OPINION1 October 2010

A journey into the known

Opinion

Within minutes of the publication of Tony Blair’s memoirs, you could hear the stampede of trade magazine editors rushing for their copies to discover whether the ex-PM had made significant mention of anything related to their industry. While the editor of Rubber Tubing Gazette may have been disappointed, the editor of Research was not.

Within minutes of the publication of Tony Blair’s memoirs, you could hear the stampede of trade magazine editors rushing for their copies to discover whether the ex-PM had made significant mention of anything related to their industry. While the editor of Rubber Tubing Gazette may have been disappointed, the editor of Research was not.

The purchase of Blair’s A Journey could very well be put down as a business expense for every market researcher. It’s packed with references to research and polling. It is a study in what happens when you listen to customers and what happens when you don’t. It is also a fascinating portrait of a client trying to post-rationalise his use of research.

In the pursuit of power and in the early days of government Blair and New Labour were big fans of focus groups and the testing of public opinion. Labour’s pollster Philip Gould drew up an intensive and detailed picture of what voters wanted and helped target political messaging to key regions and voter groups. The research gave voice to the public’s desire for change. Research at its best.

However, when public opinion offered a more critical view of New Labour’s performance, the leadership started to tune out. A tuning-out process that eventually led the party to the opposition benches.

Blair writes: “You can’t dismiss polls because your supporters and the media dwell on them” – which I find odd because, as time went on, dismiss them he did. Whatever his merits as prime minister, Blair was in later years a spectacularly lame client of the research business. He was a great spender – no complaints there, but he was the sort of client who makes a real outward show of conducting research. The sort of client who thanks the agency for its work and then prefers to trust to his own intuition, or dare one call it ‘conviction’.

When Blair says that “focus groups should be treated with the utmost caution,” he echoes the sentiment of all clients who have never quite got the hang of maximising the real value of research – the legion of folk who almost commission research as a penance. It shouldn’t just be about whether research findings should be acted upon cautiously, but whether the actual process of engagement with customers has been treated with care. Do you respect the process of talking to your customers and stakeholders? Do you see real value in participating in ‘the conversation’? Are you really willing for your customers’ views to take you somewhere unexpected? If so, you’re much more likely to embark upon a journey of real worth.

@RESEARCH LIVE

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