Friday, August 28, 2009

R-E-S- . . . P-S-S?**

Research. Who does it? Who cares?

Lately that topic has come up quite a bit in conversation as I have talked to various people in the industry (of advertising).

Sometimes it seems that clients want to use research as a crutch, to validate the proposed campaign, to make decisions for them on what path to take, to help them sleep at night resting comfortably that they will get great ROI (Return-On-Investment. Perhaps one of the most hateful terms to have gotten stuck in my head since entering this dizzy little industry).

I think, for this reason, many creatives and planners have developed something of a resentful relationship towards research. It becomes hampering towards great ideas, diluting creativity, and stymie-ing potential growth. Some planners and creatives I have talked to value infinitely more the power of brilliant intuition.

This intuition comes in particularly valuable when you are called upon to offer keen insights on the spot, without the chance to research a question and assess trends and history. I would, however, counter that great intuition is built upon good research.

Once, long ago, I was fervently dedicated to the idea of becoming a clinical psychologist. People already came to me for advice, and I thought I was pretty darned good at it. I shudder now to think at some of the bad advice I gave. But at the time I thought my intuition was so damned good. It took years of listening to people's problems, studying human behavior in an academic way, going through some of my own life experiences, and taking a step back, pondering, and looking for larger patterns.

Now, when people come to me for advice on relationships, I think I can reliably say my intuition is pretty good. I can quickly look at a situation/dynamic and assess the key issues. Often, I can even offer a really good solution. But this quick intuition has been fed by years of research and analysis.

Ultimately what is intuition, but what is latently within us. And you can only get out of something what you put into it.

Some planners reading this will be quick to observe this is why we often want planners with a wide breadth of experiences, because they can draw upon those experiences to feed their intuitive problem-solving. Life experiences, reading, and deep pondering are definitely forms of research.

But I think we should not be quick to negate other structured forms of qualitative and quantitative research as incredibly valuable to the creative process. Research results from these endeavors can significantly expand our thinking beyond our limited experiences. Sometimes it is just about the right question. We see surprising data that maybe did not fit with our preconceived thinking, but suddenly that puzzle piece makes sense in the whole scheme.

I think therein lies the key to good empirical research feeding the creative process of advertising: asking the right question. Asking the question that probably no one else has thought to ask. It is asking these kinds of questions that has led to some of our great breakthroughs in thinking: air-borne germ theory, a helio-centric planetary system, pizza-on-a-bagel means you can have pizza anytime!

In all seriousness, as a former academic, I value good research and the insights it can bring, but, as a creative person, I know that the best solutions often involve an element of risk, of trying out something that cannot be proven to be fail-safe. And that is bad news to the business suits who want security blanket solutions.

**SPSS . . . the statistics analytics tool. R-E-S-P-E-C-T . . . the Aretha Franklin song . . . never mind.


Zillah said...

very interesting post. as a complement, of sorts, i think that within academia, very few people realize the large and important role creativity plays in tandem with research. it takes a certain amount of creative insight in order to be able to see the kinds of images your research has the potential to reveal, to come up with new and illuminating readings of said research, and so on and so forth. without creativity, your research says nothing, reveals nothing. interpretation is a creative act. (the failure to understand this does help explain why there's so much of a certain kind of terrible academic writing...)

John Quintana said...

Yes. I agree, that is why I made reference to more academic research. The greatest research and questions in academia have come through the same means as great creative works. Often happenstance, but also looking at things from a different angle, interpreting in a new way. I think the problem with academia is, as I have often said, they are often so cloistered, producing work only to be shared amongst their own idiosyncratic conclave.

I recently met some academics who have brought their learning to the business world, and it was interesting to see the ideas and strategies they developed. Not that all academics should go into business . . . .