Are we there yet?
John Gambles of Quadrangle and David Smith of DVL Smith have each chalked up 25 years in market research. James Verrinder asks them to reflect on how far the industry has come and where it’s heading.
If a market researcher from 1987 woke up to find themselves in 2012, how would they react? They’d certainly be baffled by some of the cultural changes and stunned by the technology, but the underlying issues facing the industry would probably feel very familiar.
Twenty-five years ago John Gambles (above left) had just set up Quadrangle as a unit of the WCRS Group. Later he was part of the team that bought the business out in an MBO and since then he has shifted its focus from management consulting towards market research.
David Smith (right) was in the process of setting up his agency DVL Smith, which went on to become part of Illuminas. He left his role as CEO there five years ago and now runs a second incarnation of DVL Smith.
As the pair pass the milestone of a quarter of a century in the industry, we got them together to discuss how the landscape has changed. Has research overcome the challenges it faced when Smith and Gambles started out? And has it actually got any better at what it does?
Research: What single issue has had the biggest effect on the way market research is done since you both started out in the 1980s?
DS: For me it’s been the move away from just looking at silos of data on a project basis. When I first started, the job would be: here’s a pile of data, you look at it, you analyse it, you deal with those particular research objectives.
JG: I remember working with one of the big research agencies in the early 1980s, and what they did was engage with clients in a way that I think is now much less the case, in a long-term and continuous process, building brands and value and businesses. That long-term horizon, seeing researchers as having a continuing contribution to make as a partner, is something that we’ve lost.
Has the quality of the work improved in 25 years?
JG: The best have got better but I think the average may have gone down. The industry has lost its way and allowed process to overtake purpose. And the value of research is not in the process but in its purpose. Research has got no value until it’s used.
Sometimes I get reports from major clients that have been done by other agencies, and I get to the end and there’s one page headed something like ‘Conclusions and recommendations’. And it’s embarrassing. You can see that the interest of the people who’ve done it is in the process of research – not the implications for the business. I read it and I say, “That’s interesting. Where does it take you?”
To my mind there has been a shift from craft to process, which digital has enabled in many ways, and I think in that shift a great deal has been lost. There’s a lot more information, a lot more research being done, but to an enormously lesser value.
DS: There are still lots of examples of really creative stuff happening, and that’s a plus point. But on the downside, because we haven’t had that notion of the ‘craft’ and defending the faith, you also get looseness. Take the analogy of writing skills. You could argue that it’s totally legitimate to break every rule in the book about writing, provided you know what the rules are. But if you’ve got no idea what the rules are and you just go about things in a cavalier way, that leads to a lowering of standards. I don’t want to totally align myself to the grumpy old man position. But if there is a gold standard, it’d be great if everybody knew what that was and then we improvised around it.
JG: Standards in all craft-based industries are culturally based and sustained by individuals. There’s now a far greater premium not merely on craft skills but on the ability to differentiate between what is noise and what is value. Qualities like judgement, intuition, the ability to connect the disconnected. How do you find that set of personal qualities and experience and knowhow, and how does it get developed? It’s very easy to teach people how to write a sample frame but how can we teach people to judge good from bad?
What impact do these issues have on the insight that is delivered to clients?
DS: You hear some bizarre things about insight. I was at an event recently where they had data saying the typical organisation has accessed 83 new insights a day. And you think, hold on a minute, are these really insights? An insight is not just a piece of data off the shelf. It has to be something that’s part of a strategic conversation.
The late Virginia Valentine used to say: “We’re trying to get to a position where researchers see themselves as admissible evidence.” That’s quite a powerful idea, but it’s a tricky thing to just snap your fingers and create an industry or company where people are comfortable with both fact and interpretation.
JG: I agree with that but I don’t think it’s just about the strategic conversation. For us, some of our greatest success has been in moving into the implementation. The more that research can build traction in terms of the operationalisation of what comes out of it, the better. That takes you into how you expose the frontline staff to what is coming out of the research, the impact of research not just on strategy but on how things are done and where the priorities are. A great example of this is in customer satisfaction – it’s the operationalisation of what comes back from research that really drives value and action, if you get it right.
“The research industry has become more introverted. Broader management experience is missing. There’s a bit of me that wants to tell the industry to get our more and get over itself”
That sounds like management consultancy territory. Have research providers been successful in becoming more consultative in how they work?
