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Planners get the research they deserve

This time we were interested in interrogating the working relationship between Planners and researchers, from formal briefings, to going-in hypotheses to the impact of behavioural economic theories on the quality of what is produced. The underlying theme was that things are harder and more complex than ever and that it’s incumbent on Planners to go the extra mile to get the research they need – and want.

As ever there were three perspectives on the problem: Wendy Gordon, the grand guru of qual, Kirsty Fuller the extraordinarily acute and planning oriented Founder and CEO of Flamingo – and John Griffiths, planning, research and creative polymath.

John blasted energetically onto the stage and proceeded to fire off 20 minutes of intricate thinking, deep insight and a multitude of ideas. If ever you need reminding of just how creative and exciting planning and research can be – go to our YouTube channel and listen to John.

Cantering through some early examples of the misuse of creative development research – the start of the Heineken campaign for example – he attested the importance of persistence and luck – and a willingness to be wrong. But for John the absolutely key skill for the Planner is the ability to generate really excellent hypotheses. To help us all out he outlined the 10 he thinks are most important. You can read about them in detail in Awards on this site. It’s worth it.

But in addition to that, he offered a rallying cry to Planners: Ask questions you don’t know the answer to, be expert at framing ideas and developing hypotheses and remember that your cleverness needs to move faster than your salary. Don’t use research like slabs of carbohydrate – learn to cook yourself from fresh ingredients, and use the resources available to you in London of some of the best research minds in the world as they won’t just do research for you, they’ll help you to think.

Wendy Gordon had different, quieter and more reflective perspective on the issue and was wary of golden age thinking, as best practice has always been elusive. For her research is often painful because human beings are involved. They have a myriad of biases that influence their thinking, and the law of least effort make good enough, good enough. She berated Planners for poor practice around stimulus and boring approaches to research structure. She bemoaned the drive towards acceptable that derives from just noticeable difference between executions being researched to death. She held out for the strong creative idea with executions based on a solid core of thinking.

Wendy believes that there is fundamental drive at work in the process of research based on aversion to losing and a desire to cling to the status quo and tend to the conservative.

It’s hard to be the Doubting Thomas when the prevailing orthodoxy in a team is driving in one direction but it remains incredibly important for Planners to voice dissent and create space for new thinking. Equally we need to be really careful about the framing of problems as it has fundamental impact on the solution you reach. Frame a problem negatively to get through a process; frame it positively to open up an exciting opportunity.

She reminded us of the profound thinking by Daniel Kahneman on intuition and bias and made the simple and compelling suggestion that Planners get colleagues to point out their unconscious biases. It’s hard to do Planning on your own. It always was. We should look out for each other, and develop a shared language, and just take that little bit more time to examine ourselves and our approach before we embark on what should be a research adventure, not a closing down of mediocre options.

Kirsty Fuller was passionate about the loss of the close Planner/Researcher collaboration based on a shared understanding and mutual respect. She went straight to the heart of the question – do Planners get the research they deserve? Well life is complicated and lots of effort is required from both sides so of course the answer is yes and no…but there’s nothing fluffy about it. There has always been poor research but now there’s a bigger driver at play, which is the distancing of Planners from the research process and an increased disinterest in developing a constructive relationship.

Kirsty is clear: Planners are more conservative than they should be. They are focused on clear purpose and more interested in ‘showing than knowing’. They gravitate to agencies that think like them. By comparison the more senior client community are more engaged in culture and insight and have fewer prejudices about what research can deliver. Research has an extraordinarily diverse array of approaches from semiotics, to mobile ethnography and companies like Flamingo look far outside of the traditional qual researcher skill set to recruit designers and journalists too – so there is far more on offer than the Planning community regularly accesses.

Clients are keener to look beyond group discussions than Planners are, and there has never been a greater need for cultural and consumer understanding – particularly on global projects where the use of individual London-based Planner intuition is particularly inappropriate.

Planners and researchers need to spend quality time together and Planners need to lose the ‘let’s just get through it’ attitude and over protection of idea, and reignite a mindset that’s about learning and discovery. They need to understand that uncovering a cultural insight via an executional idea is a misuse of research and doesn’t help with understanding whether an IDEA has cultural resonance. Clients go into the process looking for understanding via a cultural map and in a spirit of needing and wanting understand. Learning together is an exciting process and Planners should be re-discovering the fascination of different ways of looking at a problem.

There is much joy to be had from opening your mind to different markets and different cultural dynamics and be eager to learn and excited about the prospect.

As ever, I left the event hyper stimulated and full of new ideas, with Noisy Thinking echoing round my brain. But unusually for me the evening’s thinking had struck an elegiac chord. When I was a junior Planner my mentors were the top the researchers of the moment: Dr John Armstrong, Prosper Riley-Smith et al. I spent a lot of time with them at groups, at extended briefings and of course over lunch. I learned a load from them and we had an ethic of shared responsibility for understanding. But most of all I found their thinking, their conversation and their work deeply fascinating. Like Kirsty, one of my wishes for the new generations of young researchers and planners is that they should re-develop those precious relationships and find the time both to profit from them and just to enjoy them.

Sarah Newman

APG Director

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