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Over-reliance on Creative Testing Hampers Ad Creativity

“For years, pre-creative testing has been a popular method for determining the creative details that resonate most with a target audience," writes Barney Girling, ECD at Supernova, the7stars’ in-house creative team. Girling elaborates, "It’s a data-driven approach that ensures media budgets only support effective advertising concepts, but it’s not fool-proof, and research treated as gospel can have a disastrous effect on innovation and creativity.”

Uber Eats Rebuts the Research

Uber Eats’ campaign ‘The Art of Doing Less’ delivered phenomenal results when it launched last year, driving the brand’s highest-ever scores for TOM awareness and brand preference. But, if the team behind it had headed to the results of the pre-creative testing (where it crashed spectacularly), the concept could have been severely diluted.  So much so that it would have been lost in the sea of content from the takeaway category screaming ‘look how quickly we can get you whatever food you want’ ad after ad after ad.

Rebutting the research clearly paid off for Uber Eats, but why take the risk? Quite simply, because the insight behind the campaign (reframing takeaways from the lazy option to a genius solution to busy lives) was solid and the team behind it trusted their instincts.

The Pitfalls of Creative Testing

To grasp the basic problem with creative testing, look no further than Antony Gromley’s Angel of the North or, if you live in the South, Damien Hirst’s pregnant ‘Veronica’ sculpture, or Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Gallery if you live in Spain. All three of these giant public artworks were hated (and in some cases even campaigned against) by a public that detested the idea of them – not even the works themselves. All three are now lauded and celebrated by the same people and communities who once hated them.

Obviously, these examples all had time to grow within public consciousness, but ads work a little like that too. Uber Eats’ proposition was totally out of step with a cultural zeitgeist that celebrates productivity, ambition, and achievement. But the notion of ditching hustle culture is socially contagious, and the campaign shone a spotlight on something humans believe instinctively but rarely voice out loud.

‘The Research Said It Was OK!’

Of course, there are many rational reasons to pre-test ideas, and doing so can deliver huge advantages for ad effectiveness. Moreover, advertising is expensive, and marketers need to take every step possible to ensure campaigns are profitable. No one wants to shoulder the blame if a campaign backfires. But creative testing shouldn’t be used as a crutch to avoid making decisions. The Uber Eats example makes you wonder how many brilliant creative ideas have been shrunk to blandness by testing campaigns to death. Testing creative will only tell you what some members of a target audience say about an ad – and this clearly isn’t proxy for what they will feel, think, or do once exposed to it in their everyday lives.

It’s easy to imagine that trusting your gut on an unusual idea in the face of some adverse creative test results is commercially risky. But generic, easy-to-approve, unimaginative ideas are far riskier! As advertisers, it’s our job to understand the limitations of any form of research and have the guts to run with an idea without letting consumer feedback water it down.