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.”
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.”