FEATURE29 November 2011

‘We can’t hunker down any more’


Brian Tarran meets the Market Research Society’s new CEO Jane Frost, the former BBC marketer on a mission to prove the value of the MRS – and the researchers it represents.


“Evidence and insights are powerful forces for change,” says former BBC and Shell marketer Jane Frost CBE. But producing powerful research requires two ingredients, she says. “A well-informed client who knows how to brief good market research and a market research supplier who can challenge that brief and build it into something really excellent.”

Laying the groundwork for this partnership to flourish will be a top priority for Frost in her new role as chief executive of the Market Research Society (MRS). Her hope for the organisation is that it becomes a conduit for buyers and suppliers to discuss their needs and challenges, while also reaching out to the wider business, finance, marketing, public service or policy-making sectors to sell the bottom-line benefits of research.

Relevance is her watchword. Frost is out to prove the value of the MRS – and the researchers it represents – at a time when evidence and insights are more important than ever to decision-makers.

Research: After a long career as a senior marketer and strategist, what brought you to the MRS?
Jane Frost: Through some of the biggest successes of my career, the most important thing I have done is to work with market researchers of all types to create the evidence-base to prove to my lords and masters that they should invest in something, or to actually generate the answer to the question that was foxing us. I have never found a time when actually going back and asking the question “What is the insight we need to drive this decision?” hasn’t been a critical moment. I believe that research is the bridge between the marketer, the investor, the finance community and the bosses. Without that research quite frankly – and quite rightly – finance directors are going to say, “Prove it”.

And have you seen demands to ‘prove it’ through research increase in recent years?
Yes, but I still think marketers aren’t as canny as they should be about how to use research and market researchers can sometimes lack the understanding of how to communicate with clients – not necessarily the marketer, but who the marketer has to sell to internally.

What role can the MRS play in helping researchers develop that ability?
I think there is certainly a skills issue. But I also think there is a network issue. I think professionals can learn from each other – researchers could learn from ad agencies, which have more experience in account and people handling. I always found it frustrating that if I had done quite a big piece of work with a research agency that is all I saw of them. They never came back later and said, “We are doing this – you might find this interesting.” Ad agencies and the PricewaterhouseCoopers of this world are always telling you how they can help you so at least you know what is available. But research agencies aren’t keeping that dialogue open. I think the MRS can really help build networks and really help with the skills area. I think it needs to bring clients much more into the dialogue and give them a much bigger place at the table. These are the people holding the money, after all.

I assume then that making these connections will be top of the agenda. What else do you have planned for your first hundred days?
I never answer the hundred days question because it’s invidious – something always happens to throw you off course. But you are right, I don’t think the client and wider network creation can wait. I don’t know what will and what won’t work at this stage – but take, for example, the growth in small and medium-sized enterprises. They find it difficult to present a business case to banks because they haven’t done it before, or frequently because they have no data or information to make their case. Can we work with an organisation like the Institute of Directors to show them how they can connect with market researchers at an early stage of the business development process? I think there is a great role for the MRS to be opening up these avenues for its membership. I think that is going to be one of the most important things we can do.

I would also like the MRS to be doing more of its own research. We could, for example, go out to finance directors, do a proper piece of research, come back to the membership and say, “Now, this is what the CFO community says they need from you.” Confidence is key to economic growth – and possessing evidence and insight to help you invest in things generates confidence.

Ultimately, the longer that the MRS stays without a voice, the more people will think it doesn’t exist or is not relevant. I think that is the key word – relevance. At the same time we have to make sure that we are engaging much more widely with the membership to ensure that what we are delivering is value for them and benchmarking against other things that are out there that are competing for their share of membership money and making sure that MRS sits at the top of that table. We can’t hunker down any more.

The relevance question is an important one. Sections of the industry are asking whether bodies like the MRS do have any relevance any more. They say technology is moving too fast to keep up with formulating standards, and people are much freer now to create their own networks of shared interest on social media sites.
But I actually see the growth of these communities as an opportunity for membership organisations – adopting the best of what digital can offer and combining it with the best of our core offering. And there remains a need for standard-setting. Government hasn’t got any less keen on standards – if anything it has got even more demanding of organisations, particularly around the use and protection of personal data and privacy. I would like to see more people know that this sort of regulatory mechanism exists because then they would be more reassured about participating in research or letting their data be used. And if we don’t have standards then government is going to come in and make them for us, and that is going to be more restrictive.

Finally, then, with your marketer’s hat on, how would you go about selling the market research industry?
I believe very passionately that research is the enabler for so many things. The power of evidence and insight to create the right decisions is what we should be congregating around because I think people, whatever their background, will acknowledge that as something they need – not just marketers, funnily enough. That statement creates a much broader, integrated community of opportunity than just saying, “We answer questions well.” I think research has the power to change things. This sounds gratuitous, but you could change the world based on a good decision or a bad decision. So providing the evidence and insight for decision-making has the power to change the world – for better or worse.

Jane Frost CV

Individual customer director
HM Revenue & Customs

2003 -2006
Strategy director
Department of Constitutional Affairs

1995 -2000
Controller, corporate and brand marketing

Regional planning and marketing director
Shell International Petroleum Company