The focus group is bubbling and sparkling!

Doing market research in Milan is an exceptional, a very brilliant idea! More grappa!

Published December 12, 2000 8:10PM (EST)

A focus group is such an everyday experience, I never imagined there could be a thread of poetry running through it. But that was before one of our e-services clients, which I'll call Headsnack, decided that the path to profitability lay in a week's worth of market research in -- Milan.

In America, focus groups are conducted in stale, windowless rooms in sick-building-syndrome "facilities" generally located in Takoma Park, Md., and possessing an almost experimental ugliness. Our Milan focus groups, by contrast, took place in a market-research palazzotto with stone-vaulted ceilings and a resplendent, rose-gold color scheme. In lieu of the usual focus group repast of Fritos and M&Ms, there was risotto, tagliatelle and hot, fresh focaccia. As we lounged on crimson settees, waiting for the respondents to arrive, we consumed large quantities of sweet biscuits, macaroons and little jellies and puddings. A parlormaid, Giulia, poured water from a blue jug.

The group had been scheduled to start at 8. At 8:15 the respondents started to file in. "Oh my God," breathed my colleague, Rehana Dutta. Her excitement was understandable. These were not the typical sad-sack focus group respondents, underemployed "cheaters and repeaters" lured by the $50 "incentive" and a promise of free salty snacks. No, these were bona fide international businessmen, fancily dressed in fine-spun wool suits and projecting an aura of crisp success. "Buonasera!" they bellowed in synchrony, shaking hands around the table. "Buonasera!"

"You see what has happened?" whispered our translator, Nicoletta. "They look at each other and know they are important people. So they introduce themself. They exchange business cards ... This is the way important men behave."

She was right. As we looked over the seating chart, our eyes bulged as we saw just who our recruiter, a firm called Market Dynamics International, had managed to round up for our market-research pleasure. Here was Rosario M., head of marketing for Hasbro Italy. Here was Edgar S., finance director for Kodak Italia. The plump gentleman on the far left? He was none other than Giovanni A., director of IT for International Paper. In short, a dream recruit, packed with high-level, B-to-B decision makers at Fortune 500 corporations. I winced as I thought of our last U.S. group -- a painful affair, curiously dominated by mid-level sanitary-napkin executives. "This is incredible," marveled the Headsnack client. "I mean, look at these guys. They are our target."

Unlike our Fritos-nibbling American respondents, who tend to be grizzled market-research veterans, our Italian group seemed charmingly unaware of the very existence of focus groups. "Let me explain to you," began our moderator, the stylishly handsome Clara Origlia. "This is what we call a 'focus group,' or panel discussion. You have involved yourself in a process to help another company. Please be understanding of that fact.

"There is something else I must say," Origlia continued, in a tone of urgent purpose. "In terms of honesty and correctness, it is my duty to inform you that I have people in the back room. From behind the mirror, they are watching you."

The men gazed at Origlia with a ferocious, transfixed expression. "Who are these people?" demanded Giuseppe R.

"They are international colleagues of mine," our moderator replied.

"I do not like this arrangement!" shouted Giuseppe, as his fellow respondents nodded their agreement. "I am more comfortable seeing people's faces."

"If you have objections to the people behind the mirror, please speak up," urged Origlia. "Please voice your objections. This is your right!

"You are free to leave!" she added. "You are actually free to leave!"

A handsome, bearded man named Augusto jumped to his feet and began to wave his arms passionately. In the back room, Nicoletta deciphered. "He is saying, 'It is only in prison that this happens,'" she explained. "He is saying, 'They use this mirror only in jails.' Now -- now Clara is correcting him. She is saying that Augusto has it wrong. She says that it is merely a way of working interactively."

