Qualitative research needs to move from focus groups, embracing the tenets of behavioural and social sciences, to adopt techniques that recognise irrational, emotional decision triggers – what people really think, not what they say. We outline six rules for achieving accuracy in researching creative.

It was 1974 when Alan Hedges wrote Testing to Destruction, highlighting the flaws of creative development research. Hedges key arguments were that consumers are emotional, illogical beings, rather than rational robots; that advertising often influences people at a very low level; that communications research is best deployed upfront at the strategic stage; and that too much research takes place in an artificial setting (Research Magazine, July 2004).

And yet, in 2016, creative development is still largely the domain of focus groups. While the research industry claims to acknowledge the importance of emotional response, and System 1 conversations readily fall off the tongue, the reality is that commissioners, practitioners and users of qualitative research pay no more than lip service to it. Battering participants with endless rational questions about message, credibility, take-out, target and call to action is still the norm. Most good qualitative researchers and planners know that this isn’t the best approach and yet, they are either unable to get away from the interrogation model of questioning, or don’t stop to challenge received wisdom.

Creative development research usually explores two to three different potential creative routes, each developed against the same strategic platform. And because of this, it’s no surprise that each route also delivers the same message. What really separates the routes from one another is the nuance of style and tone. However, focusing on tone can be a challenge, for two reasons:

  • Although tone is an attribute that often appears among communications objectives, it is often a secondary or tertiary objective, and client stakeholders can feel short-changed if tone is prioritised, and a more thorough examination is not pursued.
  • Tone is notoriously difficult to research. People find it much easier to respond to hard facts and obvious narrative or executional details, than an ad’s tone, so it’s often paid lip service, or simply ignored. Most people simply do not have the vocabulary to articulate the different tonal expressions of funny, for example, that might separate one route from another (e.g. witty, slapstick, clever). The reality is that tonality in communications is felt at a subconscious level (feeling warm or cool, drawn in vs. excluded) and is often not accessible to research participants at all.

As Robert Heath emphasises in his 2012 work Seducing the Subconscious: The Psychology of Emotional Influence in Advertising, the more evident the message… the less it was likely to influence the favourability towards the brand. He concludes that the meta-communication of an ad the style and tone, rather than the message itself is by far the most powerful element of it. So knowing all this, why are we still ignoring the key criterion for success at the research stage?

“While the research industry claims to acknowledge the importance of emotional response, the reality is that commissioners, practitioners and users of qualitative research pay no more than lip service to it”


Creative development research needs to drag itself into the twenty-first century, and put some of the much-talked-about principles of behavioural economics at the  heart of its approach.

  1. Focus on instinctive, emotional responses: There’s little need to remind people of Kahneman s distinction between System 1 and System 2 thinking (Thinking, Fast and Slow, 2012). Suffice it to say that the first System is fast, automatic, intuitive and effortless. It governs well over 95% of our choices and decisions, including the way in which we absorb communications. By contrast, System 2 thinking is more deliberate, conscious and effortful.So why, then, do we subject research participants to those batteries of questions where System 2 so obviously dominates? This is the antithesis of how communications are experienced. If we allow participants to respond rather than forcing question after question upon them, we’ll get what we need handed on a plate  to us. It’s one thing for clients to ask us to make sure we address the full range of their objectives, but it’s not fair for us to subject research participants to those same direct questions. The researcher needs to act as a conduit and an analyser rather than a messenger, and the planner needs to support   this process by being willing to challenge established practice. The focus needs to shift from the questions to the response.
  2. Be aware of the distinction bias: This is a concept from behavioural economics which has had relatively little airtime to date but has significant This bias in our brains means that when comparing two or more items (e.g. scripts), people tend to focus on the details that separate them … and those they pick up on are often not the most relevant details. This is often the case in creative development work when multiple routes are explored in the same session. The problem is that the essence of a potentially powerful idea can be lost as attention shifts from the idea to extraneous detail. And the feedback gives a fuzzy sense of which of the routes performed most strongly in relative terms, rather than which, if any, is actually any good   in its own right. It’s often a case of emerging with the best of a bad bunch. We need to shift from a comparative appeal mindset, to an absolute one, if we want to identify truly good ideas.
  3. Acknowledge context: It’s not new news that advertising is not viewed in isolation. But the complexities of researching multiple routes mean that the desire to explore the power of an idea in context (medium, placement, adjacency, competitive, category, etc.) often gets put aside. Research is embarked upon, with objectives around the distinctiveness of an idea, but we never give ourselves the best chance of answering this as we don’t show the idea in relation to any other ideas. At best, we’re guessing based on people’s inaccurate memories of the broader context of advertising, and their desire to please us once we’ve talked to them for 90 minutes. We are kidding ourselves if we think that traditional research practice can really address the issue of context.
  4. People don’t have the breadth of language palette within a given category that marketers do: Because the nuance of style and tone is critical to creative ideas, the danger is that research participants fall back on the same language to describe more than one idea: their language isn’t always sensitive enough to expose these subtleties of the ideas, so they start to blur into one.

