Probing the Limits: Statistical Quality Techniques in Advertising?

February 1, 2004
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Using quality techniques in nontraditional ways can improve the bottom line.

Imagine using statistical quality techniques in a marketing department. Sound unlikely? It doesn't have to be. In fact, a new marketing company is using Taguchi methods of designed experiments to improve the effectiveness of its clients' advertising campaigns. This is an example of how the quality profession can be revitalized by deploying quality techniques in non-traditional environments.

The company is named MR2 for "Maximized Response Rates" and was started by James Kowalick, an engineer who previously used Taguchi methods to design engines. Kowalick, and his partner, Mario Fantoni, founded MR2 to deploy designed experiment techniques to advertising campaigns.

The purpose of a designed experiment is to identify the variables in a process that have the main effect on the process outcome. Understanding the critical variables is valuable in running an efficient process.

A designed experiment leverages statistics to test many variables, and combinations of variables, with just a few tests. Tremendous insight is gained with relatively little effort and time.

I've seen the power of a designed experiment firsthand. When I worked as a food-packaging engineer, there was a debate on the packaging floor about how to control the bag-sealing process. We argued about the variables that affected the strength of the bag seal-was it seal time, seal temperature, seal pressure, seal bar width, seal bar texture or a combination of variables? Each operator set up the sealing machine based on his own theory about which variable was the most important in creating a strong seal.

To resolve the debate, we used Taguchi's methods to plan a simple designed experiment, and a few tests, and a few hours later, the debate was over. Seal pressure was clearly the one and only variable that affected seal strength. We put tighter controls on seal pressure and less effort and money in controlling the other variables. In a short amount of time, efficiencies and quality improved and the debate ended.

I think of that seal strength argument and designed experiment any time I'm in a meeting where people are debating a topic using nothing but guesses and speculation as arguments. It is mind-boggling to think about all the waste that occurs in organizations caused by "winging it" instead of doing some simple Taguchi-like testing to gain insight on how the process really works. This is especially true for areas of the company where quality professionals rarely reside, such as marketing and sales.

I applaud Kowalick and Fantoni for starting MR2 and recognizing advertising as a process that can be greatly improved. Like any designed experiment, their goal is to identify key variables that affect the response rate for the advertising process. Typical print advertising variables include text content, color, artwork and the use of humor. A designed experiment is conducted by testing a few different combinations of these variables in small mailings. By looking at the response rate for each combination, they learn what variables are key in getting a high response rate, and then they use those key variables to create the final print advertisement for the mass mailing. The company reports greater than 1,000% improvement in response rate using this method, and I don't doubt it.

I've worked with advertising firms and I've seen my share of marketing "quackery" from them. First, these advertising executives try to get you to believe that they understand your market (which they don't), then they sell you on an advertising campaign by using a flashy presentation and an impressive demonstration of self-confidence in what they think would be a good ad. It's all about selling their ad concept to the company, not about developing an effective message to appeal to the consumer. In short, they know nearly nothing about what the customer wants and what type of advertisement will appeal to them. It is hard to imagine how much money is wasted each year on clueless advertising that fails to send an effective message to consumers.

The quality profession is going through some tough times now, but companies like MR2 show the potential that quality techniques have to yield tremendous paybacks. It is encouraging to see companies like MR2 start up and demonstrate how quality techniques can be deployed in nontraditional ways to yield bottom-line results. They are a great example for the rest of us to follow by showing how changes in the profession can put quality professionals back into positions of strategic importance within companies.

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