The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

How creative is your creative brief?

More research to be geared to the needs of creatives, not those of marketing

How well does qualitative research serve the needs of creatives in advertising agencies? I believe that whatever the skill and sensitivity of the researcher or planner, we could produce results which are much more helpful to creativity.

Qualitative research is conducted and de-briefed within a marketing perspective. Marketing looks to research for clear, plausible, analytical presentations, the product is the de-brief. In turn, this leads the research industry to consider that its most prized attribute is the ability to think conceptually.

The creative requirement is less powerful in shaping research than the marketing one. In place of rationality and evaluation, creativity works by intuition, hunches, or unlikely connections. This, in turn, makes it a less clear-cut need to service.

'What about creative briefs?' you may protest and the rejoinder would be, how fresh or how clichéd are your written creative briefs? A wealth of meaning is compacted and codified in creative briefs, with the result that they use a very limited lexicon of words or ideas.

The point is not whether the portrait of users contained in creative briefs are accurate, because invariably they are, but whether they go far enough to characterise the user or encapsulate his/her relationship with the product or brand, far enough, that is, to give the spontaneity and sparkiness from which original creative ideas may spring. Characters from ads or from sit-coms that stick in our minds do so because they are simultaneously identifiable and larger than life. Too easily in briefing creative work there is a tendency to build ideal types that fail to convey human idiosyncrasy.

As a qualitative researcher working to a conventional (marketing) brief, when I am conducting interviews part of me is not listening but rehearsing the de-brief. I am not simply sharing reflections, moods and sensations with respondents, I am also evaluating. My intentions are to encourage respondents to tell me a bit more, to think of different ways to express emotions and sentiments. But with an eye on the marketing objectives I also want to tie them down, I want them to tell me 'why' they think or feel that way - and, when I ask directly, all I do is succeed in shutting them up. They do not know 'why'; often these are feelings that have only just occurred to them so they cannot justify or rationalise them.

Two things have happened in this exchange. I have changed the atmosphere of the session from one that is emotional and open to one that is closed and rational; in doing so I have increased the likelihood that I will have to settle for a response that fails to bring freshness and spontaneity to the creative brief.

Creative people deserve a better service from us, and one that is rooted in the creative mode, as opposed to the marketing mode. They need a research outcome that opens up possibilities. Such an outcome would be more about texture, and consequently is dependent upon our interviewing skills, rather than based upon our powers of analysis.

To accomplish this we need to value the research interviewer as highly skilled. We need to adapt our research tools to serve creativity, to use projective questions, for example, to focus less on the brand and more on individual anthropological meanings and psychological needs. Projections based upon brands play back existing advertising images, whereas projections based upon individual emotions are more likely to produce the unexpected. To take an example from motoring, we may know that a particular marque is associated with the benefit of safety. This is normally the foundation stone for the creative brief. What I want to be able to do is to feed into the creative brief the consumer's range of emotional associations with the concept of safety. In mooching around for fresh ways to express safety, I would like the creatives to have at their disposal individuals' accounts of their range of feelings about safety. If we conduct research into the meaning of safety, we discover it is about security, which is about dependency, which is about laziness, which is about indolence, which is about self-indulgence. Suddenly Volvo takes on the characteristics of a box of chocolates. It makes no sense to me, but its value lies not in being extrapolated and ordered, it is about being left loose and open and potent of fresh creative connections.

We should, much more often than we do, commission, conduct and present research with the sole purpose of providing texture for creatives.

 

Geoff Bayley
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2004