OPINION4 June 2014

Feeling agile?


Steve Phillips presents a manifesto to keep research at the cutting edge of business.


Great research is critical to the success of business, brands and products – but too often research is being dangerously marginalised in the rush to cut time. Ultimately it’s bad news for brands, bad for customers and bad for business.

I believe that the industry needs a new way of working, starting today. The pressure of rapid development – of ‘test and learn’, of ‘constant beta’ – means that agencies must help client research teams fight against marginalisation and irrelevance.

Instead of the methodological ‘innovation’ the industry has practiced for decades, this is going to require a new kind of innovation: innovation in the entire way we execute research and deliver insights. What I’m calling for is “agile research”.

A new movement is born
“Agile” is the latest business trend to emanate from Silicon Valley and owes its existence to the software development industry and the original Agile Manifesto of 2001. This was all about quick, open, continuous and iterative product development in response to customer feedback, bringing new software to market faster than ever before and ensuring that plans and ideas were converted into products rather than remaining in the planning stage. The iterative development of the software products also claimed lower costs and higher quality] products in the end.

“The pressure of rapid development – of ‘test and learn’, of ‘constant beta’ – means that agencies must help client research teams fight against marginalisation and irrelevance”

Then Eric Ries wrote The Lean Start-up, spawning the lean start-up movement, a business strategy focused on reducing time and not wasting resources. As Ries describes it: “Lean isn’t about being cheap [but it is about] being less wasteful and still doing things that are big.”

Suddenly business was being conducted (by those in the know) with swarms and sprints and scrums; new ways of working that led more quickly to Minimum Viable Products that were improved on the go. This new approach proved to be a very successful and efficient way of conducting business.

Agile, agile everywhere
With the Agile movement coming from Silicon Valley, businesses were simultaneously developing agile marketing in the form of digital marketing. Here, clients can plan campaigns on the fly, carry out A/B testing of the best web page or copy and come up with social media campaign ideas and test them within hours or days.

“Production is becoming more agile, marketing is becoming more agile, our clients are becoming more agile, and consumers are too. What about research?”

The manufacturing environment in which these same marketers are working is also getting quicker. 3D printing is the obvious example, but other agile production techniques mean that the time taken to create new products has shrunk considerably. In the past, factories had to re-tool a factory every time a new product was produced, and so marketers had to be certain that they had the product right: the right formula, the right format and the right execution to launch it. As you can imagine, a lot of research was conducted to give the marketers this confidence.

However, factories are more flexible now; marketers are able to trial products before going into full scale production. They effectively conduct real-life purchase experiments with new products in a supermarket. They can gather both purchase likelihood and consumers’ reactions and, off the back of that, tweak the final product until they get it right, creating a new test-and-learn environment.

Finally, marketers are in a position where if they want to know the top three brands of beer in Venezuela, all they have to do is go online and the answer is at their fingertips within seconds. For free.

So production is becoming more agile, marketing is becoming more agile, our clients are becoming more agile, and consumers are too. What about research?

Time to flex
To respond to these customer behaviour changes, businesses are calling for faster, more agile approaches for market research. As Matt Warta from GutCheck beseeches: “If consumers can learn about products and services from Google searches, Facebook Likes and Amazon reviews, then marketers need their own set of internet- enabled solutions that provide smarter, faster insights to stay in front of this digital marketplace.”

“Market researchers think they are in the information business, but they aren’t. They are in the content business.”

The initial response to these pressures was DIY research. Think SurveyMonkey, Google Consumer Surveys and even quick-take options provided directly by panel companies. While fast, and enabling users to get the answers they need at a low cost, the problem with DIY research is that it lacks rigour, research skills and analytical capabilities. As a result DIY research had the potential to send marketers in the wrong direction, all for the sake of speed.

It is obvious that our industry has to evolve fast. The new world of agile research needs to retain our traditional expertise, all of the knowledge about people, brands and research techniques that we have acquired over the last 70 years; however it has to be delivered in wholly new ways to turn research and insight around in hours or days, not weeks.

We need to stop talking about “quick and dirty” research and find ways to conduct “quick and great” research. But agile is also not just about quick, it is also about iterative, bite sized insight delivered in the right time to the right people. As Mark Earls says: “Market researchers think they are in the information business, but they aren’t. They are in the content business.” We need to think of our insights as important pieces of content that we have to get to those who need it in as speedy, engaging and targeted a way as possible.

I have put together a few thoughts that I want my company, Tonic, to live by. But I would also like the industry to take these up too; to debate and improve upon them. I believe that we must do this, not only so that we stay relevant, but so that business gets the best insight advice it possibly can.

  • It is only by working at the pace of business that we can be at the heart of business
  • To be at that heart of business we need to deliver great consumer insight in an agile way
  • We must talk in hours and days not weeks
  • We will stop saying “quick and dirty” and instead create “quick and great”
  • We will deliver insight as timely and relevant bite-sized content not information overload
  • We will reinvent processes but retain our core competence around understanding people

Steve Phillips is chief executive of Tonic Insight


10 years ago

Great article Steve. Completely buy into this. We as a company have been running agile development and scrum development using short sprints and evolutionary design to build our platform since the early 2000s and it now filters through to the 'open' research tools and user-interfaces we offer to clients to access our panel marketplace. We see it offers a lot of value add and efficiency internally as well as externally in what and how we can bring products and feature releases to market. One thing I would counter though is the point about DIY research and that is lacks rigour, research skills and ultimately a good end product. Of course I would say this wouldn't I, but if the tools and technology is in the right hands it works beautifully and very efficiently. We (and others) build products and our platform for the core market research industry, so most of our clients and 'users' are professional researchers and we have entire production teams in MR firms working effectively using our technology, built and developed with an agile approach in collaboration with clients. Like most things, it takes time, patience, rigorous testing and willing clients to make such a philosophy work though. So I also agree with you that there has to be buy-in all the way down the value chain for such a change in thinking and practice to occur. It also requires people and companies to move at pace, which in market research hasn't always been the way things have been done, so quite a leap for a large part of the industry. And finally, yes, it must be about quick and great but also value creation and delivering meaningful insight. Those will be the cornerstones of success to take agile research forward in my view.

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10 years ago

Agile research (and development) has often been likened to the process of jazz improvisation where innovation is achieved incrementally through constant iteration. Agile research is clearly upon us- it's happening because the context of social business platforms demand it. The challenge is to retrain and reframe organizational cultures to think like improvising jazz ensembles. That means that individuals need to internalize many of the leadership skills that have always been proscribed externally through job description and org charts. For Agile to work the Cartesian dichotomy between leading and support has to be reframed. Every choice and action an individual makes directly contributes to the performance of improvisational (Agile) work forces. Jazz in the 21st century has more to offer than music. It's a model for agile companies.

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10 years ago

Richard, I do agree that in the right hands DIY can of course be great research. The key thing we are trying to do is give people the speed advantage of DIY but also the methodological rigour of full service. The audience (or situation) for this is probably different to that for DIY so I see them both having a place in the new, agile world of research!

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