Mythbuster: Killing the conversation

Les Binet and Sarah Carter

Les Binet and Sarah Carter of DDB get a little bit angry about some of the nonsense they hear around them... like the idea that focus groups have had their day

Nearly 20 years ago, we were working on repositioning a global whisky brand. This required us to attend some qualitative research in New York and Los Angeles. Intensively trained in the art of conducting what we still quaintly called ‘group discussions’ at BMP, we were stunned at what confronted us.

In the UK, groups were convened in intimate surroundings in real people's houses, and were rarely attended by clients. A common-sense and trusting approach to recruitment and discussion guides prevailed, and, above all, time was protected to analyse and interpret fieldwork before the debrief.

In US ‘focus groups', things were very different. The research all took place in beige, faux boardroom settings – usually around a large table. Clients sat behind a one-way mirror, chatting loudly, ridiculing respondents’ ignorance of their brand and paying more attention to the takeaway menu than the proceedings. The moderator had little role, beyond putting a prepared list of questions in a set order to the bored respondents. After a quick chat with the moderator, the clients each went away with their own idea of the research findings.