Everything I've Learned Part 2: Down and Dirty Research

A situation all too common: You receive a client brief that MUST be turned into a creative brief in less than a week.

You’re human. You panic. How could you possibly go through the civil process of focus groups, brief-crafting, and internal reviews in that absolutely rude amount of time?

If you haven’t encountered this yet, stay firmly put at your current agency — you’ve got it made. But if you’re like the rest of us, you’ll encounter this far more often than you’d like.

Do not panic — it’s counterproductive and bad for your health. Just make sure to avoid these 5 traps, and I promise you’ll be able to pull it off.

Trap № 1: Jumping right into the solution.

Your sense of urgency about the looming deadline will drive you directly into solve mode. Do everything you can to fight that urge, because you simply cannot solve a problem that you don’t yet understand.

It’s likely that the problem in the client brief needs reframing. Client briefs often contain a problem written through a corporate lens, or worse — it doesn’t contain a problem at all. Many client briefs lead with a tactic instead of a problem — e.g. “Create a fully integrated brand campaign.”

Lesson: Find the right problem to solve.

One of the best bits of advice I’ve ever received is that the most impactful insight can come in the form of a reframed problem.

Take Old Spice “The Man Your Man Could Smell Like” for example: The problem could have been the tired Old Spice isn’t relevant to Millennial men.Instead, the planners took the time to dig into sales data and found a broader and far more interesting problem: Women are buying the majority of men’s body wash and they have no experience with Old Spice.

Creatives are at their best when given a meaty problem. Invest the time upfront to reframe the problem to help them arrive at a unique solution.

Here are two amazing resources to help reframe a problem: WikiHow: How to Define a Problem and The Phoenix Checklist: Checklist of questions used by the CIA to think through problems.

Trap № 2: Starting from scratch.

New things excite us. It’s why I’m addicted to Amazon and have to fight back daily urges to propose new research. For young and eager Junior Planners, it feels right to launch new initiatives and start with a blank slate.

The Lesson: Lean on existing research.

Most clients — especially large corporate ones — have troves of research to tap into. Start with their brand tracker, segmentation study, or qualitative recordings. Finding insight in existing research will save you time and score you points with the client who invested in it.

Trap № 3: Wasting away in desk research.

The internet is a portal into sleep deprivation, which is why desk research can drive a young Planner mad.

Conventional wisdom says it’s full of insight, but it tends to be a swirl of regurgitated opinions — especially when it comes to consumer research.

The Lesson: Limit your time spent on Google.

One day for a-Googling — max. Gather a day’s worth of context, plant your feet firmly in the problem, develop a few hunches, and give yourself time to loop in the right people to help you — e.g. data strategists, strategic flâneurs, agency librarians, or client-side researchers.

Trap № 4: Avoiding real humans.

Scrappy qualitative research is messy and scary, which is why many planners settle for desk research.

The Lesson: Do everything in your power to speak with real people.

“A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world.” -John le Carré

The Planner’s most powerful function is talking to real people and arriving at fresh conclusions. We need to make time for it.

Here’s a few time and cost-conscious ways to pull it off:

  1. Get connected through your personal contacts. It’s amazing how many people in the world are connected through first or second-degree connections. For example, I’m only two degrees away from Kevin Bacon (I have a client who once played his body double.) Take advantage of this by throwing out a line through social media or an all-agency email. I’ve been put in touch with first generation college students, compact hatchback drivers, police officers, volleyball players, nurses, and a electric-car-driving retiree with this method.
  2. Go where they are and strike up a conversation. Once a senior planner asked me to do this — to walk into tattoo shops on the Venice boardwalk to ask the artists what they thought about human memories. After considering getting an actual tattoo to force someone to talk to me, I opted to just chug a coffee, throw back my shoulders, and do it. The discomfort is real, but it dissipates. It’ll be worth it, I promise.
  3. Tweet at them. Even if it seems like a long shot, just try it — people like to share their opinions. A planning director once told me a story about how she successfully recruited famed “All in the Family” creator Norman Lear for research by tweeting at him. He had powerful insight into connecting with America’s Working Class.
  4. Ask brand advocates. Most clients have a list of highly engaged brand advocates who are more than willing to talk to marketers. Just be cautious that advocates are a very small sliver of your target audience.

Trap № 5: Chasing an original human insight.

A truly original human insight is rare. Human nature doesn’t change, only the context does.

The lesson: Look everywhere for the truth.

If you haven’t found an insight that’s particularly original or surprising, just find a clear and relevant truth. The truth is hiding everywhere, and it’ll work nicely in your brief that’s due EOW.

And finally…

Being new to a client and new to an agency is hard enough before adding the additional challenge of being new to a discipline. Continuously remind yourself that it’ll only get easier.

With each new day and each new project, you’ll become faster, wiser, and smarter. You’ll learn more about categories, media, and human nature. You’ll find your unique approach and voice.

Tight deadlines and times of uncertainty will only train you to be a more resourceful and resilient Planner. Relish them.