This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies. Find out more here

FEATURE8 February 2011

Researcher, research thyself

Client demands on research agencies are often portrayed anecdotally as unreasonable, unrealistic or excessive. So Relish Research asked ten insight managers to explain what it is they’re looking for in a supplier. ‘Good, solid research’ was a popular response.

Researchers spend their days finding out what customers want, need and expect of the companies they do business with or buy products from. “But as an industry we don’t do research for ourselves nearly enough,” says Hetta Bramley.

Bramley is a director of Relish Research, the agency that used to be called Drummond Madell. When co-founder Monique Drummond decided to rebrand the firm (after her business partner John Madell left) she thought it best to ask her customers what they want from a research agency.

Ten clients were interviewed, among them Gillian Hurley, Vodafone UK’s market research manager. She explained: “Our overriding needs are for good, solid, basic research – and always for a great, clear debrief. At the same time, we always like to hear about different things, and I feel a real need to keep up with new developments and trends in the research world. However, the reality is most of our work uses tried and trusted approaches which we know work well for us.”

“We need to give our insight clients the ammunition to argue for a better methodology internally if that is what is required”
– Hetta Bramley

That hardly sounds like the “unreasonable demands” decried in late-night, post-conference drinks discussions with agency types. Indeed, Bramley says, the key take-home from all the client interviews was that agencies need to make their insight clients “look good” and do things that validate “their choice of you as the agency”.

Insight managers have clients themselves, she explains – internal stakeholders who have tasked their research teams with answering a commercially important question. They may want that answer delivered in a certain way and within a certain time, neither of which may be conducive to producing the best research. But Bramley insists it is up to the research agency to question the brief, to make it clear that there are trade-offs between things like time, cost and quality.

“We need to give our insight clients the ammunition to argue for a better methodology internally if that is what is required,” she says. Drummond adds: “That push back is necessary.”

It may seem trite, but research agencies are there to make their clients’ lives easier – otherwise what’s the point in hiring them. Part of this involves developing an understanding of the client’s business. “They don’t need us to understand every single aspect,” says Bramley, “but they want us to know enough that when they pick up the phone, we know what they are talking about and can pick up the conversation straight away”.

Arguably, this level of relationship is easier for smaller agencies to maintain, where each researcher has maybe a handful of clients to work with, rather than in large agencies with hundreds of customers on the books and where relationships are managed via account handling teams rather than the research practitioner.

Indeed in one interview a client (who declined to be named for this piece) expressed dissatisfaction with their experience of larger agencies, which could be best summed up as ‘impersonal’. “They never bother to find out about me and what we do and what we want,” the client said. “They are 30% more expensive for a poorer job, and worse, they force their tools on us whether we need it or not.”

“Agencies with proprietary methodologies can be too prescriptive when a bespoke response is needed,” says another interviewee, Liz Parker, insight manager for print and web publisher A&N Media, home of the Daily Mail.

“You have to make a positive impression on a few consumer insight managers, who do move around and hopefully, when they do, they’ll take you with them”
– Monique Drummond

“It’s important for us to explore new ways of doing things,” she says, “but it’s also important that as an industry we don’t lose skills such as effective questionnaire design and insightful analysis. These core skill areas are often where we experience quality issues.”

Bramley sees a common theme emerging from the interviews – that is, for agencies to dispense with the gimmicks and concentrate on delivering “lateral thinking within a robust framework”.

Research buyers are also looking for robustness in the recommendations arising from the research. “Ultimately, I want an agency to challenge us and tell us what they would do as if they were spending their own money,” says another anonymous interviewee.

Meanwhile, A&N’s Parker says: “No one should be able to walk away from a debrief saying, ‘So what?’ They should be in no doubt about what the commercial implications of a piece of work are.”

So what are we to take from Relish’s research? The conclusion drawn internally, says Drummond, is that clients are looking to be “surprised and delighted by every piece of research”.

