NEWS15 February 2022

New study calls for MRX to improve appeal as career prospect

News Trends UK

UK – Boosting the visibility of MRX as a career choice and addressing the challenges of poor practice are key to resolving the problem of talent shortage within the insight profession, according to the authors of a new study.

Magnifying glass identifying an individual, representing recruitment

The MRS-supported research on talent shortages, Retention and recruitment in the research & insight sector, reveals that the general mood of those working in the field is “concerning”, with individuals describing themselves as “fatigued and overworked” and mentions of “stress” and “burn out” common. Excessive working hours is given by the majority as a principal reason for this dissatisfaction.

The study was led by Pamala Armstrong and Sarah Penny from specialist recruitment agency Daughters of Sailors and has been supported by MRS main board member and chair designate Sinead Jefferies. As Armstrong points out, while remote working is not the driver of working long hours, since a long-hours culture existed well before Covid, it has “made the hours less visible and blurred the lines between work and home.”

A culture of long hours without boundaries

She continues: “Longer hours during the pandemic have been driven by a sense that during the crisis execs had to step up and take on additional work in the context of uncertainty about the longer-term business outlook. It has also been driven by staff having to cover for those who were furloughed.”

Jefferies comments: “We all had Teams, or Slack, or Google Workspace enabling us to work from home, so the slide into staying online and receiving notifications into the evening was an easy one. Even if people don’t have any intention of working late, without strict boundaries in place it just sort of happened. If your boss sends you an email asking for something that sounds important, are you really not going to respond even if it’s out of normal office hours?”

Prior to the pandemic, the challenges of recruitment were limited to certain grades, according to Armstrong, but now they cut across most grades and types of roles. “Covid has created a gap for execs with around two years’ experience, as many companies didn’t take on graduates during 2020/21. Moreover, those that were taken on haven’t had the ‘normal’ graduate experience, meaning that senior research executives are difficult to find.”

She adds: “Recruitment slowed significantly at the start of the pandemic. Today, as the amount of research business is increasing and companies are playing ‘catch-up’ on recruitment, the demand for strong candidates at all levels far outstrips supply.

“There is also a sense that careers haven’t developed at the same pace; management talks about having to take on more junior tasks, meaning they haven’t had the time or space to develop. At the same time, junior-level staff are frustrated that they don’t have the same access to more senior colleagues and are not learning on the job as they should.”

People should be valued as the sector's greatest asset

One of the key findings of the report points to employers “prioritising profit over people” and Jefferies suggests that this is probably due to significant uncertainty when it comes to the revenue pipeline. “Those running companies are focused on keeping things going, bringing in new business and doing whatever it takes to hold on to clients. However, there is a limit. Our most valuable asset is our people and if staff feel so unhappy that they decide to leave, that creates more pressure for everyone else, which in turn exacerbates the problem.

“I would love companies to embrace a more balanced approach to measuring success and look at how to evaluate the health and wellbeing of their people alongside the revenues and margins. Healthy, happy and valued people will be more productive and deliver better outcomes. Not through working longer hours, but through [having more] energy and the quality of thinking they will bring.”

In terms of the problem of retention, Armstrong believes this involves a whole range of factors. “We need to address the long-hours culture and the factors that cause this; we also require better management and an on-going review of workloads. We need to insist on credible and genuine well-being practices. Some respondents sensed that their company paid ‘lip-service’ to well-being and the actual experience didn’t match the promise. Plus, from the agency side, it’s about better management of clients and giving execs permission to sometimes say ‘no’ or negotiate.”

Jefferies notes there is “no one-size-fits-all solution”. She elaborates: “One of the joys of this sector is the variety of companies of all shapes and sizes and along with that comes a huge variety of working cultures. Think about how you’re measuring and looking at staff performance and development to place the right emphasis on what drives people’s satisfaction, enjoyment and progression. Employers need to think really hard about all elements of the employee experience and what that offers their people on a daily basis.”

