OPINION1 November 2010

A new golden age?


The publication of the research industry league tables used to be cause for deepsatisfaction. Theindustry would collectively sip brandy, puff a cigar, lean back in aChesterfield and survey the fertile land.


The publication of the research industry league tables used to be cause for deep satisfaction. The industry would collectively sip brandy, puff a cigar, lean back in a Chesterfield and survey the fertile land.

The latest tables, at first glance, offer little in the way of fertile land. It’s a rather bleak snapshot of the moment when recession hit. It shows a raft of companies who experienced stasis, a greater number whose turnover tumbled and a handful who bucked the trend and posted growth. Overall the market shrank by just under five per cent. This is one recession that the UK market research industry didn’t dodge.

And yet numerous factors still signal an admirably resilient industry. Agency closures are at a nearly all-time low. The industry’s recruitment market has emerged from a remarkably brief hibernation with renewed vigour. A fair number of new agencies have flourished, creatively and commercially. And the entry of non-traditional research providers has introduced a new breadth and scope to the research business.

That is, overall, not such a disheartening picture.

One of those factors is worthy of special attention. Although it hasn’t been a vintage year for start-ups, a number of young companies really made their mark. And this has little to do with being ‘plucky’, ‘fresh’ or even ‘youthful’. It has everything to do with daring business models, hard-nosed commercial nous and a refreshing lack of neurosis about what research is and what research isn’t.

I’m not going to name names, but a quick glance at the table will illuminate a small core of companies led by charismatic entrepreneurs who are unafraid to reinvent research and the services provided.

Such a metabolism is putting some of the larger agencies to shame. The smaller agencies, who are unlikely to remain ‘small’ for long, are providing a real sense of propulsion. A firm sense of mission that is unfettered
by tradition.

When I joined Research eight years ago many industry folk told me that I’d joined at the worst possible time. Gone, they said, were the inspirational leaders and creative champions. Gone was the sense of adventurous entrepreneurialism.

The golden age of research was over. And now, of all times, it appears we’re on the brink of a major
change that may take us back to that spirit of old. It isn’t the behemoths that have provided hope for the future, it’s the new breed of research agency.

When we look back at this recession we may yet remember it as being a surprisingly fertile land that gave birth to a renewed sense of direction and purpose for the research business.