Unlike the advertising industry, where account wins dominate the trade news and agency outputs are there for all to see, the research world largely goes on behind closed doors. “You have to make a positive impression on a few consumer insight managers, who do move around and hopefully, when they do, they’ll take you with them,” says Drummond.

And remember, she says: “You’re only ever as good as your last project.”

14 Comments

9 years ago

Great piece, Brian. And well done to Relish for having the gumption to ask. We at FreshMinds did a ring round all of the people that we'd worked with last year to ask for their thoughts and suggestions - not just on us, but on the industry. We had lots of lovely comments and a great deal of food-for-thought. But we were astonished to hear most of the insight managers we spoke to say "you're the first to call me. No-one else does this". I'm sure that's over-stating it. But I suspect that we as an industry could do a lot more to connect with our customers, and to deliver what they need.

Like Report

9 years ago

I have to agree with the point about larger agencies - to be completely honest, with most quant being conducted online these days, unless I have a multi-country study or some unusual methodological request, larger agencies just aren't worth it. This becomes even more prominent an issue as smaller boutique agencies grow in sophistication and experience. One point you haven't covered, though, is that agencies are often dealing with very different levels of involvement or expertise with the research. Some clients may want to write their own questionnaire and get stuck into the data themselves; others may just want to know an answer to a business question, and leave it to the agency to devise the approach.

Like Report

9 years ago

NickD raises an interesting issue about the movement of quant into smaller agencies. Brian's article above refers to Relish as a qualitative agency - we are in fact a full service agency, and the quantitative side of our business is growing rapidly.

Like Report

9 years ago

"Brian's article above refers to Relish as a qualitative agency - we are in fact a full service agency" I've corrected the piece – apologies for the error.

Like Report

9 years ago

Just a plug for large agencies... Large agencies invest a great deal of time and effort in training and mentoring those who go on to have a long and varied career in research, client side and agency side. All agencies have their faults - large or small. If you look at the MRS training programme a great deal of it is being done by people who gained their Training Certification whilst at a large agency... without that investment, many people in the industry would not be benefitting from the quality of training they do.

Like Report

9 years ago

A fair point about the large agencies pushing out quality training, but at the same time I think smaller agencies do a lot more work on client servicing,management and getting closer to business issues. Always a trade off somewhere!

Like Report

9 years ago

To be fair to larger agencies, they also have some great products and people (that smaller agencies often try and poach!). However sometimes this talent can be buried within a structure that lacks the flexiblity and creativity of a smaller agency. As a client it is frustrating to be told that an agency can't go the extra mile with a project because they will be cross-charged by an internal dept!....

Like Report

9 years ago

It is true that research agencies don't have insights about insight managers, which I have always thought is quite ironical. But the fact is that I realised this only when I worked on the client side for a few years - and it hadn't occured to me either when I was on the agency side. We must remember that insight managers are also on one side of the equation for this, so unless they as clients show some transparency in their ways of working, their anxieties and desires, the agency guys would never know! I think some exchange programs like sending people on sacondament for some time on the client side is one of the efficient ways to get a better understanding of the clients.

Like Report

9 years ago

I love this conversation. I have long thought that many research companies do not practice what they preach in terms of obtaining and acting upon customer feedback. What is driving loyalty to your business (or defection)? I have worked both large and small agencies and see that each have their strengths/weaknesses. But overall, I do think a small agency is more flexible and the researcher is more likely to retain control over all aspects of the study.

Like Report

9 years ago

Manish's suggestion above is a very good one, and we do have two clients that have had such secondments in place at some point. Another positive move is when clients host 'agency days' to get all their research suppliers or rostered agencies together to outline key brand developments, discuss future directions for the insight department and to share best practice. Its this shift from being seen as a 'one-off supplier' to becoming an integrated business partner which is of huge benefit to client and agency alike. A further sign this is when clients involve their agencies in general brand discussions and debates, without having a specific research brief in hand. These clients recognise that their agencies' constant discussions with consumers, or analysis of their behaviours/attitudes makes us an invaluable resource in their decision making.

Like Report

Results 1 to 10 of 14