Agency work seen as tougher than client-side role

Another interesting point that cropped up as a result of the research is the perception that working agency-side is tougher than client-side. “Much of this stems from the belief that agency-side execs work far longer hours”, explains Armstrong. “The long-hours culture is driven by the constant pressure to deliver to clients, irrespective of the challenges that might create. Some reported that this pressure can be self-imposed and agency execs should be more confident about discussing timings and deadlines with clients. The mantra of ‘cheaper & faster’ can lead to the setting of unrealistic timescales.”

She adds: “At the same time as delivering to clients, there is an on-going need to win new business and feed the pipeline. Agency-side execs reported that senior management won’t say ‘no’ to new opportunities, hence the pressure to work on proposals that execs know there is little chance of them ever winning.”

“Agency life is much more connected with bringing in new business”, observes Jefferies. “Our business model is largely one of individual, one-off contracts. When times are tough and clients aren’t spending or something happens to disrupt the pipeline then, as the primary cost within the business, people’s jobs are vulnerable. This means that the balance and the pressure is totally different within an agency than in a client-side team.”

The need to reach a wider spectrum of potential candidates

Armstrong and Jefferies both have plenty of solutions in mind when it comes to discussing how the MRX sector can position itself as a more attractive option to young graduates and career changers alike. Visibility is key in Armstrong’s eyes: “Many talk of ‘falling into’ research rather than having it in mind as a destination career. It’s not widely promoted in universities and, even when it is, it does not a target a wide enough spectrum of graduates. There is a need to reach graduates from all sorts of different disciplines with compelling reasons to start a career in MRX.”

She adds that a greater focus on the outcomes of research, such as the impact it has on organisations and businesses, might be helpful, as well as positioning the role more as a consulting-type one, rather than strictly research. In addition, she advocates for better promotion of the skills required, including numeracy, coding and AI, analysing big data sets and computing.

Jefferies agrees that there needs be more debate around the impact and outcome of market research, “rather than the mechanics”. As she observes: “There was a recent episode of Desert Island Discs with [renowned British statistician] Professor David Spiegelhalter and he said something that really resonated with me, which also completely aligns with the new MRS slogan of ‘Start making sense’. His exact words were “The numbers do not speak for themselves. We imbue them with meaning”.

“We are the sense-makers, the people who turn meaningless data – whether words or numbers – into something that informs, triggers change and creates something new. So yes, we need to do more outreach, we need to help young people understand more about the unique and special place this sector is, but we need to be selling the right story. And I’m not so sure we’ve done a great job of that up to now.”

Role of the MRS is vital in helping to attract new talent

The researchers also emphasise the importance of the market research Society (MRS)’s role in how to address the challenges of attracting new talent to the sector. “The MRS has a significant role to play in this regard”, maintains Armstrong. “While there was a recognition [from respondents] that these are tricky and sensitive challenges, the MRS has to step up and deal with poor practices and provide proper guidance.”

Commenting on the findings, MRS chief executive Jane Frost said: “Our sector has much to be proud of in the way it responded to the pandemic, from the vital data of the REACT survey [undertaken by Ipsos] to the immense workload generated monitoring consumer behaviour in unprecedented times for nervous c-suites.  There is no doubt the last two years have put considerable pressure on everyone working in research.

“We share many of the issues that bedevil other service sectors – such as advertising – and the topics that this study highlights are unfortunately not new. Some of this is reflected in the wellbeing surveys we have been conducting with the support of Opinium, which do not make for comfortable reading either. I know many employers have been trying hard to reduce the impact of the pandemic, but some of the issues this study has highlighted are deep-rooted and there are no magic wand solutions.

“We can’t sit back and do nothing; I would urge leaders to remember the words of Olympian Dame Katherine Grainger when she spoke at the MRS conference a few years ago. Transformation and success are not necessarily dependent on big change, but on continuous incremental actions – however small. 

“Let’s not write off this problem as too big to address, but instead identify the small changes we can all make which, when combined, can have a major impact. Together we can make our working practices reflective of the world-leading sector that we are – one in which we can all genuinely be proud to participate.” 

A summary of the main findings of the Retention and recruitment in the research & insight sector study can be viewed here.