What this means is that we need to change our own behaviour and challenge the received wisdom. Here’s how:

  1. Give weight to System 1 responses: This can be achieved by making sessions short and sharp 20-30 minutes each rather than 90-120 minutes by avoiding batteries of standard questions, and by giving people the space to actually respond. This means giving them the tools with which to respond a simple emotional thermometer to capture their spontaneous responses without having to use words (just a mark of warm to cool), etc. We need to be confident that if we give people space to respond, they will naturally answer our big questions: message, credibility, effect on brand, call to action, etc. usually emerge spontaneously, and at best need a gentle coax. The added benefit of this type of structure is that it lends itself to an iterative process, whereby the conversation can evolve and change and new ideas can be injected, as necessary as the fieldwork unfolds. And it makes for a far lighter viewing experience.

    “The researcher needs to act as a conduit and an analyser rather than a messenger, and the planner needs to support this process by being willing to challenge established practice. The focus needs to shift from the questions to the response”

  2. Rethink the group structure: What this approach also means is that individual interviews or pairs are more effective than 20 30- minute groups. Out of necessity, groups require more time (only a little, though), and of course they are also prone to all the age-old issues surrounding   overrationalisation and spiralling negativity.
  3. Incorporate a monadic element into the research design: Here, each session focuses on one creative territory only, to gauge its absolute potential, rather than looking at it in relative terms and falling foul of the distinction bias. This means a greater number of sessions overall, but they’re shorter and allow for iteration as   the fieldwork unfolds. And the side benefit is that they’re far more palatable in terms of the viewing experience. These can easily be combined with comparative sessions, which concentrate on looking across the ideas (a light-touch comparative element to a research design means the best of both worlds) a focus on the ideas in the absolute, but with the ability to compare and contrast them to ensure clear understanding and the most constructive feedback.
  4. Frame your ideas in context: If you really want to find out whether an idea is distinctive, then it needs to be shown in context either mocked up in a magazine or put into a clutter reel. This means that stimulus needs to be more well developed than it might otherwise be, which of course has time and budgetary But if this isn’t possible, there are other ways that can get us closer: ask people to send in ads that are either from the same category, or are distinctive, surprising, challenging, etc., so that coming into the sessions, there is a sense of what is   getting people’s attention in real life, to use   as a sense check in conversation.
  5. Focus research response around tone rather than purely around message: Think about the tone that you’d like the creative to embody. One tool that we use is to borrow from the quantitative implicit association test, whereby a set of tonal words is developed and participants are asked to attribute three to four words to each idea (under time pressure), in order to see what separates the ideas from one another. This gives them a language palette that they wouldn’t otherwise have, and leads to far more precise feedback.
  6. Thinking about tone means thinking about stimulus differently: This is perhaps the biggest challenge, as creative work is so often up against the wire in terms of timing. There is often little time to think about the difference between creative as its presented to the client, and creative that will give the idea the best chance of flying for the man or woman on the street. But if we’re asking people to respond to the tone and nuance of an idea, then we need to show them ideas which embody this.This means walking away from the practice of scripts and a series of hand-drawn key frames and ensuring that the mood of the ad is conveyed through what we show be that a mood board, a piece of music, a YouTube clip, or getting the script recorded by a VO professional. The anxiety is that at this stage in development, these sorts of details haven’t had the input of a director, but this can be handled if set up well. What is   more important than anything else is that the tone and vision that the agency has for its work is communicated effectively for research. After all, every client and creative agency has been on the receiving end of bad news creatively, which is often due to poor stimulus. Tonal stimulus is critical.Forty years on from Hedges, we need to recognise that while the research process can never replicate that of viewing ads in real life, we do have a better set of tools at our disposal than we did in 1974. Given all the latest thinking in the behavioural and social sciences, it would be professionally negligent not to embrace a more contemporary approach, and drag our clients along with us, kicking and screaming if need be. An approach that allows us to walk away from tried, tested and much maligned research methods, and enables us to finally practise what we preach, giving more clarity, more confidence and more direction to creative agencies and their marketing clients.