Optimizing Benefits of Advertising Pre-tests

Published by MBA Skool Team, Published on November 09, 2015

There is conflicting views between creative agencies and clients on the role of advertising pre-tests in successful advertising. While there has been increase in spending on testing creative alternatives at the pre-production stage, the question debated in the Indian context is that, should metrics (based on pre-test results) or agency judgment and client gut-feel be relied upon for decisions regarding creative alternatives?

Indian companies annually spend an estimated ₹10 Billion on market research, which is expected to continue growing at almost 15% p.a. in the near future. Advertising pre-testing researchers are gaining popularity among new advertisers from categories like automobiles, telecom, retail, clothing and financial services growing substantially in the last few years. With ad clutter increasing due to brand proliferation and maturing categories, advertisers in India want more discipline in this grey area of making creative choices.

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But there have been several cases where ads selected based on tests have failed miserably in the marketplace. Indian advertisers new to pre-testing as well as global advertisers already committed to the same, need to understand the complexities involved in the overall advertising system to interpret and take decisions vis-à-vis accepting or rejecting a creative concept.

Most pre-test researches in India take place at the storyboard or animatic stage, with very few being tested in fully-finished or rough-cut versions. Creative directors in the ad agencies believe that this testing does not convey the same scale and impact as that of visuals in fully finished formats. For instance, Vodafone’s ZooZoo ads cannot be tested unless they are fully produced. Ads that focus on product related benefits rather than peripheral cues are more researchable.

Big ideas and radical scripts are being junked due to over-reliance on the pre-test metrics and what passes through is often the plain, vanilla type of advertising which hardly makes any impact in the marketplace. Incorporating too many consumer concerns may make the ads predictable and boring. Ads made based on pre-testing research are what consumers expect and hence do not really surprise the viewers. Some, in fact, have even developed certain formulae to beat the testing just so an interesting ad gets through! For example, including a child, a dog or a celebrity in the ad can help get in through the pre-tests; cricketers, pets or babies in the script work just as well.

The creative agencies are still to accept this third-party validation of their advertising planning process and of the faith reposed in their creative capabilities. Relying on a panel of about 200 consumers in a single city is granting undue importance to pre-test scores thereby neglecting the judgements of experienced executives at both ends - the agency and the client. Research companies such as Millward Brown, ASI-Ipsos, TNS, etc. tend to apply benchmark scores based on their global database, and decisions made vis-à-vis such references do not go down well with ad agencies in India. Planners and account managers argue that if pre-test scores are to decide the fate of a creative idea, then why not let the copywriter and research agency solve the advertising problem? Why should there be multiple meetings between the client and ad agency to discuss various ideas and executions during the campaign development process?

At times, according to some ad agency executives, the questions in such pre-tests are either wrong or asked for wrong reasons. For instance, a pointed question like ‘Do you like blue or red?’ can be problematic when the consumer actually likes black. In real life, people do not evaluate ads as critically as they do during a pre-test. Interpretation of data also becomes important and, when consumer feedback is taken too literally, it doesn’t help select the best creative option. ‘What consumers say’ and ‘what they mean’ requires to be balanced. Research agencies, on the other hand, boast of sound methodologies and large databases for benchmarking. Millward Brown, for example, recently announced that it had conducted the most comprehensive advertising pre-testing validation exercise covering 37 categories of consumer packaged goods in 33 countries. By comparing results of 1,795 TVCs – generated by their popular pre-test tool LinkTM – with the actual in-market sales, and how LinkTM can predict advertising that drives sales.

According to industry observers, sometimes advertisers do not use the research in its true spirit. The disturbing trend is that some marketing executives try to avoid the responsibility of decision-making – in terms of selecting the correct ad - and hide behind research data. Rather than taking calculated risks in voting for the commercial that both the agency and they themselves strongly feel about, they may choose to play safe using the system that rewards ‘not failing’ rather than ‘producing great results by taking risks’.

Market research consultant Rama Bijapurkar rather strongly advocates advertising pre-tests, suggesting that today’s business environment is metric driven and most decisions need to have necessary measures and external validation for support. However, in the Indian context, she suggests that how results are interpreted and what decisions are taken becomes important at the current stage. According to her, formula driven research methodologies and decision rules based on global database of test scores could be dangerous in the Indian scenario and, hence, pre-testing is better for diagnostic purposes rather than to make predictions. Some advertisers, like Godrej, have clear policies of not taking ‘go-no go’ decisions based on pre-test scores. ITC also claims to use pre-testing results as input to managerial judgements. According to company’s marketing head, pre-testing helps reveal significant insights to develop communications such as identifying high points of interest, effective product demonstration and role of celebrity in persuasive process.

Bijapurkar also recommends that instead of using standard metrics of pre and post-tests that most research agencies offer, advertisers and creative agencies need to engage in a three-way discussion along with the advertising research agency for better clarity as to what metrics are to be used on a case-to-case basis. Evaluation of cryptic storyline may require different metrics as compared to the evaluation of how the ad contributes or damages the brand personality. When all three partners jointly decide the metrics, they may then select appropriate methodologies rather than off-the-shelf tools promoted by research agencies. According to her, it is also important to conduct the test such that it doesn’t make the respondent the marketing director or the consultant – advertising pre-test is not about asking consumers to give suggestions on advertising craft.

Executives at the P&G India headquarter share their belief that research encourages creativity. It acts as a mechanism to have a dialogue with the consumers providing insight into consumers’ everyday life, which in turn spurs advertisers and their agencies to come up with breakthrough advertising. Change in the direction of the campaign for Project Shiksha, P&G’s social responsibility initiative to support education in India, was triggered due to research. Research revealed that consumers wanted to know the impact of their contributions rather than being reminded about how to contribute. Pre-tests, thus, provide opportunity to introspect, modify and strengthen the communication.


As marketing practices in India evolve to be more specific and metric-oriented, advertising decision-making can no longer be based purely on gut-feel. While measuring advertising effectiveness cannot be avoided, it is important for advertisers and their advertising agencies to weigh the pros and cons of advertising pre-tests so as to optimize their benefits in developing successful advertising campaign. Rather than using pre-test scores to decide the fate of the creative idea/execution, it should be used to inform and improve the process. It must be seen as a learning experience rather than as a black or white solution.

This article has been authored by Nitesh Bhuwania from IIM Kozhikode


1. Balakrishnan, Ravi ‘Golden Age of ad pretesting: Is metric driven advertising killing creativity?’, The Economic Times, November 14, 2012

2. ‘Rama Bijapurkar on how ad pretesting can work for everbody’, The Economic Times, December 5, 2012

3. Shatrujeet N, ‘Does gut-feel have place in advertising? Part II’, www.afaqs.com, November 06, 2001

4. Ladd, Carolyn, ‘Does testing really make advertising better?’, Forbes, September 12, 2011

5. ‘Millward Brown Announces the Most Comprehensive Advertising Pre-testing Validation Ever Conducted, Covering 37 Categories and 33 Countries’ – Company press release dated October 27, 2011, www.millward-brown.com/global/news/pressreleases/

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