Advertising agencies’ ability to spin minor events into masses of coverage would make Peter Mandelson ache with envy. A new campaign is a major cultural happening, complaints provide a platform for agencies to espouse their theories on the mood of the nation and even small-scale research studies can be spun into column inches of authoritative-sounding comment.
Everyone knows a story or two of hooky pieces of research being presented as definitive studies. Take the case of the top 20 ad agency and half a dozen housewives from Doncaster. A few mergers and several years ago, the agency was positioning itself as an expert on the grey market. A small study was conducted, largely for the purpose of new business and credentials presentations, which somehow got talked up. And up. And up – from the trade press to features in national newspapers and slots on Channel 4’s The Late Show. Why no one questioned the precise nature and size of the sample remains a mystery.
However, agencies are also responsible for genuinely robust and influential reports. For instance, BMP DDB’s Nations For Sale, an in-depth study of Britain’s brand image conducted in 1994, which has been followed up by the British Council and is quoted in independent think-tank Demos’ recently published book “Britain TM”.
Away from headline-grabbing, new business-enhancing reports, agency planning departments produce a wealth of qualitative research for clients. BMP board director and head of account planning Nigel Jones claims the agency conducts more focus groups a year than the biggest market research companies. Indeed, agencies are increasingly encroaching on researchers’ traditional territory, but can they offer as independent, objective and thorough analyses as the research specialists? Can agencies really evaluate their own work without accentuating the positive?
Comparing what agencies and market research companies can offer is a sensitive issue. Despite added and aggressive competition from both above- and below-the-line agencies, few research specialists are willing to fight their corner in print. Many depend on agencies for a large chunk of their business and they didn’t want to upset their clients even if they are also competitors. Several major players declined to be interviewed on the basis that they have co-operative rather than adversarial relationships with agencies.
“I am not going to say that we are better or that there is anything wrong with the research they do. I rather like doing business with them,” comments an industry source.
The subject of objectivity is a particularly thorny one. On the one hand, asking agencies to evaluate the performance of their campaigns seems like asking parents to be completely objective about their child. On the other, can those research companies which are owned by large agency groups be truly objective when researching work done by what is ultimately a competitor?
Millward Brown, owned by Martin Sorrell’s ever-expanding WPP, has no qualms about defending itself. Gordon Pincott, executive head of client service, says: “Being owned by WPP does not affect our objectivity in anyway. Objectivity is our raison d’ÃÂªtre. If anyone believed that we biased our results it would completely undermine our business. This business is built on integrity, honesty and objectivity.”
Pincott is also willing to argue that research specialists give better service to clients, particularly when it comes to pre-testing advertising. “The farther down the line it is, the more there is at stake for the agency. They have had fantastic input in creating the idea and so it becomes more and more difficult to be objective about it. One of the real merits of using an outside research specialist is that we offer a completely impartial view,” he says.
A fellow research specialist who asked not to be named comments: “Ad agencies are all about passion, vision and subjectivity – that is what gives rise to their style and what clients buy into. The downside is that when it comes to research the creative work tends to drive the process and it can become all about selling the advertising. Outside agencies don’t get sidetracked by pride or prejudice.”
Agencies disagree strongly. Jones argues that BMP rejects about a third of its work in pre-test. “We bomb out more of our own work than outside research agencies do. How objective do you want us to be?” he asks. “Planners can’t afford not to be objective. Our absolute requirement is to find advertising solutions. If we push through advertising that doesn’t work, we know that we will be found out when the campaign goes out.”
Abbott Mead Vickers.BBDO planning director Jackie Boulter points out that giving biased advice would undermine an agency’s entire relationship with a client.
“Our relationships are built on trust. Giving the wrong advice would be of no benefit because sooner or later it would surface. As a planner you are accountable, you would still be there six months later when the campaign wasn’t working. A market researcher can walk away once the research is done,” she says.
Boulter, who worked for NOP for four years before switching to the ad agency side, believes that both agencies and market research firms can come under pressure to provide clients with the sort of results they want to hear.
“Look at the reasons why people do pre-testing,” says Bartle Bogle Hegarty board account planner Heather Alderson. “Do they want to decide whether to run it or not, or do they want to reassure themselves that they can sell it to their boss? It is more commonly used for internal selling.”
Alderson has no problem with clients pre-testing or evaluating work with outside agencies but does have one with “research methods that assume all advertising works in the same way”.
“We often get involved in the design of the research,” she says. “We have used research agencies extensively and we enjoy their perspective on things but any research needs to be completely in tune with how the advertising works.”
It is all too easy to miss its many nuances, to confuse a slow burn with a damp squib or to recognise an ad that researches too well and is danger of burning out.
Research specialists contend that their experience of working for many clients across different brands and sectors gives them ” a much wider view of the world” than agencies. Pincott points out that Millward Brown, which has been in business for 24 years, has a 220-strong UK client base that covers virtually every product sector.
“The sheer scale and international reach of our business and the fact that we are dedicated to learning gives us a more substantial and wider fund of knowledge than an agency could accumulate,” he says. “There are many talented people in agencies and they have a lot to offer, but research is not at the core of what they do. They are not doing large-scale quantitative and qualitative research every day of the week. It is our bread and butter.”
One person’s research specialist is another’s information generalist. WWAV Rapp Collins senior account planning consultant Gavin Hilton asserts that planners have a better understanding of the specifics of their clients’ business because they are “immersed in it all day, every day”. “We are closer to understanding the client, the media, the market, their consumers and their competitors,” he says.
During 1996, WWAV doubled the size of its planning department (to 12, which is the largest in European direct marketing) and started its own fast-track research facility, which produces results in a week. “Researching direct marketing is a very specialised area. People’s initial reactions are ‘oh I hate it, I never read it’,” Hilton says. “As specialists, we can explore their desires and needs and pick up on things that others might not see from raw data or initial reactions.”
Above-the-line agencies also argue that immersion in their clients’ business and specialist knowledge of advertising gives them the edge on outsiders. “Our interpretations of research are based on a thorough understanding of clients, their strategic objectives and consumers. We can really unravel how consumers feel,” says Boulter. What’s more, she claims “they produce more action-oriented results”.
Jones agrees: “We produce constructive recommendations designed to achieve effective advertising solutions. Not all research firms have that ability,” he says. And if planners do their own pre-testing, they can feed the results directly back into the creative process, which outsiders cannot.
The depth and breadth of agencies’ relationships with clients can obscure their perspective rather than clarify it, a senior researcher claims. However, he admits that the relationship between research firms and their clients, which tends to be project-based, can itself cause difficulties.
“Insufficient involvement in the thinking behind a campaign can make it difficult to grasp the strategic issues,” he says. Greater distance gives research firms greater objectivity but it can also mean that they miss fine details, he adds.
Agencies were at almost as many pains to stress how highly they valued research firms, as the specialists were about them.
Both sides agree that many research projects are and should be partnerships between them. However, agencies seem set to continue noisily staking their research claims, while the specialists quietly defend their territory.