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Monday, 30 November 2015

A qualitative mindset

Let’s say you’re the boss of a research agency, one not particularly known for its expertise in qualitative research. But your ambition is to change that. And you want clients to be assured that you can deliver what you promise.

If you’re Eric Salama, the CEO of TNS, you hire Rebecca Wynberg, a noted qual expert in her own right and also the woman who has just helped Unilever, one of the world’s biggest spenders on qual research, design and implement a new accreditation programme for qual research. She knows what quality looks like, and she knows what clients want to buy.

Wynberg, who took the role of global qual CEO at TNS in December and has just unveiled several senior hires, sees a common thread connecting her work for Unilever with her new job. “The issues that a big company like TNS has to tackle when it’s trying to put qual research at the heart of its business are not dissimilar to the issues that a big company like Unilever is facing in trying to buy qual research,” she says.

“Clients are buying qual like they are buying fast food. They think they are buying insight but all they are buying is information that they eat quickly and don’t really do anything useful with”

“Qual is offered in such varied ways and with such variable quality in the world that it has become a commodity. Clients say, ‘Can you do me six groups, a couple of interviews and some semiotics on the side and make it snappy’, like they are buying fast food. They think they are buying insight but all they are buying is information that they eat quickly and don’t really do anything useful with.”

While there are plenty of fantastic qual researchers out there, Wynberg says, the difficulty for clients is telling the difference between the good and the bad. “Procurement is involved and they are buying at the cheapest end, and the whole thing has become really muddled, which is part of why Unilever did what it did,” she says.

Fear and loathing

What Unilever did was make a commercial decision “to put some standards down because it is such a large organisation that they can’t control who they work with unless they work out who passes muster and who doesn’t,” says Wynberg. The result though was a firestorm of debate and discussion, with some anger, offense and outrage mixed in. Comments ranged from the tepidly supportive to the out-and-out hostile, with many suggesting it is Unilever’s problem – rather than the industry’s – if the company doesn’t know enough about qual to pick the best people for the job.

Quallies find the idea of an accreditation process painful “on a number of levels,” says Wynberg. “It’s quite threatening to be assessed and run the risk of failing. Not everyone passes, and what happens then if they don’t and they are used to working on the Unilever business – what’s their role?”

At a recent meeting of the Association of Qualitative Research, where members were able to speak directly to Unilever representatives, Wynberg says: “You could feel the pain in the room coming from some very good practitioners who were feeling very threatened by the process.” Even within Kantar, TNS’s parent company, Eric Salama has acknowledged that meeting the requirements of the programme has “not been a pain-free process” – but, he adds, “it has done more to highlight the quality issue and to get us to focus on it than any other client initiative”.

Within TNS specifically, where Wynberg is responsible for a team of 600 researchers, the focus is on putting in place “a very vigorous training and development programme”. “The Unilever work made me see just what needed to be done in the industry, how variable the quality was,” she says. “Having seen the state of things, coming to TNS felt like a really good opportunity for me because here was an organisation that wanted to put qual at the heart of its vision and so it was an offer I felt I couldn’t refuse.”

Mind shift

Part of Wynberg’s job is to “reorientate the business into a more qualitative mindset”. “By that I mean getting the business to take on some of the core attributes of a qual researcher – a more enquiring mind, a listening mind, for example.

“The vision for TNS is for the business to help clients grow their businesses. Not just grow willy-nilly but precisely, according to their particular objectives. What we’re trying to do is find out what is the business issue, how are they trying to grow, and how can we help them. Qual research is absolutely instrumental in achieving that, because how do you get to a real understanding of what your customers want without really good qual research? Once you’ve done that you can put the quant picture around it.”

“The opportunity in front of us – and what clients would really like – is to have scalable qual research. Clients are getting more global; they don’t want to mess around with six different suppliers on the same project”

Given the size of her team as it stands Wynberg reckons TNS is probably already the biggest qual agency in the world. But she’s looking for it to get bigger still. “The opportunity in front of us – and what clients would really like – is to have scalable qual research. Clients are getting more global, they don’t want to mess around with six different suppliers on the same project. And they would like excellence done for them at scale. So we feel that if we can get the right people in place with the right strategy and with the right approaches, we can do what nobody else has done before: to grow a scaled qualitative business.”

