On the tenacity of norms and innovation

16 11 2011

Tom’s most recent post over on Blackbeard reminded me of a story I was told by an erstwhile client during my spell in India.

In his younger years, said client had been a lowly agency side man like many of us. He had gone on a field visit for a tracking study to meet with a field head whom he described quite directly as “a real crook”. I assume this was meant in a research context only and he wasn’t an arsonist or a murderer or anything. Anyway, on this field visit it was discovered that the crook was living up to his reputation and allowing his team to flout even the most basic of field controls – no right hand rule, no adherence to the assigned starting points, ignoring instructions on routing and rotating – your basic PAPI chaos. When my client intimated that this was completely unacceptable and that he needed to whip his team into shape forthwith he was met with a knowing smile. “Do you really want me to fix things?” the crook asked, “we’ve always worked this way, aside from the time and effort required to put things right which will be costly, you will also need to explain the radical step changes in your data to your client”. This was where the story ended so I don’t know for certain what call my client took but being a fine and upstanding research man, I naturally assume he did the right thing.

What’s clear from this story is that Tom has something of a point. There’s no doubt that historical trends, databases and norms are, at times, invoked as a defence against change even where the established order is spectacularly wrong. The order being established is all the validity it needs. And of course this is a very extreme example, the simple weight of inertia can easily discourage those of us with far greater scruples than our protagonist above from making changes that untether¬†us from the warm comfort of norms.

But I’m not convinced it’s as bad as all that. In my view, norms have the potential to raise the bar for innovation and change. You cannot make change for change’s sake. You do not flit around on the short-lived breeze of fad and fashion. If you are going to make a change to a research architecture built around norms then you have to demonstrate clearly that what you are moving to provides a genuine, substantive improvement over what currently exists. More than that – better looking architecture is easy to find, checking the structural engineering is up to the job requires the real stress testing that norms help provide. What norms predicate against is incremental tweaks around the edges (the research equivalent of feature creep) and the roll-out of ill thought out, half baked ideas. Houses built on the sand.

Saying norms are ‘tenacious’ is certainly right, but that tenacity need not be allied with enmity. Norms can perform the role of Devil’s advocate always probing with the questions ‘why is that better than what we have?’ and ‘can you prove that it is?’.¬†If you have constantly asked those questions then not only will you always have a powerful rationale for any change but you will also have reinforce the validity of what you were doing previously.


Tan Le at TED: Mind Control

7 08 2010


(If anyone can tell me how to embed the video directly, I’d appreciate it, can’t seem to make it work!)

I love this Tan Le TED talk for a few reasons.

Firstly, it’s another example (like quantitative market research) of an application of EEG technology for which the existing medical EEG technology, with it’s hundreds of sensors and wires, conductive gels, slcalp abrasions and requirement for technical expertise is really not practical and scalable. Le and her team were smart enough to recognise that and engineer a technical solution specific to their requirements rather than attempt to engineer their requirements to suit the existing technology. Millward Brown’s EEG partners EmSense did the same thing for research.

Secondly, this looks to me like it has the potential to be genuinely disruptive. These technologies are moving so fast that in a couple of years the things it will be possible to control just by thinking of them are likely to be myriad. Could this effectively lead to the death of the mediated UI? What would this mean for the likes of Apple who have built a significant part of their brand advantage on the back of having a slicker UI than everyone else?

Finally, it’s just cool isn’t it? Closing your curtains just by thinking about it? There’s nothing I hate more than having done all the thinking you need to do about a presentation and then having to actually spend hours making all the bloody charts – if all I had to do is think about it and the charts were made exactly how I wanted them that would make me a very happy boy. That might be a way off, but it seems like this is a step in the right direction where that dream is concerned.

Just try and stay positive.

27 03 2010

Inverted sticking it to The Man.

Here I am doing whatever the inverse of sticking it to The Man is, sitting on a beach just up the way from Arambol, which the India edition of Lonely Planet describes as being the place where the hippy 60s finally decided to hide after being chased out of San Francisco and Carnaby Street. I am reading about how better to sell stuff – in your face hippies. Basically I’m Don Draper in that scene where he goes out in Greenwich Village with his mistress and her beatnik friends – only significantly less well dressed, less suave and less attractive.

