Trade Union

The market research industry has welcomed the merger of its two trade bodies. The body is expected to usher in an era of greater power and professionalism, says Paul Gander.

It’s been a long time coming but, next year, the UK market research industry will finally merge its two main trade associations – the Association of Market Survey Organisations (AMSO) and the Association of British Market Research Companies (ABMRC) – into a single body.

The new organisation will probably be called the British Market Research Association (BMRA) and will bring together AMSO’s 40 members, (mostly the larger UK research companies with a combined turnover of about 450m) with the ABMRC’s 190 members, (predominantly small and medium-sized companies with a combined turnover of 172m).

There are few dissenting voices against the new body. Indeed, the most repeated criticism about the merger is the complaint that it should have happened much earlier. Tony Lees is consumer omnibus research director for NOP. His comments are fairly typical: “This merger is not before time. Too many years have gone by with the industry represented by two different bodies. The original reasons why this was allowed to happen are lost in the mists of time. However, I’m very pleased that the situation has been rectified,” he says.

Russ Nathan, chair and chief executive of agency Romtech and a prime mover behind the merger, adds: “Frankly, it’s silly having two trade associations for such a small industry. Our combined turnovers make up a market research sector worth 600m. To put it in context, that’s about the same size as the market for baked beans. We will be a stronger and more effective force by joining together.”

The current ABMRC and AMSO heads of agreement document sets out six key objectives for the single trade association. In summary, these are: to represent the interests of research suppliers; to improve standards; to champion the industry; to negotiate with those who seek to control or restrict market research; to act as a centre of excellence and best practice; and to contribute to the professional development of research practitioners. The new organisation will have major implications both for buyers and users of research and for the industry itself.

Most noticeably the new organisation will have considerably more muscle than either of its predecessors. Says Nathan: “We will have a seat at a higher table when dealing with civil servants and government, both at home and in Europe. The last administration told us that a merged association would get a better hearing and would benefit in many ways.”

Barbara Lee, chairman of the ABMRC and managing director of agency Facts International, adds: “This merger represents the beginning of a new era in research. We know that everyone from the European Commission to the Department of Trade & Industry wants to speak to just one trade association and, as new legislation comes out of Europe, we will be in a position to fight our corner more effectively.”

Lee is referring to a swathe of measures currently under consideration by Brussels. Distance selling is one controversial area that has already been well documented; but there are others which might have an equal impact on the research business. Lee points to the obvious minefield that proposed legislation to offer contracted employees the same benefits as staff could create within the industry. She argues convincingly that presenting a united front against unworkable proposals is the only viable way forward.

The strong arms of the new trade body will reach beyond a desire to defend industry interests. Onlookers can expect to see an increased commitment to establish and enforce a set of industry-wide standards. The Market Research Quality Standards Association (MRQSA) was established in January to provide a uniform framework for research techniques which will allow its users to be compared and measured on a common basis. The standard includes the existing Interviewer Quality Control Scheme (IQCS) and also allows companies to build this into their ISO 9000 practices.

Lee says: “All member companies joining the new organisation must sign up to a quality charter, while anyone with a turnover of more than 500,000 must make an actual commitment to enforce the MRQSA standards within two or three years. All research users will see improved and assured quality. The charter covers everything from executive strategy meetings to fieldwork, data processing and reports and presentations.”

MRQSA is a cornerstone of the merger. Indeed, without it the merger may never have taken place.

John Kelly, head of the AMSO negotiating committee and chief executive of IRB International, says: “MRQSA has been instrumental in the merger, largely because both sides were represented on the council that established the standards. This meant that once everyone had been brought together the next natural step was to talk about merger and also that there was a feeling that if everyone was working to the same standards, we may as well all be working together.”

Kelly is emphatic that under the new body both standards and reputation must improve. He adds: “All of us adhering to the same standards must increase the professionalism of the industry and this will be demonstrable. Users will be able to trust that all suppliers, even if they offer different products, are all measurable to the same standards.”

While a stronger focus on measurable standards is good news for research users, the industry itself stands to benefit in many ways from unification. Clearly there will be increased power and professionalism; but we can also expect to see a new emphasis on industry self-promotion.

Vyvyan Kinross is joint managing director of Kinross & Render. He says: “There will surely be an impact on how the industry promotes and represents itself. There should be more concerted activity to promote the industry to buyers and the scope of benefits to members should also widen.”

Nathan adds: “The single organisation will not simply take all interests into account to present a coherent viewpoint; it will be properly funded to do so. Significant funding in its first year will mean it can take real action on a bigger scale than it has been able to do before.”

The mass appeal of the merger is indicated by the increased membership of the ABMRC in the past year. Membership has grown from 161 to nearly 200 in the past 12 months, while take-up of Select Line – the ABMRC facility which, for a small fee, offers clients help in finding suitable research suppliers – has increased by 111 per cent over the same period of time.

Nevertheless, despite the general chorus of approval there are some niggling worries. There is a natural concern that the big players which make up AMSO will overshadow the smaller ABMRC companies.

In addition, it is not yet clear how much members will have to pay for the privilege of belonging to the single club. At the moment, AMSO contributions are significantly higher than most ABMRC fees, because AMSO companies tend to be bigger and ABMRC dues are paid on a sliding scale. How the two systems will marry has yet to be seen, though all those involved in the setting up of the merged organisation stress that steps are being taken to give the smaller shops fair representation and to make costs as reasonable as possible.

The current merger guidelines suggest that the present subscription paid by ABMRC members with a turnover of up to 1m should not be increased by more than 15 per cent in the first unified subscription year.

Few details about the structure of the new body have emerged, though reports suggest that a central council will comprise five individuals from companies worth more than 2m and five from companies worth less than 2m. Elections for these are expected late in the year.

However, even if the detail is unclear the overall picture is strong and focused. The new association has the potential to give its industry a real sense of direction. Those affected by the merger should expect better representation at home and abroad, improved marketing and communications, and a greater emphasis on issues like training and education. The world of market research has often been criticised for lagging behind the times, for undue levels of introspection and for a lack of dynamism.

A single organisation, representing a united front of views and opinions, at last gives the industry the opportunity to become a truly forceful player in global marketing into the 21st century.

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