Researchers and Oiks

Confusing industry, market research. ‘Marketing’ paints the business as angst-ridden and hubris-imbued. This seems to be supported by my LinkedIn newsline which regularly contains researcher-authored pieces full of self-doubt about the industry’s future, alongside those from the Nellie-know-alls, sharing their expertise on any number of topics.

It’s a strange mixture, especially to someone from the media agency world where self-doubt and angst are not exactly much in evidence (although hubris we can do), and where the only answer to the client question: ‘Can you help us with this’ is a resounding ‘YES’, given immediately before rushing off to find out what exactly we’ve just agreed to do.

Take the recent UK General Election example quoted by Helen Edwards in the ‘Marketing’ piece. Here was an example of the researchers being seen to have got it wrong. It is certainly true that they didn’t predict the result in any way that was even vaguely accurate, but there might be reasons for that – like the electorate itself wasn’t too sure what it was going to do, or the media gave far too much prominence to every poll and focus group.

True to type the research industry has set up an enquiry to look into why they were all so wrong.

Then there’s the decline of our largest supermarket chain, Tesco – a decline that was not it seems predicted by the business despite the huge quantity of Clubcard data analysed by Tesco’s own Dunn Humby, or indeed by the mass of generally admired bespoke work carried out by the store’s research suppliers into shopper attitudes and behaviours.

How can that be when so many researchers paint themselves as experts in so many areas? Maybe their advice was ignored.

The point is that market research has an image problem within marketing. It’s easy to ignore advice when it’s presented in a boring, less-than-clear way and hidden deep within huge Powerpoint presentations. There are too many people for whom these presentations and reports are the job. They’re not, they’re simply the workings you have to go through to arrive at a conclusion.

The best researchers do what they’ve always done – they use the data generated to tell a story, and to arrive at insights that allow them to make firm recommendations. The best don’t sit on the fence, they have the courage of their convictions and believe in giving the client the best possible advice, even if it’s not advice he particularly wants to hear.

I’ve sat through my fair share of large research agency presentations and can tell you there’s nothing worse than ‘on the one hand, on the other’ comments; unless it’s the agency refusing to commit itself to a recommendation because it’s ‘only the research agency’. I’ve heard both, far too often.

It’s this having the courage-of-their-own-convictions quality that will ensure research survives and flourishes at a time when the industry is going nuts for data. If ever there was a case of never mind the quality, feel the width…

I suspect that one of the reasons why WPP keeps winning ‘best holding company’ awards is the business’ appreciation of the opportunity afforded by linking a large research resource, in Kantar, with a giant media operation in GroupM.

This particular vision is something none of the other large marketing services companies can offer, and I would contend gives WPP a potentially huge advantage. The question is – do they leverage it sufficiently?

There is an opportunity to do exactly this courtesy of the large number of media agency reviews being conducted at the moment, reviews that potentially give those participating the chance to rewrite the rules and change the model. Maybe the new model will solidify a greater sense of integration between research and media.

I would be surprised if GroupM and Kantar aren’t working together closely on a number of these reviews. After all, what is more powerful than basing your communication recommendations on bespoke research designed to uncover unique insights?

The question is: are there enough of the right sort of people at Kantar? And if there are, is the organisation prepared to set aside the standard large research agency sense that only they know the pure unvarnished answer to any question in order to work alongside the sweaty media oiks?

I suspect the answer is ‘yes’ and ‘yes’. We’ll see if those clients reviewing agree.

  1. Optimistic piece Brian, thank you 🙂 I think that research will always be constrained if it’s positioned as an auxiliary service to marketing, sales, or brand planning, because like good dogs we don’t bite the hand that feeds us. Where research reports independently to the business without fear of upsetting the client or the media director, a timely report of trouble ahead can be acted upon rather than redacted out. It’s not a question of researchers wanting (or perhaps deserving!) a promotion, simply that the voice of the consumer should surely come before the marketing plan in a consumer-oriented business. Perhaps a media review with research as a value-add won’t break this problem of subordination? Nor will it change if people with strategic talents tend to choose media over research as a career path.

  2. Hear hear………..researchers who give insight and don’t just collate data!

  3. Thanks for the comments James and Tim.
    I don’t think it’s a matter of not biting the hand that feeds you – more of not wanting to upset people! Yet if marketers are to get the most from their research investment then surely they should be prepared to listen to the researcher’s informed PoV, however bad the news.
    I think by and large they (the marketing people I mean) are prepared , but the research industry at large lacks the confidence to engage like that.
    As to the media reviews, I reckon a decent approach would be as a pairing of equals, although you make a good point when it comes to where today’s research talent is migrating.

  4. Part of the issue is that researchers, by definition, are thoughtful, sensitive, empathetic souls. That’s why I love working with them. But that is also why we are often racked by self-doubt, driven towards inconclusive analysis (human beings are never as simple to understand as our colleagues would like to believe!)and a desire to please everybody! I’ve always tried to avoid the ‘two-handed researcher’ stereotype, ever since I saw a Sales Director I once worked with punch through a window in frustration at being repeatedly told “it’s not as simple as that” by one of my departmental colleagues. We do need to improve our collective communication skills and ability to apply our insights to real-life decision-making…or get another job!

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