FORUM: CLIENT EXECS CAN OFFER QUICK INSIGHT FOR ADS: BRAINSTORMING SESSIONS YIELD UNEXPECTED STRENGTHS, THREATS

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Good research brings joy to the heart of any card-carrying creative director. Research that bursts with insight is fodder for killer ideas.

But (sigh) this kind of research, with its focus groups and laborious quantitative studies, usually takes weeks, even months, to dole out its benefits. So here's our agency's secret weapon: a unique tool to jump-start the creative process; a way to use a single

4-hour session with your client to gain penetrating, powerful information about the product, the market and the customers.

Often, startling insights already exist in the collective consciousness of your client's top managers-the people who know the product and the marketplace, and who deal with customers every day. So we gather those very important executives together in one room and guide them through a CPA/SWOT (CPA stands for Customer Profile Analysis and SWOT represents Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats.)

IDENTIFYING THE CUSTOMER

Consider a business-to-business client. The session kicks off at 9 a.m., shirtsleeves rolled, black coffee at the ready. Typically, the room includes the CEO, chief financial officer, head of marketing, head of sales and a handful of the company's best sales people. (About 10 participants at the max.) We begin by asking the group to identify the lowest level customer encountered.

Let's say it's a purchasing agent. On a large pad of paper, we sketch a quick cartoon of the agent. We ask the group for a name. "Bill," they volunteer; so we label the drawing "Bill." The magic begins to happen. With Bill now taking a visual form, we ask questions and scribble answers on our pad. How old is Bill? How long in the business? What turns him on? How can we communicate with Bill? What does he expect from our product?

We then paste on our "emoto-meter," a funky, hand-drawn card that looks like a fuel gauge. It swings from R (rational) to E (emotional). Here's what we want to know now: After Bill has seen, touched, and even smelled our product, after he has reviewed the proposal spreadsheets-what ultimately motivates his purchase recommendation? We ask the group where to place the big, red indicator needle (it often leans toward E). "Bill" gets taped to the wall, and we move on.

We sketch and scribble a cartoon profile of each player in the buying chain: "Louise," the VP-purchasing; "Fred," the chief financial officer; "Dexter," the chairman and CEO. By now, walls are filled with sketches. Comments fly. "Bill just doesn't want to make waves!" "Louise never sees our sales people." "Dexter plays golf with our competitor's CEO." It is the marriage of pictures and names that give this process its energy.

BUILDING ON INSIGHTS

Once the customers are cartoon profiled (about 2 hours), we build on the insights by moving to SWOT. Keeping things visual, we hand-letter brief, descriptive comments on bumper-sticker-sized pieces of poster board. "Give me a strength!" we call out.

On a giant 4-by-5-foot piece of foamcore, we temporarily tape the strengths, generally pushing for at least 15 of them. Now, we go on to "bumper-sticker" the weaknesses (hopefully, we get fewer-perhaps 10). Next, we'll elicit short-term opportunities (back to 15). And we wrap up with five to 10 threats to the business or industry. During this process, our cartoon profiles have continued to play a role.

Picture this: The group has now worked, argued, discussed and pumped brain cells for 4 hours. On one wall are the psyche-revealing cartoon profiles. Four big boards on easels are headlined Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats.

SORTING THE CARDS

Now, the reason for detachable cards becomes clear: We begin to sort and move the cards around. (If several strength cards are similar, we make a little grouping of them.) Finally, everyone gets three votes for the most important issues in each SWOT category. We poll the room and a dramatic consensus emerges. The most powerful strengths. The most debilitating weaknesses. The most captivating opportunities. The most gut-wrenching threats. The final tally is always-always-a surprise to the group.

The client walks away deep in thought. The agency leaves with a gorgeous dossier of fact, insight, intuition-and marketplace intelligence. It's fast, it's cheap-and it's pretty good research.

The next day at the agency, the CPA/SWOT session is reviewed. A summary report (with pictures) is generated. Now, with much greater understanding of our client, we can initiate better-focused quantitative or qualitative research. But our strategic and creative thinking has been given a head start. Time has been cheated; real work is under-way.

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