But the king no longer rules with absolute authority. At Pepsi,
copy testing is "an important tool in our tool kit," Mr. Lowden
said. But it "should never be a means to red-light or green-light
work. It's a way to inform and to optimize."
In the face of this skepticism, dominant ad-testing vendors
Ipsos and Millward Brown are racing to remain
relevant as they overhaul their survey-based methods to deliver the
speed marketers crave and to account for modern viewing habits like
online ad-skipping. They are also incorporating neurological and
biometric techniques that judge an ad with bodily reactions, like
facial expressions, meant to gauge emotions.
Marketers are demanding a "surveys-plus" approach that adds
online behavioral data and biometric measures to consumer panel
data, said Mr. Minnium, who held leadership positions at Lowe
Worldwide and was the head of digital brand initiatives at the
Interactive Advertising Bureau before taking the Ipsos job in July.
But taking surveys out of that equation is "not something I see
happening anytime soon," he said.
Indeed, the Advertising Research Foundation has found that
combining traditional copy testing with neurological and biometric
methods can "improve the predictive value of tests," said Horst
Stipp, the organization's exec VP-research and innovation, global
and ad effectiveness. But the hybrid approach "takes more time," he
said. And "the market wants faster results, so the vendors are now
struggling to find out how to do it faster." The debate will be the
focus of a panel discussion during Advertising Week this month
called "How Advertising Works: Building Brands in the Brain."
Traditional copy testing, or pretesting, has been used for
decades. Modern approaches typically involve showing ads to a panel
of consumers who watch them online. Surveys are used to measure
attributes such as likability, persuasion and recall. Techniques
sometime blend quantitative questions—like ranking an ad's
likability on a scale of one to 100—and qualitative
techniques, like open-ended questions. Marketers test ads in
various stages, including early versions that are shown in crude
animated form, known as animatics, all the way through to the
finished product. Often, final scores factor in norms like how
spots compare with historical ads or ads currently running.
Bringing home the bacon
Some critics say that while copy testing is effective at
measuring informational ads, it falls short with emotional spots.
"Advertising is about building trust and a feeling about a brand
that predisposes people to liking you … that then allows
more rational messaging maybe to come through the filter. And most
copy tests don't reward you for that," said Mr. Bick, who helped
contemporize Oscar Mayer's advertising by launching bacon-inspired
digital videos that often went viral.
One of them, called "Say It With Bacon," included a video
mocking engagement-ring ads and plugged luxurious bacon gifts that
the brand actually put up for sale online. The campaign, which drew
500 million impressions, according to digital agency 360i, was not tested. For digital
efforts aimed at winning PR, "we literally used what I fondly
called the F-me test," Mr. Bick said. "Is it bold, will it possibly
ruffle feathers internally, will consumers say, 'I can't believe
they did that'?"
Marketers have used gut feel with great success in some cases,
including Allstate's "Mayhem" campaign. "There was a lot of
internal pressure to kill it," Lisa Cochrane, former senior
VP-marketing, recalled during a presentation at an industry event
in 2012. "We didn't do any market testing or focus groups," said
Ms. Cochrane, who retired this year. "I just asked myself, 'Would I
want to watch those ads?'"
Scott Bedbury, former worldwide advertising director at Nike,
told Bloomberg in 2007 that he had an agreement with Wieden & Kennedy founder Dan
Wieden "that as long as our hearts beat, we would never pretest a
word of copy. It makes you dull. It makes you predictable. It makes
To that end, the original ad in Old Spice's hit campaign "The
Man Your Man Could Smell Like" by W&K also wasn't copy-tested,
according to James Moorhead, former brand manager of the Procter & Gamble brand, now senior
VP-CMO of Dish
Paint by numbers
W&K wouldn't comment for this story, but the agency has a
reputation for resisting copy testing. "For them it feels very
constraining when they are still in the process. You are telling an
artist to paint by numbers," said Lesya Lysyj, who worked with the
shop while CMO at Heineken USA and during a stint as president of
Weight Watchers North America.
That position could put W&K at odds with one of its newest
clients, Anheuser-Busch InBev, which has a
reputation for strict copy-testing standards. The
brewer—which awarded Bud Light to the agency this
summer—in recent years has put so much faith in copy testing
that executives were required to copy-test TV ads for priority
brands in order to qualify for bonuses, according to a person
familiar with the matter. A-B InBev also declined to comment for
Upstart yogurt brand Chobani does not test any of its ads, said
CMO Peter McGuinness, a former ad agency exec who has used many
testing methods over the years.