Archive for the ‘ consumer insight ’ Category

How far should planners go?

I had an interesting conversation recently with another planner where the question was raised: what exactly is in scope for planners, and what should be left to the creatives?

Or to put it another way – is the main job of the planner to simply define the task as clearly as possible, or should they also be involved in developing the solution? There seems to be two schools of thought.

Some creatives believe strategy ends with the single-minded proposition. This could be a product truth, a consumer benefit based on an insight, or a brand promise. Planners can add pointers on tone of voice, do’s and don’ts, but otherwise the communication idea is largely left up to the creative teams to develop. Either the proposition is creatively fruitful and everyone’s happy, or it’s not, in which case it’s back to the drawing board to revisit the brief.

There are other creatives who want more than the proposition. They want detail, multiple insights, alternative hooks which could spark an idea. They want texture, thoughtstarters and potential ways in to the solution. The role of planning for these creatives is as much about inspiration, as simplicity. It often means creative thinking starts before the brief is finished. It also assumes that strategy doesn’t end at the brief, and that both planners and creatives will continue to evolve the thinking together based on what’s actually producing interesting creative work.

Obviously personality comes into this, as does the overarching culture of the agency. It’s also wrapped up in whether creatives think planners add any value. The more a creative team rates a planner, the more they are invited to be a part of the creative process. Their opinions are actively sought out, their ideas are given credence. If the creative team doesn’t rate them, or perhaps doesn’t rate planning in general, then they don’t really want planners pissing in the well of inspiration before they get to drink.

I wonder however, will Darwinian selection put an end to this debate, as the demands of modern campaigns push us to work differently.

In many categories, we’ve moved beyond a point where brands are significantly different enough on a product or consumer benefit level, to win with these types of messages. Most brands are “good enough” and the incremental improvements are irrelevant to ordinary people (does anyone need 6 blades in their razor?). We also know that actually, brand differentiation is less important in determining purchase behavior than brand distinction.

In other words the “what you say” part, traditionally owned by the planner as the single-minded proposition, is often less important than the “how you say it part”. Planners have a lot to offer when it comes to insight into tone, language and nuance because they are closer to the people the communication is aimed at, so there’s no reason they can’t re-focus their efforts here.

But more importantly, as the most interesting creative work starts to move further away from straight “advertising” ideas towards richer “multi-faceted and multi-platform” ideas, planners have even more to bring to the party. They may not have expertise when it comes to print artwork or camera techniques, but they are very good at understanding things like cultural context, behavioural trends, user pathways and media behavior. These types of insights are increasingly at the heart of innovative creative ideas, and at the heart of how, when and where they are executed.

So perhaps in the near future when the question comes up again, “how far should planners go?”, the answer will be “all the way to the end”.


Insight Failure

I cannot stand these awful anti-drugs campaigns. Not because I disagree with what they’re trying to do, but because they are so poorly thought out. They’re attempting to solve complex social problems without any understanding of how people actually work. I don’t know what the UK stats on drug use amount to, but I know from the youth insight project I used to run in Ireland, that the vast majority of under 30s had used at least one illegal drug, at least once in their life. Their experience of drugs is not black and white, but many shades of grey (I’m not talking about the book!). They know people who have been completely destroyed by drugs. They know people who used to be a bit messy but have calmed down. They know people who dabble moderately within a pretty normal lifestyle. And they know people who experimented a few times but decided it wasn’t really for them.

Campaigns like the Facebook timeline one are not credible because they directly contradict people’s real life experiences of what happens when you use drugs. Similarly the “natural high” campaign is setting itself up for failure, just like those abstinence campaigns, because they assume that you are either good or bad. You’re either aligned with those who do, or those who don’t. Asking people to choose a side is both unappealing and unrealistic given how varied an individual’s behaviour and opinions can be in any given situation. And particularly on these social issues, if you force the choice you can expect to continually fight a losing battle.

The reality is, that the non-drug-users/abstainers group will always disproportionately have more of the straightlaced, play by the rules, cautious people, and the drug users/non-abstainers group will always have more of the riskier, dangerous, don’t give a fuck people. The celebrity ambassadors in the “natural high” campaign only enforce this point. Cool will always be against you – don’t ask teenagers to choose sides. And if you really want to really tackle the problem don’t frame it as a black and white issue at all. Give people realistic and practical alternatives in between, and then they are likely to follow a path which isn’t perfect but good enough.

Ultimately the failure of these campaigns comes down to insight. All of these campaigns clearly come from the perspective of non users and show zero insight into the people they are trying to talk to. They don’t feel like they are coming from insiders. They feel like a top down message from moralising outsiders. So they will only appeal to people who already think the same way. And I think this illustrates something really important about insight.

