioning Era to the folly of calling your company TRW or GAF or MBPXL (a Fortune 500 company. No kidding. Really.)

They tested each of the ‘initial’ companies in the Fortune 500 against the first ‘name’ company below it in ranking. They found the ‘name’ companies averaged 68% recognition, versus 49% for the ‘initial’ companies. A 19% handicap!

Does this stop fifty-million-a-year bigshots from dropping the names that made ‘em rich and famous in favour of two or three unpronounceable consonants? Noooooooo! Who ever heard of Ries and Trout? How much did THEY pull down last year? Ha ha ha ha!

So listen, kids. Did those focus groups piss all over your precious brainchild? Never mind. Count to ten and represent it. Nobody will remember.

Barry Base is president and creative director of Barry Base & Partners Limited, Toronto. We’re serious. He makes ad campaigns. This column is a loss leader, for Pete’s Sake. Barry clawed his way up through four major ad agencies and founded his own firm when still a small child. He hopscotches the highlights of his career to date on an egomaniacal Web site at