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Letter from NY: “I despise the research of advertising” — Matthew Bull

Date posted: July 31, 2012

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by Matthew Bull (@StixBull) I despise the research of advertising. An open letter.

A letter from New York.

Look, let me not sit on the fence here.  I despise the research of advertising, particularly at conceptual stage.  It brings nothing but vanilla to the table.

I’ve just sat through the research debrief on a new campaign of ours in which they basically told us to leave the lines of the print and digital matthew_bullwork as they were, but take out the person delivering them.  The fact that person was openly gay – therefore stimulating, interesting, progressive, controversial – seemed to be lost on them.

If research had its way we’d all be walking around minus our right brain and heart.

Whilst I can guarantee that the vast majority of agencies agree with my sentiments there are still some people that choose to defend the practice of this kind of research. My experience is it takes you away from anything that makes people in these research groups feel slightly uncomfortable.

So let’s firstly analyze those research group people – or more importantly, the situation they find themselves in.

I watched my son the other day be transformed from a lovely little boy sitting next to me into a wild animal dancing on the table.  As he’s too young to drink – I can only surmise that what prompted this was the arrival of a group of friends. Quite simply most people tend to perform in a crowd.

In a research group this manifests itself with people feeling the need to have a logical left brained opinion on the work presented to them (to appear clever).  In other words their reaction discounts the emotional essence of the work.  And we all know emotion is more powerful than logic.  They reveal only a small sample of their true self.

Secondly, advertising at its best is designed to capture people in a certain way – and by that I mean it is designed to reach them in a certain mindset and in a place where they will react spontaneously to it, with equal amounts logic and emotion.  I can guarantee a person watching a commercial that comes on during the Superbowl is in a very different frame of mind to a person eating the peanuts at a research group.

Thirdly, particularly with film and digital, you are asking people to take a huge visionary leap forward – imagining the power of cinematography and of actors’ performances (there’s a reason they call some actors wooden – they belong on storyboards).

It is, quite simply, a very unreal environment in which you are asking for real answers.  What possible guidance could you get out of that which would take you to a better place?

I have spent 20 odd years working with various people around the world to create advertising that creates desire amongst its target market.  By and large our successes have occurred when we charm them, entertain them, inform them, provoke them and stimulate them.  Of the work I am most proud of – work that has significantly altered the fortunes of a brand, company, person – none was researched, and if they were, the research was ignored (Stella Artois – “do NOT do this campaign” said Millwood Brown).

We all know why large organisations use research and we appreciate the need to ensure miserable failure is avoided at all costs.  But that’s why you have human resource departments which are vigorous in their pursuit, interrogation, seduction of the very best people – people who use their instincts and intellect to create wonderful products for people.  Including the product of advertising.

But, if you do not have faith in those you’ve chosen to do their jobs properly, then I suggest a serious analysis of the way we research ideas – the kind of people whose opinions we ask, and the environment we ask them in.  Research methodology has not changed one bit since I’ve been in the business.

And these are the guys who are supposed to help us innovate?

It’s time for change.  As usual.

Matthew Bull.

Matthew Bull (@StixBull) is a partner at The Bull-White House in New York. Before that, he served as chief creative officer/chairman of Lowe & Partners/Lowe Bull and chief creative officer at Lowe Worldwide. Matthew contributes the regular “Letter from New York” column to MarkLives.

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