Who will champion research innovation?

All industries must go through periods of major upheaval and change if they are to survive. Advertising is no exception. Our profession's fresh young faces have seen more of advertising's sacred cows sacrificed in a few short years than their forebears would have seen in an entire career.

All industries must go through periods of major upheaval and change if they are to survive. Advertising is no exception. Our profession’s fresh young faces have seen more of advertising’s sacred cows sacrificed in a few short years than their forebears would have seen in an entire career.

We’ve seen significant changes in consumer behaviour, in media channels, in technology, in advertising campaigns, in data mining and grassroots marketing, and we know more change will occur before we arrive at a new status quo.

But amidst all of this sweeping change, one part of our industry – marketing research – still does business the same way it has for decades.

The conventional wisdom is that advertising agencies hate research, but most agencies will (grudgingly) acknowledge that research is essential to what we do. Research helps us get to brilliant insights and see consumers differently; it inspires our creative; and it stops weak ideas from getting incubated. Given the pressure today’s marketers have to find competitive advantages and prove ROI, we must consider research crucial to the process.

And that’s precisely the problem. Considering its pivotal role in shaping our decisions, we spend precious little time evaluating how we do research. We don’t examine the questions we’re asking, how we’re asking them, whether it is realistic to expect people to be able to provide answers, or what norms and metrics we use.

We often just default to doing it the same way we did it last year. We do this for consistency, simplicity and to save time.

There are two problems with this approach. First, we use outdated techniques and methodologies. Historical research techniques are based on assumptions and models, such as ‘interrupt and repeat,’ that date back decades.

For example, we consistently turn to norms for comparison but our norms are five to 25 years old and therefore may invite irrelevant comparison. The techniques also assume captive audiences and a limited media environment, and fail to take into account the fragmented, technology driven, consumer-controlled new media environment.

Second, and more alarming, the research techniques advertisers currently use may not be getting to the real heart of the matter, and consequently contributing to faulty conclusions. Most marketing theories assume humans make conscious, rational decisions, that we are aware of, and can evaluate why we do things. But an increasing body of evidence from psychology, neurology, and market research itself demonstrates we are not as rational as we think, and that sub-conscious emotions actually drive our decision-making.

Discussions about the current state of market research are occurring in the U.K, Europe and in the U.S. In fact, the Advertising Research Foundation has made several strong pronouncements on marketing research over the past year and has accused us of continuing ‘to follow a flawed model of how advertising works,’ and more pointedly:

‘We use questions that invite people to recall things they have no reason to remember. We evaluate success using metrics whose origins can be tracked back to the early part of the 20th century. For the most part, there’s been no wide-scale significant innovation in copy testing or tracking (except in data collection methods) in 50 years.’

Consider evidence presented at the recent Research Industry Summit in Chicago, which showed that ‘just 0.25% of the population supplies 32% of responses to online surveys,’ and ’50% of all survey responses come from less than 5% of the population.’ One senior researcher went so far as to say: ‘We’re perpetuating a fraud.’

Unfortunately, the discussion in Canada is currently limited to the occasional ‘focus groups suck’ article. Part of the problem can be chalked up to a lack of will. Agencies still invoke current research methods selectively to support their causes. Research companies have too much vested in the ‘proven’ products they sell to champion meaningful change. And marketers are often stretched too thin, and lack resources to critically rethink research.

In Canada, we badly need someone to champion research innovation and overhaul the current paradigm. But in the meantime, we should all be asking ourselves this: Is our approach to research paving the way toward the future of advertising, or keeping us locked in a past whose time has come and gone?

David Moore, a 20-year veteran of Leo Burnett, has held regional, national and global positions for the agency in Toronto, Chicago and Mexico City. He is currently president/CEO of Leo Burnett’s Canadian operations.