FEATURE1 January 2010

Feel the fear and do it anyway

Are researchers too timid? How can they become braver? Robert Bain, Alison Macleod and Simon Lamey look at the role of guts in the profession


Of all the virtues associated with good research, bravery isn’t one you hear mentioned often. Integrity, rigour, insight and purpose, yes, but guts? Not so much.

Even so, when we ask contributors to our Life Lessons feature to complete the sentence ‘Young researchers should…’ nearly every month we hear answers that have something to do with courage.

The practical advice about working hard and paying attention to detail is balanced with a lot of stuff about offering fresh perspectives, challenging the orthodoxy, finding your own way and making your voice heard. (This month Rosenblatt’s Josie Walden says juniors should be “thrown in at the deep end”.)

So how do researchers cope with all this scary stuff? One source of reassurance is standards. But in an interview with Research last month, Synovate’s Jan Hofmeyr warned that a commitment to standards can be misguided if you don’t ask the right questions about how they came about. The true definition of a ‘research orientation’, he said, is not a deference to rules created by others before you, but a willingness to question things, and to modify your beliefs when you find evidence that they’re wrong.

Choosing the best research technique – or taking a chance on one that you think might offer more - can mean risking budgets, contracts and the future of your client’s business, not to mention the awkward silences, snide remarks and ego damage that could ensue.

“Fear is the path to the dark side”


Once you’ve worked out how you’re going to approach a question, you’re eventually going to have to tell your client what you think the answer is. Having the nerve to speak up can be a risky business, and one that raises the question of where a researcher’s job begins and ends. Agencies are increasingly anxious to add value by offering insight on top of their data. Charts and tables are out, and clear simple recom-mendations are in. But in this race for simple interpretations we risk losing the subtleties of reality. Researchers under this sort of pressure naturally feel the need to emphasise the findings that support their conclusions and to play down those that don’t.

The ‘elevator speech’ mentality illustrates how a failure to communicate something simply can be an impairment in the world of business. But market research is one of those points where business meets science – and simplicity can be an enemy to a proper understanding of science. Ben Goldacre, in his ongoing crusade against pseudoscience, has adopted the catchy slogan “I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.” Not being afraid to speak up is one thing but (to borrow the words of maverick backbench MP Tam Dalyell) you must also not be afraid to be thought a bore.

Besides, telling clients how to run their businesses may be a case of misplaced courage. Mike Browning of US research agency Bluewater Learning says external MR consultants shouldn’t imagine that they can offer more insight or understanding than the clients themselves. Instead they should aim to guide clients through the research findings in a way that leads them to come up with their own insights – even if you can guess in advance what those might be.

It’s not difficult to find catchy quotes and ‘expert’ advice on overcoming fear. But we should remember that if you’re scared of snakes, simply avoiding snakes is a perfectly respectable alternative to exposure therapy or hypnosis.

The fear that researchers feel is rooted in interpersonal and commercial relationships, so while we ponder how we can get over it, we should also consider how to create situations where we don’t feel afraid in the first place. If we can nurture working relationships in which we have the confidence to express ourselves, absorb other views, and ultimately do the right thing, we’ll find bravery will come much more easily.


The guts to speak up

Independent research consultant Alison Macleod asks why market researchers aren’t more forthcoming with their opinions

Market researchers keep fabulously low profiles. Although the internet and Twitter have brought a few researchers out with their opinions, it remains a low-key industry. Research does not appear to produce charismatic thinkers in the style of say, Seth Godin or Malcolm Gladwell. In fact there are no public figures, unless you count Robert Worcester.

Why are we so reticent? Is it simply our nature? And is it such a bad thing anyway?

The danger in being so quiet is that there is simply no one around to defend the value of research. It ends up being a dull activity practised by corporate drones, not something that people can be passionate and creative about.

Here are six reasons why I believe we have learned not to talk ourselves up.

1. Confidentiality
Whether we are agencyside or clientside, we’re often unable to discuss business outside the project itself. We’re worried about saying the wrong thing and offending the people who pay our wages. Amongst ourselves at industry meetings, we’re eyeing the competition and trying not to give too much away. Over time, the habit of not speaking out becomes ingrained. Day-to-day, this is probably the single biggest barrier in sharing opinions.

