I want to pick your brain but how do I do it?

Went to a brilliant APG debate with Rory Sutherland, the Herdmeister Mark Earls, John Kearon at Brainjuicer, Nick Southgate and Gemma Calvert.

Each speaker debated how best to understand who we are and what we need to be aware of working in this industry to guide our approach as planners. The success of the event was largely due to each speaker articulating their stance clearly, directly and with energy.

Each speaker presented a model/way of analysing consumer behaviour.

The idea that market research can be more a hinderance than a help was raised in most discussion. (John claims that “we are gloriously emotional” so it is just silly to treat market research as the be all and end all)

John Kearon used the example of the Gorilla ad – it failed Millwood’s Brown pre-testing yet was one of their most successful campaigns. Surely this suggests we need to stop treating research as the Holy Grail and start thinking about communications which make people feel something too?

He talked about a particular technique they use at Brainjuicer show people’s facial expressions with particular emotions and asks people in research to choose a face they identified with the ad the most.

A nice quote from John:

“Emotion is massively more effective and efficient as a measure…if you stop people from feeling you won’t get good work”

Gemma Calvert looks to the role of the subconscious for the answers. Neuroscience is a relatively new model (20 years-ish) but it is causing a a substantial amount of stir within the industry. She talked about the fact that although we think we are in control of our actions, there is in fact so much stuff that happens below our awareness.

She thinks we can use brain imaging to find out what people think – this is the way to update our traditional research methods as opposed to measuring human behaviour on an emotional scale which John Kieron discussed before she spoke.

“Although we think we can feel things like John said, it feels like we have a running commentary that we are in control, I don’t think this is the case”

Rory began his 10 minute slot explaining that there is no single truth in any area of marketing (which immediately made me feel better).

What he did say was that the model whereby

Brand preference + rational persuasion = purchase behaviour


Although not many of us instinctively believed this, it has been a convenient fiction contrived to defend the advertising industry against accusations of working in an underhand fashion.

“If you want a realistic model of what effects human behaviour we have to acknowledge there are more forces than brand preference at work”

This is where I personally become interested by behavioural economics, by Mark’s ‘Herd’ theory amongst others. I think they all point to interesting ideas about the way we behave. It is often irrational, yet advertising still insists many times in that it isn’t. Choice architecture, praxiology, framing effects all these operate very powerfully at a short distance from the moment of purchase. If we get this wrong then the advertising will be less effective.

The tiny biases in human behaviour, the very small changes in the way one can frame a question have a massive effect on the answers people give. A good approach Rory highlighted would be to start as close to the point of decision or purchase as one can, think about the context then work your way back from there.

Whether it was Mark arguing that we are social creatures and need to stop seeing people as calculating machines or Nick Southgate who charmingly stood for his belief that without empathy and addressing our own prejudices first we are doomed if we think we can understand others. All debates pointed to the need for planners to explore and remain interested in a diverse range of disciplines.

The conclusion to the evening? Don’t just use traditional research, it is outdated. It can still be useful if you use it to prove a point but it is chiefly there for clients to feel safe and feel confident in what we are doing. This often doesn’t lead to very exciting work though.

Nick Southgate had a point, we do probably need to start with ourselves first. If we are supposed to be planners and work with the aim to turn human understanding into business advantage then being empathetic and self aware is crucial. Empathy as others have discussed already can be an extremely powerful tool. If one is not empathising with the people they are trying to talk to then they are in the wrong job.

As an industry we are getting better at investigating new models – but it is about time to put them into practice and change the way we work. This is not happening enough yet. When it does things will get very interesting.


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