The truth in underwear – Dave McCaughan’s challenge to marketers and the research industry

What does Paul Newman in the semi-buff have to do with anything? Well, the choice of underwear by Hollywood’s leading men throughout the 20th century – white boxers, singlet on, singlet off, dancing in socks and Y-fronts – had a dramatic and predictable effect on sales. This, the lesser-known history of underwear, goes back much further in history than the Golden Age of Hollywood, and it’s a story Dave McCaughan has been telling for two decades. The point, of course, is that it’s a story about underwear but, at the same time, not about underwear – it’s a lesson in understanding the history of any category.

It’s a lesson that’s lost as, succession-by-succession, the history of brand, company, category gets lost, despite fastidious record-keeping. “In a lot of organisations the marketing manager, the brand manager, the agency, the account director at the agency changes every two, three, four years, and we all know there’s this habit of ‘I’ve gotta change everything’ because I’m the new guy,” McCaughan tells Marketing.

“What happens is a company’s corporate memory dissolves. Companies will keep fantastic records but nobody ever looks at them.

“There’s a lot of forgotten learning.”

Dave McCaughan in undies, ESOMAR Sep 2012

If you’ve been a client of McCann in Asia-Pacific at some point in the last two decades, there’s a good chance you’ve seen his famous Underpants presentation. This week, as the director of McCann Worldgroup’s Japan branch and global director of the group’s ‘Truth Central‘ thought leadership unit, McCaughan is giving the presentation to the market research industry at the annual conference of the Australian Market and Social Research Society (AMSRS) taking place in Sydney. It comes with a challenge to the prevailing paradigm of how market research agencies go about their business.

“Obviously for commercial purposes a marketing research company’s first response to anything is ‘we must do a new piece of research’. Market research companies get paid a lot of money to try to discover something new, instead of [the client] saying, ‘Can you discover something old that we can use?'” McCaughan says.

“Are we using archivists? Almost never. So how do we understand what we’ve learned in the past, what are good examples we can change and modify?”

10 years working as a children’s story teller in public libraries gave McCaughan a rare insight into communications history and story archetypes: “Doing that you learn very early on that there are only a couple of stories in the world, and everything else is just a rehash of those same stories.”

“We can complain about it all we want but the truth is there’s a very easy formula in Hollywood which is to take an old hit and remake it, take some technology, make it 3D and make it better, put a bit of a twist on it. The truth is that works pretty well in all forms of communication.”

McCaughan’s challenge to the market research company is this: “Why is not the first thing you do scour through what you’ve learnt from all your other assignments, the hundreds of thousands of assignments you’ve done, to give me an answer, instead of saying we must do a new piece of research?

“Why is it as a marketer I don’t make more use of that? I think that’s just intellectual laziness.

“Why aren’t they charging for giving the advice – like, over a thousand studies we’ve found ‘X’?”

If we were to get philosophical at this point, we’d turn to Santayana, and throw in quips like ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,’ and ‘When experience is not retained, infancy is perpetual,’ but this is an interview with Dave McCaughan.

According to McCaughan, the desire to always do something ‘new’ represents a focus on the wrong end of things, because, as generations pass, people may have not seen the standards of the category. The history lesson is not just about brands, companies and categories, it’s about people too.

“There are certain types of mechanisms that you use in advertising or in marketing that historically have worked very well that have set up and established what the category’s all about,” he says.

“We forget sometimes that there might be a whole generation of young people that have never seen that type of advertising, never seen the basics of what the category’s about, and that would apply to any category.

“We don’t think about the history of the people we’re trying to reach.”