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FEATURE21 December 2020

Review 2020: Covid-19 and market research

Covid-19 Features Innovations Trends UK

It’s undoubtedly been a difficult year, but how has Covid-19 impacted research? In the latest of our end-of-year review articles, industry contributors share their views on how the sector has coped with the pandemic. 

Caroline Frankum, chief executive, Kantar Profiles
There’s no doubt that we’ve been hit hard as an industry. November data from Kantar’s Global Business Compass Report flagged some evidence-based inflection points for the size of this impact, including UK businesses reducing their market research spend by around 37% in 2020.

However, with there being no previous Covid-related blueprint to draw from, what has been truly impressive is how the industry has taken an agile approach to finding new and creative ways of supporting clients with timely, relevant, trusted data, insights and recommendations as we have navigated through these unprecedented challenges and increasing times of change and uncertainty together.

Shazia Ginai, chief executive, Neuro Insight
It’s been a mixed bag, with business leaders handling things with a spectrum of different strategies. Us agency folks are at the mercy of our clients and they have been under immense pressure to cut back spending. When I was client-side, research was sometimes seen as a discretionary spend and that viewpoint has put a lot of pressure on the industry this year, particularly for those of us who run small agencies. Also, not being able to run face-to-face research in traditional ways impacted a lot of the industry.

In the face of these challenges, we have watched survival instinct kick in, driving many agencies to pivot and adapt. I hope that this ability to adapt and shift patterns of thinking sticks – it’s helped challenge norms and evolve the industry in a positive way for the future. 

Jane Frost, chief executive, MRS
Research has been at the heart of understanding the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic and, as well as the vital role our sector has played in government projects, the crisis has demonstrated the strategic worth of insight and customer understanding functions in commercial organisations. I’m excited for us to build on these inroads into the c-suite next year.

Jake Steadman, vice-president, customer insight and user research, Deliveroo
It’s probably too early to say. It’s been really hard, obviously, but I’ve seen great innovation, too. How well that means the industry has coped will become clear in six to 12 months’ time. 

Ryan Howard, freelance data science consultant
It was hardly a joyride after the bottom fell out, but green shoots arrived earlier than anticipated and we should take heart from that. I am reminded that we aren’t an industry powered exclusively by desk jockeys. Quant researchers rely heavily on qualitative insight and being in the same room as our colleagues for ideas to spark and take root. Moving some of these methods exclusively online was not easy, but the platforms were there. 2020 was the year where DIY tools took a firmer grip, the industry began to fragment, and we were forced back to our core tenets.

Crawford Hollingworth, founder, The Behavioural Architects
This year has shown us how the world desperately needs us at a society level to help navigate these choppy waters and make sense of human behaviour, but it has also shown how fragile we are in other areas, with budget totally destroyed. I think this will have opened our eyes and create a reflective few months.

Lizzie Gilthorpe, managing director, Differentology
Some businesses within the industry have been able to react better than others. Decision-making under pressure has been critical. I’m a big believer in having a positive mindset, and that there can be opportunity even in adversity. Going into the pandemic, those that made (good) decisions, quickly and decisively, have been able to benefit. It’s definitively possible to thrive rather than just survive.

Ben Hogg, managing director Emea and Apac, Lucid
Some companies have adapted (online qual, moving to DIY scripting and sampling platforms), some have forged on (easier if your client mix is more weighted towards FMCG or technology than, for example, travel, tourism and hospitality), and some have had no choice but to shut up shop and ride it out (viewing facilities).

Estimates on the reduction of spend in marketing and research in the UK varies between 10 and 35%, and budgeting for 2021 has been a mixture of anticipating when vaccines will become approved, available and administered, coupled with best guesses, closing our eyes and crossing toes and fingers.

Annie Pettit, research methodologist
I know a lot of researchers struggled and suffered, but the number of job ads being posted in the second half of the year was welcome relief. I hope this means the small companies that were forced to close shop will be able to rebuild soon. Support your local small research businesses.

Peter Totman, head of qualitative, Jigsaw
Qualitative research is almost as reliant on face-to-face interaction as the hospitality industry. We seem to have survived thus far (I am touching wood, don’t worry). We could hypothesise this shows there is a real thirst for qualitative thinking, not just one for ‘doing some groups’. As an industry, I think we need to change our focus from talking about methodology to discussing the unique value of ‘qualitative thinking’ – which is more than just insights, it is a thinking framework that helps produce insights.

Anna Cliffe, joint managing director, Trinity McQueen
After the initial shock factor, many agencies and clients pivoted quickly to new ways of working. Building stakeholder engagement from home offices was never going to be easy but I think some really great efficiencies in how we work also came out of the ‘adapt or die’ situation.  I think as a whole the industry has been resilient, but clearly those who rely more heavily on face-to-face research income were hit hard.

Ben Page, chief executive, Ipsos Mori
It has played a huge part in monitoring the prevalence of the disease in the general population with the various studies companies like Ipsos have been running using Covid-19 antigen and antibody tests for the UK government – we have tested over a million people. In 2021, this will remain important but the industry as a whole will play an important part in working out the most effective communications, and behavioural interventions to get people to take the vaccine.

Nick Baker, chief executive, Savanta
It’s been a tough time but been met with phenomenal efforts across the sector to keep ensuring the evidence has flowed and better decisions are empowered through our work. More than anything, I want to call out the MRS team this year. They have stood strong in the face of the pandemic and we should absolutely acknowledge their work to lobby government and ensure the voice of our industry is heard to support businesses across the sector but particularly those most impacted from face-to-face fieldworkers, supervisors and businesses, viewing facilities and recruiters, and that’s merely a couple of examples. In times of adversity, we see true colours and proud of the work the MRS team have done this year facing up to the challenges.