The Great Unknown

Is advertising an art or science? The industry has been debating that question since the days of Bill Bernbach. The legendary Doyle Dane Bernbach copywriter, who is largely credited with bringing emotional persuasion into the just-the-facts ad equation, had his own definition: “Advertising is fundamentally persuasion, and persuasion happens to be not a science, but an art.”

Yet decades later, with more and more tools available to marketers to assess the effectiveness of their advertising, deciphering a winning creative formula is still the eternal quest. “So much of what we do has evolved, but the way we measure it hasn’t. Large-scale quantitative testing belongs in the Middle Ages,” says Al Kelly, ecd at Fallon in Minneapolis. “In 20 years people will look back and laugh at our hairstyles and how we tested creative.”

With traditional copy testing and the latest advances in neuroscience, agencies and clients are looking for answers. “When economic times get difficult, clients get nervous, and when they get nervous, they want guarantees,” says Jeffrey Blish, partner and chief strategic officer at Deutsch/LA, Marina del Rey, Calif. “There has always been an interest in trying to make your marketing efforts more bulletproof. It ebbs and flows depending on the business climate.”

As the effectiveness of the largest and most mainstream advertising vehicle, the 30-second spot, has come under fire and the industry moves from an interruptive to an on-demand model of communications, the question has become, how do you make ads that will keep viewers engaged and prevent them from avoiding them altogether?

“How do you make a TiVo-proof commercial? Everybody wants to know the answer,” says Todd Juenger, vp, general manager of research and measurement at TiVo, which introduced its Stop Watch measurement tool that gives clients access to second-by-second ratings of commercials and programming. Instead of a traditional focus group, the system pools information from the viewing habits of TiVo’s 4 million subscribers.

TiVo studies have shown that the context in which a commercial is surrounded plays a critical role in whether it will be skipped. “It’s like a restaurant,” he says. “Even if you have the world’s finest restaurant, if you are in a crappy location, you’re still not going to get the customers you would get in a good location.”

In some dayparts, direct response does well, in others automotive ads. “It comes back to the environment and the target audience,” he stresses. “It can sometimes be more important than how creative the ad is to begin with. If they are in the market for a home gym, they’ll watch that commercial, even if it’s not what is traditionally thought of as a creative ad.”

Richard Notarianni, ecd of media at Euro RSCG in New York, a Stop Watch subscriber, says like any other research, it has to be used in conjunction with other findings. “If you look at it purely as a single-source measure, it gives you a misleading tale,” says Notarianni. “There is a difference between a commercial being watched and it not being skipped because the TV is on as a background channel.”

Everybody is interested in new metrics like Stop Watch and Nielsen Media Research’s C3 ratings, Notarianni says, but what also may prove valuable are tools that offer a better understanding of “the human element,” like Nielsen’s BuzzMetrics, which evaluates blog activity. “An individual today has the bandwidth of a TV 10 years ago,” he says.

Many agencies report that they are moving away from more traditional forms of testing to dabble with the new biometric measurement tools from EmSense and NeuroFocus, which gauge physical responses such as brain activity and pulse rates when viewing ads. Chip Walker, head of planning at StrawberryFrog in New York, has been experimenting with EmSense with some of the agency’s clients. “It’s the rational brain versus the emotional brain,” he says. Adding biologically based consumer data to traditional testing methods gives the industry the opportunity to see “both the emotional and the rational and how those two pieces are working together,” he says. “It can help diagnose and adjust the ways we tell stories.”

But some planners are skeptical of such tools. There could be many reasons for a single biological response, says Murray Hardie, director of account planning at Fallon. A test may show greater emotive brain activity when viewing an ad, but it could be because it made someone happy or scared. “I’m open-minded, but the science isn’t anywhere near being helpful.”

Scott Cromer, planning director at Wieden + Kennedy in Portland, Ore., is skeptical. “I think I would get fired if I ever brought one of those machines into the agency,” he laughs. “When I first started, I heard that Dan [Wieden] wasn’t a big fan of planning, but I found that not to be true.” Rather, he rejects anything that implies there is a formula for creativity. “That’s when he feels marginalized, when it zaps intuition out of an agency.”

In the end, the smartest agencies know how to condense all the research results and use their creativity to leverage it. “You have all the data in the world, but there is no substitute for intuitive creativity,” says Mark Tutssel, CCO of Leo Burnett Worldwide. “There is so much data out there, distillation is everything.”

Most lacking in research is the ability to test an idea, he says. “If you think about pre- and post-testing, we have not found a way yet to test an idea. There is a fundamental difference between an idea and an execution,” Tutssel says. “We have to be smarter in the way that we do that.”

The new on-demand culture requires agencies to have an encyclopedic knowledge of behavior, adds Tutssel. “As it gets more and more complicated and fragmented, knowledge is the thing that unlocks the door. But it’s half the equation, the other is creativity.”