I just came back from the “Head, heart or herd?” APG debate that gathered a panel of 5 inspiring speakers around a question that is as old as unresolved: how do we best understand consumers?
Brainjuicer‘s John Kearon suggested that we should insist with direct consumer research, but that we should fix it: rather than asking rational questions such as comprehension and brank linkage (he mocked Millward Brown more than once…), we should probe for emotional response. He supported his point by showing how emotional response is directly correlated to the success of a campaign (as per the IPA Effectiveness Awards), while more traditional brand attributes show no correlation.
Neurosense’s Gemma Calvert did her best to sell neuroscience: kind of a tough job when facing an audience of people that make a living out of advertising, and that would be left unemployed if you proved that you could influence people’s behaviour just by trigging the right synapsis, effectively replacing a creative discipline with a more sophisticated form of remote control.
IPA’s President Rory Sutherland switched on the “Behavioural Economics” autopilot. If you happened to even walk by any London ad agency in the past 12 months, you probably picked up on this already. If not, watch this.
Herd’s Mark Earls was promoting his popular book theory, that stresses how the best way to understand and influence human beings is to look at us as social entities rather than individuals (“think waves more than molecules”). One of the examples he made is how you’re 57% more likely to become obese if one of your friend is obese. (The original research makes for an even stronger case)
Grey’s Nick Southgate took a minimalist approach, inviting planners to go back to the basics and step directly into other people’s shoes; which doesn’t necessarily mean trying on women’s lingerie if you happen to be a man, but rather think at a comparable situation where you’d experience the same feeling, and establish an empathic relationship. In his words, comparing how the purchase of a £4.000 bag for a middle-upper class woman would feel similar to a new computer for him.
So, who was right? Everyone, and noone. It’s complicated.
While we can agree on how quantitative emotional testing can be more reliable than traditional methods, it has an inherent limitations: apart from the fact that there’s no consensus around an emotional model (I tend to trust Kearon’s 7 basic emotions because Tim Roth is a kick-ass actor, but there is no shortage of competing theories), such a research can only evalute and not explain. Let alone inspire. Consequently, it can only come further down the road, and we’d be replacing a broken traffic light with a slightly better one. Thanks, but we could use a map that shows us how to get there first.
Neuroscience can be such a map, and I can’t help thinking that as an industry we’re in self denial about it because it could negate the value of everything we do. However, it is true that, although it’s made giant steps in the past 20 years, there’s still so much we need to discover about the brain that it now feels like the few lights we see around make it even clearer that we’re wandering in the dark. Besides this, as scientific knowledge spreads, it creates a level field for all actors, representing no competitive advantage. The evidence of this is in the example Dr Calver made of a campaign that made good use of brain science: she quoted 118-118, due to a number of executional elements (namely the repetition of sound, and the antropomorphization of the characters). These are the very same executional elements I used in a pitch for a similar service back in Italy a good 4 years ago, the same ones that two of our competitors used. (We must have all felt very smart when we thought of it…)
Behavioural Economics shares the same problem: it’s great, we should all take into account, but it’s not going to give any of us an edge. On top of that, it’s still a branch of economics, and that means that it explains today why you were wrong yesterday. It’s a science, and we shouldn’t ask science to be prescriptive, but rather to be explanatory: however, there is still a long way to go before it can offer a comprehensive explanation, rather than a list of anecdotes.
Herd thinking is good in reframing the problem, especially in certain category: rather than asking ourselves how we can convince one person of something, we should ask how we can convince a network, a community, a group… Having said that, the problem still stands. How does that convincing begin? If I start investing in a pension fund because that’s what people do when they turn 30 (we don’t, but we should, so let’s pretend we do…), how do I make this process happen in the first place? Is there anything more to this than the traditional theories of early adopters and influence? Or are we still stuck with Malcolm Gladwell?
Finally, Southgate’s “have a thought about it yourself”: it’s easy to dismiss it as naive, and partly because it is. But it’s also a rallying cry to get our hands dirty, go out and do the things we pontificate about. As such, it’s much needed and much welcome. On the other hand, it’s the evil twin of the “corridor test” that we all despise. Unless you’re clever, open-minded and possess critical thinking, it’s very easy to fall for self-delusion and fuck it up.
However, Southgate offers the most honest approach: whatever methodology we choose, whether it’s consumer testing, neuroscience, behavioural economics, ethnographic research or pulling random results from Google, the definition of the input and the analysis of the output is still down to us. The perfect tool will only do half of the job, with the person using the tool accounting for the other half. If we’re bright, we can discover unexpected, inspiring insights. If we’re unprepared or plain stupid, no methodology, no matter how brilliant, is going to save the day.
So in the end, Southgate was right, or at least more insightful than the other speakers. It all starts with us. That’s why he got my vote.