Insight isn’t about a single truth that you can write down on a piece of paper and give to people and think “now they have insight too”. Insight is about understanding the people you’re talking to, to such an extent that you develop an instinct about tone of voice, about nuance, about the little details that will resonate.  There’s a reason we planners sit in on all those focus groups, explore  online forums or sometimes if we’re very lucky immerse ourselves in their real lives.  It’s not to find “insights”, it’s to develop “insight” which can then be applied to help shape the work.

That’s also why the single page brief or worse still, the single line proposition, is often so limited. It doesn’t capture the small seemingly insignificant stuff which can mark the difference between authentic and contrived. This type of insight is only ever understood and passed on to others through face to face conversation, probably multiple conversations. So the briefing session is a good start but not nearly enough. What planners really need in order to apply their insight is much closer collaboration with creative teams, throughout the strategic and creative process, right through to the end.

Future of Planning

I was lucky enough to be shortlisted for the Admap Future of Planning Prize, the winners of which were announced last week. The calibre of the three winning entries was exceptional – some incredibly original and thought-provoking thinking is on offer here and free to download for the next week.

Nick Hirst wrote about “Experience Architecture” which I found particularly fascinating as someone who started their career in a media agency and was always interested in cognitive psychology – context is key to how we understand or experience a message. My takeout from his article is the need for creative planning that is much more involved in the when, where and how ie. staying involved in the practical application of the idea –  and media planning which is as qualitative as it is quantitative. So many times I’ve encountered media choices that look great on paper (large reach against the right audience at the best price) and yet it’s the wrong moment, the wrong mood and mindset, so it’s unlikely ever to convert people. Whether those two planning roles should be united or separate remains to be seen…

Tom Woodnutt wrote about a concept called “Mutuality”, also highly relevant in modern planning given that like it or not, the influence of the general public on actively shaping your brand is reaching new heights, so you might aswell invite them in. And a philosophy that puts give and take at the heart of brands is definitely something I would support. And Philippa Dunjay wrote about microcutures, which I think is a really fruitful and creatively rich place to look for both target consumer potential, and ideas on how brands can add value.

There were also many excellent pieces by the other shortlisted authors, all on WARC if you have a subscription. In particular I’d check out Brian Millar’s piece which offers a compelling invitation for undervalued planning talent to think beyond advertising agencies and make a mark on the wider world, John Shaw’s voice of experience that elegantly looks at the things that will never change in planning, and Sarah Booth’s piece which is a refreshingly written take on cutting through the trends in plannery thinking and going back to basics.

And when you’ve read all those and for some unfathomable reason still want to read more, I’ve linked to my article below.

Taking a step back, I think I was writing slightly off the topic as my essay probably focuses more on the future of business and brands, than an analysis of the discipline of planning within an agency. But it was an interesting process to work through the essay title and to really think about the work we do as planners. I also found myself tying together some of the recurring strands of thinking which have been bouncing around this blog over the last few years.

Would love to hear your thoughts…  Do you see any truth in the wisdom argument, or have I lost the wood for the trees?

Wise Planning by Neasa Cunniffe

Facebook Timeline, Memory and Life Satisfaction

Today was the first time I properly scrolled down to the end of my Facebook Timeline. It seems that I’ve been on Facebook for about 7 years now, and the early posts were genuinely a bit of a time jolt. When I first joined Facebook it was little over a year old and had just been opened out to a few non-US colleges and Trinity happened to be one of them. We had an American friend who was prodding us all to join, though none of us were really that interested. The main reason we did in the end, was because we all had to endure the same Statistics & Research Methodology lab sessions which were two hours long and often incredibly boring but included access to computers, and this new “poking” thing seemed like a much more fun way to occupy ourselves during class.

I’ve been looking through my friends’ timelines too. Even though they only span a few years, it’s incredible to see the progression. You can witness as people transition from budding relationships to wedding photos, from images of mindless sleepless festivalling, to barbeques and babies. My generation have only started to record their lives halfway through but future generations will no doubt have a scrapbook from birth. Perhaps parents will start their children’s profile pages for them, uploading that first “Katie is born” photo, and hand profile control over to their children as soon as they are old enough to grasp touchscreen technology (which is about 3 years old these days?!) Or perhaps, they won’t hand over control until they feel Katie is mature enough to understand the implications of this public life record she is about to start making.

There’s been lots of talk about the pitfalls and risks of living our lives in public, and how we need to be cognisant of how our personal “brand” is being shaped by what we choose to say and show online. But actually, given the amount of self-monitoring that people put into deciding which profile photo to use and what type of status update will garner Likes from their friends, I suspect we’ll learn our lessons on personal branding quickly and early.

Actually, I think there might be some much bigger questions to consider. Like how Timeline could shape our memory of our lives and therefore our life satisfaction.

Memory is exceptionally unstable and open to influence. We don’t have perfect records of our lives, we have perceptions of what happened. And these perceptions often change over time, replacing the original memory and becoming the “truth”. With Timeline however, we are physically recording a particular story.  This could be an accurate representation of our experiences. Or it could be a highly manipulated version of events. Most likely it’s a blend of the two.  Yet looking back on it over many years, it will probably become our dominant perspective on what actually happened.

