Why do ad agency personnel mistrust research?

by DJI

Imagine you have been working for weeks, even months on a key project that will move your business and your own career ahead. You have a ton of time and effort and pride invested in seeing your work come to fruition. And just when you are expecting to get the critical green light from your boss, she introduces you to some third party you don’t even know and says that person is going do an assessment of your work and will ultimately determine whether it ever sees the light of day. Really!

Let’s recognize at the outset that some agency personnel, especially Creative Directors, cherish research and use it to their advantage. We’ve had the pleasure of working with some of those over the years and it is interesting how they are always hungry for insights anywhere they can find them. We used to think it was a matter of self-confidence (less need for self-validation) but have come to believe over time that it is more a case of innate curiosity. It’s a beautiful thing when you find it.

But it is fair to say that many agency personnel inherently mistrust research and its whole process … and there are different reasons.

  1.  For some the mistrust is understandable because it is based on negative experience. Research suppliers are similar to ad agencies in terms of the quality of the product they produce … some is excellent, some is bad and the bulk is simply average (i.e. generally acceptable but ultimately not impactful on the business). Yes some have a valid reason for being skeptical if they have been exposed to a poor job done by a research supplier. And even if the research output falls into the “average” category, that can be frustrating when the campaign concepts or executions being tested are viewed by the agency as critical (and they almost always are).
  2. At times, the process can frustrate the agency for reasons beyond the research supplier’s control. This usually traces to a client who devotes too little time to bringing all the parties together early in the process to ensure all are aware of the objectives, needs and timing deadlines of all the parties.
  3. And yes, there is the tendency of many to resist research because of the risk it may expose (possibly fatal) weaknesses in the ad concept or execution. The agency may have devoted significant resources to selling the client on the idea and now, at a critical time, must turn over control of the process to a third party and have their work assessed by someone who isn’t part of their team. Uncomfortable to all but the thickest skinned.

So what can be done to improve the situation?

Many clients long ago turned to quantitative research methodologies for testing actual executions … tougher for an agency to dispute findings when they are numbers set against a backdrop of historical performance standards vs. the conclusions of a qualitative research consultant.

That may help in some ad testing situations but what about more critical early stages when the issues are brand positioning opportunities or the assessment of potential campaign concepts? This is where face-to-face qualitative research can be the most helpful. So how does one get by traditional feelings of mistrust?

  •  First, the party most responsible for the process, the research client, needs to be proactive – getting ad agency and research supplier together earlier in the process so all parties understand the business objectives and strategies … and all share common bonds and goals
  • Second, the research supplier needs to understand and help address the agency’s information needs. We always try to corner agency personnel, especially the creative team (preferably without the client in the room) and determine what they are trying to communicate and what key issues, strategic or executional, they particularly want to focus on. This is not a matter of turning development of the discussion guide over to the agency but it is their work being assessed and they have the best grasp of its upside potential. They are creative people by definition – they often have creative suggestions for how an issue might be probed.
  • Finally, the agency should push clients to get research suppliers involved earlier in the process  – the more the researcher knows about the issues, big and small, the better able he/she can address them.

Achieving that ideal spirit of cooperation is worth it but it’s not always easy to get there. We’d like to hear your suggestions about how to achieve an environment of mutual trust between advertising agencies and research suppliers.  What has worked for you?