Why David Ogilvy’s ‘bones’ with research from 1983 still matter and how we can solve them.

April 1, 2022

Jack Miles
Senior Research Director

Thirty-nine years ago, David Ogilvy highlighted a number of issues he had with research. They’re all still pertinent, says Northstar’s Jack Miles.

In 1983 David Ogilvy – the ‘father of advertising’ – wrote the book Ogilvy on Advertising.

It’s a seminal marketing book. In it, Ogilvy is complimentary about research. He says that Creative Directors must be ‘research minded’; emphasises that you must do your homework; and praises direct response advertising’s measurable nature.

So far so good. It appears Ogilvy likes research. But he also had nine issues – or in his own word’s ‘bones’ – with research.

Ogilvy’s bones are relevant 39 years on. This poses two questions:

  • Why are they still relevant?
  • How can we solve them?

Bone #1: Why does it take three months to answer a few simple questions?

Why is this still relevant?

Speed has never been more important. The 2021 GRIT Report says that ‘time to insights’ is twice as important as the next client priority. And triple the importance of agencies’ next priority.

Insights can now answer simple questions in hours. Not months. But answering bigger questions can take much longer.

How can we solve this?

Can we ever meet the need for speed? The benchmark for speed isn’t research. It’s Amazon. Google. Deliveroo. The next big disruptor.

And if research trails behind the technology adoption curve, we’ll struggle to be as fast as our clients want us to be.

Bone #2: Researchers can’t agree on method among themselves

Why is this still relevant?

We’ve more research tools available to us than ever. And choice is great. But it means we spend too long debating how to answer business questions, when the reality is that senior business leaders don’t care how we answer them, as long as we do so effectively.

How can we solve this?

A simple but seismic mindset change. We need to ditch our methodological preferences. Stop being an attached qual aficionado. Or a die-hard data diva. Instead, let’s shift our preferences from methods to answering business questions.

Bone #3: Researchers like things that aren’t related to advertising too much

Why is this still relevant?

For good reason. Diverse thinking improves how we solve problems. Matthew Syed’s work excellently evidences this. That’s why researchers learn about psychology, design, and storytelling.

But are we doing this in vain? And not linking this diverse knowledge back to what matters – how we answer business questions?

How can we solve this?

By focusing our identity as researchers. Yes, we need diverse skills. But we mustn’t forget to translate them into ways that create value for clients.

For example, businesses may not care for the intricacies of psychological biases. But they will care if they can use them to increase prices.

Bone #4: Researchers don’t care for reusing old research

Why is this still relevant?

Because we’re living in what Anthony Tasgal calls the DRIP (Data Rich Insight Poor) era. More data exists than ever. But we’re creating more at any opportunity we can.

How can we solve this?

Researchers love two things: 1) robustness and perfection; 2) new stuff.

But we need to lose this obsession. If existing research can give us 90% of what we need, in some cases that’s enough. We think people are ever changing, but as Bill Bernbach said “we must be concerned with the unchanging man.”

Bone #5: Research is full of fads

Why is this still relevant?

Because there are more fads now than ever: Pokémon Go, Blockchain, NFTs … the list goes on. But we love new things. So, we jump on fads at the first chance.

How can we solve this?

By finding the useful fads fast. And ditching the unfashionable ones even faster. There’s no shame looking into things to see if they’re useful. But let’s say no fast and avoid overinvesting in them.

Bone #6: Research reports are too long with complicated graphs

Why is this still relevant?

Because attention spans have never been lower. Johan Hari’s work shows that our brain can only process one or two thoughts at once. How then can it process a 73-point scatter plot? Or 30 slides of data?

How can we solve this?

Stop writing reports. Instead write headlines that communicate actionable insights. Create insight adverts that detail how to win customers. Make insight outputs fun. As Josh Bernoff’s iron imperative states: “don’t waste people’s time.”

Bone #7: Researchers won’t do imperfect projects

Why is this still relevant?

Because universities dictate that robustness is everything. But, realistically, sometimes ‘good enough’ suffices. And a 7/10 perfect project at 50% of the investment of a 10/10 project is sometimes what clients need.

How can we solve this?

Let’s ditch our attachment to perfection. The world isn’t perfect. People aren’t perfect. Why should research be perfect?

Bone #8: Stop asking researchers questions and they’ll grind to a halt

Why is this still relevant?

Because research is reactive. We get a brief. We answer it. We move on. Yes, some instinctive research exists, typically, in omnibus, syndicated or thought leadership form. But this isn’t the norm.

How can we solve this?

Doing research of our own requires investment – without any guarantee of return. Often clients won’t buy into research they haven’t briefed. This is because it’s imperfect vs. their own customised research.

But – much like researchers must lose their obsession with perfection – so too must research buyers.

Bone #9: Researchers use jargon

Why is this still relevant?

Because trust in data continues to fall. Couple that with simple language being more trusted than complex language (the academically installed preference of researchers), and we have a problem.

How can we solve this?

There are few – if any – courses offered to researchers about how to use simple language. This needs to change.

Of all Ogilvy’s bones, I’d argue this is the one that needs the most urgent attention. Why? Simple: an insight is useless if clients don’t read it.

Life begins at 40

Ogilvy’s bones are 39 years old. Let’s respect the fact they’re still relevant. But let’s do our best to solve them ASAP. And preferably before they reach 40, the place where life – and advertising research – can potentially begin.  

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