FEATURE1 October 2010

Is bigger better?

Features

While large research agencies gobble up those around them in efforts to increase their strength and reach in the global market, others make a virtue of their more modest size. two agency bosses debate whether bigger is really better.

YES

Paul Edwards
Chairman, TNS-RI

?OK, so it’s David vs Goliath time again. I know as a nation we usually favour the underdog, but I’m not sure that’s always the right strategy in business.

Obviously the big market research agencies can do all the big stuff – global reach, big online panels, random sampling field force etc – and it’s all in-house so it’s of a consistently high standard. Often they have products that are economical to use, validated and applicable across the globe. Plus there is a wealth of talented individuals ready to attack the more bespoke problems.

“The bigger agencies have people who have been around for twenty or more years as well as the brightest graduates every year. There is a good balance of grey hair and restless inventiveness”

But do you get the same personal service? Well, believe it or not, we employ human beings too, a lot more of them than most agencies, in fact. So you are much more likely to find someone of your frame of mind as well as someone who has experience in your sector. The nice thing is that as a client you get the choice – you can have a segmentation expert as well as someone who has worked for several tourism bodies and somebody who understands the grey market – and it doesn’t cost you any more providing we work efficiently together. But if you are the sort of client who prefers just to work with a single individual, that’s easy too.

Big agencies can also be better places to work. A wider range of experience, more people to learn from and proper structured training. The bigger agencies have people who have been around for twenty or more years as well as a fresh crop of the brightest graduates every year. There is a good balance of grey hair and restless inventiveness which leads to strong teams. You can build a career within a large agency as a fully rounded researcher or a specialist.

When new things come along the big agencies can take them in their stride. Take digital for example. There are some very good smaller agencies working in digital – but larger agencies can assimilate digital alongside everything else they do and see it in context. If I may give one instance from my own company, TNS is investing in a global digital survey. But we will be merging survey data with online behaviour data so that we can see people in the round. Digital is part of people’s lives, not the whole of it.

Similarly big agencies have resources to look at issues that are common to many clients. The recession was an example where we were able to take a look across a number of sectors and publish findings that benefited the marketing industry in general.

One of the big issues for many clients is not just the collection of research but also the collation of research, often from many and various sources (not just survey data but sales, footfall, enquires, complaints and so on). The larger agencies have developed IT tools to gather sources together and to make them available simply yet securely through web-based interfaces.

There is also a degree of safety in using the bigger agencies. We have more experts and more experience; we have seen many problems before and we know what ‘good’ looks like in the data. This allows us to be more efficient with the more common research techniques but also more inventive yet economical when we have to deal with something new. One of the pleasures of working in a big agency is that when something ‘new’ or unusual crops up we can assemble a group of people quickly and draw on their thinking and the sum of their experience. This leads to very rapid problem-solving and a fast response to clients.

There are new demands too in the areas of privacy and data security. The resource and experience of the big agencies mean that clients and respondents can have more confidence in these areas. The big agencies also tend to be financially secure.

From both an employee and a client point of view the existence of a network can be a real advantage. It gives you access to expertise and experience on a wide variety of product fields, research approaches and cultures. Clients are increasingly valuing an external perspective and analogous lessons from analagous markets or territories. Likewise employees can learn from their colleagues. Global trends (whether recession or uptake of new technology) are rarely homogeneous; a network has the opportunity to learn from bellwether markets.

For me it’s about playing the odds. The large companies give the client much more chance of finding the right solution for their research needs. More chance of finding the right experience for their sector. More chance of finding an individual they can enjoy building a relationship with.

For the researcher there is more chance of finding the role or roles that will enable them to flourish and grow. On the whole I’m with Voltaire and his wry common sense: “God is always on the side of the big battalions.”

NO

Jan Shury
Joint managing director, IFF Research

?It’s odd that most small companies have ambitions to grow, while larger companies often strive to retain the cosy family ethos of a smaller firm. There is a danger for both clients and agencies of believing the grass is always greener. here are plenty of small agencies that fail to capitalise on the ‘small is best’ benefits, as well as large ones that have managed to maintain a professional yet friendly ethos for staff and clients alike.

In many respects we still think small at IFF Research. We believe both staff and clients benefit from this ethos - our employees are empowered and motivated and our clients benefit from a more bespoke offer.

“Clients constantly complain to us that some large research companies send people to pitch who will never be seen or heard of again”

From a structural point of view IFF Research does not have to answer to detached or distant shareholders (or to the City). Those who run the business own the business and are therefore more likely to stick around for the long term rather than move every few years from one department, sister company or even country to another, climbing the corporate career ladder.

