How I think


What are the limitations of research in advertising and what is it good for?

“Advertising people who ignore research are as dangerous as generals who ignore decodes of enemy signals.” (Ogilvy 1983)

David Ogilvy recognised the importance of research in advertising even thirty years ago. Research plays a major role throughout the whole advertising process. The advertising process starts with a customer’s brief and ends with the measurement of post-effects after the advertising campaign has been executed. Research helps people involved in this process to understand it better and enables them to operate more effectively by providing them with data needed.

Research is no predefined process with a series of steps to success. Many factors play a role when it comes to executing research in advertising, like the skills of people involved and the scope of the campaign. Furthermore, a broad variety of research techniques can be used to identify and understand consumer insights and the market itself. It can be divided between qualitative and quantitative research.

  • Qualitative research enables a more intimate consumer contact in a less structured atmosphere and focuses on finding out insights about emotional aspects of a product or brand (Morrison et al. 2012).
  • Quantitative research is designed for much larger sample groups. A popular technique for this kind of research is a survey, which often concentrates mainly on “Yes/No” questions.

Qualitative and quantitative research differs in how data gets collected. While qualitative research offers an amount of flexibility, quantitative research uses standardised instruments of measurement. In quantitative research all respondents are asked the same questions. This leads to a restriction of the opportunity to ask unplanned questions, which were not part of the research design.

  • In addition, research can also be executed by studying the behaviour of people or cultures. This is called ethnography.


Different stages in the advertising process

Strategy planning stage

At this very first stage the research has to start from scratch. General know-how about the brand, its history and customers is needed for everyone involved to understand the background of the brief. In addition, client’s aspirations should be clear and well discussed (O’Barr 2007). I completely agree with O’Barr and think that the most important starting point is to be on the same page with the customer.

The main goal of the strategy planning stage is to define the strategy positioning statement. The two most important questions for the strategy positioning statement should be who the target group is and how they can be affected.

To answer these questions different research techniques can be used (see below – creative development stage).

Hedges (1994) defines the strategy planning stage as “the most important stage at which research can contribute to the whole advertising process”. In my point of view this first stage in the advertising research process is important because it helps everyone involved to become a clearer picture of the market and the consumer. After having this knowledge a clear definition, on what advertising has to do and in which environment it has to be done, can be made. Nevertheless, I think that a number of limitations of the research can be counted at this stage.


  1. Research cannot tell everything. Sometimes the own judgement has to take over.

The strategy positioning statement doesn’t say what actually has to go into the ad. It defines what is to be achieved and against what background, but it doesn’t provide the content for the actual advertising campaign.

  1. Afraid to ask difficult questions

I believe that some account managers, account planners and researchers are afraid to ask the customer difficult and unpleasant questions. Of course this is no general statement, because it always depends on the people involved and their characteristics.

  1. Time and budget

In my mind time and budget are critical factors in every stage of the advertising research process. If researchers don’t have enough time or budget to collect data about the brand/product background and target group, it may causes a weak strategy positioning statement and consequential a lack of understanding for the whole creative team.

Creative development stage

In my opinion, the creative development stage is the main section for research in the advertising process, because first ideas are being generated. Everything in this part is about developing and refining ideas.

Hedges (1994) explains that “research at the development stage must be illuminating. It should cause understanding of the sort of responses various ideas can have at the market place.

I consequently deduce from Hedges statement that the creative development research gives response to the creative team on how their ideas and approaches are seen and if they have some limitations. It helps the team to recognise weak points in their executions and allows redefining them. Research at this stage is a so-called vital feedback mechanism.

In my point of view there exists no uniform standard on how and when research has to be executed. I agree with Hedges (1994), that research has to be done as early as possible in the development stage, because at that time little money and time has been spent on a specific idea and the people involved are not already personally connected to it. On the other hand, I believe that if the idea is still too vague and undefined it doesn’t make sense to organise e.g. focus groups. In my mind, the idea of an advertising campaign has to be matured and well thought before it can be presented to a sample group. First drafts of storyboards have to be well discussed and explained, so that the sample group will understand every facet of it. The problem of “how to storyboard a smile” will still exist, but by explaining the concept and background behind an idea, it can be facilitated.

There exist many possibilities on how to collect feedback on specific ideas and approaches. I will briefly touch upon a few of the most important research techniques within the next lines.

Different techniques of research

If research is executed early in this stage, qualitative approaches are recommended. Nevertheless, sometimes statistically more reliable and less subjective methods are needed. The following qualitative and quantitative methods are likely to be used (O’Barr 2007):

  • Demographic and psychographic profiling

Demographic approaches categorise society in terms of age, sex, ethnicity, education and income. Psychographic approaches give information about consumer’s individual attitudes, orientations and interests.

Tools, like the National Readership Survey (NRS) social grading system ABC1 C2DE can be considered. The NRS (2014) social grading model is widely used as a generic reference series for classifying and describing different social classes. The grades ABC1 and C2DE are used to differentiate between middle class and working class.

