FEATURE23 October 2009

Talking change and relevance with Esomar’s new director general

Features News

Finn Raben was given the top job at Esomar after a long career on the agency side, latterly as Synovate’s CEO for Southern Europe. In this interview he stresses the importance of making industry associations more relevant to their constituents, but warns of the challenges in doing so.

He admits, though, that maintaining that relevance will be a challenge. In predicting a further 12 months of turbulent economic conditions for the industry, Raben expects much more change to come.

Why did you decide to make the jump from agency to association?

After being at the coalface of the industry for so long it was a huge attraction to me to square the circle as it were by getting in at the last element of the business that I’d not had an opportunity to work in.

As a researcher, you have to live with the rules or parameters that Esomar sets and I never had the opportunity to come this side of the fence and check out if the grass is greener, or more importantly to understand what the factors are [affecting] all agencies.

Are there any in particular that you want to address?

I’m sure that there are specific issues and we’ll get to them in due course. For me the most important thing is that over the last five to ten years the industry has undergone enormous change, whether that’s because of the economic change or the more philosophical or methodological changes – such as the evolution of online or the different qual approaches. I’m not always sure that the associations that support the industry have evolved as quickly as some of those changes in the market should have prompted them to do.

Relevance has to be one of the primary objectives for all market research associations, whether its local, regional or global and I think that one of my primary responsibilities is to make sure that Esomar is relevant to the industry.

The changes could be as simple as reinforcing or re-establishing links with strong local associations and making sure that they are supported, or whether we provide mutual support in whatever the topic of the day is.  Or it could be trying to establish at a regional level what the kinds of guidelines are that we should be looking to construct or promote in tandem with the industry on certain new approaches or methodologies.

I think the rainbow of issues will vary according to the time, but I think that fundamentally you have to be working a whole lot harder with the local companies and associations as well as major global players to say: “Hey, this is what is important to the industry at the moment.”

Given that the landscape is changing so incredibly quickly I think that maintaining that relevance is a challenge.

The recession is bringing about its own changes. How do you think the trade associations will emerge from it all?

There are two sides of the coin: local trade associations and membership associations such as Esomar. I think whatever the landscape becomes, links between those two sides of the coin have to be strengthened and nurtured.

That will depend on the relationship, the territory and the history. Perhaps in certain cases that will mean establishing new links, maybe in others it’s about patching up old differences and in others it might be building on hugely warm and long-standing relationships.

I think we have to recognise, whether it’s from a legislative, economic or purely implementation point of view, the landscape is changing and we have to work together as associations in order to both promote and defend the market research industry, and one can’t do it without the other, so it will be much more of a symbiotic relationship.

You’ve worked on the agencyside for a long time, what are the biggest challenges they are facing?

The demand from a client is often: “I buy X from you in country Y,  so why can’t I buy X from you in country Z in exactly the same way?” Clients would obviously welcome it and find it easier to manage if the purchase of research was homogeneous across whatever territory they are dealing with.

The fact of the matter is that buying research is different depending on where you are. Buying it in Germany for example is completely different to buying it in Vietnam because national and regional infrastructures vary hugely. I think the challenge from an agency point of view is how to provide a level of consistency that is acceptable to clients without over-promising or putting unreasonable demands on the infrastructure that already exists. That balance is a very delicate one and is probably the biggest day-to-day challenge that research companies face.

How do you think the industry will come out of the recession and how does this compare to downturns you have worked through?

I think that there is probably another 12 months of fairly tough economic conditions ahead of us so I’m not so sure we can even begin to view what the landscape will look like.

In the past there was a commonly held belief that you needed to research your way out of bad times and research your way on top of good times. With a much broader spectrum of means and mechanisms to contact consumers – by mobile, by social media – I suspect that client companies have been more cautious in putting spend into market research as they would have in the past because there are so many other options open to them.

Does that mean that their budgets will be cut? I don’t think so but I do believe that it will prolong a period of caution and due diligence until the market restores itself to a more stable level. At that stage, everyone will have an opportunity to see what that ‘stable’ means for them and at that point we’ll be redefining the parameters and the content of the landscape.