Home » Industry


14 October 2009 5 Comments

I was sitting through a few focus groups last week, getting feedback on some proposed campaigns. The groups went well. They liked what we wanted them to. They responded right on cue.

The day after the groups, I was discussing the results with some fellow creatives and they began telling me how unfortunate it was that my clients subject my work to such unprofessional, uninformed scrutiny. I’ve heard this plenty of times before. I probably even espoused the same point of view at one point in my career. But I have to admit that I find it a bit shortsighted now.

The argument I’ve heard is that we, as highly skilled advertising professionals, know better… That we understand the art of communication in ways that our audience doesn’t… That all we get from qualitative testing is group focus group room athink from losers who have nothing to do with a week night but sit in a room full of strangers and boost their ego by spouting off opinions as though it were they who had the shelf full of advertising awards.

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t take the proclamations of group members with a grain of salt. I get that group think is real and that there is danger in taking the responses too literally, but as I sat there behind the big two way mirror, I got something I couldn’t get from any colleague or client. I got to see my target audience in person, not just a line on a creative brief denoting women between 35 and 50 with a median household income over $75,000. I saw Barbara who has three kids and a husband who doesn’t trust anything he hears in a TV spot. I saw Joan, who clearly prefers when advertisers provide her with clear insights and has a hard time interpreting metaphors.

Frankly, I’d rather get positive feedback from this group sequestered around a table with a moderator than from a group of so-called advertising experts sequestered in a hotel conference room to judge a creative competition. I’d rather get insights from my a group in my target telling me what will work on them than affirmations from a totally different group telling me that the work is worthy of an award. All told, I’d like to have both, but if forced to choose, I for one would rather focus on creating an ad that works than an ad that wins.

- Glen Day


  • Shawn said:

    To the readers: this blog was actually written a few days ago, before Fabio’s was posted. However, it is quite appropriately timed being that it has another perspective on the process.

    Alright, i’ll shut up now.

    Shawn out.

  • Craig Crawford said:


    I’m probably never going to agree with you entirely.

    Yes, some value and insight can occasionally be gained through focus groups. Yes, it’s a great opportunity to see your work in action with real consumers. The problem I have is that all too often this kind of analytical approach replaces human instinct. I have never seen a focus group lead a client to be more visionary, more courageous of more confident in their agency. All too often this is an exercise in CYA, or worse, mistake-finding.

    Then there is the issue of how you interpret the results. How many times have you seen different camps practically cheering for every point their side supposedly wins. When you approach research only hoping to see your perspective triumph, it becomes more about you than the respondents, at which point the whole thing is tinted by pre-existing bias.

    Remember, not everything you can measure, is important. And not everything important, can be measured.

    For these reasons I cannot bring myself to endorse focus groups, or validate them further by looking for the silver lining.


  • Glen Day (author) said:

    Hey Craig,

    Thanks for jumping in. I agree that focus groups can be badly used. And maybe it was just me coming off the high of participating with thoughtful clients in a series of focus group tests that went well, but I am seeing them as a useful tool for keeping me in touch with the reality of my customer’s mindset.

    I look at it like trying to communicate with my three-year-old son. I don’t let him paint his room – that would be a disaster – nor do I really have him tell me how to paint it. But I do want to find out which of the colors I have in mind he prefers. I love my son and want the room to suit him.

    In the same right, I don’t spite my audience the chance to shape the communication. It’s for them. I’m glad to know their favorite color and I’m happy to then have the opportunity to take that color and turn it into something they never could have imagined.


  • Craig Crawford said:


    Fair point. Excellent analogy. But I still struggle to validate the process in any way. It’s the old slippery slope deal for me. For every client/strategist/consultant/parasite that get’s it, there are thousands who just don’t. I’m not afraid of the unknown. I’m afraid of what I know too well.


  • Fabio said:

    Hi, Glen! I am happy to see that our plan worked out: we posted two articles about the same subject but with totally different points of view, just to get more viewers for this site.

    Actually, I agree with you in some points.

    We need to be more in touch with the audience.

    And there is nothing like consumers’ feedback.

    But I guess the problem with focus groups is that different environments produce different behaviors.

    Strange people in a strange room, answering to strange questions, may lead to strange opinions.

    And, as Mario commented about my article, the problem can be the (bad) use of the researches’ information.

    Some clients may let their kids to paint their rooms, sometimes.
    And, finally, I agree with Craig when he says that researches don’t lead clients to be more courageous.

    It’s hard for something really new to survive in a focus group. I read that Pulp Fiction was Miramax focus group’s worst fiasco. I was wondering how funny would be an animatic of a Monty Phyton’s sketch.

    So, I agreed with a few things from everyone, threw out some more obvious points and ruined the whole confrontation.

    Thanks again. And, Glen, the next time you go to a focus group with pizza and hookers (as your comment under my article), please give me a call!

Leave your response!

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site. You can also subscribe to these comments via RSS.

Be nice. Keep it clean. Stay on topic. No spam.

You can use these tags:
<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

This is a Gravatar-enabled weblog. To get your own globally-recognized-avatar, please register at Gravatar.