Four steps to ensure evidence-based planning

Kathryn Saxon, MEC's head of research, shares key steps to ensure that planning decisions are rooted in robust evidence.

There was an elephant in the room. I know - I outed it.

I refer to a situation that I found myself in only a few weeks ago. A colleague was discussing how he'd identified a consumer issue and his approach to solving this problem for one of our clients. His storytelling was enthralling, I was with him all the way, sucked in by his passion and wowed by his enthusiasm. I asked about his evidence. I'm glad I did. It was based on a sample of one.

Now I know that samples of one can be the spark needed to take you in a new direction of thought, but at the same time we must not assume that everyone is like us. Certainly our own media consumption won't be representative - as highlighted by Newsworks' Sample of one project where 30 young agency planners and CEO's (including MEC's own Tom George) completed the IPA TouchPoints diary.

I'm sure many of us have been in situations where the storytelling is sound but when you look closer the evidence just doesn't stack up - samples aren't big enough, data isn't verified or sources are vague. And in an era when we are awash with data from new sources, which is often driving how we plan, buy and measure, are we just a little too trusting? Or even sometimes a little sceptical of research which doesn't back up our preconceived ideas? For example, the popular narrative around newsbrands is largely focused on decline, but recent work by Peter Field using the IPA databank shows that they are highly effective when it comes to building long-term brand health.

Personally I think Facebook's highly publicised video reporting errors have been a blessing in disguise for the industry. Certainly planners are now more attuned to the perils of inaccurate data and not blindly accepting data from any source. And as anyone who's tried to reconcile adserver data with web analytics data will attest, theoretically identical quantities are counted differently in different parts of the ecosystem – just because a number is precise doesn't make it accurate.

I've questioned misleading or inaccurate data from other media partners and only last week a research agency - it seems great story telling can get the better of us all at some time. Hence I welcome the recent rallying cry by the IPA and ISBA that as an industry "we should be defending the vital importance of accountable audience data, and to uphold the highest industry standards of methodology and independent verification". This is so important. No one should be marking their own work and the more we raise these issues and talk about it, the better informed we all are. This in turn gives us confidence and encourages us to ask the right questions and push for more robust evidence, the likes of which has underpinned our planning for so long.

With this in mind, I think planners do a fantastic job. There's no doubt that planning and delivery of work has sped up. Faster insight is needed as planning timescales are reduced and client deadlines shift to meet business challenges. Of course with limitless advertising opportunities planners have more decisions to make than ever and do so in era where we have silos of data with incomparable data sets and metrics.

So how do we as researchers equip planners to do proper-evidence based planning in this context? 

1. Organise yourselves so that researchers are peers rather than subordinates to planners. 

2. Invest in a culture that invites challenge - planners are only people so typically they want their hypotheses confirmed, so creating a culture where 'that's not the case' doesn't need a prefix of "sorry, but...".

3. Hack the brief to ensure that assumptions aren't implicitly accepted. Just because a brief says awareness doesn't guarantee that that's the real issue - great thinking often comes from getting to a deeper issue.

4. Invest your time in them. Train them on the brilliant industry planning tools we have at our disposal. Ensure that they are used alongside your own in-house tools but continually inspire them to get the best out of what's available.

And finally, remember my sample of one story? We worked on his theory, we gathered the evidence and needless to say we built it into a great narrative with substance that had a cracking ending. We all tell stories, but just make sure that your story is based on fact not fiction.

This blog was first published by Research Live.  

In an era when we are awash with data from new sources, which is often driving how we plan, buy and measure, are we just a little too trusting?

Kathryn Saxon, head of research, MEC
by Kathryn Saxon 07/09/17

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