July 13, 2009

Unfocused groups.

This morning we were briefed on a new client. We're kind of coming into the picture in the middle of a campaign, where look and feel and media and approach have already been decided, and we're here to tweak and tease the message so that it hits home with impact.

One of the items we have to use in all our executions is a weird little logo. It contains a positive message--a reminder to follow procedure, to do the right thing, to keep a rule in mind. It's giving the green light to an important behaviour.

And the dang thing was designed in red.

I'm talking about a big red circle with a red icon in the middle and a two-word message in blaring red letters. And everyone at the agency who's seen it--and I mean everyone--asks the same thing:

Erm, shouldn't that be in green?

And the client service person rolls her eyes for the umpteenth time and repeats what the client told her when she asked the same question:

We tested this in focus groups across the country. That's what people picked.

Which brings up two points, at least as far as I can see:

1) Passing the buck off to Joe public for a decision that--according to your job title--is essentially yours is a big cop out. Not to mention a colossal waste of money (in this case, the Government's--aka yours and mine). And resources. Unless your title is "Focus-Group Manager", you kind of have to make the final decision yourself--and stand up for it.

2) Focus groups are very often a great, big, stinking waste of time and money.

Now, sometimes a focus group is a great way to collect insight and feedback. Say, if you're testing a new product flavour. Or changing the name of a well-known product. Or collecting feedback on people who live in a certain area, or have certain behaviours, or exhibit similar interests. A focus group can give you some pretty keen insights about where to focus your message, and how to target your audience. Focus groups work wonders IF you're using them for the talents they possess: namely, speaking about themselves and their experience.

Where it all goes horridly, flamingly wrong is when focus groups are used to test creative. Gather a group of rather haphazard people together and ask them to give their opinion on an ad, a logo, a TV commercial, anything at all, and you're going to get exactly what you ask for: an opinion. Based on personal taste. Influenced by the people sitting around them. And, worst of all, over-thought to death.

You're asking Mr. and Mrs. Sample to look at an ad, analyze it, talk about it, compare it with other ads, debate it with the people around the table, and score it on a scale of good to bad (and, in one horrific fiasco earlier this year, 1 to 10). I've seen people start with one opinion and change their minds completely in 10 minutes. Which opinion should we go with? What's their true gut feeling? How much is this forced focus-group atmosphere influencing what they say?

And moreover, what do non-advertising people know about advertising? I don't mean to sound pompous or elitist--I simply mean that agencies have an expertise in advertising. We've honed our communication skills. We've broken the data down into a brief. We've fleshed out the message. We've kept the target in mind. We know the project, inside and out. Yet these 10 strangers, sitting around a table for an hour, suddenly have more say than the experts that the client hired in the first place.

Focus groups have become career padding--a buffer between the client and their boss, between results and responsibility. How can 10 people off the street have a say powerful enough to derail an entire campaign? How can a client--being paid ample money to turn out a campaign that works--put their trust in those 10 people to get his or her job done?

It's baffling. And it's happening more and more. The anonymity of focus groups makes for the perfect scapegoat when it comes to taking the blame.

And advertising is suffering for it.


  1. Ah, yes, I just flashed back to a focus group back in 1992 that convinced my bosses that hiring the Bartles & Jaymes wine cooler guys would be a great way to drive subscriptions to a golf magazine. And you're exactly right--the fools that cut the deal used the focus group ("everyone recognizes these guys!") as the justification for spending a ton on the contract, and then even more on advertising that simply couldn't make the connection between two farmer-looking-wine-making guys with guys who sport polyester Sansabelts. Who could have see *that* coming??

  2. Imagine if all corporate decisions involved collecting people off the streets to come to a consensus. Focus groups are less and less about gleaning useful information and more and more about backing up a client's decision. I've seen some doozies the last few years--with some clients totally perplexed at how their focus-group-proofed creative scored low once it was actually shot and re-tested in new focus groups.

    Um... because you focus-grouped the life out of it?

  3. I think it's because of a lack of conviction. Nobody is willing to stand up for work they know is right in their gut and deflate all these hacks that look for group consensus.And we are pitching these ideas to people who are not creative and don't understand creativity. So they seek some comfortable form of validation.If we are up to it, we should be able to persuade them to take the risk and go with the idea. If we can realistically justify. And that's another problem. I see so much advertising (mainly broadcast) that is entertaining for entertainment's sake. No one could justify it from a logical or rational perspective. Yet, I bet it tested well in focus groups. Which leads me to a story: Once I wrote a funny TV spot that was drop dead on-target for a client. It featured a senior in a red Ferrari. The client listened to my pitch, and his response was: Could it be a yellow Ferrari? That's it. No clue. No ability to visualize the spot. Just liked yellow cars...

  4. Thanks for the note, Rob.

    I've never understood how people who don't get creative end up in charge of judging it. That's like having a teetotaller judge a wine-tasting contest or a vegetarian judge a chili cook-off. They have no repertoire or perspective to go on, so they look to others for the lead. When did people grow so afraid of making decisions?

    We have a client here whose comments routinely consist of: make that sweater green, change the background a shade darker, use the same picture but make her younger, change the word "great" to "terrific", and so on. Every comment is an opinion--an opinions are a dime a dozen. On one hand, the client must feel she has to say something in order to justify her role. And on the other, she has no clue how to differentiate between whether she likes it and whether or not it WORKS.

    Side note: I sound like I'm complaining a lot, but I truly do like my work and my clients. These things just send be round the bend sometimes...

  5. I agree completely with you.
    I've just started my masters in advertising and media research is what is being taught right now. Also, I've sat in a couple of 'focus groups' and I can say with total conviction that when in that group we tend to 'over think' as u put it... and it's not like you can put them under a lie detector or something!!
    Keep Blogging

  6. Thanks for the note, Nikki!

    It's not so much that we need a lie detector--we need a truth detector! Some people tend to try to give the "right" answer, or to be contrary. Most just end up over-thinking--as you say--their initial reaction until their conclusions bear almost no resemblance to their first opinion.

    Focus groups are great for gathering opinions and thoughts and reflections, but not for quantifiable numbers and a conclusive analysis. The experts are the ones who are supposed to have the talent for that.

  7. Teenie@5:50 side note. I feel the same way sometimes about complaining (me in my blog, not you in yours!).

    Nonetheless, you can't get around the fact that learning generally comes from the stuff that slides sideways or crashes. There's no drama in Perfectville!