OPINION21 January 2019

From provider to advisor

AI B2B Data analytics Opinion Technology Trends

Innovation isn’t enough for market research to claim a seat at the boardroom table, says Andrew Grenville, arguing the industry needs to stop taking orders and start setting the agenda.


The proliferation of technology-driven data collection has led to increased recognition of the importance of informed decision-making across government and industry. Nevertheless, research is still widely perceived to be a device used by marketing departments, not a strategic resource.

It is crucial for the survival of our industry that this perception changes. Market research is at a pivotal moment. The proliferation of ‘big data’, DIY survey tools, and insight communities has resulted in many businesses taking their own consumer and market insights in-house. With this in-house function being seen as a more efficient and, dare I say it, cheaper option, companies are increasingly bypassing the larger traditional market research houses altogether.

In part, this trend is our own fault. As an industry we have failed to look beyond our obsession with our own methodologies. It is largely understood that research is no longer simply about creating and undertaking surveys. Yes, there is some impressive and exciting innovation within the industry, but this is not going to be enough if we want to be a truly important part of the wider business landscape and secure our future. We have to change our approach at the most basic level.

Innovation is important, but shifting the perception of our value within the wider business ecosystem is crucial to the future of market research. Rather than a peripheral function of the marketing department, we need to create an understanding that research is at its most valuable when it is at the very heart of a business, informing strategic decisions.

How can we do this? First, researchers need to stop taking orders and start setting the agenda. So often we are brought in at the very end of a business initiative, ordered to enact research that can help support a campaign already underway. This can be self-defeating. It involves people who know little about research misdirecting the experts, often resulting in unsatisfying outcomes for both parties that doesn’t actually do anything to help the problem the business is trying to solve.

In such instances where we have been brought in at the 11th hour, we can take a bolder approach. Rather than simply being instructed by our clients, we need to push and probe, asking the difficult questions to truly understand what it is that they are seeking to gain from the research. Ask them what they are trying to solve and why, because the method they want might not be the method they need. We should act as consultants to our clients, not just services. After all, we are the experts.

Ultimately, research should be setting the business agenda, not the other way around. That means being at the forefront of strategy, not an afterthought. We can achieve this by grabbing the attention of the c-suite. The method for doing so? Bringing solutions that generate revenue or support revenue growth, focussing on making a difference to the business, rather than just compiling a ‘cool study’. CEOs are rarely interested in data, but they are always interested in improving their bottom line.

In order to do this, researchers need to embed themselves within a company. They need a comprehensive appreciation of the business’ functions, pressures and ways of working. Without that understanding of the business from the inside, research is less relevant and its credibility can be undermined.

A true understanding of our clients’ businesses will allow us to target our research on outcomes that are going to make a noticeably positive impact on the bottom line. Our value will be unavoidably obvious when we deliver clear commercial value. That is when we will gain our place in the boardroom.

Can market research claim a rightful place at the boardroom table? Yes, of course. We just need to transform our way of thinking and move from a service provider to trusted adviser. Focus on business strategy rather than just research so that we can redefine our function within the business landscape. We’re in a powerful industry, we just need to tap into its potential.

Andrew Grenville is chief research officer at Maru/Matchbox and author of The Insights Revolution: Questioning Everything.