JG: In the research industry, people aspire north. You’ve got fieldwork agencies wanting to become full-service and research agencies wanting to become consultancies. But the mindset of a consultant is fundamentally different to a researcher. It’s the difference between believing that the value is in doing, and believing that the value is in using.
DS: Looking back [on the last 25 years], a general theme has been that we could do better as an industry if we became better at integrating data, better at thinking more conceptually, using business frameworks, trying to be a bit more consultative in what we did. There are successful companies out there that have taken a job lot of management consultants and put them with a job lot of market researchers and created a company. We have directors [at DVL Smith] who are fully paid-up management consultants who work for the big four consultancies, but we’d still say we’re high up in market research, rather than over-claim by saying we’re consultants.
In that case, do researchers have a good enough understanding of the businesses they advise?
JG: One of the things that I think has become worse in the research industry over 25 years is that it has become more introverted. In part, that links to a focus on process more than purpose. But partly it’s to do with not enough movement in and out of the industry – not enough people who’ve got broader experience are bringing that into the industry. For me, it’s stuff like broader management experience that’s missing – commercial understanding and knowhow. There’s a bit of me that wants to tell the research industry to get out more and get over itself.
DS: In the feedback you get, you do hear the word naivety creep in. “Nice people in the agency that came along, and they did a good solid piece of work. But a little bit naive,” they say. In some ways agencies undercut themselves because if they’ve been successful in building up a business, that means they do have those management and entrepreneurial skills that they could make more of.
We’ve noticed procurement departments casting a closer eye over research spending. Has this been a positive development?
JG: Procurement certainly has come on in the last 25 years. And as with all things, there’s good and bad. I could give you three examples in the last year where I think a procurement process was exemplary – the procurement professionals and the research team working together in a way that was pretty seamless that led to very, very intelligent questions and criteria being established up front. I could also point to some awful examples of procurement where ne’er the twain shall meet. The clientside research team is saying, “We want you. However, you’re going to have to jump through the hoops,” and all procurement is interested in is a root unit cost.
This is an industry that confuses price with value. At its best, procurement delivers fitness for purpose and value for money. At its worst, though, what procurement does is drive out originality, innovation and different ways of doing things by being over-prescriptive. It gets in the way of the value of personal relationships, and the implications of that for procurement need to be worked through in a way that they haven’t been. The irony is that procurement at its worst reduces the probability of a client increasing ROI through research because it’s buying on a price basis rather than a value basis.
DS: I’m less sympathetic [with procurement departments], to be honest with you. Obviously there are certain situations where they’re doing a great job. It’s a power relationship, ultimately. Some [research providers] may be powerful enough to speak up and put a different point of view in certain situations. But other agencies will just fall into place and it all becomes kind of pretend. You’re looking at a piece of paper that makes no sense and you’re just filling in numbers, and that can’t be good for procurement or for the industry. I wonder whether procurement need to have a look at how they understand the variations between those two situations.
I still feel there’s an honourable debate to be had around quality and procurement to deal with some of the complexities on certain projects, rather than providers just rolling over and saying, “Yes, all fine.”
“Understanding consumer behaviour is so exciting. We should dominate that space. We’re the ones that can spot those golden nuggets of insight”
How far has the industry come and what’s the outlook for the next 25 years?
JG: I’m a big fan of research but a big critic of the research industry. My view is that research is the single most powerful tool available to management in the 21st century. That makes this a really exciting place to work. The notion of understanding and responding to customers faster and better puts market research absolutely centre-stage in organisational strategy. That is ground that the management consultancies completely get, and it’s the ground that they would like to own. The research industry has got a huge advantage if you buy the notion that knowledge is power, because this industry is the manufacturer of that knowledge. Intellectually I find it a tragedy that the research industry has not been able to seize this. But commercially, I have to say I can’t believe my luck.
DS: This whole area of understanding human and consumer behaviour is so exciting and it’s right at the centre, right at the engine room of achieving [in business]. We should dominate that space and be proud to deal with all this complexity. Going back to the beginning [of our careers], you’d have thought that in 25 years it would be more like job done than job just starting. We’re the ones who can alert people to paradigm shifts. We can spot those little golden nuggets of insight. We should be right at the centre.