Effective advertising needs more than gut feeling

by Nigel Hollis | April 17, 2017

On a recent visit to Bangladesh I took part in a roundtable discussion on the use of research in advertising development. The consensus opinion appeared to be that good gut feeling was more important than research when it came to developing advertising. But that raises the question of how do you develop good gut feeling?

One of the reasons that I think the round table participants were so comfortable with making judgments without recourse to research was that the majority were all senior, experienced business people used to making risky decisions in the process of building their companies and brands. So their comfort with risk was high to start. Aftab Khurshid, Marketing & Brand Catalyst, put it this way,


“First of all, gut feeling depends on how many years of experience a marketer has or how observant he or she is. If I have doubts or if I have to make a more confident decision, it is critical to take up formal research which is objective oriented – clear and focused regarding what results it wants to achieve.”

Then there was the fact that everyone except for me was intimately aware of the nuances of local culture that could make or break how well an ad performed. This is one of the challenges that face multinationals when they enter a new country; it is difficult to replicate the same cultural understanding that is possessed by the locals in a short period of time. However, Nazmul Karim Chowdhury, Senior Vice President and Head of Brand, The City Bank Limited, noted that research can help even locals develop gut-feeling,

"Research allows me to have the gut feeling and experience to take bold decisions over time."

And Asif Iqbal, Executive Director Marketing at Meghna Group of Industries, stated,

“When you are in doubt, when you do not know whether the positioning or the communication message that you would like to deliver will connect with consumers, you research on whether your method will work or if there are other ways of doing it. If you have second options, go back, and do a preview test to see if it is justified.”

For me research is an input to decision making that can help improve productivity and reduce the risk of a bad result. While the local marketers in Bangladesh might doubt the payoff of applying a consistent program of research others have a different viewpoint. Recently, Roberto Cymrot, Group Director/Knowledge & Insights at The Coca-Cola Company, revealed that the company’s marketing-based modelling  showed in-market effectiveness was rising by a significant amount after the implementation of a global consistent program of pre-testing with Kantar Millward Brown.

But what do you think? Is research only necessary when there is doubt about something or should it be implemented on a more consistent basis? Please share your thoughts. 


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  1. Adrian Langford, June 16, 2017
    Gut reaction is very fallible - often the occasions when we are most confident about the effectiveness of a piece of advertising are the ones when our expectations are confounded. Even the people whose 'gut feel' si being interrogated are too close to the work to allow them to interpret it in the unforeseen ways of people who are not immersed in the category/brand. One answer to this is to pre-test everything, and that's been a proven success formula for some agencies doing that pre-testing in a sensitive manner.
  2. Dominic Twose, April 21, 2017

    Mark; a couple of years ago I checked with the IPA on how they assessed the role of pretesting.

    Apparently the question they ask contributors is:

    which research tools did you use to show the impact of the marketing communications activity used in the campaign, even if they are not identified in the paper?

    ·         Qualitative pre-tests

    ·         Quantitative pre-tests

    ·         Other quantitative measures (e.g. tracking)

    ·         Other qualitative measures

    So - the question is not "did you pretest" - the question is about whether pretesting was used to show the impact of the activity. I suspect we might agree on this; if you think you are using pretesting to to show the activity of marketing activity, you are showing: a misunderstanding of pretesting; a lack of judgement, or have little to actually demonstrate impact! 

    I am a huge fan of the Binet and Field analyses of the IPA database. I think their findings are helpful, and their publications are my most recommended sources. It is a pity they have misunderstood the question asked, to draw some misleading conclusions. As one of my first bosses drilled into me "What was the question?"

    There is plenty of evidence of the relationship of the relationship between key Link measures and sales effects; as your favourite KMB colleague will be happy to share.

  3. Nigel, April 21, 2017

    Thanks for the comments.

    Hi Mark, long time no speak. Here is my explanation of the IPA finding. There was no attempt to discriminate between brands based in size or category type. It is a lot harder to increase sales for a big brand than it is for a small one. Some categories are more advertising elastic than others. It will be a lot easier to move the needle for a small charity than a well-established packaged goods brand leader. Which is one of the reasons why big brands are more likely to pre-test, they know they face an uphill struggle and want to ensure they get the best bang for the buck (of course, they also have bigger budgets to pay for pre-testing, established protocols, etc.). Strangely enough Binet and Fields did not seem to keen to go back and redo the analysis taking this into account (so peer-review does not mean much if nothing changes). The other confounding factor is that many papers do not actually reference pre-testing even when it may have been used. So until I see a rework that that takes brand size and category elasticity into account, I am taking that finding with a pinch of salt. Of course, I totally buy into all the other findings where they agree with my beliefs!

    Thanks Syed, I think Neil's point speaks to marketers puzzlement, they need to really immerse themselves in the culture but then use research to check for blind spots as Emmanuel suggests.

    Tanha, point taken about regional decisions made by MNC's. Unfortunately, our learning suggests that this is a risky strategy, even great ads can perform badly when reused in different countries.

  4. Mark Earls, April 19, 2017

    Maybe. However, the IPA effectiveness database has consistently shown a very different - inverse - correlation. Their database is one of the most critically examined, being peer-reviewed Etc. 

    I struggle to see why this would be the case - unless the mere act of measuring made a difference to only the least effective cases

  5. Syed Yeasef Akbar, April 19, 2017

    Hi Nigel,

    Thanks for putting this in to your POV.

    Personally I totally agree with your point that you "gut feel is nothing but your experience" and you need to listen to the consumers to develop your "gut feel".

    The ever changing behavior of the audiences has left the marketers puzzled in many regions and what we see is that the existing formulas do not work that obvious anymore.

    It was great being with you and heat from you on a perspective of our market. Hope to see you soon.

  6. Neil Hopkins, April 18, 2017

    Great question, Nigel. Personally, I agree that research is vital to create effective work (which I think is different to 'a bad result') - if we can approach each set of participants with a sense of wide-eyed wonder, we may start to understand their changing contexts in real time (or close to it).  If, however, we always assume that we know what's going on, then we run the risk of missing a changed nuance.

    How this research is conducted is an interesting question.  As a believer in gut instinct as well, I feel that total immersion in a culture or space can be the research required to create effective work - cultural ingestion by infusion, if you will.  This is perhaps the anthropological fieldwork view of the issue, rather than the statistics driven insight which we might rely on without that direct infusion of culture and experience.

    However you frame 'research', we still need a deep understanding of our publics and participants to drive participation at any level...

  7. Emmanuel Probst, April 17, 2017
    Research programs should be implemented consistently to mitigate risk, improve existing iterations and bring to light new ideas. As market researchers often say: we don't know what we don't know.
  8. Tanha Islam, April 17, 2017

    Hey Nigel, can't believe you were in my country and I didn't even know! 

    I think we should consider another market reality in Bangladesh. Multinational companies operating here, more often than not, are guided by regional strategic decisions. Many a times we would see Indian ads dubbed for our market or an exact copy of the ad developed here. 

    As for local companies, many developed organically through trial and error of activities. Unfortunately, the need for doing research is not felt prior to decision-making as this is how they have been doing business for years and thrived.

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