Similarly, large research companies, especially multinationals, tend to be very geographically spread out with multiple sites. This can have a negative impact on the corporate culture, with different locations operating in entirely different ways. Smaller companies like ours are usually in one building, with one culture and brand. We don’t have competing business areas or a ‘them and us’ culture. Everyone is involved in growing and shaping the brand, we don’t have to force it upon people with corporate music videos or missives from an unknown face.

This kind of family culture also means that those at the top of the organisation really do know the individuals in the company much better than in large companies where staff can become more of a number than a real person. For example, when we pitched for and won a research programme on baby-feeding, we knew we had a midwife’s daughter in the company who had a special interest in the project. We would doubt whether large corporate organisations would know their people this well, or have the flexibility to pick and mix their teams as required.

Furthermore employees in a smaller agency can take advantage of the high visibility they have with senior managers to maximise their potential. People can really make their mark in the organisation more quickly as there is no ‘one size fits all’ career progression programme or a danger of being lost among the massed ranks. We can tailor training for each individual and allow them to progress at their own pace without them being pigeon-holed into any particular area of the business.

This fluidity in people’s roles encourages and promotes an entrepreneurial spirit that is often lacking in big research conglomerates. In smaller organisations there is no one laying down edicts from on high as to the company line that has to be toed - we are open to fresh ideas, challenges and change. This culture has meant employees have an emotional attachment to the business, leading to lower staff turnover, more motivated employees and most importantly a great working atmosphere for employees, which benefits staff and clients alike.

From experience a lot of senior management time in large organisations is spent dealing with people and politics rather than delivery. As an independent company, we get stuck into ‘doing the do’ and working directly with clients. This is beneficial to clients as the senior people who turn up to pitch for the business are also going to work on the business. Clients constantly complain to us that some large research companies send people to pitch who will never be seen or heard of again.

All of this combines to allow us, as a smaller company, to offer tailor-made solutions to clients, rather than trying to fit a client into a pre-packaged product offering as bigger agencies sometimes do. It would be arrogant to assume you know what is best before listening to a client’s needs. In the case of one of our clients, we are one of the smaller agencies on their roster, yet the lead one. The client views us as the brains of the operation, and the large research companies as the data factories.

From our point of view smaller independents can often be the optimal size to be dynamic and flexible enough to change with the environment, rolling with the punches that politics and economics throw at businesses. This is key for potential clients and employees alike when deciding between big and small.

That said, do we not want to grow? Of course we do. But we want to do this while maintaining our family ethos. Clients will make their own choice, but it’s the model we think works best.

3 Comments

10 years ago

Really interesting and important debate. Comprehensive and well stated by both authors. Ultimately, clients and employees will decide which one they prefer. There appears to be room for both.

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10 years ago

Everyone loves a false dichotomy don't they. This will no doubt result in a nice tempest in a tea-cup. But I'm afraid it misses the point. Big and small agencies offer different things. I've recently moved from one of the biggest agencies in the UK to perhaps one of the smallest in the past few months. I can see advantages and disadvantages to both. Big offers many of the things that Paul suggests such as global reach, a wide portfolio of expertise and deeper pockets in terms of resource. However, I also saw a very large measure of inefficiency, internal politics and, to be honest, a lot of deadweight. You also get a lot of black boxes, a lack of transparency and products that are out of touch with the modern marketplace. But big agencies are much better at the basics in many cases - they can deliver a 30 market U&A to acceptable quality, they can keep your tracker on track and you get a safe pair of hands. I agree with Jan however that "smaller independents can often be the optimal size to be dynamic and flexible enough to change with the environment." They are on the forefront of Market Research and push it forward - its no surprise then that companies like TNS often buy them up! The other thing that really surprised me when I moved to a small agency was the amount of time I suddenly had to actually do research and add value. I wasn't stuck in endless internal meetings, I didn't have to deal with the politics and I wasn't looking over my shoulder. But with clever and small, you also get lack of structure and resources and not always consistency. You might get clever insight, but you might not get the basics - and forget it if you want that 30 country U&A... Having both is a benefit for the industry – most clients I know have rosters with a balance of big and small for a reason. Oh and their might be a few good mid-sized agencies in there as well!

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10 years ago

In the current business environment, it’s a worthwhile debate to have. I have worked for both large as well as boutique research agencies. My experience tells me that ultimately it all boils down to what the client wants and expects of its research partner. But if we were to generalize, I strongly believe that most clients expect the reach and experience of a big agency whilst also wanting the personal touch and specialization of a small one. To me a successful agency is the one that not only embodies these values but also delivers on them.

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