Rethinking Research in Setting Your Agency Up for Success

Hunting for the 'why' in the consumer landsape

I used to be a creative director. Then, in 2015, I left advertising to co-found a technology-enabled research technology firm that applies cultural anthropology and artificial intelligence to decode the "why" behind trends and ideas. This move generated a lot of curiosity among marketing people. But the question I get the most is: 

"Did you leave advertising because the agency model is broken?"

Short answer? Yes. Because I thought it was. Long answer? It starts with a "But," and is followed by "I was wrong."

That's because the more I've examined the situation as a researcher, the more I have come to realize that so many chief marketing officers and marketing teams are setting their agencies up to fail.

Here's how they're doing it. 

It all starts with the standardized approach to the creative process. Yes, there are variations on this process. But for the most part the steps are:

• Marketer gives client brief to agency
• Agency gathers research
• Agency writes creative brief/client approves it
• Concept development
• Testing and approval
• Creative production
• Media deployment
• Measurement

So, where does the trouble start? That depends on who is pointing the finger. 

The strategy and account teams will point to the client and say they did not provide enough time to research and finalize the brief. The creative teams will point to the strategy and account team to say the brief was not insightful or informative. The client will point to the creative team and say the creative does not accurately represent the creative brief they signed off on. 

Ask me, and I will tell you that the problem lies with marketing teams not owning the entire consumer research process before building the client brief. 

Typically, the marketing team approaches the agency with the client brief, some segmentation data and business objectives in hand. The expectation is that the agency will go forth and discover insights into the consumer. But when the time comes to do foundational research, CMOs give agencies minimal time, minimal budget and minimal resources. Foundational research now becomes a "nice-to-have" benefit, not a necessity. The money is saved for production, and if there is a research budget, it's earmarked for concept testing. 

So where does the consumer perspective come from?

Strategists and account teams are forced to use various syndicated research or trend reports or do their own firsthand research to try to understand the needs of the consumer. The agency must then match or link this thinking back to the client brief.

Instead of investing in consumer-focused research early in the process, most creative briefs are built from incomplete data and industry-led assumptions made by the client and then passed on to the agency.

The key to the innovation process is first asking what an idea or trend really means to consumers. Trends rarely ever mean one thing. They carry several interpretations in consumers' minds. So the innovation team's job is to take those interpretations and select those that most align with the organizational goals and competencies. It is only at this point that ideation begins. 

Yet, the more I talk to colleagues in the agency world, the more I hear about agencies churning out creative concepts, only to be told that the brief and strategy need to be revisited and reworked. 

Am I suggesting CMOs force the agency to follow the innovation process? No. I am saying that the CMO needs to take responsibility for consumer-centric research to decode the "why" before the agency must do so on its own. 

This won't just save time and money. It will make the marketing team a more informed client. It will give marketers more confidence to approve better creative work. It will also force the marketing team to align on the purpose for the work before sending their agency on the proverbial wild goose chase. 

Consider this alternative: 

• Client decodes and quantifies the implicit meanings behind ideas and developments in culture and society to identify emerging trends and category opportunities.
• Consumers most engaged in this culture are identified and defined through the lens of their beliefs rather than behaviors.
• Client internally aligns insights with business goals. 
• Agency is then briefed. 

In this process, the CMO's marketing team is forced to be more accountable, the strategy and accounting teams can focus on helping the agency nurture the most powerful insights and allow creative teams to do what they do best—focus on creative ideation and execution. 

We are currently seeing several Fortune 1000 clients looking at how innovation and product development frameworks can help improve or enhance communication and marketing approaches. Odds are that many CMOs have insight teams that are understaffed or underutilized. Consider what resources CMOs already have that could help them take ownership of who their consumer is, and what they truly believe and care about. 

They say insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Change your approach, take ownership of foundational consumer research, and arm your agency with the "why."

You will be happier. 

Your agency will be happier. 

And the better results will make your shareholders happier.

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Jason Partridge
Jason Partridge is president and co-founder of MotivBase.

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