Which brings us onto the ultimate question: whether this Facebook memory will impact on how we perceive our life’s happiness. Happiness is often measured as a combination of two things – how happy we are in the moment (our experiencing self) and how happy we are with our lives when we reflect on it (our remembering self).  Facebook works for the remembering self. People are more likely to put a positive spin on their social network page which creates a rosier picture. Facebook content also tends to focus on relationships and experiences, over material goods or achievements – this is the stuff we really care about on our deathbeds.

It’s entirely possible therefore that our Facebook memory will give us a much more positive memory of our lives, and therefore improve our overall life satisfaction. The only sticky point is whether Facebook helps or hampers our enjoyment of life in the moment, as we experience it. Lots of people find that constantly taking photos, tweeting and posting status updates are behaviours that interrupt the fun instead of adding to it. On the other hand, lots of other people seamlessly integrate this technology and don’t feel they’re losing out on enjoyment.

Either way, we’re all on a fascinating journey – and we’ll no doubt have a fascinating record of it at the end.

Intuition and Culture

Just stumbled on this presentation I did last year for the UCD Institute of Food and Health Policy Seminar Series. I ended up being snow stranded in London so couldn’t make it over in time to present in person and the brilliant Eilish Burke managed to step in last minute on my behalf. The topic was: “What will consumers want from their food in 2025?”.

It was a bit of an unusual one for me as I wasn’t presenting to the usual suspects from the marketing community but to an audience of manufacturers, retailers, regulators and public health policy advisers.  The idea of the day was to get a mix of perspectives and methodologies so everyone could learn from the expertise of different sectors.

My role on the day was to represent Adland, as the artful wielders of culture and manipulators of public opinion, and to spill our secrets on predicting consumer desires. Of course we all know that there are no secret weapons, but for anyone who’s interested, the presentation is linked below.

Intuition and Culture

The Confirmation Bias and Online Research

Myself and my colleague, the superb Mark Sng, wrote this piece for Admap. It looks at bias and brands in the online world.

Subscription access (apologies!) but here’s the summary below. You can click on the link at the end to get the full article.

Comments and debate welcome!


A recent report from Google suggested that, by the time people reach the shops, many of them have already made a decision on what they are going to buy because of the prevalence of online research beforehand. They call this the ‘zero moment of truth’.

We would suggest that the purchase decision is partly made, even before this research starts. We begin our brand and product research with a hypothesis of what our preference will be, and this emotional attachment will trump the objective information we encounter. This is because our innate confirmation bias makes us more likely to seek out and believe information that aligns with what we already think.

Smart companies however, leverage this confirmation bias to turn warm fans into active advocates online, to create a ripple effect of positive endorsement, and to place themselves at the start of the purchase funnel with a significantly unfair advantage.

Click for full article

Escaping the Confirmation Bias

In the wonderful world of pre-testing concepts and advertising territories, everyone in that viewing room has their own prior opinion of which one should “win”. As our innocent consumers offer up their pearls of wisdom on which idea would make them more likely to buy our brand of juice / car / handset, we only pick up on the bits we like:

“Did you hear how she said that this idea would grab her attention?” or “Remember that woman who thought this territory was patronising?”

Every time someone hears what they want to hear, they’ll turn around and give a smile and knowing nod to the rest of the group, as if to say “See, I told you this was the route which would immediately treble our sales overnight”.

This isn’t because we’re stupid or stubborn or lazy. It’s a natural tendency, and it has a name – the confirmation bias – and it’s one of the most widely prevalent biases in human reasoning.  We’ve developed this bias as a time-saving technique. It lets us start out with an instinctive hypothesis, and then we can just look for evidence to prove it, rather than disprove it (disproving is the proper scientific way of finding the truth, by the way).

When we’re observing a focus group, the confirmation bias makes us more likely to believe the responses which support our views and dismiss those which don’t, with a pinch of salt: “Yeah, but that was just a couple of people, everyone else loved it”.  The confirmation bias is why several people will view the exact same group, yet come out with very different conclusions: “Yeah I know that’s what it says in the debrief, but I was there and that’s definitely not the impression I got about this route”.

There’s a fundamental problem with pre-testing concepts and territories. The issue is that we’re testing everyone’s pet theories, instead of opening up our minds to solutions which no one in our small circle has thought of.

Which brings me to the chart pictured above, courtesy of the very wise Sophie Robbins, one of our NY colleagues who visited this week. The only way to broach the stuff we don’t know we don’t know –  and break free of the confirmation bias – is by going out into the field without a hypothesis to test.

It means talking to real people in the real world and letting the conversations naturally take their course, rather than steering people back to a discussion guide that we’ve decided contains the most important questions. Then maybe we will stumble upon some genuinely fresh insights and fresh territories– some of the many interesting angles which are out there, and we just don’t know we don’t know.

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