Straight talk – Research shows that most research is crap



Research seems to be highly ineffective

at stopping marketers wasting their shareholders’ money.


Ninety-five percent of new products fail within two years. Most ads contribute to the clutter rather than stand out from it.

Most of these had been rigorously researched beforehand.


1) Research is a load of hokum.

2) Research is sound, but marketers are ill equipped to interpret it.

3) Nobody reads research anymore.


Pontificate from 25 years of marketing experience that includes an unusually large research component (first job was as a researcher; at one stage ran one of U.K.’s top five client research departments, at Cadbury.)


1) Research is a load of hokum.

I have some sympathy for this position. Putting complete strangers into a Moonbase-Alpha environment and asking them to talk about their first pet while the faint sounds of a party can be heard coming from behind a mirror is, in my opinion, not necessarily the best way to get people to reveal their innermost feelings.

The theory is fine, and focus groups have historically been a very valuable tool. But nowadays, the veil of secrecy has been lifted. They know they are being manipulated. So they now over-think the questions and analyze our strategies rather than respond to them.

Would any completely normal person willingly attend a focus group?

2) Research is sound, but marketers are ill-equipped to interpret it.

All research is, in theory, true: This question was asked, and those responses were given. Researchers don’t make the stuff up; they have even largely stopped inviting their relatives to be attendees.

Problems arise in how those responses, given by those attendees, to those questions, with those stimuli, in that environment, at that time, are interpreted.

In my opinion, such interpretive abilities do not appear overnight. The key elements are a sound grounding in research theory and practice, coupled with a decent level of experience, other complementary information, and an enquiring mind. Unfortunately, modern brand managers have never been trained in Research, have little experience, are too busy

to read anything, and devote their enquiring minds to constantly enquiring why their salaries aren’t higher.

When coupled with Researchers who invariably gloss over the up-front page that says how Qualitative should not be treated as if it were Quantitative – assuming that everyone understands this crucial fact – the resulting misinformation car crash is inevitable.

3) Nobody reads

research anyway.

The single biggest problem is the management summary. I’m sorry, it should be declared illegal for the people who commissioned the research not to read the entire document.

Apparently, over 90% of all human discoveries and inventions were by accident. In other words, if you only look for what you are looking for, you won’t find out anything new. Alexander Fleming didn’t discover penicillin by reading management summaries in between doing e-mails while sitting in a meeting – he discovered it by looking at a month-old moldy dish waiting to be washed. A hundred other people either didn’t look at all or only saw a moldy dish, but his enquiring mind wondered why the entire dish wasn’t moldy.

Even worse, nobody ever reads historical research either. In my experience, it is impossible for a competent person to read some old research and not come up with several new relevant insights. Why? Two reasons:

a) There is a high probability that they are the first competent person to read it; some insights were probably always there.

b) They will have some newer information in their heads that will give a completely different context to the old research.

You may be surprised to hear that there are companies who offer to do just that: read your old research and glean new insights from it to grow your business.


Research doesn’t kill ideas – people do.


a) Given that people by and large have stopped thinking about our products,

more research needs to be at the point

of interaction.

b) The experienced and knowledgeable can’t keep delegating it to the inexperienced and naïve.

Twenty-plus years of marketing was enough for John Bradley; he left to do other things which interest him. He doesn’t write this column to pitch for work, but is just trying to help the next generation of marketers simplify an overly complex profession. He values and responds to feedback at