In the back room, the Headsnack marketing team watched, open-mouthed. "Wow," whispered Gary, Headsnack's European marketing director. "This is heavy. I've never seen respondents object like that before." Rehana and I buried our heads in our hands. Our dream recruit had turned into a nightmare. We were convinced that at any minute, our unconsenting subjects were going to break through the glass, smash our cameras and shove our sweaty, prying American faces into our risotto Milanese.

Just then, the lovely Nicoletta leaned over. "Don't worry," she said. "This happens every time we do a focus group. We are Italian. We are hot-blooded, passionate. We like to make speeches, eh?"

Before long, the participants simmered down and the discussion settled into something resembling a typical focus group. But what a focus group! I don't know whether it was the frequent cigarette breaks, the ample supply of grappa and pastries or merely the spirit of alpha-male bonhomie, but for whatever reason, our once-mutinous respondents turned out to be a marketer's fantasy, reacting to our proposed advertising campaign with cries of approval and delight.

"Now, this, this, this is curious and eye-catching!"

"This is very, very satisfying. An exceptional, very brilliant idea!"

"This data is presented in a fascinating, beautiful way!"

"A splendid presentation!"

Origlia asked if anyone felt differently; if anyone believed the ads are wrong for the Italian market, if any elements should be changed. "Anything at all?" she asked. Silence. The only audible sounds are ruminative supping noises.

"It is the Italian personality," Origlia explained to me later. "We are very, very cooperative. We try not to displease other people."

But the Milanese businessmen didn't just love the Mad Dogs advertising. They also loved Headsnack. It soon became clear, in fact, that Headsnack's new, Eurocentric marketing strategy is nothing less than a stroke of genius. Unafraid, or perhaps unaware, of the American wave of dot-com ennui, these Milanese businessmen are more than willing to shower any Internet consultancy with handfuls of cash. "It is a sector that is flourishing!" rhapsodized Giancarlo, in English. "It is a sector that is bubbling and sparkling!"

"We now have 120 Internet consultants running around my company," confessed Arrigo, an executive at a European tire conglomerate. "They belong to 12 different consultancies. We have someone from [a consultancy called] Apricot. We have someone from Ewebbanana ... We have exceptional consultants and trashy consultants. It's hard to know if they're doing a good job or not." Arrigo sighs. "Somehow," he said, "we feel it is important for us to do this."

Across the table, Augusto nodded his agreement. "These consultants," he said. "They are quite chaotic to manage. The cost is exorbitant. But we have no choice." He shrugged. "We are investing billions and billions of lira in the Internet," he said. "Is it a major generator of cash? So far, no. But who knows? Maybe someday we will reap the reward."

The group was nearly over, but the moderator had one final question. What should Headsnack do, she asked the group, to endear itself to important businessmen such as themselves? The answers come with barking quickness.

"Good wine."

"Good food."

"Good paté. Deals are clinched over paté."

"Let us meet them," bellowed Rosario, the executive from Hasbro. "We will help them to polish their image, to raise their profile. To get closer to European culture."

And suddenly, they were upon us, smelling of cologne and cigarette smoke, beaming, pumping our hands, radiating gregarious pleasure. The moderator, Origlia, had let them into the viewing room.

Nick, head of Headsnack's Milan office, was in a fluster. "I'm sorry," he said. "We weren't expecting -- we're not properly dressed."

But the Italians seemed to relish our rumpled attire. "Looking at you, I see you are the new economy!" exclaimed Giancarlo.

"Seeing you in your blue jeans, we understand even more the unusual and interesting campaign you developed!" agreed Edgar.

And so we sat together, respondent and client, surrounded by the cozy fumes of delicious home cooking. It was an odd, unexpectedly tender moment -- Pavlov kicking back with his dogs, B.F. Skinner inviting his rats over for cheese. Afterward, we returned to our pensiones, feeling happy and drained and at peace. As we slept, we dreamed of billions and billions of lira.

By Ruth Shalit

Ruth Shalit is an account planner at Mad Dogs & Englishmen, a New York advertising agency. For more columns by Shalit, visit her column archive.

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