FEATURE18 June 2020

A professional view

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Can industry standards of professionalism be maintained while pressure mounts for ever faster and cheaper insight? Christian Walsh, digital director of MRS, chaired an MRS Delphi Group discussion on this.

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At the end of last year, the MRS Delphi Group convened to discuss what constitutes that vital quality of any thriving sector – ‘professionalism’. What does professionalism in the research sector look like, whose responsibility is it, and how do we make sure it is valued and embedded in the business of research for the new decade?

The focus on professionalism is the first element in a three-part action plan for the sector in 2020, as proposed by Jane Frost, CEO of MRS. The plan covers: professionalism and ethics; a shared narrative; and inclusion and talent.

Jane Frost, CEO, MRS: “MRS has been relentless in its pursuit of standards, ethics and professionalism – to defend our margins and eliminate bad research. A large FMCG client told us they were getting really stressed about the level of professional delivery they were getting from reputable agencies, with basic failure around questionnaire design and sampling.”

What do we mean by ‘professionalism’ in the context of the research sector? Is this different for data analytics?

Phil Sutcliffe, UK board director, Kantar TNS UK: “Professionalism is adhering to high standards of quality throughout the research process: how we interact with consumers; the techniques we use to get insight from them; how we analyse the data; and how we deliver insight back to business or government. Data isn’t different – it’s just a component of that.”

Gemma Procter, partner, Sparkler: “The fragmentation of our industry means that levels of professionalism and standards have started to differ – particularly on the ‘data analyst versus qualitative researcher’ side. I don’t think there is anything at an industry level that is speaking both languages.”

PS: “Data is now all-pervasive in industries, which is both a good and a bad thing. A lot of people who don’t understand the potential bias in the data are making decisions off the back of it.”

Colin Strong, head of behavioural science, Ipsos Mori: “I’ve worked in this industry long enough to be very familiar with that kind of bias complaint. If you’re going to put people under more time and budget pressure, what is delivered back to you will be eroded. We need to be a bit careful about putting the responsibility for professionalism purely on the shoulders of agencies. It’s a collective responsibility and we need to understand what everybody’s collective roles are.”

Rhea Fox, head of insight and strategy, Aviva: “I haven’t felt a decline in standards. What worries me on the professionalism side is that there appear to be a lot of start-ups who are selling insight – get it back faster, cheaper – but they don’t seem to have credentials. The data industry has sold a very compelling story to stakeholders that data can solve everything. When you’re client-side, half the job at the moment is helping stakeholders realise what data can solve and what it can’t, and when a conjunction is needed.

“The only other factor may be that, in the old days, everyone graduated and went to Millward Brown, and read data tables for two years and learnt the basics, and that’s not a route anymore.”

JF: “Some still do. Ipsos puts everyone through the basic MRS qualifications.”

Do organisations understand the risks of faster, cheaper research?

RF: “The trap that insight teams sometimes fall into is thinking: ‘If I deliver really fast, everyone will love me.’ But once you’re in that space as an insight team, it’s very hard to pull yourself up the strategic spectrum. Practically impossible.”

GP: “Research just becomes a validator, rather than starting at the beginning.”

RF: “Clients need to be more disciplined and recognise that if you need an answer in half an hour, it’s probably not a game-changing decision.”

PS: “When done well, automation should be an enabler of better insight. It allows professionals to think more about the decisions to make off the back of it, rather than that onerous process of capturing the data. But automation needs quality baked in, and that’s often not the case.”

CS: “From my experience, if you have somebody who has come from a data analytics tradition, they will have an optimistic view of what insight you can get from data.

A well-rounded professional researcher will tell you how to think about it more holistically – and call out conclusions that are inappropriate from those different research assets.”

PS: “I often hear the refrain ‘we’d rather have 80% right in a week than 100% right in two months’. But I suspect the people who get the 80% are not aware that it is only 80% right, and there’s more risk involved with that data.

“We need to remind people of the purpose of research; that this is enabling people to make better decisions – it’s not black or white. DIY research, for example, serves a certain value if you want to know if it’s ‘concept A’ or ‘concept B. But it won’t tell you how to make ‘concept B’ better – that’s where someone who’s experienced, working in a certain area, can offer guidance on how to do it better.”

Should agencies push back on clients to protect standards?

RF: “How big is the risk of the decision being taken? If it’s a question of this ad or that ad, well 100% right is better. But most things enabled through research, apart from huge projects, are not that big a risk. So I do have sympathy with the 80% rule.”

Nick Baker, UK CEO, Savanta: “As people are rising up the ranks from junior levels, there is a much lower understanding of core craft skills. Very few people understand basic principles of representivity and how to design fit-for-purpose research.”

CS: “With the jump to director, there’s this intangible element called ‘judgement’. You may write a half-decent questionnaire and put some slides together, but exercising judgement is about saying to the client ‘if the question you are asking can be answered directly by the research findings, you’re probably not asking a big enough question’.”

GP: “As a client, I didn’t feel agencies were challenging enough; they were so eager to have the job and say they were working with the brand, it almost blindsided them.”

RF: “You can have a director who understands business, and has good judgement and is supported by a strong technician. I don’t think everyone has to have both sets of business and craft skills.”

CS: “I agree, and this is why professionalism is a collective act, not an individual one.”

PS: “One thing that has come out through this discussion is there’s a need for better dialogue and mutual challenge between agencies and clients. Unless you’re experienced and can use judgement, that challenge isn’t made and, ultimately, the client doesn’t get the insight to answer the fundamental question because it was hidden through the process.”

RF: “What impresses me is a willingness to see what has already been done and come back and say, ‘actually, we think the high-level question you’re trying to answer is X’. Sometimes, even if that’s wrong, it’s evidence of a higher order of thinking.

“I think that’s why management consultancies are increasingly eating the lunch of the research industry, because they generally have a baseline understanding of how to manipulate data and how to write a survey – they teach it in MBAs. Then they have business credibility. That’s all part of their training.”

CS: “We all know good when we smell it and see it, but we struggle to define what that is. We [Delphi] could be doing some work to define what a good practitioner looks like beyond the craft skills. In any agency you’ll find there are 5-10% of people who can do it. But you don’t need everyone to be like that – you still need lots of delivery. I feel it would be useful to try to define that 5-10% of people in agencies who really know how to think and respond to a brief and ask those questions.”

JF: What are the three questions you’d like to be asked by agencies when you give a brief?

CS: “Maybe we can also do it the other way around – what are the three things you’d like your client to ask you? I know it’s a service industry, but – going back to professionalism – it is something created by a network of people working together with different skills; it’s recognising what each person brings to the party.

“There’s something here about recasting professionalism as an emergent quality that operates within the programme of work.”

Follow-up: the group agreed that it would be valuable to ask a selection of agencies and the MRS senior client council for their three questions – what they wished they’d been asked when giving or receiving a new project brief.

This article was first published in the April 2020 issue of Impact.