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FEATURE16 May 2011

Mutual understanding

Features

Former GSK marketing director Tim Brooks is generally unimpressed by what agencies offer clients by way of insight and understanding tailored to their specific needs. So he’s moved agencyside to try and fix that. James Verrinder reports.

Tim Brooks oversaw a big budget while heading up the consumer healthcare marketing department at pharmaceutical firm GlaxoSmithKline, some of which was spent on research agencies. Sad to say, he didn’t much like what he was buying. On the whole, he said, the agencies he employed “did not know enough about my business” to add any real value.

You might think it strange, then, that he has decided to move agencyside, becoming managing director of Cello Group’s Leapfrog business. But Brooks sees the move as entirely rational. He knows what clients want, he says – and more importantly, he knows what agencies aren’t providing them.

By his own admission he is not a research practitioner, and despite his bleak assessment of agency deliverables, he says: “I feel very strongly that research is one of the disciplines that could get to talking at the top table. That’s because of the world we live in – where there is masses of data and complexity – and I feel that a research agency could, theoretically, help companies deconstruct that world and add real insight and value.”

“Agencies can maintain premium value in the market if the quality is there”

Too many agencies are “too downstream” of the issues that really affect their clients and are too focused on their tools and methodology to provide the help needed to make big business decisions. Brooks said he never saw “research per se” as the important thing during his time on the clientside, it was what the agency did with it – and too often the service on offer came up short.

“As a client who spent millions of pounds a year on research I was continually frustrated by the focus on research for its own sake, by people giving you what they did rather than what you needed and the lack of understanding of my business needs.”

There were exceptions, he says, but the “general rule” was that he was generally unsatisfied with what agencies delivered to him.

“As you move towards talking to more senior clients about more important things, it becomes more about their problems and less about the research per se. At Leapfrog, we talk about being method neutral, so it’s not about qualitative, quantitative or digital, it’s about answering the [client’s] problem.”

Some researchers might protest that when clients talk ‘added value’, what they are really asking for is ‘more for less’. But Brooks says that’s not the case. His view is that a research agency that can demonstrate the value its work brings to a client’s growth plan won’t find itself caught in a “spiral of cost pressure”. The agencies who will be facing price squeezes, he says, are those that do nothing more than offer “six bog standard groups”, bidding for work against a company offering exactly the same.

Brooks says: “As a client who had big budgets, the money that most research agencies charge for doing things is affordable – it’s not like getting McKinsey in to do three months of deep-dive research. What it is about is defining the added value. Agencies can maintain premium value in the market if the quality is there, and that is our aim.”

4 Comments

9 years ago

aaaahhhh, this old chestnut. Also having made the move from client to agency side the problem is often with clients buying the research that seems unique. All agencies claim to have the ability to provide business "insight", so when pitching for new work they must differentiate with terminology, models etc. This is a catch 22 situation as I am sure Mr Brooks is about to learn. Too often clients choose style over substance in pitches and therefore agencies must provide be innovative, rather than business savvy. It just sounds like Mr Brooks was choosing the wrong agencies when he was a client

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9 years ago

I agree with Matt. Furthermore, this article basically suggests that Mr Brooks made a series of bad agency choices and didn't learn from each experience, they were particularly bad at briefing agencies (c'mon agencies, invest in mindreading!) and / or they made it clear what they wanted in terms of 'value' and STILL chose the shiny, whizzy, innovative option every time to find it propped up like a stage set round the back. Or it did just come down to cost. And aren't the clientside research function (which I'm sure GSK has stretched to) culpable somewhere in this series of disappointment after disappointment? Oh, hang on, sorry, I just got the point of the article! Clientside person joins agency, now agency knows better than other agencies, buy this agency, not others. I take everything above back.

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9 years ago

When clients stop buying research "by the pound" as we say here in the States, maybe they'll start getting what they really need. Clients love to blame the agencies when they have made bad choices or not taken the time to engage with the agency as a partner, rather than a "vendor"

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9 years ago

Agree with all of you above. And this "buying by the pound", with back and forth on costs is with a junior research person on the Client's side. All the quality, extra analysis, methodologies mean nothing. I agree with Mr.Brooks that agencies never really get to meet the top table. They would like to, but doesn't happen much. And yes, the Client-side also need to take resposibility for its role in repeated failures.

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