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Should Researchers Be More Like “Advertising Planners”?

Conceptual intelligence, the ability to think laterally, link different aspects together – these are some of the hallmarks of great thinking. Can research offer this? Great planners would pride themselves on these kind of abilities.

By Edward Appleton

I was recently lucky enough to be given a copy of the February 2012 issue of Admap  thanks to the folk at Warc  – and spent some time leafing through it.

I was impressed – by the mix of content offered, but notably by the quality of thinking and writing. The actual focus of this issue was Branded Entertainment, but no more than about a third of the issue was dedicated to it.

The rest was a mixed bag of highly topical articles, including an excellent piece from J. Walker Smith from The Futures Company on trends for global brands, a great “myth busting” piece on Social Media marketing from Les Binet and Sarah Carter of DDB, and an interesting article on Semiotics from Dr. Kishore Budha of the University of Leeds. There was more.

An exciting mix – and one I think MR can learn from. Here’s my take:

1. Admap describes itself as “Ideas and evidence for marketing people”. The articles I read all had one thing in common: relevance to Marketing Strategy. Research needs to do that too – building on evidence, not just  focusing on it, linking to impact.

2. Planners in Advertising Agencies (quite a few of the contributors to this Admap issue are planners) have the task of linking insights to the creative product. Whether or not this particular breed is in good shape, the thought is correct – Research needs to link Insights to “something”. Whether it’s innovation, product design, social media strategy… that are directly linked to sales impact.

Increasingly, insights are going to be so readily available (Google’s very recent foray into MR indicates a real sea-change could be underway)  that the focus on tangible value-add needs to increase.

3. Our main publication vehicles and industry bodies need to energize themselves, in my opinion, with perspectives from the “creative fringes” of research: trend forecasting, innovation agencies, design agencies, media planning for example.

Cross-fertilization is invariably a powerful tool. Energy often arises at the intersection of related disciplines.

4. Good writing is a skill that can transform the apparently bland  into something more startling. Take the opening paragraph of  Molly Flatt’s article (p. 13, Admap Feb. 2012): “If you prefer imparting information to opening a conversation, you must be a monologue-obsessed PR machine”. Her actual topic: Social Media.

Great writing enthuses. How often do we manage that in Research? If we don’t have the skills ourselves – similar to infographics, in my view – we should either train/ practice, or maybe reach out and hire talent. Ms. Flatt  is just an example, there are plenty of gifted journalists working freelance.

5. Visual presentation has a large perceptual impact. Admap is pretty cerebral, lots of word-heavy articles – but check out the front cover, and you see that whilst certainly not exceptional in design terms, it’s conceptual. Just one example  –

Contrast this to the cover of the March 2012 issue of Research Live – we see R.I.P. writ large. Depressing – and not conceptual at all.

6. Thought leaders, academics, business authors  from the increasingly merging worlds of psychology, philosophy, economics, trends, semiotics are powerful forces, that have the ability to capture the imagination and attention at the highest level of Business.

Research needs to define itself more broadly, embrace the most exciting thinkers into our fold. We need to infuse our thinking with that of related fields.

Behavioral Economics isn’t the only “hot topic” out there.

Summa summarum: conceptual intelligence, the ability to think laterally, link different aspects together – these are some of the hallmarks of great thinking. Can research offer this?  Great planners (in all likelihood working in Communication Agencies in English speaking contexts) would pride themselves on these kind of abilities.

It’s something I think we Researchers could  learn from. We don’t all have to work in Advertising, but we should all aspire to great thinking, surely. And if that means balancing the lateral with the literal, then so be it.

Curious, as ever, as to others views.


Originally published on Research & Reflect

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10 responses to “Should Researchers Be More Like “Advertising Planners”?

  1. Absolutely, researchers should be more like planners — if they want their work to help generate ideas rather than simply answer predefined answers.

    The job of a planners is synthesize chaotic situation into compelling questions that inspire creative and surprising answers, and not only from people with “design” and “creative” in their title.

    Traditional market research is effective for identifying what chaotic regions might be worth exploring, and once some ideas have been generated picking among them — but for the work between those points, the tools of planning and design thinking are completely indispensable.

  2. When account planning as a stand-alone discipline was invented in London, around the 1970’s if I remember correctly, these new account planners tended to come from the research department. What we might call ‘the more insightful and creative researchers’ became planners. So it’s interesting to me that this question has been raised.
    I think researchers absolutely need to think more like planners. I also think they should all be forced to read that great British institution ADMAP!

  3. Nice article and true I read 4 copies of admap I picked up at the warc event and found them a very good read – at the intersection between research and its practical application and interpretation.

  4. I like your point about writing skills, Edward – I think there are a lot of businesslike writers in the biz, and a lot of clear writers, but a magazine article needs different skills from a report (perhaps it shouldn’t!). In general the writing skills in the “plannersphere” are far better, though sometimes there’s more sizzle than steak.

    Having edited regular publications in my time, though, you’re very much dependent on what you’ve got coming in, and what kind of shape you can knock it into – and this goes treble for unpaid content, which trade publications rely on. (Admap may have big freelancer budgets, but I doubt this is the case for most research mags.)

  5. Interesting comments, thanks all

    @stephen – does Planning in your view have a positioning issue too? Are departments expanding, staying flat, or attracing less of the FTE budgets? I sometimes wonder (as an ex-Planner) if this “discipline” has trouble explaining its raison d’etre because of its rather fluid nature and multiple interfaces
    @jon – thanks for your comments. Did you see 4 at the WARc event? I clearly didn’t have the right pair of spectacles on 😉
    @tom – totally agree with all you say, and doff my cap to someone who has done an “editing” job which I genuinely find so so challenging. You’re right about there being a difference between mag. content and MR reports – however, maybe that’s a sort of Shadowing challenge, all Report writers in MR should have to write their Summnary/ Reco. as if it’s for a Business Magazine, and they only have one narrow A4 column. Just a thought

  6. Edward, I might be coming at your ideas from an odd angle. The context for my work is design consulting, so I do not have insight into how well positioned planners (or market researchers) are within their organizations. What I do know is that if I want to position my *findings* to improve their chances of being used by an organization, approaching it in the way planners do helps a great deal. By “approaching it in the way planners do” I mean a couple of things. 1) Condensing the findings so they can fit comfortably in a person’s mind; 2) treating the discovery/development/articulation of a perspective on the problem as a research product at least as important as the factual content; and 3) helping teams zoom down from the the height of statistical behaviors into the concrete personal experiences and behaviors that make or ruin strategies — the stuff which sparks the least-obvious and most promising ideas.

    This approach doesn’t work for all kinds of research problems, but for ones meant to inform creative work, including many kinds of “non-creative” problem-solving it seems to work best.

  7. Stephen – does your industry have forums, magazines specifically for Research? I think research into product design aspects is fascinating.

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