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Behavioural science gets creative

News, 22 January 2016

LONDON/CHICAGO: Marketing has been slow to adopt behavioural science to inform the creative process but it can play a useful role in a number of different ways, according to a leading industry figure.

Writing in the current issue of Admap, John Balz, director of planning at advertising agency VML, admits that behavioural science doesn't magically produce creative ideas and that much of the research already represents the staples of advertising.

But, he argues, "Behavioural science's greatest contribution to creative ideas is its ability to deliver surprises during periods of preparation and incubation that keep the process moving along until illumination."

And he has experience, having been the lead researcher on Nudge, the bestseller on the subject penned by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

Balz offers four ways in which the discipline can help target the creative process, starting with making sure it's focused in the right place.

"Behavioural science is a workhorse for identifying the right problem to solve," he says.

"Great creative ideas start with great briefs. The best briefs bring focus to the problem and behavioural science is an excellent tool for doing exactly that."

It can also send the imagination in unexpected directions, as it reveals how small details in an environment can influence decision-making. "The emphasis on the small and the unconscious can lead to work that a fellow behaviourally-savvy described to me as 'truly oblique and magnificently trivial'," Balz notes.

Behavioural experiments can even become actual campaigns, as in the case of a series of cycling safety ads by Transport for London which highlighted how easily people could miss something obvious – like a moonwalking bear in a group of basketball players.

Ultimately, says Balz, behavioural science is more powerful when more people know about it and understand its basic ideas and that means incorporating it into an agency's culture.

"Within a planning department, behavioural science offers a series of strategic ways to solve a problem that are off-the-shelf ready for exploration," he says.

"Between creative and planners, the final strategy becomes a way to evaluate work together through dialogue."

Data sourced from Admap