By Julie Zander

Clients who are in the fortunate position to test creative work, both qualitatively and quantitatively, do so because it gives them perspective beyond their own judgment. Thus, a finely tuned piece of art is nestled out of the nest – the ‘inner circle’ of those who gave it birth – and is encouraged to test its wings with the regular man on the street.

I speak from a qualitative point of view, as this is our focus at Urban Legend Research. It is our responsibility as researchers to ensure that this bird is given its best chance to fly, and we are often the first port of call to test work while it is still in its infancy.

Therefore, we need to handle the creative and research process with great care. We strive to strike a balance between an idea that can push creative boundaries, while still remaining grounded and deeply resonant with consumers in their regular everyday lives. Some brands/categories have greater license to push creative boundaries than others, and this too, should be considered.

'Research can give creative work its best chance to fly.' (Image Source: Stimorol ‘Believed I Could Fly’ commercial by Ogilvy & Mather, Cape Town)

In my view, there are a few steps to keep in mind when navigating this journey.

1. Collaborate with the ad agency from the start.
They created the work, they know it intimately and they understand its strengths and limitations. Researchers cannot explore creative work, if they themselves are not intimately acquainted with it. So invite the creative into the briefing meeting.

2. Understand the strategy. Be clear on what it is this ad is set out to do: Getting existing customers to buy more of the same brand, or discover a new variant. Reposition the brand so that younger customers will consider trial. Etc

3. Separate out this strategy from the creative idea and from the execution. If the ad ‘isn’t working’ then we need to be clear if this is because younger people aren’t a viable target (the strategy isn’t working) or because the crazy cartoon cat who loves the brand is rejected (the creative idea isn’t working) or because the cat’s face is too crazy (the execution isn’t working). Separating out these different aspects can really help the team decide what can be fixed and what can’t. And we don’t ‘kill’ creative ideas for the wrong reasons.

4. Ensure the researcher understands the parameters of the creative work, what can be changed within the campaign, what needs to remain as is. Go into research with an understanding of what is crucial and what is less important – is the endline deeply ingrained in explaining the intention behind the brand, is it historical or can it be altered slightly? Can the protagonist’s race be changed? Etc.

“Remember consumers don’t understand the creative process. An ad will be exposed to them, they will react to it instinctively and often with great emotion, if it is a brand that they care about. So it is up to us to deeply consider, how the work is presented.”

5. Consider carefully how the ad should be researched. Remember consumers don’t understand the creative process. An ad will be exposed to them, they will react to it instinctively and often with great emotion, if it is a brand that they care about. So it is up to us to deeply consider, how the work is presented. Storyboards help in conveying the idea visually, making it easier for the regular person to follow. I find hand drawn stimulus often works better than finished film because consumers understand that this is work in progress and are more inclined to suggest areas of optimisation. Think about recorded description. This can work well if the moderator is not a great narrator, but otherwise, I find it is better to have the written scripts and allow the moderator to read it. He/she can then intervene where necessary, vary the intonation, fall into vernacular when necessary, use local sounds ‘Eish’ and change aspects of the ad, on the cuff, if they are bothering consumers (the car is no longer green, it’s blue), or drop a scene if it keeps causing confusion or negative reaction to the overall idea (we’ve taken out the dog licking her face as the hygiene concerns worry mums). It is this flexibility that often makes or breaks an idea. So speak with your researcher, find out who will be moderating and the experience that they may have. Also, get the creatives to read the ads to the researcher, as they would like it delivered.

6. Some ads push the creative boundary far more than others. These ads need particular consideration when placed into research, as they are often more strategic than tactical and more emotionally led, rather straightforward product communication. For this reason, we need to be clear on its essence and how best to bring this alive – can we borrow imagery from other categories, what about a steelomatic, will music do the trick? Consumers are not stupid, they can tell you what resonates and why, it is up to us to ensure that we give it to them, in digestible sizes.

7. Finally, always allow time for creating the right stimulus material for the work you are about to show. This will always pay off in the long run. So ensure you have dedicated time in the process for this. Always feel free to send draft ideas to the researcher and discuss what would be the best way forward in terms of stimulus. Don’t underestimate how many ads your researcher may have seen, across many different categories, amongst very different target audience over the years, this can often give an invaluable perspective.




Julie Zander began her career in London, working first in global research and then in advertising as a strategic planner.

After 10 years she returned to her native country and set up Urban Legend Research in 2000

The idea was to take some of the methodologies, tools and techniques used in Europe and combine this with the earthy warmth and pragmatism of Africa – blending the best of both worlds

Urban Legend has conducted projects in most of the main African markets – and Julie herself is Unilever accredited as a moderator and research provider