Thursday, June 08, 2006


“Focus groups are bogus! Anybody who consciously carves out an hour and a half of his/her time to go to a fluorescent-lit room with stale pakodas, wafers and insipid coffee doing the rounds with the idea of a life-altering discussion on why one brand of mosquito-repellent is a wow, or whether one brand of soap will give you the big ‘O’ while bathing compared to another….is a LOSER!”

“Research is about asking rational-sounding questions that create the expectation that there will be rationale answers. If you ask for rational explanations, chances are, you are likely to get one. But baby, frequently, it has nothing to do with the truth! Why? Because it was only an answer, remember, why should it have to be rooted and embedded to the psyche?”


It does appear that one of the 7-star hell-holes of advertising research is their sacrosanct and tradition bound Questionnaire format. The problem with it is that it instantly provides for a divide and guarantees a barrier between ourselves and the consumer. O&M’s head honcho, Piyush Pandey, seconds this thinking vociferously. “How can one take seriously dumb answers to dumb questions and place it as the gospel truth around which you create your communication? At O&M we believe that the theatre of life as seen, felt and experienced through the prism of our experience, is the best research. Besides, life is about inconsistencies and jagged edges: That’s what makes it exciting and unpredictable. How can you get a handle on that?” Interestingly, David Ogilvy – the revered founding father of the very same agency has a very different point of view. “There have always been the noisy lunatics on the fringes of the advertising business. Their stock-in-trade includes ethnic humour, eccentric art direction, contempt for research and their self proclaimed genius...”
Hansa Research’s, Sumita Sen, comes next “I think it has become fashionable to dismiss or bad mouth research ever since creativity stormed centre-stage with their stars hogging limelight like never before.” She asserts that ‘research’ has never ever professed or pretended to offer their clients the ultimate solution in terms of what works/doesn’t work in the market place or mind space. At best, it offers indicators and directions and if used properly, can work as an important strategic tool. However, she adds, “It could be a crutch for those who choose to read the findings as the Ten Commandments, completely ignoring experience, knowledge and gut feel.”

She has her supporters.

Mike Davidson, head of a large multi-national, confesses that research is the first thing they run with to find out how people relate to a brand and what people think of it. “It helps check out target reactions to a brand and response to language in a given category. Supposing a writer has to do an ad about a product line he/she does not use or is not familiar with (lingerie, tampons, and cosmetics), it is crucial to understand the sentiments and feelings of the target group about the language they are comfortable with and willing to accept. Conti...

Sensitivity is the key. Thereafter, it’s about using that piece of knowledge as a dynamic springboard to take that creative leap into the consumer mindscape.” Ad Guru, John Hegarty, agrees. He looks at research as “another opinion” and a dip-stick to what’s going on in the world around us. The voice of dissent, however, remains single-mindedly aggressive. “It is interesting,” they acidly observe, “that the best advertising research never, at any stage, mentions advertising!” According to them research is the journey around the consumer’s head regarding his wishes, hopes, dreams, desires and aspirations, and positioning the brand in a manner that’ll make them come true. It’s a technique borrowed from counselling. Tell me about your life and I’ll find a point of connection. Alyque Padamsee begs to differ. “I am a great believer of research-driven advertising. My classic KAMASUTRA, LALITAJI (SURF) AND LIRIL campaigns were powered as much by focus group sessions as insight.”

Gutsy insights vs. academic research

Sumit Roy, the brilliant founder-director of UNIVBRANDS, has his special take. “Most people tend to use research like a drunk uses a lamp-post! At another level, the mega corporations use it, largely, to protect their arse (“I gotta sack 500 people- and fast. Mckinsey told me so!”). It’s not about Mckinsey talking nonsense. It’s about spending mega-bucks so that the obvious truth seems more sacrosanct and valuable.” Roy believes that true-blue brand architects use their own brand of insightful research. They use guts to move mountains, going against all odds and winning. “It takes a Ravi Gupta to fly against research findings and insist on an Indian Cola-THUMS UP. It takes a Michael Roux to dismiss the total no-no of research of the ABSOLUTE VODKA ad launched campaign, and run with his gut-feel to make it such an absolute smash success in its category.
Gulu Sen, National Creative Director, Dentsu, adds his own spin. He believes research breeds and re-enforces stereotypes and champions the boring risk-free communication that is the order of the day. It caters unashamedly, to the feel-good factor and completely destroys clutter-busting, exciting and memorable work. “I cannot deny its role in terms of offering direction and perspective, but to blindly follow research is to completely erase the voyage to the unknown, redolent with amazing surprises and treasures. McCann’s Santosh Desai is equally skeptical. “The way research is conducted today, is largely tokenism, and mostly, hogwash! They do nothing more than throw some light on the areas of darkness.” He believes that if research is still a star in many mega-corps scheme of things it’s largely because of the convenience and insecurity factor.”

The big boys in the board rooms are unable (not trained?) to take the crucial call about what will/will not swing in the marketplace and therefore, it’s convenient to (hide behind?) point to research surveys and findings as the gospel truth. “He is categorical in pointing out that their hugely successful COKE and PERFETTI campaigns did not remotely touch the research button. “They were powered by insightful storytelling laced with drama, wit and charm.”

So what’s the final take-out? Is it a tool or a crutch? Its simple. We have to get away from the idea of wanting people to respond in a particular way to the ad. On the contrary, the ad must be a response to the people. In the end, good advertising research can show you the light, but not the way. That’s a path you have to pick for yourself…