It’s new, it’s exciting, but it’s not clever

Crowdsourcing and co-creation are the buzz words of the day, but Christian Barnett argues for more traditional methods of idea-generation


In recent weeks, we have seen the start of a useful discussion about the role of research and other consumer ’input’ into the design process. Though the subject of research of itself may be a bit of a hoary old chestnut, the impact of ’new media’, co-creation and the ability to crowdsource have meant that consumer input has taken on a much broader meaning over the past few years. As such, there may be some value in opening up the debate for 2010.

Of course, it is a good idea to have consumers involved in the development of work. The best strategies and creative work have some genuine consumer insight baked in. But the best ’input’ or research is not generally done to decide between different creative expressions of a strategy.

That is when it becomes a beauty parade, and becomes riddled with problems.

First, it is not possible to make a realistic test of effectiveness in a ’laboratory’ situation in advance of real-life exposure. We need to be very wary of how we treat results from this type of input. This is not to say that pre-testing is always a bad thing – it isn’t. But it isn’t always a good thing either, and, if done, we ought to be careful about how we do it, and what consultancy and client folk take from it.

Second, we need to remind ourselves that consumers are not party to the brief or to what we are trying to achieve with any particular piece of creative work. Consumers may not be using the same criteria to judge creative work as the consultancy and clients are.

Third, consumers generally like things they are familiar with. They tend to stick with what they know. This is okay for some briefs. But for more innovative, breakthrough or radical briefs that demand that consumers see a particular brand in a new light, you can see how, very quickly, ’beauty parade’ input can get quite tricky. Consumers readily back away from change.

And we also need to remember that assessing creative work online means that we are not capturing a whole stack of data points, and arguably the more emotional ones that are crucial when assessing creative work that is intended to elicit some kind of emotional response. Data such as body language, tone of voice and ’how’ people speak about the stimulus material are all important when looking at creative work. They provide tell-tales clues to how people are feeling about the creative work. Online research may work terrifically well when all that is required is rational recording of data, but it is less reliable when addressing creative work that probably merits a more sensitive form of inquiry and analysis.

The best research is used to inform the brief, to work out what the task is, and give illumination and clues as to how to move forward. This ’early’ or exploratory research can give us insight into the market and our brand’s position in it, why people are attracted, or not, to our brand. It takes place at a strategic level, has a greater impact on the creative process than the ’beauty parade’ research, and often helps with how we set the criteria for success when we are in market.
It is the most overlooked type of research, in part because the output is some kind of brief which most people are typically less interested in than the tangible creative deliverable.

Testing to Destruction, by Alan Hedges, is the classic text on this subject, and though written 40 years ago and primarily about advertising research, its lessons still hold good. It should be read by anyone who has a stake or interest in the subject. It is out of print, but an updated version is available on the Account Planning Group website,

Under the heading of consumer input comes research, which I have addressed above, and also co-creation or crowdsourcing. Although, inevitably, there is some overlap between the two, research is more about understanding our consumer better and getting feedback from them, while co-creation invites the consumer to be an active participant in the generation of creative ideas. With co-creation, we are not looking for consumer truths or insight. We are looking for ideas and solutions. It is a very different type of input. Our increasing familiarity with social networking and digital media allows this type of idea-generation to be done quickly, imaginatively and cheaply. The Moving Brands pitch for the London identity was a great example of co-opting consumers – in this case, Londoners – to participate in idea-generation.

However, though this type of input is exciting, new and seductive, my suspicion is that the best ideas still consistently come out of the best consultancies with the best talent that give most of their waking hours to the generation and execution of ideas. And, to my mind, it would be a tragedy (not to say a serious indictment of our industry) if it was any other way.

Christian Barnett is planning director at Coley Porter Bell

Potential problems for crowdsourcing and co-creation

  • Consumers will not be party to the original brief or realise what you are trying to achieve with any particular piece of creative work
  • It simply isn’t possible to make a realistic test of effectiveness in a ’laboratory’ situation in advance of real-life exposure
  • Consumers generally like things they are familiar with – so for more innovative or radical briefs they will readily back away from change
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