OPINION1 June 2009

Life in the middle ground

MR firms obsess about their position in the marketing food chain. Talk of the quest for the boardroom is the conversational equivalent of Mogadon.


Research agencies have long been obsessed with their position in the marketing food chain. It has vexed CEOs, been debated by clients and bored countless conference audiences. Talk of an agency’s quest for the boardroom is the conversational equivalent of Mogadon.

However, just when we thought that we had exhausted the topic an interesting new model has been floated for the role of the researcher. Interestingly it does away with the concept of a ladder, up which the agency is always struggling to ascend. The model is not about agencies aspiring heavenwards but about occupying the middle ground with other marketing operations neatly arranged around them. UK agency Sense Worldwide has attempted to position itself in just such a way. Owner Jeremy Brown doesn’t want to talk about the client’s boardroom. He sees research agencies being the perfect candidate to occupy the role of ‘master planners’. Master planners, he believes, occupy a middle ground. They are the voice of the consumer.

Arranged around them are the brand agencies, the innovation agencies, the designers and the traditional data-churning research houses. Basically anyone else involved in a branding, launch or research project. Effectively his company takes input from each of these constituencies, corrals thinking and develops unified insights.

In order for this model to work it requires a high level of openness from all parties. It requires the sharing of information and the free flow of communication.

That’s going to be a tricky task for some agencies who, in their bid to climb higher up the food chain, play their cards close to their chest for fear of revealing too much to the ‘competition’.

Sense is lucky in that it has clients who like to work in this way. The problem really comes when you have a client who likes things just the way they are. A nice flatbed structure of suppliers, all jostling for primacy.

Despite these concerns, there is something in Sense’s model. It demands a creative approach to the position that research occupies and allows research to do what it does best – take a slew of voices and distil them into a coherent and cogent whole.

Sense is just one agency which is attempting to remake the insight picture. But what’s clear is that new thinking is required in shaping the research business. If it slips into simply rehashing the old boardroom chestnut, then a chance has been missed. A chance to make research the recognised heart of new product development, consumer intelligence and brand strategy.