  • Focus groups

In general focus groups consist of a relatively small sample of the target audience and a trained moderator, who leads the discussion. A reference value for the size of the sample group is six to ten people and usually the discussion has a time limit. Moreover, the discussion takes place in a neutral environment, usually in a room with one-way mirrors. Those who work on the advert, like the customer and creative team, can sit behind the mirror and watch and listen to the conversation of the sample group. During these discussions, valuable input can come up, that might be used for the final advertising campaign.

  • Interviews with experts

Sometimes special knowledge is needed, which can be provided only by particular persons. These interviews are normally on a one-on-one basis, between the expert and the moderator. The outcome of this kind of interview should be to receive information, which is otherwise not accessible.

  • Surveys

A survey consists of a number of predefined questions, which can be answered by a wide range of people. Surveys are used if the goal is to collect feedback from a big sample group, e.g. to find out the general opinion on a specific topic.

  • In addition further techniques, like ethnographic studies, studies with special hardware (like eye tracking), accompanied shopping, word associations, video montages, projective techniques and consumer diaries can be used.

In my opinion all these techniques are useful in specific situations, but I also think that they have various limitations.


As already mentioned above, research tools and techniques have various limitations. The results of qualitative research can be subjective and atypical. In contrast to that, results of quantitative research can include vague answers and there is no possibility to question individual results

NRS social grading system: Society becomes more and more diverse and the targeting more and more precise. I think that it is not possible to describe every aspect of a society. Furthermore, most of the tools, like the ABC1 C2DE, don’t provide information on consumer motivation and behaviour

  1. Focus groups/ Interviews/ Surveys:When people know that they take part in any kind of focus group, interview or survey, the circumstances can change their behaviour to the subject. During an interview or focus group, people know that they’re being watched and try to be more concentrated than they would be in a different situation. McKee (2007) explains that it is not possible to predict success of an advert, because consumers can’t tell ‘the truth’ about how an advert affects them. The answer often lies in a person’s subconscious. I agree with McKee and would add that also the personal environment, the person lives in, plays an important role.
  2. Beware of fans: In my mind it is important to differentiate between heavy product users/ brand lovers (= fans) and average users. I think that fans often have different views on certain topics than a conventional consumer may have. Depending on the particular case, fans can be useful as a source of expert knowledge, but not in terms of a general opinion.
  3. Research is not testing: I think that the word testing shouldn’t be used in the context of creative development research. I have worked in the IT department at Swarovski for one and a half years and have used the word testing everyday. My job was to test different functionalities on webpages and to write test-protocols and test-instruction papers. It was easy to set up a test-instruction paper for testing e.g. a new button in the shopping basket. There were exactly two possible options: either the button leads to the next step (correct) or it doesn’t (not correct). In my opinion you wouldn’t have these options by testing an advert. That is the reason why I strongly believe that it is not possible to test an advert on effectiveness before it has been exposed in real-life. Research is helpful to give feedback on strengths and weaknesses of an advert and general data about the consumer and market situation, but it cannot predict if an advert will be successful or not.
  4. Limitations of people involved: In my point of view, advertising practitioners sometimes live far away from the consumer’s world. Thus, it can be difficult for them to direct a comprehensible message to the target group. Moreover, people involved in the campaign creation process, e.g. the creative team, are likely to fall in love with their own ideas. This can be dangerous when they start to defend it against outside reality
  5. Time and Budget: Time and budget play an important role in the creative development research stage. If not enough budget or time is available, research and resulting the whole advertising campaign will suffer from it.

Evaluation stage

During the evaluation stage, responses of a market to an advertising campaign are evaluated. Research supports to display if objectives have been reached and it provides input for future campaigns.

Different research techniques can be used to display changes on the market (see above – creative development stage).


Advertising post-effects are hard to measure. By conducting market research after an advertising campaign has run it is difficult to show if market changes, like sales figures, are connected to the campaign itself. It is not possible to get a clear picture of the advertising effects in isolation, because there are many other effects, like a general flux of the market or activities of competitors, which affect the market. In addition, long-term effects of a particular advertising campaign are even harder to measure. In my opinion results of post-research cannot say if the customers money has been spent well or not. But on the other hand, I think that it can be useful to point out market changes and the data could be valuable for the planning process of a future campaign.


 Research is important in every of the above described stages and it cannot be strictly separated from each other. For example research, which starts in the strategy planning stage could still last into the creative development stage. In my mind, research during the creative development process is imperative because it acts as a vital feedback mechanism for the creative team. It helps to refine ideas and to tackle their weaknesses. Nevertheless, there is no recipe on how and when to use the right research technique. It strongly depends on the particular situation and campaign objective(s).

In addition, research has several limits: research cannot tell everything, research outcomes also depend on the people who conduct it, time and budget for research activities are critical factors, research tools and techniques have its limits, research cannot say if an advert will be effective or not because it is not possible to test real-life impacts in advance and it is also difficult to measure advertising post-effects because the whole market has to be taken into consideration.

Finally, I conclude that research plays an important role throughout the whole advertising process, from the strategy planning to the final evaluation. Research enables the creative team and everyone involved in this process to operate more effectively by providing valuable data. Furthermore, research doesn’t predict the success of an advertising campaign. It provides useful feedback on ideas and treatments and shouldn’t be seen as testing.