Doping casts a shadow over the Olympics. Excitement about record breaking performances will be tempered by doubts about whether they were chemically fuelled. But this uncertainty about who is cheating led Matthew Dunn, a psychologist at the University of Sydney, to create an ingenious experiment.

In 2011, Dunn asked 974 elite athletes to estimate the prevalence of drug taking in their sport. He found recent drug users estimated 45% of their competitors also cheated, whereas non-users put the figure at just 12%. The athletes couldn't help but project their behaviour onto others.


This isn't a phenomenon limited to pill-popping athletes. The issue is so widespread that psychologists have coined a term for it: the false consensus effect. And unfortunately, according to Zenith research, ad agency aren't staff immune either (to the false consensus effect - not dug taking).

We asked staff to estimate the percentage of the population with an iPhone. We then cut the data according to the type of phone the respondent owned. The result? Those with an iPhone thought half the population had one, whereas people who didn't estimated that only a third of people owned one.

Popping the agency bubble

This might not be a problem if agency staff were an exact replica of the country, but that's far from the case. When we surveyed agency staff we found that more people read The Guardian than The Sun, more shopped at Waitrose than ASDA, more drank Peroni than Carling.

So what can we do? The key is more insight work. Not the occasional expensive, formal kind but the universal uptake of fast and frugal approaches. That could be as simple as interviewing consumers in their homes, spending a day listening in at call centre, or working in-store for a week.

Or it could be a bespoke approach. For a recent brief into incontinence we wanted to help the planners understand the target audience. We had no budget so we used a technique we call 'method planning'.

Over a weekend we texted the planners at random times. Each time they received a text they had to stop what they were doing and find a toilet within two minutes. This helped the planners understand the experience of the target audience: not only the inconvenience but the sense of being a burden to one's family.

The digital opportunity

There's no excuse not to conduct bespoke insight as part of every plan. After all, in the last few year's digital changes have made informal research simpler than ever. The cost, and time needed, to run surveys or conduct focus groups has dropped radically as self-serve opportunities, like ZappiStore and Google Consumer Surveys, have blossomed.

If marketers don't make more of an effort to better understand their target audience the danger is they'll create plans that reflect their own experience not that of their audience.


Richard Shotton is a member of the Effective Channel Integration panel of the Warc Media Awards.
You can read all of Richard's blogs here.