2. The practice of ironing out the self
Research is all about minimising sources of bias and minimising oneself as an influencer. We are trained not to ask leading questions in surveys, we practise a neutral tone of voice for presenting concepts to respondents. Over time we learn that our subjective response isn’t desirable or wanted. Worse, this depersonalised version of research is the one that non-researchers are the most familiar with.

3. Shallow understanding of the methodology
While we are happy to take ourselves out of the equation, some of us are really not that confident with the underlying methodology. It’s still very common to come across quantitative researchers who couldn’t tell you the difference between correlation and causation, and qualitative researchers who don’t know how to explain why qualitative research is a perfectly respectable practice.

4. The research position
It’s a difficult one. In many settings, we are basically party-poopers. We are specifically brought in to throw buckets of cold water over other people’s brilliant ideas. This is not a route towards universal popularity.

5. The industrialisation of research production
The structure of market research management does not help. Most project work is done by junior staff and signed off by seniors. Juniors may not have the industry knowledge or confidence to present their opinions clearly. The senior on the team is more distant from the data and more focused on relationships. Unfortunately, just as researchers become experienced enough to deliver thoughtful opinions while maintaining trust, they get promoted away from the front line.

6. The fear
‘The fear’ refers to the kind of projects that are so fraught that they induce nervous breakdowns. The research manager is on beta-blockers and busy considering her latest redundancy offer within the agency, the big boss and all the seniors have been wheeled in to re-check the charts for the umpteenth time. When it comes to the highly charged debrief, the experienced junior researcher who did all the actual work is offered up like a ritual sacrifice. Yep, in a time of economic darkness, the fate of an entire marketing idea rests on the shoulders of a young girl.

At some point, after the executive VP has had the differences between qual and quant clarified to his satisfaction, the young researcher will offer an unpopular opinion, and the atmosphere will thicken like custard. Somebody senior will then say, ‘So did the data really say that, or is it just your opinion?’ and all bets are off. Either the researcher will freeze, or Hollywood-style, launch into an impassioned defence of her interpretation. Research is a scary business at times.

“I do rather laugh in the face of fear, tweak the nose of terror”

Edmund Blackadder

These rather chilling effects produce the much-mocked stereotype of researchers as grey, over-cautious people who wouldn’t recognise a good idea if it leapt up and kissed them. Even if you don’t subscribe to this view, it’s easy to see that this natural diffidence puts the researcher at a disadvantage. Marketers instinctively sell themselves. Advertising people have the irrepressible self-confidence born from surviving in an industry where ideas have to be powerfully expressed. In many debriefs, researchers… defend themselves.

Perhaps it’s inevitable. If you can’t say much without upsetting someone or endangering commercial relationships, there are few places to go. I’m sure that’s why researchers retreat to the safety of talking about methodology and respondent recruitment.

However, there are risks to staying silent, and they’re increasing. The industry is changing rapidly: do-it-yourself methods are making it easier for organisations to get the insight they crave for rock-bottom prices. Without a positive voice, research continues to be a dull, worthy, irritating thing, not precious or insightful.

In my view, researchers need to get much louder. I’d like to see people who can talk authoritatively about consumer behaviour. I’d love to see big ideas communicated well. Is that possible for research? Can researchers find their voice without alienating the people around them?

There are plenty of highly vocal individuals in other fields making noise about research-related issues. Ben Goldacre, in his Guardian column, critiques pseudoscience largely by analysing poor research evidence. Malcolm Gladwell popularises psychological ideas. danah boyd [sic] researches teenagers’ use of the internet and how they see themselves. None of those things is rocket science: they simply require the will to engage.

There is change in the air. The internet has had a huge impact. More senior researchers and business owners are blogging and finding ways of expressing themselves online. Internet research companies are adopting the more vocal habits of the new media industry, where an ability to join the conversation is an important indicator of your credibility. I believe talking is a way of being more than simply a technician. We should all try it. We have nothing to lose but our fears.


The guts to do the right thing

When it comes to selecting the right approach to your research, both buyers and agencies can benefit from having a little courage, writes Simon Lamey of Wardle McLean

Surveys suggest that almost all drivers think they are good drivers. They can’t all be right. In the same way, research practitioners may not be best placed to judge whether they are ‘brave’ when it comes to offering quality and innovative research to our clients.

Are we too reliant on the familiar approaches where less conventional ones would be more appropriate? Or are some agencies simply offering ‘innovative’ techniques for the sake of being innovative?

