Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What you hear about research

Academia is often criticized for being a too slow innovation force, with research being either too fundamental and abstract or specific but outdated by the time it gets published. This is certainly the case in more applied disciplines like marketing communication and advertising research. While I will not contest this observation, I will try to make clear in this blogpost that the slowness of academia should not be replaced by mediocre research from non-academic research agencies. Of course, everybody is free to conduct research but non-academic research is rapidly gaining impact in society and this could be troublesome if it is treated just as if it was a piece of research that went through the complete scientific publication process.
Today, a press release about TV-ad avoidance by youngsters received quite some attention in the Belgian press. This morning De Standaard, a high quality newspaper, published an article or pre-release of the research report. Later today, the popular radio show of @thesoundofsam broadcast a lengthy interview with one of the authors of the report. Basically, the pre-release states that youngsters are massively avoiding TV-ads, both in real time and recorded formats. The gist of the arguments is that these youngsters differ enormously from the adult viewers and that traditional media will have to step up. 
What is my problem with this particular piece of research? Actually I don't know. Maybe it is a fine study, and maybe all my objections I now have (based on academic papers I have read on the same subject) are to be dismissed. The problem I have deals with how such studies are made public and the amount of attention they receive compared to the low standards they have to meet. 
As it appears, the study has been carried out in a cooperation between a management school and a private partner, DearMedia. The latter specialises in "digital strategies and innovation" and they are the only ones talking in public about the report. If you would ask me, there is some serious conflict of interest between their business and the outcome of the study. So instead of weakening my objections, it even increases them. 
Now, suppose for an instance that the study is still a perfect piece of research and the conclusions seem genuine. Is there still a problem? In academia, there would indeed be one. Recent history at least provides one clear example of how things can go wrong when you communicate too early. In the well-known Stapelgate scandal, one of Stapel's co-authors, Roos Vonk, also was to be blamed because she communicated about their exciting research findings (which she probably did not know were faked) long before they were submitted to colleagues and reviewed. Irrespective of the fraud, the case should inform us about the dangers of too swift press releases. Always wait for the scientific feedback. Maybe, in your own excitement you overlooked something and the data are not at all that exciting as you believe yourself. 
So here we are, with a report generating quite some attention, making the traditional media shiver and the digital strategists chuckle even before the report is released (it is only due next friday). There is no real trace of the scientific collaborators who could provide some detailed insights in how the results actually compare against existing findings. And the only ones we hear are those who will make the most profit out of it.
I am eager to read their full report.


  1. Hi Tim,

    I do agree with what you write in your post. But please let me clarify a couple of things.

    The main reason we decided to do this (limited) research was because our industry needs guidance in this almost apocalyptic state they are in. Unfortunately, none of the typical players (TV-stations, operators, academic world, CIM, ...) commissioned this kind of study. And I think they did that on purpose: no data, no questions, no renegotiations of the advertising rate cards... There simply was no local data available, good or bad, yet our clients asked for it.

    We did this as a call-to-action to the industry and the establishment: "next time, you should do this yourself".

    I also do believe that there is a difference between academical research (the kind you refer to) and what happens a lot in the industry: getting a feeling with a certain tendency, a direction. Companies like Forrester make a living by publishing extremely expensive papers on the future of technology, often based on just a few dozen interviews with captains of industry.

    About the quality of our research. We are not academics, yet the research was done under the methodological and statistical guidance of the renowned Prof. Dr. D. Van Lindt.

    Last your point on how the media picked this up. We did not send out any press release on Wednesday. Actually, the results leaked and De Standaard made it into a big story (we talked about a couple of results on the phone to a journalist, just to provide context for a bigger article they were doing. Eventually the bigger article never got published ...), followed by Radio 1 and Studio Brussel. Of course, we don't complain about the attention we got, but I believe that this just indicates how nervous the media-business is about not understanding the changes and the state of urgency to get a better insight on what is really happening in the media.


    Jo Caudron (DearMedia)

  2. Dear(Media) Jo,

    Thanks alot for your reply. It certainly clarifies a number of things. A colleague of mine also picked up on my blogpost and stated that part of the blame should go to academics as well ( Therefore, I wrote an epilogue on the blogpost commenting on the study contents from an academic point of view. It is posted as the next blogpost on this blog.