A Shot in The Dark: A World Without Pre-Testing

Imagine a scenario where a $674 billion industry left everything to chance. It sounds utterly absurd, doesn’t it? When the stakes are this high, relying solely on luck would be downright bizarre. Yet, despite the advertising world being armed with a treasure trove of knowledge, research, and data to prevent such an irrational predicament, why do we still entertain the idea of taking unnecessary risks?

Great Ads are Built on Stable Foundations

In an era where technology rapidly evolves, utilising data to guide creative endeavours and executing campaigns with more limited budgets, creativity appears to be increasingly usurped by algorithms and analytics. This begs the question: Should genuine creativity abandon these foundational principles altogether? It’s not surprising that many have reached this conclusion recently, as the heated topic of pre-testing and codified creativity has taken centre stage.

Let’s shift our perspective on pre-testing and data-driven decision making. In a recent article by Mark Ritson in Marketing Week, he highlights the importance of embracing these tools, stating that “it’s time to acknowledge that to push back against pre-testing is to reveal a lack of awareness of these changes, and the opportunities they present to avoid failure and improve effectiveness.” Ritson’s insight comes in response to criticisms about pre-testing’s perceived limitations, eloquently reminding us that pre-testing isn’t a hindrance but rather a canvas for creativity.

When we expand our viewpoint to embrace the global spectrum of cultures, it becomes apparent that few industries are as fixated—and indeed, as critical—of structure and data as advertising. Consider poetry, where structure is essential, yet each poem possesses its own unique essence. Similarly, fields like law, medicine, and economics rely on research and guidelines, yet outcomes vary significantly. Even in construction, where stability is paramount, no two structures are identical. This analogy resonates deeply in advertising: while core principles of effective ads endure, there exists boundless room for creative exploration.

To dismiss the idea that great creativity cannot conform to foundational principles, is to discredit much of the creative excellence we witness brands and agencies produce time and time again. Take the two examples below, both of which scored identically for long-term brand-building potential, belong to the same category, and were tested within the same market:

Aldi – 5.9 Star-Rating

Marks and Spencer – 5.9 Star-Rating

Both ads excel in long-term brand-building potential, earning top scores and adhering closely to foundational principles. Orlando Wood’s works, Lemon and Look out, reveal the critical elements driving sustained engagement and market share. These include characters with agency, a well-defined setting, a progressive narrative arc, subtle interactions between characters, spontaneous facial expressions, dialogue, physical touch, and melodic music, among others. Remarkably, both examples incorporate nearly all these features. So, why do they yield such distinct outcomes?

These principles merely provide a firm foundation for creativity to prosper.

Why you Should be Investing in Pre-Testing 

Benchmarking creatives early and identifying features that hinder short-term sales and market share growth is like uncovering a flaw in a gearbox and rectifying it. While the ad’s essence remains intact, refining these elements enhances its market potential. Would you choose to drive a faulty car? Probably not. So, why gamble on your creative endeavours?

In his recent article in Marketing Week, Peter Field hinted at the significant strides that pre-testing has taken in recent years. What was once only grounded in a rational methodology, has been rightfully transformed by thought leaders like Daniel Kahneman, as well as agencies like ours (to use Field’s words, not mine). This evolution has enabled us to harness and validate the predictive power of emotion, allowing for a deeper understanding of the long-term business potential of advertising. Not only does his article allude to the striking correlation between emotion and long-term business effectiveness, but Field also notes that “pre-tested campaigns pull ahead of others,” contributing to share growth and the ability to maintain pricing power. In the case of advertising roulette, the odds are significantly in your favour with pre-testing.

From newcomers to seasoned TV advertisers, irrespective of brand size, pre-testing holds the key to significantly enhancing your return on investment. For larger brands with ample budgets for exploring multiple creative avenues, pre-testing serves as the compass to determine the most effective route in the market, instilling confidence in their chosen creative direction. Driving growth hinges largely on market orientation, a fundamental principle in brand building. Pre-testing presents the invaluable opportunity to gauge whether your assets align with consumer needs – after all, consumer opinion reigns supreme. Given the substantial investments in advertising and media for such brands, the stakes are undeniably high and while pre-testing may constitute a modest portion of a brand’s budget, its impact can be transformative in maximising ROI.

Smaller brands face a unique challenge in advertising—every investment is precious, and there’s little room for error. Tom Roach’s insights from Scaling Up Without Screwing Up reveal that new-to-TV advertisers typically lag behind the UK advertising average in long-term growth potential, short-term sales, and brand recognition. Therefore, early investment in pre-testing can be instrumental in guiding creative decisions and optimising creative spend.

An excellent illustration of how pre-testing can impact creative output is the case of OceanSaver, a new-to-TV brand. When OceanSaver approached System1 last November with their upcoming creative featuring a group of sea-shanty singing crabs, they aimed to assess several key factors. These included whether entertainment and humour resonated in a category primarily dominated by rational messaging, if the pack design effectively signalled the brand, if messaging was clear to consumers, and if the environmental message connected with them. The initial test yielded a respectable 3.7 Star Rating, promising short-term sales potential, and a notable 69% brand recognition. This gave the Ocean Saver team confidence that the creative emotionally resonated, while also highlighting opportunities for optimisation.

Following the initial test, OceanSaver made several enhancements to their creative. They added additional pack shot frames to improve brand recognition, refined the audio for better comprehension of the sung words, and simplified the end frame to enhance the clarity of the final message and brand signal. The results were remarkable, with positive improvements across all metrics. The Star Rating soared to a strong 4-Stars (compared to a 2023 new-to-TV average of 2.3 stars), placing the creative among the top 5% of UK Laundry ads ever tested for long-term brand building potential. Short-term sales potential also saw a significant increase from good to strong, while fluency experienced a notable 12% uplift.

"When launching a TV advert for the first time, the stakes were high, and its success weighed heavily on our minds. Thanks to System1's pre-testing and consultancy, we not only benchmarked the creative against industry norms and new-to-TV standards but also pinpointed features to optimise the final output. While adjustments were subtle, their impact proved significant, particularly in enhancing fluency (brand recognition) and message clarity. Having this foresight was invaluable, empowering us to move forward with confidence in our creative vision."

Andy George Creative Director at Hearts&Minds

"Crafting something that not only promises positive social impact but also predicts market success was undoubtedly a moment of great pride. System1’s insights are incredibly intuitive and easy to navigate, and their expert knowledge in topics such as sustainability, uncovered in ‘The Greenprint’ research, ensured that we were hitting both commercial objectives and social objectives. Having such insights early in the creative process was both reassuring and affirming."

Adam Parker Marketing Director at OceanSaver

When Should you Start Testing?

Tight timelines pose a significant challenge to pre-testing. Clients often ask about the best time to begin testing, and our consistent advice is to start early and test frequently. By assessing creative at the script or animatic stage, you gain the flexibility to make adjustments before final editing, streamlining the process. We advocate for integrating pre-testing into your timelines, ensuring it’s a planned part of the process rather than a last-minute addition.

At System1, we partner with the world’s leading brands and advertisers to ensure that high risk translates into high reward. By doing so, we empower them to make confident, informed decisions at every stage of the creative process. Build a solid foundation for your advertising and create with confidence. Reach out to a member of our team today.