How far can co-creation go? Respondent generated advertising

Research2009_GParsons95cutd  This is a blog entry to summarise the thinking behind the workshop I ran at the Market Research Society 2009 conference with Elena Ionita Head of Planning at Leo Burnett in Bucharest. I have uploaded at the end of this posting the handout we provided then from the study which they carried out which you can read more about on Leo She choose whether you want to read about it in Romanian or English.

But lets pull out some of the big issues here. I love the way in which a new idea gains traction and massively evolves as you work with it. Its one reason why I can't stand to sit in meetings where people assert that their organisation gets it right first time. Its nonsense, the first iteration is normally a faint echo of where an idea goes as it develops. So the rule has to be to iterate fast to get rid of the duff versions and to find out what is useful. And this idea has moved a long way now.

Version no. 1 was something I peddled round London in 2004 I think it was. It was basically the idea of getting respondents to write ads to work out the advertising norms of the category. I thought it was a pitch winner because it gave you the norms of the category at low cost. It forced the creatives to do something better than respondents had. And by showing the client the language of the category as cliche it potentially showed up competitor agencies by showing their ideas to be passe and derivative.  No ad agency in London I spoke to at the time would touch the idea – but agencies are of course very conservative places.

Showergel Leo Burnetts took me up on the idea in 2006 when I ran a training day on among other things advertising research on my first visit to Romania – I have returned many times since to train agencies there. The way they approached the study was to interview young women in friendship pairs, ask them to write ads across 5 market categories.  What emerged was a lexicon for the advertising conventions in each category.  There was an order effect where the more cliched ideas emerged first and the wilder ones were usually rejected by those thinking them up as to experimental ( I will come back to these in a minute). When asked to precis their ideas respondents would throw out extraneous details and deliver core cliches.

Elena's take on this is very interesting. Romania has big issues with qualitative pretesting. What the research exercise showed is that when respondents 'improve' ads they are likely to make suggestions that match what they already know about the advertising language of the category. In other words they add cliches. So it has raised major questions the validity of qualitative pretesting.

Secondly it has started a debate about what clients really want. By mapping the cliches we find the norms of the category. Now many clients may just want the cliches. But instead of tango lasting weeks as all the various parties claim they are trying to find a new creative treatment only to sell in a vignette which has been seen many times before, now the issue about cliches is firmly on the table If that is what the client wants and believes to be effective then here's a much quicker cheaper way to draw out what respondents identify as advertising norms.

Thirdly it is about raising creative standards. the first round of creative ideas often takes a a couple of weeks to work through and most of it doesn't survive. Wouldn't it raise creative standards and reduce costs to build category maps. Semioticians of course can do this but to a rather different price tag. So here's a way to agree the norms before we set out to break the rules or to somehow rework cliches to make them seem fresh.

 My last take on this is about co-creation. One of the best things about online research is the way in which we have begun to recognise that materials generated by and introduced by respondents are much more interesting and generative than those usually introduced by the agency or research company. Because they come from the respondents' own world.  What we take into groups isn't of course advertising but advertising ideas. And there's a certain irony in introducing our own material before we have understood what is already in respondents experience.

 The really interesting aspect for me is what started to come out of the shadows and which needs further investigation.  The cult of the creative says that creatives are uniquely placed to tap the zeitgeist and to come up with original ideas which make connections with the population. That axiom has never yet been proven. How exactly is a creative team better qualified than the general public to have original ideas?  Creatives fulfil an essential craft function which guilds of craftspeople have always fulfilled.  Namely to prevent the overt theft of ideas from others in the guild. And to ensure that work is executed capably and artistically. 

If it turns out that creative ideas can be generated from just about anywhere the creative role is humbled but not I believe diminished. Because the craft skills are as important as ever. Ordinary people don't have the skills to write novels and make films. Much of what they produce is derivative. But the internet has shown that originality and brilliance are indeed widespread. As branded content becomes more and more important I believe that the professionals will direct the largest and most complex pieces. But as brands surround themselves – it is going to be hard to claim that only professional creatives should be allowed to provide this kind of material. Citizen journalism is here to stay. Citizen branded content is an intriguing concept. Over 10 years ago I used to surf websites where Honda drivers uploaded audio recordings of the accelerating engines of their souped up Civics – and wonder where it would all lead. I believe I have a clearer view now.

Here's the handout from the MRS conference workshop:Download Handout for Advertising Cliches workshop

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