Anyway, aside from the well known Ogilvy title I am seen reading above, I also found the time to get through the second half of this collection of Stephen King’s musings (this one, not this one) which I’d started a while back and not had the time to plough through. I’d say it’s pretty essential reading for anyone involved in brands, advertising and research – King is best known for inventing Account Planning (although Stanley Pollitt got there at a similar time from a different direction) but he was also ahead of his time in quite a few other ways. It’s a chastening/infuriating read at times for someone as intimately involved in quant pre-testing as me – but broadly King was passionate in his advocation of research and a radical and avant garde voice regarding its intelligent use.

This is certainly a text I’ll return to in future posts, in particular, I think there may be parallels between the problems creative agencies were facing which Account Planning set out to solve and some of the future of MR soul-searching we’re currently going through. In this post, though, I’m interested in King’s assertion that we should be seeking research that inspires rather than research that directly instructs decisions in the chapter ‘Applying Research to Decision Making’.

Aside from the obvious hyperbole of blaming the decline of Britain’s share of world exports over 30 years (at least in part) on the misuse of research (a fairly brave thing to do at the 30th anniversary conference of the MRS – can’t imagine there was such a forceful challenge to research’s use at #res10), the paper reveals, in King’s inimitable gentle, considered style, a number of home truths (he tip-toes up to you, then hands you an atom bomb). The theme of the conference was essentially how research can better influence decisions and in that context King delivered this polemic:

It seems to me that the researcher must be seen as an expert on What is, not what to do about it. Despite the demand for him to produce results that in effect take decisions, we should insist that his real role is to interpret and bring to life what goes on in the world. He cannot possibly know enough about all the other factors that lie behind decisions to be justified in advising marketing people what to do.

Even today this is fairly counter to what many clients are asking us to do – but I think there is an important distinction between attempting to influence decision-makers (i.e. being one of the factors King mentions that marketing people can use to inform decisions) and attempting to direct them (i.e. assuming we are the only, or even primary factor they should consider). I think the unerring and unending focus on actionability in research leads us ever closer to the latter.

There is a second problem here, which is central to King’s argument. This pursuit of actionability makes it more likely that research findings will focus on the negatives and kill inspiration and innovation rather than celebrate positives and drive new ideas through. The reason for this is that it feels much more ‘actionable’ if you’re saying ‘these bits are broken, this is how you need to fix it’ than it is to say ‘these bits are brilliant, run with them’. There is a sense with the latter that you’ve added less value.

This was brought home to me in my own work recently. I asked Anupama Wagh-Koppar, one of the daughters of King’s Account Planning revolution at JWT, to come and talk to the team about the creative development process, how different agency roles contributed to it and how research helps. It was a really useful presentation, particularly for the junior members of the team who would do a lot of Link but may not be aware of how much investment has been made by the creative agency before the ad even gets that far. At the end of the session I had asked Anupama what one thing we could do better to aid creative development. Her answer was that we need to talk more about an execution’s successes.

This led me to think about the sort of presentations we typically write. Of course, positives aren’t ignored, we would always talk about what has worked well – but in the desire to ensure decision makers know how to ‘fix’ any issues that arise, the diagnosis of what hasn’t worked is typically deeper. Comprehension for example, if lacking, is diagnosed in great depth to see if we can iron out any misunderstandings. If comprehension is good we will skip over it in seconds – we’re unlikely to look in detail at exactly why this execution has been well understood when others haven’t – the assumption being that this is fairly obvious – of course, if it was obvious, we wouldn’t ever have a comprehension issue. Anupama’s assertion was that for a creative team, the ‘fix’ is as likely to be a function of accentuating what worked and why than changing or circumventing what hasn’t worked.

Even the much celebrated idea that our findings should be ‘issue-focussed’ implies that we are looking for negatives and how to fix them, not looking for positives and how to celebrate them. I don’t mean this post to be unduly pessimistic, there’s plenty of inspirational work out there – but are we doing it often enough and are we successfully celebrating it when we do? As King had it almost 20 years ago we should be ‘preaching the values of occasional beautiful research’. For the most part, I’m not sure we are.