German Dziebel, a planner with a PhD in anthropology with whom I share a department and an office at Hill (as well as an occasional cracker) and who in the past worked at Arnold and Crispin, has joined the current round of debate about market research with a comment so interesting that I asked him to guest-blog it here. He came back with the thoughts that follow.
“All market research is wrong.”
"Is your market research helping you in achieving your end? If yes it's not wrong."
Behind this disjointed Platonic dialogue, there’s a tell-me-what-you-think-and-I’ll-tell-you-who-you-are situation. Faris Yakob is Chief Innovation Officer at MDC. He recently authored the first line. His detractor is an anonymous Ph.D. student in marketing. MDC owns a majority stake at Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which is the most profitable agency in the network. As an erstwhile planner at Crispin, I witnessed (and enjoyed) the downright neglect for large-scale, serious, quantitative and focus-group-based market research. As Alex Bogusky, borrowing from Steve Jobs, used to say: “Who cares about what consumers think. We should surprise them with innovative ideas instead of tracking their misguided accounts of their own needs and wants.” Well, I paraphrased and beautified it a bit but this is the essence of what he used to say. Colin Drummond, an average-size link in a chain of ever-changing heads of planning at Crispin, used to direct his department to a paper that once appeared in Brand Republic. The paper was called “Why Great Planners Have to Be Dumb.” Great is good, smart is bad. Most recently, Colin, now head of planning at Ogilvy West, tweeted about the new book “Proofiness,” by Charles Seife, that purports to expose, in a populist genre, the faults of statistics.
At that time Crispin’s planning department was 30-(wo)man-strong. So, here’s another apparent paradox: if great planners are dumb and all market research is wrong, why do you need to maintain as many as 30 dumb planners undoing market research? The answer is simple: to staff the brand-new name for planners at Crispin, namely “Cognitive Anthropologists” or “Cogs.” Cogs encompass traditional planners – those who renounced market research to fit Crispin’s culture -, social scientists – those who didn’t find work in overly populated academia – and investigative journalists – “investigative” not in the sense of bold, dedicated truth-seekers but in the sense of investigating consumer habits and writing about them without technical jargon. Again, “anthropology” (from Greek anthropos ‘human being, man’) was picked for its sound, not for its meaning and not by professional anthropologists but by advertisers seeking new ways to market directly to “people,” not “consumers” (Apparently, consultant Robert Deutsch, a self-proclaimed cognitive anthropologist with a background in social psychology, introduced the word to Crispin’s senior management.) Driven by a concoction of imagination, greed, boredom, lies, thrill and insecurities a new bold philosophy of planning was violently born.
One of the observations that I made trying to resolve the apparent conundrum of informed anti-intellectualism is that the denial of market research in theory and practice next to the adoption of an academic moniker “anthropology” accompanied the ascent of Crispin as the hottest ad shop in the nation. Crispin attempted to revolutionize planning by bringing on board practitioners who would gear research to the goal of changing consumer culture (note another shift from “market” to “culture”) around a brand by means of creating entertaining and memorable content, launching new technologies and experimenting with disruptive use of media. Re-positioning the planning discipline was a way to re-invent market research for advertising’s emerging new ecosystem. In the famous words of Red Queen from Carroll’s Looking Glass, “it takes all the running [read: market research] you can do to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that.” (This principle is so great, it even made it into the book of evolutionary laws, thanks to Leigh Van Valen.) It involved a Dionysian influx of humanities and social sciences – bastardized but marketable – into what once was dominated by the Apollonian disciplines of psychology, communications and economics. In a surprising reversal of the Ph.D. student in marketing’s defense of market research, if the abnegation of market research helps you in achieving your and your client’s end, the all-market-research-is-wrong dictum is not wrong. It’s just a different way of using old words: not descriptively, but performatively (pace John Austin).
So, there’s nothing to debate – time to imitate and steal.