OPINION13 October 2009

Does the client?agency relationship need spicing up?


Morgan Arnell of InsightOut argues that the research industry’s client?agency model is failing to deliver the goods.

For 15 years I’ve been a clientside researcher and I’ve enjoyed every minute. The job requires a unique mix of skills – you have to be nerdy enough to be passionate about data but at the same time display the commercial awareness and influencing skills to survive in the often political world of a major organisation. So why, in the middle of a recession, leave the relative safety of a regular pay cheque and set up a new agency?

The answer lies in the I word. Not insight, the other one, the one our business partners really care about: impact. It’s number one on the list of deliverables for anyone in our industry – clientside or agency. You must have an impact on business decisions and, more importantly, be recognised to have an impact, otherwise your perceived value is unlikely to be very high. Indeed, an insight isn’t really an insight unless it has impact. A survey of 40 clientside organisations by a well-known management consultant that I took part in while I was at Kimberly-Clark found that nearly two-thirds felt their insight capability needed to improve. Clearly the market research industry isn’t having as much positive impact as it could.

Research agencies alone can’t solve this issue. Many have upped their game with better understanding and serving of their clients’ needs, but the particular portfolio of tools and methodologies that they sell will always be their primary focus. However broad an agency’s offering, it can never offer the best solution to every research problem. Frequently, new research is not the answer to the particular business issue anyway – it’s about making more of what you already know, but very few agencies are set up to offer this service. In fact the service model in general doesn’t fit with the approach, capabilities or business model of big research agencies, making the provision of ‘insight consultancy’ unrealistic.

Meanwhile, things are getting even tougher for clientside insight departments. Already straining to evolve from providers of market research to ‘planning’ managers, organisations have been forced by the economic crisis to shed positions. The result: fewer people but no less work, forcing already stretched resources to revert to being data providers. “I just don’t get a chance to stop and think these days” is a common refrain.

In a nutshell, the client?agency model in research needs help. One side struggles with resource and capability, the other sells research and lacks objectivity. As a consequence numerous companies are not seeing an adequate return on their research. Our research suggests over £2 billion of research investment is wasted every year in Europe alone, and that’s a conservative estimate.

The industry needs to service client organisations in a new way. Consultancies need to extricate themselves from the constraints of providing research to offer flexible and capable support to every element of insight generation within organisations – from setting the learning agenda and research plan to generating insight and truly impacting business direction.

It’s an area the industry hasn’t yet fully explored, and options for companies that need this help are surprisingly limited. Drawing on freelance support from individual contractors is an option, but it’s often a short-term patch on the issue. Also, finding the right people that can seamlessly integrate into an existing team is difficult (in my experience on the clientside, fewer than two in ten contractors I interviewed were right for my needs).

Drawing on expertise from an external company to drive your entire insight strategy would mirror success in other disciplines – the media industry is a good example. Companies evolved from having internal media teams working direct with media owners to employing agencies with the expertise and strategic view to conduct media buying on their behalf. Indeed, this model thrives in other disciplines within marketing. Innovation, for example, is recognised as requiring particular skills that are not always available clientside, but are readily available from a wide range of marketing services agencies.

So what is the future for our industry? Will it recognise the limitations of the status quo and look for an alternative or complimentary approach? Should insight actually be outsight? If so, who is best placed to deliver it? Will the agency heavyweights see this as an extra string to their bow or a niche opportunity best left to others? Only time will tell. One thing is clear though – we can’t afford to ignore these challenges.

Morgan Arnell is a co-founder of InsightOut, alongside Justin Wright and Nick Pye. He previously worked on the clientside for companies including P&G, Kimberly-Clark and Boots.


11 years ago

Morgan, The whole "Client/Agency Partnership" debate is very interesting indeed and one that over the last number of years (at various conferences) been explored in great detail, however I can only comment from my own position and that is that I absolutely agree that no agency (no matter who they are) should be even trying to help a client - without truly understanding at a very basic level what they client is trying to achieve at the highest strategic level; what their core business issues are and what they have done historically to address these issues. Insight which does not bring about a positive business impact and which is not strategically aligned within the client business is as you say "not an insight". It is critical that agencies work closer with their clients to truly understand their bigger picture and to help them not only address the business problem at hand but to really look at what has been done before. This is why we have seen the emergence of many agencies developing insight management portals and analytical offerings (including McCallum Layton); this way we can really help clients drive efficiency at all levels. One of the key elements required for success here is one of the human touch - ensuring the client account manager is 100% client centric and working above and beyond the call of duty to immerse themselves within the client's business - this level of client relationship will ultimately help deliver a clear/objective view on what should be done to strive for that golden egg "insight with impact."

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11 years ago

The struggle is over to learn how to become a trusted advisor. My book on the subject has just been published The Research Practitioner's Guide to Research Consulting. All profits go to children and animal charities. Information, extracts and free resources (which I will continually be adding to) can be found at www.blogs.murdoch.edu.au/researcherconsultants/ Anyone that is a QPMR can join a free AMSRS webinar on 27 October (check www.amsrs.com.au) entitled Extinction or evolution" developing a stronger research consultancy.

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