This pretty much happened.
At a large agency, central London.
About eleven people have been called into the conference room for an emergency meeting to discuss the abrupt end of a campaign for a biscuit produced by a multi-national conglomerate.
The product had been seen on the shelves of all major supermarkets and its campaign – print, tv, cinema, social media – was visible until a week ago when it mysteriously vanished. All traces of said biscuit – ‘crunchy oats goodness with a melty chocolate-style interior’ – had evaporated.
We’re sitting around a large oval table. Various middle-range drinks and snacks lie untouched on a side table.
The Frowning Client makes a church with his hands, rests his chin on its steeple and says ‘This is a shame. It’s bad news, I’m afraid. Our product is no more. I thank you all for your hard work but I’ve been instructed to pull the plug.’
We all look at one other for the first time. It dawns on us that this isn’t a briefing meeting for the next round of work.
He goes on: ‘Eighty-eight percent of the first focus group agreed that they would be very very surprised if this wasn’t a complete success story. Eighty-eight percent! They said they liked the flavour and texture of our biscuit, the surprising chocolate-style middle and were also pleased by the elegant yet amusing packaging design. We ascertained that we were exploiting a gap in the market – biscuit-wise – that was hitherto unseen and that the advertising campaign – especially the animation…’
The client looks at me and Dee. We dumbly look back at him.
‘…really upped the awareness due to its humour, sweetness and narrative. Thanks guys. Really strong story-telling. Plus, obviously, we bombarded every platform from cinema to smartphone, which, obviously, also cost a bomb, media buying-wise.’
He sighs and continues knowing he shouldn’t have said that last bit because it was pointless and a bit gauche.
‘Anyway, so, we’re all here to lament this confusing, er…’
‘Denouement’ pipes up Jauntily Hatted Creative Director with a knowing smile that seems to say I’m up to speed with what’s going on so let’s keep this honest, true and positive because a) it most certainly is a failure, b) we’ve spent near to a million thus far, c) we really need to find out why this has happened and d) this is a huge bit of business for the agency so WTF next.
‘Yes Rick – you’re right – but let’s be civil and debrief and try to learn from it.’
Rick, still pleased with his use of the word ‘denouement’, yields a little and nods sagely thinking that there must totally be other biscuits that need hawking within this behemoth of a snacks conglomerate.
I say ‘So I came all the way from the middle of France to be here to be told that the four other thirty-second spots are now cancelled and we’re going to have a conversation about a biscuit that was eighty-eight percent liked and then, well, what?’
Young Unblinking Account Director leans into the table and she says ‘thing is, when we went to market, all seemed good: it was selling ok, a little under projection but not bad? According to our research, the design and advertising were well received by the public? The creative industries loved it saying things like ‘brave’, ‘hilarious’ and ‘memorable’ which got us a huge amount of press? Good PR. All seemed satisfactory but, strangely, sales started sliding so we thought we’d double-check and employ another focus-group to see if we could pin down the exact problem…’
‘Which was?’ rudely interrupts Slouchy Pen Twirling Copywriter.
All the Agency employees glare at the copywriter which seemed to say, en masse, please don’t make it worse by being your usual bolshy self – we’d actually all prefer it if you’d resign and fuck off and write your mediocre novel the details of which you’ve been boring us with for the last year. Really: a sex scandal and then a blossoming love story between a copywriting superstar and a female CFO set in a global advertising agency who then set up their own highly successful niche luxury branding firm? Never have so many been so underwhelmed.
‘Well. It was the biscuit itself’ says the client’s Food, Drink and Nutritional Expert, gruffly taking over. He’s from Yorkshire. ’The second focus group was split down the middle, pretty much 50-50. Half said they found the actual biscuity bit…’ he quickly glances down at his notes and knits his brow ‘… too squishy’ and the other half of the group described it as ‘too chewy’ so you can imagine how confused we were. No mention of the chocolate filling either so I guess no news is good news on the, er, chocolate aspect’
There is a silence and everyone glances at everyone else for what seems like an eternity.
No one really knows what to say or what they could say that would be any help. Something hangs in the air but no one wants to acknowledge it.
In my head I’m thinking that’s about eighty grand that I won’t earn due to a focus group’s faulty relationship with a sub-standard oat-based chocolate-style snack. And I’m furious about having to have spent all of yesterday travelling for this. I now know why they wouldn’t tell me the exact nature of this emergency meeting on the phone or by email.
I’m flummoxed. I can’t work out why one focus group would be that different to another in such a short space of time, apart from the nagging suspicion that I’ve always had about focus groups which is: how can they accurately reflect an honest opinion of something – in this case a biscuit – when they’re in a controlled environment discussing a product with total strangers and not at home like normal, unthinkingly making some tea and wondering whether there are any snacks up in the cupboard above the kettle? Plus, humans being humans, they’ll most likely be dishonest if it helps them to become the focus group Alpha Member. I’ve witnessed this in a rented country house in Oxfordshire when I was invited to join a group researching and brainstorming possible new breakfast cereal flavours.
It got quite ugly when self-elected Alpha Member shouted at a more sensitive member bellowing that ‘she should like it’ even though she really honestly didn’t like it. It’s a bit like being told you should like Mumford & Sons.
‘Definitely absolutely no chance of like relaunching this biscuit, then, yeah?’ asks the Sprightly Assistant Art Director in mockney patois.
‘Unfortunately, no.’ states the client. ‘We’ve tried to adjust the ingredients – you can imagine the permutations of fine-tuning the ingredients are immense – but that proved a waste of time because, as was said, both focus groups really like the taste – it’s just the squishy or chewy texture that has defeated us. Our ingredients-tweaking not only took us away from the taste that was generally well liked but also into a realm of textures that had never even existed before so, naturally, all were confused and one guy even felt slightly violated. A really strange conundrum that I’ve never experienced before.’
Again, a twitchy pause.
Dee looks up, shifts in his chair and delivers this:
‘Have you thought about turning the oven up? Or maybe leaving the biscuits in the oven for a bit longer?’
All stare at him. Some go pale, others make notes.