AD AGENCY EXECS BASH FOCUS GROUPS

Bemoan Impact on Creativity; Question Accuracy of Technique

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SAN FRANCISCO (AdAge.com) -- Focus groups and traditional research tools may be the prime culprit for advertising's creative funk these days, according to some industry leaders.

In her address on the final day of the 2002 American Association of Advertising Agencies Creative Conference last week, Linda Kaplan-Thaler, CEO and chief creative officer of Publicis Groupe's Kaplan Thaler Group, called for closer scrutiny of what she called the "$4 billion testing industry."

Cycle of work
She suggested that focus group companies often function in a manner designed to produce continuing cycles of new work for themselves rather than practical information for their agency clients.

Ms. Kaplan-Thaler said because focus group members tend to be polarized about the creative work they review, proposed ad campaigns tend to get low scores. The agencies then go back to the creative drawing boards and produce new work requiring more testing -- thus generating another cycle of business for the focus group industry, she said.

"We've become a culture that has bred out risk-taking," she told the audience at the Grand Hyatt hotel during the panel discussion titled "Campaigns I Wish I'd Done." She bemoaned that in the current economic squeeze, chief marketing officers have become overly dependent on logical, quantifiable marketing propositions.

Michael Campbell, chief creative officer of WPP Group's J. Walter Thompson, said all creative work "goes through the same grinder," ultimately resulting in work that has flattened out "the peaks." Marketers must learn to trust their agencies, he said.

'Advertising is like religion'
"Advertising is like religion. You can't prove it," Mr. Campbell said.

Gary Goldsmith, chairman and CEO of Interpublic Group of Cos.' Lowe & Partners, said he is seeing "something of a backlash" against research among some marketers.

Ms. Kaplan-Thaler called for creatives to be more dependent on their "gut" feelings when making decisions. She said she has started to wean marketers away from traditional focus groups by suggesting that creative work instead be put in small market tests, where everyone can "see the reaction in a real environment."

Particular peeve
Even Bob Lachky, vice president of brand development and director of global brand creative at Anheuser-Bush Co., expressed his concerns about research. His particular peeve: when focus group moderators ask "tell me what you don't like about this ad."

Other conference speakers included headhunter Anne-Marie Marcus, partner-CEO of Judy Wald Partners, who expressed concern about the downturn in the business resulting in the loss of "a whole generation of talent."

Where once salaries for ad professionals soared during the dot-com boom, "now the graduates of ad schools cannot get arrested," Ms. Marcus said. At the same time, individuals are losing their enthusiasm for the business, she said.

Realistic salaries
On a positive note, Ms. Marcus said salaries are dropping to more realistic levels and it is a good time for agencies to upgrade personnel. Talent is "cheaper and more eager and willing to listen to an honest, clear proposition," she said. Personnel are willing to consider markets outside New York and San Francisco, giving smaller cities a recruiting opportunity. Another good thing, she said, is that among talented creatives "bad attitude" is out "big time."

She said, however, that eventually the economy will turn around. "We'll go back to all the excesses eventually," she said. "We always do."

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