Dispel the Cinderella myth

For researchers to enter the decision-making inner circle, they must upgrade their business skills and shed their ‘poor relative’ image of mere project-based, research debriefers. By Alicia Clegg

Every project has a moment of truth. In market research, it is the client debrief, the moment when the secrets of the brand are revealed to an assembled audience. For the researchers who preside over these farewell rituals, the end-of-project round-up can be a dispiriting experience. Consider its dynamics. You spend weeks immersing yourself in your client’s brand and the challenges that it faces. The day of the debrief, you present your findings and field questions from the floor. Then? Well, nothing really. Pick up your briefcase, head back to the office and onto the next project.

The bit part allowed to market researchers by their corporate pay-masters may not be a universal experience, but it rings true to many in the industry. Head of business and client development at Synovate UK Neil Coburn says: “There’s often an awkward moment at the end of the debrief when the researchers are expected to shuffle out, so the client can get down to the serious business of making decisions.”

Divided opinions

The problem has its roots in the way in which clients sometimes view market researchers: as marketing auxiliaries rather than strategic partners, technically able but lacking the commercial skills to merit a place in the top team. Opinions are divided over whether researchers deserve this image. On the one hand, there are those who explain the profession’s Cinderella-status as a legacy of its past. On the other are the discipline’s critics.

Tamsin Addison, head of insight at Robson Rhodes Consulting, is unimpressed by the industry and claims agency researchers lack the financial skills needed to translate consumer insight into profitable commercial strategies. “There’s a load of research asking about people’s needs and wants,” she says. “What few research companies do, however, is to calculate the price-benefit trade-offs that consumers would have to make in order to generate an acceptable return on investment for a brand.”

Independent marketing consultant Susan Rogers, a one-time head of market and strategic planning at Kellogg’s, takes a similarly unflattering view of the profession. In her opinion, agency staff are handicapped by their lack of commercial experience. “Most researchers in agencies haven’t had a job client-side, so they don’t understand how marketing works and have difficulty relating research to the broader needs of businesses.”

To move up the pecking order and extract more value from their expertise, market research agencies clearly need to dispel the suggestion that they are commercially naïve. As a first step, this requires research companies to recruit experienced managers with the business skills to help their clients turn insight into profit.

Some claim to have made this investment already. “There is simply no way that we would fail to look at the commercial and cost implications of service provision in making a recommendation to our clients,” declares Tacis Gavoyannis, global sector head for TNS Technology. He adds/ “Return on investment for our clients is a concept â¢

that we get up with in the morning and go to bed with at night.”

While upgrading the skill-set of the industry is important, upgrading its image may yet prove the tougher challenge. One of the first requirements, says Antony Witt, managing director of research company MMR, is to overcome the tendency that clients have to pigeon-hole researchers into narrow specialist fields. Make your first project for a client mystery-shopping, he implies, and there is a risk that it will see you as a mystery-shopping specialist for evermore.

Jump off the fence

To showcase the full extent of their skills, agencies need to market themselves effectively. To do that, however, the individuals within the industry need to become more opinionated, taking a definite stance on the big issues that confront businesses. For a profession notorious for “hiding behind the data”, that adds up to nothing less than a profound change of culture. “There’s no doubt that we’ve been coy about expressing our opinions and that, as a consequence, we’ve lost out to other sectors,” says Witt. “We have to be prepared to jump off the fence and draw conclusions from research.”

Given their status as industry outsiders, there is, of course, no guarantee that the opinions offered by researchers will be listened to. All the more reason to try harder, says Davina O’Donoghue, co-founder of Evo Research and Consulting, who makes a point of including recommendations in every piece of research that she produces. “The only danger is being seen to be too prescriptive,” she says. “An approach that has worked for us is to say to our clients/ ‘what we would do if we were you,’ rather than ‘this is what you should be doing’.”

Viki Cooke, joint chief executive of Opinion Leader Research, and a spokeswoman for the Market Research Society, suggests another tack: drawing parallels with other brands and industries. “It’s about having the confidence to take a step back from the data and make use of your broader experience,” she says. By enlarging on their brief, ambitious research companies aim to turn themselves into the confidantes and “trusted advisers” of brands. Cooke is a firm believer in this approach, and acts as a special adviser on “trust and reputation” to government departments and private sector clients. O’Donoghue combines straightforward research with consultancy and is an expert adviser on a life-stage panel run by a soft drinks manufacturer.

Creative partnership

Moving from a purely project-based relationship with clients to a longer-term “partnership” style of working raises the question of how agencies should charge for knowledge and expertise contributed once a project has ended.

Witt acknowledges the issue can be a worry for agencies anxious, on the one hand, to prove themselves responsive to clients’ requests, yet reluctant to give away their services for nothing. As a solution, he suggests offering clients “creative consultancy sessions” charged at a daily rate.

Closer collaboration between agencies and their clients should cut down on the number of research studies that end up in the waste-bin because the researcher misunderstood the brief or failed to get to grips with the brand’s most critical challenges. O’Donoghue recommends a practical approach for ensuring that research stays on track/ inviting the client firm to nominate an employee to help analyse the data and contribute a user’s perspective in the run-up to the formal debrief.

Added Value director Margo Swadley agrees that co-operation between client and agency is vital. However, she points out that when research is fundamentally flawed, the fault often traces back to an underlying problem with the project’s design. “The key to making research come alive is to go into the field work with some interesting hypotheses,” she says. “It’s much better if agencies and clients can get together during the planning phases of the research, before the brief is finalised.”

The partnership taking shape between clients and agencies is encouraging both parties to look again at the role of the research debrief. Overall, the trend is towards more involvement of clients, with workshops replacing what Coburn describes as “the researcher on the stage” model.

Creative consultancy

Less formal than a traditional debrief, such forums often include an action-planning session which the research agency leads. Further down the line, agencies are helping clients put their action plans into practice by arranging follow-up “surgeries” for managers who want to explore aspects of the research in more depth. So just how far can this trend towards long-term collaboration be taken?

There are two areas where agencies have an immediate opportunity to support their clients more effectively. The first is by supplying insight that is simply more in tune with the firm’s goals. The second is by helping in-house marketers in client companies use research to build stronger brands and better services for their customers.

Some progress is being made. Many agencies now produce hard-hitting documentary-style videos, containing clips of consumers interviewed or filmed during the research, which marketers can circulate within their companies, or integrate into a presentation to the board. But learning the lessons of research is not just about getting the message across to managers in senior positions. If a project sheds light on what customers want from a business, the knowledge needs to be shared with employees who deal with the public every day.

Sandy Livingstone, director of enlightenment at research agency BMRB, says that winning the attention of a frontline audience is all about making what has been learned from research “feel real”. As an example of how this can be done, he points to an interactive quiz and booklet which BMRB devised at the end of a major customer segmentation study for internet bank Egg. Research is essentially about uncovering human insights. But, pithy observations that seem so salient when spoken by a living, breathing customer often lose their bite when transcribed onto paper. The researcher’s job, says Livingstone, “is to bring insight back to life”.

Market researchers sometimes complain that they are not asked to take part in the strategic discussions that go on in their clients’ boardrooms. But to wait passively to be invited into the charmed inner circle of decision-makers is to miss the point. As ambitious agencies have already grasped, the onus is on market researchers to use the debrief as a gateway to other things.

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