How This Agency Approaches Creative Testing During the Pandemic

EP+Co uses flexible, quick-strike research for clients like Denny's and Men's Wearhouse

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Denny's and other clients worked with EP+Co to develop new products and messaging during the pandemic. Denny's

During the pandemic, agencies became much more resourceful in helping their brand clients make necessary moves to keep them successful. Many agencies already had existing resources, but making some tweaks or better illustrating relevance became an essential part of navigating so much change.

The Martin Agency, for example, used its tension mapping approach a little differently to find new directions for its clients. By slightly adjusting an already-built methodology, the agency created successful work that was more relevant to how consumers live.

For its part, EP+Co saw a similar opportunity, specifically in testing the validity of ideas, especially as brands grappled with what messages to put out into the world. The Greenville, South Carolina agency calls its testing GutCheck, and while it doesn’t necessarily replace traditional testing, this internal, proprietary method is additive and gets earlier into the creative and strategic development process.

According to Chris Plating, EP+Co chief strategy officer, the system evolved from its research and analytics department as the agency faced a consumer landscape that was changing on an almost daily basis.

“There’s a desire for things to be black and white [in research and testing],” Plating said. “Yet we’re in the perception business, where things are rarely black and white.”

At its core, GutCheck, which was rolled out about two years ago, is built for flexibility and speed, with rapid research. There isn’t an exact methodology, but rather a process that gets deep into qualitative and quantitative research that is then baked into the creative process. This avoids the potential pitfalls of creating output, running it, and then pulling it in the event something went wrong.

The practice closely analyzes how that research impacts a client’s business, growth, buzz and the health of the agency/client relationship. The method has proven useful, especially during the pandemic, as changing societal dynamics can scatter a brand’s original plans to the wind.

Two EP+Co clients, Denny’s and Men’s Wearhouse, are in categories (restaurants and retail) that were deeply affected by the pandemic. Each worked with the agency to ensure that they were communicating the right messages at the right time, even as the landscape changed rapidly.

John Dillon, evp and chief brand officer at Denny’s, evolved its testing from more traditional focus groups and found that EP+Co’s approach mirrors his own philosophy about getting ahead with consumers.

“Any marketer needs to know what tools are available, and mix and match to whatever the current needs are,” said Dillon, who has been with the brand for over 13 years. “It’s about flexibility, and one size doesn’t fit all, and we are responding to consumer needs in the moment.”

Plating noted that the agency has worked with the brand for close to 11 years and with Dillon for 7 years. This has afforded plenty of time to iterate and bring the agency deeper into the brand, testing creative work and fundamental business issues like price points and customer satisfaction. EP+Co even helped with naming during the pandemic, as the brand launched its Grand Slam Pack, a pick-up and delivery product.

When Covid-19 hit in earnest, EP+Co created a tracker for the brand to help Dillon and his team make quicker decisions on programs, products and communications for guests. Denny’s invested heavily in sanitation for its locations and pivoted to reassurance messaging.

“Having data and the consumer’s voice—and the ability to pivot internally and externally—made a world of difference for how quickly we responded,” Dillon noted. “It’s largely paid off and helps us make decisions.”

@zanger doug.zanger@adweek.com Doug Zanger is a senior editor, agencies at Adweek, focusing on creativity and agencies.
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