This post originally appeared on the Wunderman Thompson blog.

A couple of years ago after leaving my role as a researcher at the University of Antwerp, I applied for a strategist job at Wunderman. During the interview, I didn’t really feel like my academic background was an asset. Advertising professionals are supposed to be creative, so academics definitely don’t fit the bill, right?  

Well, after a couple of weeks on the job I realised academic insights often spark creativity. In fact, scientific research can be an advertiser’s secret weapon. Academic findings have several characteristics that make them a valuable source of information. 

First, the independent nature of academic institutions means their findings are more likely to be reliable and unbiased (forget fake news).


Second, studies are often embedded within research projects that span several years. So researchers have been given time to immerse themselves in the topic and perform studies with the greatest care. 

Third, most academic articles pass a thorough check by a peer-review committee, which undoubtedly benefits the quality of the findings.

Moreover, a human sciences approach to consumer behaviour will generally go deeper than commercial marketing reports by focusing on societal and psychological constructs. This means that data are assessed based on knowledge of deep human traits. 

The B=MAP behavioural model, for example, provides a guide for creating communication that instigates behavioural change. The three key ingredients? Motivation, ability and prompts. These elements can be optimised, respectively, by making it easy to adopt the desired behaviour, segmenting users then adapting targeted messages to their motivations, and finding an interesting creative trigger.  

At Wunderman Antwerp, we try to push the boundaries of strategy and creativity on a daily basis. By using academic knowledge with consumer reports and our own resources, we achieve fresh, unique perspectives. 

The two main reasons we use academic studies are:

1) To acquire campaign insights

One of the first steps we take when answering a client brief is to dive into our knowledge database. Along with the valuable resources we have on hand, we regularly feed search queries into Google Scholar and access valuable subscriptions and partnerships through our network. 

Scientific findings and theories can lead to great insights. Or they can be the insights themselves. An example is the Closer Than You Think campaign we did for Child focus which applied the Small-World experiment by Stanley Milgram to prove that everyone is connected to a missing child in six steps or less. 

Then there’s our latest work for MNM which announced the return of the popular youth TV series ‘D5R’ using the theory of parasocial interaction. We played on the insight that after some time, fans of a TV show feel like they know the characters personally. As a result, they might gossip about the crazy stuff the characters face as if speaking about one of their friends. 

2) To optimise communication strategies

Academic research shows that using consumer psychology principles in communication can have a huge impact. The persuasion principles described by Robert Cialdini are renowned, but did you know that strategies like gamification and nudging come from consumer psychology, too? 

We used gamification principles when launching Woohoo. By letting users interact with the logo, we increased brand engagement. 


Plus, you’ll often see nudging (which alters customer behaviour without limiting their freedom of choice or changing economic incentives) in action. A classic example of nudging in the public space is the ‘fly’ stickerspasted inside urinals to reduce ‘spillage’. How do they work? It’s been shown that if men have a target, they’ll aim for it. 

Then there are the piano stickers that allow commuters to make music with every step, thus encouraging people to take the stairs.

In fact, we often use nudging in our CRM proposals. For example, if we know where a specific consumer is in the customer journey, we’ll send an email or targeted message to give them the nudge they need to take the next step.

At Wunderman Belgium, we value our relationships with neighbouring universities. To ensure we’re on top of the latest insights, we take on such initiatives as inviting researchers to give inspirational noon presentations to our teams. And over the next few months, I’ll be visiting the University of Amsterdam, the University of Antwerp, KU Leuven and Ghent University to give lectures about how we approach advertising effectiveness.

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