God Save the Idea

Why-focus-groups-don't-work
Image: S Fitzstephens

The Sex Pistols’ first and only studio album, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols, hit the shelves in the summer of 1977 and changed music forever. It may not be punk’s first album but it’s largely responsible for inspiring a movement amongst young adults that stretched across the entire country and beyond. Countless bands have quoted the album as a huge influence and Jamie Reid’s seminal artwork is still being imitated today, from advertising to Gen Z fashion.

The masterpiece contained songs about abortion, antichrists and compared the nation’s beloved Queenie to a fascist. All packaged up in one of the most controversial album titles ever written.

Now try and imagine for one second, the album given the same scrutiny some ad campaigns face, by being put through ‘research’ before its release. Do you think we’d be talking about it today?

Now I could debate how big personalities can hugely influence others in focus groups, or how the environment the work is judged in, bears no resemblance to how you actually watch it, or the dubious answers given by some candidates to increase their chance of being invited back (a trick told to me by one attendee who thought I was with the next focus group, not the agency). But I’m going to keep my point simple.

Truly original work is, by nature, different. And as a rule, we humans struggle with different. It’s unfamiliar and unproven, and so, hard to judge. Plus, you’re normally not looking at the finished piece but a series of storyboards, scamps or mood films that have none of the wit, beauty or emotion you get with the finished piece.

Focus groups can be extremely insightful for gauging the views of a particular audience but expecting people who don’t work in advertising to see the potential of an idea that’s never been done before and hasn’t been created yet, is extremely slim.

As John Hegarty recently recalled on the excellent Behind The Billboard podcast, research advised his agency not to use their intended endline for a new Audi campaign. They decided to use it anyway, and Vorsprung durch Technik went on to become one of the most famous slogans in advertising and is still used today, some forty years later.

Originality requires bravery. Sometimes it’s best just to go with your agency’s gut, have faith in your very experienced instincts and not let the idea’s fate be decided by strangers. Never mind the bollocks, as they say in Britain.

The Sex Pistols’ first ever TV appearance on So It Goes, 1976. Anarchy in the UK.


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