The received wisdom is that what Wynberg is setting out to achieve is not possible; that qual works best at the more intimate, local, boutique level. There are challenges in scaling up, she acknowledges: not least, that good quality qual is usually delivered by people who really understand their craft and their client’s businesses – “and those qualities are rare.”

However, she says: “We do see those qualities in the more senior researchers, so the more of these senior people we have round the world, the more I think we’ll be able to deliver.” Of course, having enough of them to work on every project is equally challenging, especially to a company’s coffers, but Wynberg reckons: “If you manage projects well enough, senior people can still deliver great work without doing all the fieldwork. They can have a level of involvement in the fieldwork.”

Ultimately, she says the real reason no-one’s ever been able to do qual at a global scale before is because no-one has ever properly tried. “I’m not sure any big company has really devoted attention, investment and energy to it. I think they’ve paid lip service to it. This is why I took the job. I felt it was a big challenge but one that was possible to achieve.”

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Readers' comments (8)

  • I'd take the same approach to a lot of research projects. Many clients already know the methodology they want to use. Regardless of the research objective and what's right for the project, we generally want to use the research method we are most familiar with not necessarily the method that is right for the job. It takes a lot of guts and loud mouths to take a step back and demand to use the RIGHT method.

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  • This sounds like a self fulfilling prophecy. On the one hand we are lamenting about quality, and on the other hand we are trying to 'standardise' qual - if we are not commoditising what else are we doing? In most markets we have ended up accrrediting the same people that we always worked with!

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  • Actually TNS Qual is combining the best of both worlds: in day-to-day life we all are operating in a kind of boutique setting in our respective countries. But at the same time we are globally connected and sharing knowledge and projects on a worldwide scale... This is not utopia, this is reality at TNS Qual

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  • It's a positive move by TNS, but really IME the issue is not that people don't think of them as a qual agency, but that people don't think of them as particularly good at anything. It's a bugbear of mine at the moment, but TNS, like its large agency peers, suffers a little from the production-line approach - relatively stock proposals, with limited integration of different approaches and researchers who are jacks of all trades (client categories), masters of none.
    Still, they can't really continue on their previous route, so I'll be watching with some interest.

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  • While I wholeheartedly support TNS's efforts, the approach thus far has been quintessentially "big corporation", i.e. focus on big markets and hire new talent, while the "real" quality are the many qual practitioners with solid client relationships working in smaller markets. This is actually having the reverse effect of what is desired. Focusing on volume means standardizing, which means commoditizing the approach. Finding and bringing existing, dedicated talent within TNS's smaller markets to the forefront, rather than bringing in completely new and unknown quantities, is less risky, will cost less, and yield greater long term success. The real quality lies in the hidden gems.

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  • Qualies on the receiving end of the accreditation scheme don't feel 'threatened', they feel mugged by a process which bastardises the qual process, takes no account of specialism (everyone gets the same brief which undermines the purported fairness of the process for specialist agencies), and which actually allows their competition (in the form of the assessors) to decide whether or not they're good enough. Not to mention the cost that's involved in time and money: venue, respondents, proposal writing, discussion guide etc. Easy I guess if you have 600 qual researchers working for you...

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  • While I concur with much of what Rebecca says, her assertion that “we can do what nobody has done before: to grow a scaled qualitative business” is something that brought to mind the famous George Santayana quote... “those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

    I would urge Rebecca to look in the annals of her own company for proof that a scaled qual business has been grown before. A generation ago, Research International’s Martine Thiesse and an incredibly energetic and skilled team of qualitative practitioners, built a global qual team, branded RI Qualitatif which, at its peak, accounted for over a quarter of RI’s revenues.
    15 years ago when I was tasked with plugging the final gaps in the RIQ network, we hired a pan-Asian team of outstanding qualitative researchers, validated global qualitative tools such as Brandsight Gallery, ran regional and global qualitative seminars, etc.
    So much for history, but what of today? Does a company like Flamingo, with offices on three continents, lack scale and have the look and feel of an “intimate, local, boutique” agency?
    Come on Rebecca, by all means “big up” TNS, but please give others credit where credit is due...

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  • Simon Chadwick

    Bravo, Roger! RI had this down pat long ago and I suspect many of those 600 qual researchers in TNS are RI lifers from that generation.

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