04/01/2014 03:45 pm ET Updated May 31, 2014

Ad Researchers are Rethinking Their Role

From where do we draw inspiration? Some say creative development in advertising is intuition or a gut feeling. Others may say it's an insight provided by research and subject matter knowledge. Is it art or science?

Last week at the Advertising Research Foundation conference in New York, it was a battle of the creatives versus the suits. Keith Reinhard held court as chairman emeritus of DDB, a creative director largely responsible for iconic advertising campaigns for McDonalds and State Farm insurance. "You deserve a break today," was really based on research that proved people wanted fast service in a clean environment. "Like a good neighbor," has stood the test of time for 40 years.

Gayle Fuguitt, CEO of The ARF, hails from General Mills and welcomes the dynamic tension between the two disciplines. She is a practitioner of market research, but also a change agent who wants to bring more young people and women into the profession.

"I like it when controversy is stirred-up," she said when I interviewed her. "There is a tiny little spark" of dissent and "I want to creative stages of conversations. Insightful research needs to be applied throughout the creative process."

Fuguitt believes she is an entrepreneur who was successful in a corporate environment at General Mills.

"This dynamic media landscape leads to 'measurement mania,'" said Fuguitt. "To be in the know, you have to figure-out the answers. So today we have the opportunity to become a new researcher. We are trying to get our heads wrapped around it." Programmatic buying is changing how ads are purchased.

"Are we data scientists? We are really being challenged, with social engagement strategists, our focus on neuroscience and its role in creative is a big [change]," she said.

Keith Reinhard quoted one of his founders at Doyle Dane Bernbach: "Is advertising a gut thing or research thing? Well more of a gut thing. Bill Bernbach said, 'I warn you that advertising cannot come from science.' It really is more art than science. We have the data but it's really more gut."

My favorite Reinhard commentary is that "There is a big difference between big data and a big idea!" He believes analytics are important but places value on relationships. He doesn't believe the creative process is really "informed" by research, but rather comes as a "surprise."

In today's multi-media, multi-modal advertising world, "authenticity" is the key attribute because millennials have major BS meters. Reinhard said:

The core value of this generation may be authenticity and, as many people have observed, their bullshit detectors are more sensitive than any we have seen. So if you are going to make a claim you had better be sure that you can back it up.

Fuguitt added: "What I want to do is reinvent this organization. I realize there is some hubris in that comment?"

"Good storytelling is a synthesis between facts and ideas into an insight that will actually be able to build a brand and attach itself to values," she said.

Consumer values and needs translated into understanding consumer needs so you need to create an insight out of it. Do iterative research early on. Big data technology only gives a window into this process of what may spark (ideas).

"The idea of combining really insightful scientific work and doing research upfront during the discovery phase is really compelling," Fuguitt concluded.

In the end, I felt that market and ad researchers of today are people who help enable the creative process and help management make decisions about their brands. In the dynamic tension between the nerds and the cool kids, seems there is room for a new approach. Gayle is likely to bring that conversation to a head as a turnaround artist.

"It is an amazing platform."

Mike Smith was EVP of Business Development for NeuroFocus, a company that was sold to Nielsen and is now focused on copy pre-testing which creatives hate. He has his own marketing and biz dev agency in Reston, VA.