To date, much has been said about what research should be like. Conferences tend to have plenty of calls for more innovative, more experimental research to uncover ‘better value’ insights. There is a trend to opt for what is new and different – not necessarily what best suits the research project at hand. At the same time, the industry continues to undertake research that is not innovative, preferring more traditional approaches, because some buyers and agencies are sceptical of the unconventional.

This has led to research buying becoming an ‘either/or’ question: either ‘conventional research’ or ‘innovative’ research. The question should really be: Are we brave enough to undertake research that truly answers the needs of the research issue?

The certainty factor
Part of the problem is that, understandably, some research buyers avoid risk and value predictability, which means tried and tested research methods (such as the much-maligned group discussion) offer a more certain outcome. Equally there are other research buyers who are more excited by research that is innovative. Agencies play there part here too. They have their comfort zones and are tempted to stick with what they know, preferring to propose the type of research they think clients will feel happier buying, rather than research that better answers the research issue at hand.

This problem is exacerbated during an economic downturn, when insecurity reigns and certainty is a welcome relief. In such a climate, it’s unsurprising that research agencies opt for an assurance of steadier business by offering the ‘safe’ research they feel clients want, rather than what is the right approach to the research issue.

“There are very few monsters who warrant the fear we have of them”

André Gide

It is understandable too that few may want to rock the boat. But in the long run a ‘safe haven’ culture is not going to help clients enough to bring about the direction their brands need to differentiate themselves in a fiercely competitive marketplace. As brands fight for survival, refusing to leave our comfort zones and undertaking inappropriate research is potentially problematic. It makes it less likely that brands will perform at their best against competitors.

Old versus new
Another part of the problem lies in the tension between conventional and innovative research, where more conventional research can be dismissed simply because it is not innovative enough, even if it is the most fitting approach for the research. The group discussion, for example, is commonly cited as the most conventional tool and researchers using it have been criticised (perhaps too much) for relying on it too much. But, like any other ‘traditional’ research, it can be the right tool for the job.

Braver research means we now have to be open to slicing the cake in a way researchers (clients and agencies) may not necessarily be comfortable with, but which we know is the right way to yield more meaningful insights. Braver research means recommending approaches to clients that are best suited to the needs of the research project, even if it means you risk losing a few proposals.

Granted, a future of unsuccessful proposals may sound scary in the short term. But in the long run, a braver future for research will most likely mean improved quality of research for clients, which should add greater value to their brands. It will also mean increased agency partnerships and fresher thinking from a wider pool of collaborating research minds. All this offers a much more promising future for agencies.

Clients take note
But it’s not just the agencies who need to be braver. Clients need to be ready to try new things too. At Wardle McLean we have begun to offer a technique called ‘co-discovery’ whereby we film someone doing what they do, then go back and ask them to provide a commentary on what was happening. We ‘co-discover’ it with them. It costs a little more and takes a little longer, but because we know it adds a much-needed extra layer of richness and insight – something that would not have been possible if we’d relied on observation or interview-based approaches in isolation – we propose it to clients in cases where we believe it to be most suitable approach for the issue.

In the long run, making bolder steps into a braver research world should allow clients to feel that the research they are buying is the most suitable approach, and one that goes to the heart of their particular research issue. It could even help lead recession-hit clients (and agencies) out of the economic downturn more quickly.

In buying research, clients too have to be bolder and willing to take a leap of faith if they want to make headway in an over-saturated, ever more competitive market. It is our duty as research agencies to support, encourage and direct them.

Alison Macleod blogs at mackle.wordpress.com. Simon Lamey blogs at artofconversation.typepad.com


14 years ago

When I came up with (& blogged about) my New Year's Resolutions ealrier this month one was: "Be Braver. Sure, sometimes we’ll overstep it, but we need to be brave in how we interpret data. And interpret, not just report. We should trust our guts more…we talk to real people on a regular basis. We’re very close to what people think. Let’s use that experience to help those who don’t have that advantage. And let’s be prepared to put ourselves on the line when we draw our conclusions and make our recommendations." Clearly it very much helps that I have clients who allow me the license to do this (in fact, positively encourage it) which isn't always the case.

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14 years ago

Fully agree. However, all researchers should be brave, otherwise, the fearless stand a good chance of being singled out as complacent. Also, the less braves must not use this as a tool to beat competition. All researchers - client and agency side- need to hold the interest of our profession above all others. Only then will the fearless fighters be able to deliver the best.

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