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.

Back then, this seemed a travesty – a pathetic distortion of the true principles of qualitative research. But 20 years on, this experience is increasingly becoming the norm.

Here are a few of the situations we've encountered recenty: crazy requirements to recruit respondents according to a complicated client segmentation involving lists of 30 statements and nine-point scales; weeks spent signing off a seven-page discussion guide, with numerous clients involved in changing odd words on it, so'everyone is aligned'; clients flying to the US for just two groups, arriving halfway through the first and chatting through the second; marketing teams spending weeks micro-managing every aspect of the research process before the fieldwork, but then instant debriefs routinely required after groups. That's before we even start on the issue of web streaming, where we have weary clients in their pyjamas logging in and out during research in the small hours on the other side of the world, busily adding comments to the text box and communicating with colleagues during the research.

It's almost de rigeur to bash focus groups these days: they're old-fashioned and you don't get anything new or different from them. The problem, though, is not with the focus groups, but with the way we use them.

When expertly practised, focus groups can provide a uniquely sensitive understanding of people's relationships with brands and communication. They are probably still the best means at our disposal of accessing what Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman calls' System I’ thinking – the emotional, implicit, non-verbal thought processes, which neuroscience tells us drive most buying behaviour. The silences, the arm crossing, the raised eyebrow, the words not chosen, the laughter, the leaning forward or leaning back, the change in group energy level – all these can be far more potent indications of what is really going on in people's minds than the words they use.

The trouble is that focus groups seem to be increasingly interpreted now by clients at Kahneman's ‘System 2’ level – the realm of the verbal, logical and post-rationalised. One step removed from the respondents on the other side of the glass, clients tend to concentrate solely on the verbal content of the discussion. Just ask yourself this question. If you were being tried by a jury – would you rather they were in the room with you, or in their pyjamas at 2am watching a small screen on the other side of the world?

Through our industry's well-intentioned effort to make focus groups more ‘rigorous’ and 'scientific', we have neutered and distorted them so they no longer deliver the thing they were designed for- sensitive and empathic understanding of other people's perspectives. As a result, they are at best much less useful, and at worst downright misleading.

So if your focus groups no longer work for you, ask yourself this: is it the technique, or is it the way you are using them?