It is part of the business language of the Nineties to speak in terms of consensus and partnership rather than demand and supply. In marketing generally there has been a move to build more consultative relationships between marketing practitioners and their agencies and this shift is echoed in some parts of the market research industry. But most researchers and industry commentators are at pains to stress the partial nature of the changes.
Head of market research at Reuters Nicky Perrott sums up the situation: “I don’t think it’s possible to generalise; research agencies fall into a number of camps. Some of them definitely are becoming much more like consultancies, while others are not even trying to move in that direction, but are choosing to stick to their data collection. And that’s the way clients want it. I buy research from agencies in both camps.”
Perrott adds that there will always be a place for the large-scale data providers. She says: “If all I want is cost-effective and efficiently done fieldwork I can go to a specialist data collection agency. They’re selling a high-quality commodity service and we are assured of value for money. I don’t want them to change that.”
Sue Coyne is co-director of Business & Market Research and on the market research industry committee which is developing a public relations programme to educate management on the value of building a relationship with research agencies. She argues that research falls into four boxes: design, data, delivery (which includes reporting and interpretation) and deployment.
“Most research agencies deal primarily in data collection. Here research is a commodity that clients want to buy and any extra value is added within the client company. There are over 400 agencies in the UK and the majority operate within the data box, but increasing numbers are looking at relationship-type approaches,” she says.
Of course, plenty of agencies have always positioned themselves as consultants. Taylor Nelson AGB’s international development director Marc Drake comments: “The research market segments into hard tactical data and softer, strategic, qualitative positioning. If you go to the softer end of the market they would have always said they were offering a strategic, consultative service.”
Nevertheless, an industry-wide trend to adopt a more consultative approach is apparent and the reasons for this are varied. As Bill Pegram, chairman of Pegram Walters International, points out, the benefits of a more consultative approach are not always obvious.
He says: “It is not an easy option. It’s hard work and not necessarily as profitable as churning out data.”
So why is the situation changing? Diana Brown is head of marketing and sales information at the Royal Mail and also chairs the Association of Users of Research Agencies (AURA). She says: “It has to do with research buyers wanting the agencies to offer more than just data.
“Also, on the client side a lot of junior people in marketing are accepting they don’t know everything or have a monopoly on good ideas. And it is a question of time: more and more people have less and less time.
David Smith is chairman of both research consultancy DVL Smith and the Market Research Society. He says: “There are a number of factors pushing agencies down the consultancy road. One is the growing emphasis on customer service; another is the awareness that management consultancies are throwing their hat into the research ring and making research agencies realise they need to add value. And thirdly it is a more competitive business now: there are more agencies and also more competition between clients which gets passed on to us.”
Clearly, recent moves towards more partnership-style relationships between some clients and some research agencies have complex roots. A common complaint in the agency world is that clients now want added value but aren’t prepared to pay for it.
Says Coyne: “Clients tend to want to continue to buy research as a commodity on an ad hoc basis, but still have a relationship with the agency which supplies it. It’s hard under these circumstances for an agency to afford to have the staff on board necessary to facilitate that relationship.”
And it is not only employing a sufficient number of staff that may cause problems: finding staff with the right skills to operate as consultants can be difficult too. Pegram says: “Some of the more ‘in touch’ agencies are working hard to develop consultancy skills. This is not always easy. Some of the skills needed aren’t necessarily inherent in a good researcher.”
Pegram cites the ability to handle administration and the need for a focused, often narrow, view as important skills for researchers. Consultants, on the other hand, he says, need to show evidence of strategic thinking and the ability to see the big picture as well as interpersonal skills and the capacity to integrate with a marketing team.
According to Smith these skills are already present in the industry – he claims to be able to list people within each of the top 30 research companies who have the necessary abilities.
As a client, Perrott feels that specialist knowledge of a company’s business is key. She says: “Whatever I’m buying, whether it’s simply fieldwork or a full executive service, I value an appreciation of my industry, which is rather specialised and slightly complicated. If the agency people know the issues and understand the customers it means we don’t have to take them up the learning curve, which can be a bit painful.
“I also value executives who understand the sorts of business problems or marketing questions our research is dealing with. I don’t think I’m different from other clients in this respect, though perhaps this is more important in business-to-business markets.
“This preference means that – for full-service research projects at least – I tend to use agencies which have organised themselves into specialist teams or who can put together teams of specialists for a specific project. When agencies do this, they are very much like consultants and can offer the same quality of support and insight. But there aren’t enough of them yet, though the signs are very promising. I’d be delighted if more agencies could be like this.”
According to Laura Marks, Abbot Mead Vickers.BBDO planning director who chairs the Association of Qualitative Researchers, it is not only the agencies which need to develop new skills.
She says: “As far as qualitative research is concerned, advertisers should be much clearer at the start of a project as to why they are using it. Are they trying to get a better understanding of an overall market, are they trying to develop an advertising strategy or do they want to look at an execution to see if the right message is getting through? Often marketers are too late developing a strategy and too early in moving to the executional stage. Or they confuse the issues by trying to do three stages of qualitative research at once, which is a great mistake.
“You can’t ask people for a view, for example, on a piece of packaging and investigate their innermost feeling about a brand or a product sector all in the same session. For this reason clients should get their qualitative researchers involved as early as possible, so that these issues can be sorted out at the beginning.”
Clearly there are some areas of market research in which operators must develop specialist skills if they want to compete for business at all. Human resource is one such area.
Simon Barrow, chairman of human resources consultancy People in Business, says: “Anyone setting off to research in someone’s workplace is immediately getting into a difficult area. Once you start talking to people about what really matters – like relationships at work – you can’t just be a person with a clipboard. You have to gain their confidence and make them feel something will happen as a result.
“We asked delegates at the 1996 MRS Conference to say – if they had conducted recent employee research externally – which type of agency undertook the fieldwork. Fifty-four per cent of the sample had used a market research agency, but the rest had gone for communications, human resource, management or other external consultants.”
Barrow says he was amazed to discover that no interest group on human resource existed within the market research industry and has started, and chairs, the Market Research Society’s Human Resource Interest Group to further the development of human resource related skills within the industry.
It seems clear that while there may always be a place for the number-crunching, data-collection style of agency, there is also a growing need for more partnership-style relationships in some sectors.
Those businesses that can add value by offering business insights and industry knowledge, by harnessing IT effectively and by developing interpretative and consultative skills, should find themselves keeping one step ahead of the game as the industry moves into the next millennium.