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A recent episode of The Apprentice was disappointing on a number of levels.

The first was the departure of my personal favourite candidate Jason, both proving once and for all that nice guys don’t win and suggesting that Lord Sugar has a deep-seated prejudice against “intellectuals”. More frustrating still was the fact that the blame for the failure of Jason’s team to win the task was placed squarely on the shoulders of “bad market research”, rather than “lousy creative” or “abject failure of project management”.

This in turn presented an opportunity, seized upon with glee by creative director Dave Buonaguidi in You’re Fired, to trot out the old maxim that “research can’t tell you what people want; if you give them what they say they want, they don’t really want it.” Cue mass murmurs of support on social media from every creative person who has ever had an idea killed by a focus group.

This, of course, is missing the point. The failure of the task did actually highlight some important points about market research, but not the ones that were discussed in the programme…

Focus groups should only be run by seasoned professionals

There is a popular belief, endorsed by the “commission by procurement” lobby, that all research is a commodity and that all focus groups are of equal value. In fact, last night showed that not just anybody can do qual research, and that groups run by people who don’t know what they’re doing can do more harm than good. An experienced researcher would have noticed and compensated for the systemic failures in the design of the research (e.g. the profile of the respondents chosen) as well as being able to ask more insightful questions.

The quality of the research is only as good as the questions you ask, and how open-minded you are

If the “researchers” go into the focus group (as they nearly always seem to do in The Apprentice) with the primary objective of promoting their own ideas, as opposed to finding out about the target audience really thinks, it’s not surprising that they come out with a bum steer. More often than not the group is browbeaten into telling them what they want to hear. I’ve been running groups for over twenty years and I still nearly always learn something new and surprising from them – any preconceptions I have about the outcome of the research are usually wrong.

The role of research in creative development is to inspire the solution, not supply it

Where Jordan’s group managed to trump Jason’s was in stumbling across an insight from which a creative idea could flow – that people signing up with dating sites live in perpetual fear of ending up on a date with a “Herbert”. Identifying the “killer insight” is fundamental to the account planning process within creative agencies and, (as an ex-agency planning director myself) I know for a fact that good qualitative research is an incredibly powerful tool for finding those insights. Of course, how that insight is then woven into a piece of creative work is a different job entirely (as Jordan’s team discovered!).

It’s a shame, if wholly understandable, that The Apprentice has strayed from its roots as a “business” programme into mainstream entertainment. There could be a really engaging and valuable debate around the role and value of market research to the entrepreneurial process, and how to do it well, off the back of a programme like last night’s. Interestingly, in You’re Fired, Jason himself opened up a line of discussion about how he as a historian is conditioned to trusting “the facts” unquestioningly. What a shame that was closed down in favour of a few more fatuous jokes about abdication and “coffin-dodgers”. It is BBC2, after all…