FEATURE30 March 2011

No time for shyness at Harris under new UK bosses

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In January Harris Interactive announced a shake-up of its UK operation following four years of poor results. The firm’s French leadership team have now been tasked with restoring growth in the UK. We spoke to Nathalie Perrio-Combeaux and Patrick Van Bloeme about their plans to turn things around.

There was “something very wrong” with Harris Interactive’s figures, says Patrick Van Bloeme, when he first took charge of the online research agency’s UK business earlier this year.

As well as underperforming for the past several years, the firm’s biggest piece of work – a multi-million dollar tracking study for Nokia – had been lost in late 2010 at the cost of 15 jobs. But CEO Kimberly Till said job cuts alone were not enough to make up for the loss, and a “strategic repositioning” was put into action.

The result was that Van Bloeme and his co-CEO in France, Nathalie Perrio-Combeaux, were drafted in to take the reins, as well as continuing to lead the French business.

“This company has a lot of skills, innovation, technologies and solutions, but we believe that most of our clients are not aware of 80% of our capabilities”

“It would be wrong to say that everything was wrong,” Van Bloeme told Research. “The company made lots of positive progress in the recent months or years but we lost some big trackers and that’s the main issue. The business here in the UK was based on some big, big clients with big trackers.”

The biggest of these was the Nokia tracker, which was lost when the handset manufacturer consolidated seven tracking studies into one. The agency also lost similar projects from clients such as BP and Microsoft. Aside from Harris’ difficulties, Van Bloeme cited the recession and internal changes in client organisations as reasons for non-renewal.

Losing these trackers hit the firm hard, he added. “When you have brand trackers, you have big revenue for the next year. As soon as you lose that kind of thing you have to be able to get to a client with an [alternative] brand solution, stakeholder solutions and other things and we’ve not been so good in managing client development in recent years.”

In short, Van Bloeme said, the company has been too “shy” about letting customers know what other services Harris could offer them. Neither were there enough other major projects to bring the money in when tracking studies expired.

“We could have been more involved with our clients to understand their evolution and discover a long time ago that their trackers may disappear,” he explained.

As well as “not selling” hard enough, Van Bloeme said that Harris had not let customers know about some of the innovative offerings that he and Perrio-Combeaux pride themselves upon, like mobile, online communities and qualitative research services.

“The ideas were all there but here in the UK we’ve not been aggressive enough to get into the market with those innovations,” he said. Looking ahead, the duo say that innovative offerings and a closer relationship with clients are the cornerstone of their plan to turn the firm’s fortunes around.

Perrio-Combeaux explained that the aim is for Harris to be as “nimble” as a boutique agency in terms of reacting to client needs and offering innovation.

Van Bloeme agreed: “We’re quite a big company, but we want to stay extremely flexible. All of our clients, whether they’re in France, the US or UK ask us for a very short turnaround. They call and say: ‘I’d like to start something tomorrow and finish the day after.’ We want to be able to accept that kind of challenge and we have the technology for that.

“We just need to adjust little things in the organisation to keep being flexible and being able to change the question at the last minute. It’s not easy, it’s not the kind of thing we want to do but all of our clients have those needs.”

Costing is a key factor in this, and Van Bloeme is keen to make sure that Harris does not lose out on the little jobs.

“We can be expensive for really big projects,” he continued, “but we have to accept that sometimes [clients] have small demands, like advertising pre-tests that can be done quickly and we must be able to do it in an easy way.”

The challenge of dealing with its size is not a new one for Harris – former CEO Greg Novak told Research in 2007 how he had to deal with a company “stuck somewhere between being a successful US firm and a real global player”.

The duo have not put a timeframe on their plans to turn the firm’s fortunes around, but Perrio-Combeaux says Harris has to start from square one.

“Clearly we want to go back to growth but before that we need to consolidate,” she said. “We are in stage one, so first of all because we are not initially from the UK market we rely on the people here. We spend most of our time discussing with the team and understanding what the market needs. It seems very similar to the French one, that’s the good news.”

Post consolidation, Perrio-Combeaux said Harris will look to be more proactive in seeking business from both new and existing clients. But it’s not an overnight process, she stressed. “We are a middle-size company in this market and our goal is to grow the business step by step.”

Innovation will be at the heart of the new offering, with new technologies to be tailored to client needs. Despite competition in the UK market being more aggressive than in France, the duo have set themselves a goal of becoming clients’ “preferred” market research provider.

“We have to be proud,” Van Bloeme said, “because this company, whether it’s in France, the US or the UK has a lot of skills, innovation, technologies and solutions, but we believe that most of our clients are not aware of 80% of our capabilities.”

The new management team see their challenge as making sure clients know what’s on offer. “We need to say it loud,” said Van Bloeme.

1 Comment

10 years ago

Working for Harris Interactive call center in Hazel Grove, I can tell you how management is very poor and cannot believe such as big projects are conducted by people who don’t understand the aim of market research, even the basic aspect of efficient business giving surveys more value in term of both strategy and competition. I am sorry; we don’t have to cry when losing jobs…We should think about making Harris more competitive! From call center agent.

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