OPINION13 October 2014

Research agencies should ‘be more advertising agency’

Opinion

If you think about it, the challenges of advertising and research are not that far apart. Both disciplines create communications for our audiences to notice, heed and act upon. Both seek out and pay for audiences to consume these communications and both are involved in helping marketing departments plan strategically and, ultimately, sell more. 

Yet despite these similarities, there are screaming chasms in our basic working practices and, crucially, in the style of our client relationships. And having worked in both these industries, I think there are one or two things that research companies could learn from advertising agencies. In other words, to paraphrase a recent ad, market research could ‘be more ad agency’.

Let’s start at the differences in our relationships with clients. Traditionally a brand employs an ad agency in a long-term relationship to advise them strategically – often at the highest level – and to plan, buy and implement all their advertising. On the other hand research companies relationships are far less secure. We tend to pitch for piecemeal projects, and rarely does any one agency do more than a small fraction of a company’s research.

Ad agencies don’t own the media they sell, they specialise in buying it. In fact they often don’t even own the advertising production companies that create the advertising, rather they brief them and own the relationships with them. Research companies tend to specialise in selling what they have and what they own – a panel, a community, a qualitative service, a product solution etc.

Ad agencies plan out a year’s worth of advertising activity and pitch these plans to the client. Planning teams think through the advertising messages they develop by gaining a thorough understanding of the markets the business operates in, and its target market. Research companies very rarely get involved in planning a company’s entire research activity, or recommending what research they should do. In fact, often they have little real knowledge of the businesses they work for.

Marketers don’t tell ad agencies where and how to spend the money, yet we research companies get very prescriptive briefs.

Most of all ad agencies treat their output and the client’s product as sacred. They invest a huge amount of creative effort in the design and delivery of their advertising messages. We, on the other hand, have a tendency – in some quarters of our industry – to mass produce surveys in offshore production units at low cost, with little or no creative investment whatsoever.

So why don’t we think like ad agencies, pitching for the whole job? Why not think bigger, more ambitiously? If we’re going to do that, it involves a change to our mindset:

  • Stop selling only what we can do ourselves, instead act as a buying and decision making centre, an analytics and advisory unit.
  • Specialise in spending research budgets and employ research planners and buyers.
  • Invest in survey copywriters and research art directors to produce cutting-edge survey solutions.
  • Build close long-term relationships with the marketing director and CEO.

What’s stopping us as an industry from astonishing our clients with our bold and incisive advice, borne out of our own research initiatives and thinking? Why don’t we pitch our research plans to marketing departments? Oh and while we’re at it, why don’t we get some cool sofas and funky receptions? And start drinking Manhattans at 4 in the afternoon…OK these might be clichés, and some of this thinking simplistic, but you can see why I’m suffering from a bit of industry envy!

So who wants to start up a new research agency with me?

Jon Puleston is vice-president of innovation at Lightspeed GMI

7 Comments

6 years ago

Outstanding insights. I've been developing a way to connect the various pieces, so experts can build a close network with decision makers to review disparate findings, test ideas, discover what strategies work best. It would be great to connect and discuss this new type of agency. I'm tracy @ uglyresearch.

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6 years ago

Great article Jon. I actually made an observation about this in a client meeting a few weeks ago: The meeting was between us (a research agency), our client and our client's ad agency. The lexicon the ad agency employed spoke volumes about the relationship they had with our client and their role within the business. They used inclusive pronouns when referring to the client's business - "Our Brand" "Our Business" "Our Strategy". (Rather than "Your brand" etc) This simple linguistic nuance accents the ad agency's affinity with the client, and reflects the indivisibility of their role with the client's business. (I've never seen this with a research agency) Thanks for your ideas here! It's definitely got me thinking...

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6 years ago

We actually do exactly this for a couple of clients. I think it's less common because (1) research directors see that as their job, and (2) it's a helluva lot more work and more risk to sell it in. But tremendous if it wins!

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6 years ago

Haha! Wish we had time to drink Manhattans at our agency at 4pm ,though we can tick the funky sofa box. I think there is a disconnect between research and creative. From an agency perspective, we rely on research and like to be included in the briefing of research companies. However research agencies providing creative solutions - can't say I've ever seen that work successfully.

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6 years ago

When research agencies begin to focus on freedom and speed instead of minimizing risks. Stop believing that failure is expensive and deliberation a virtue, where the decision making power lies in the hands of few. When their design are not slow by default and optimized for growth instead of revenue. When they start to listen and then rallying around the best answer instead of keeping those few happy. When the CEO is the Chief Innovation Officer who listens to the lab people who produce prototypes instead of PowerPoint presentations. Then, we may change the tide in the industry and advance at the same pace than the digital revolution.

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6 years ago

You want to start this on the west coast? Internal to a public sector group, I followed this type of thinking: set myself as an expert, share my expertise in presentations, and the model changed from just programming surveys to consulting with customers to determine what their research needs were and developing long-term relationships where I was brought in as a member of various teams to provide insight and be there when research was going to be needed. It worked at a national laboratory. Surely it can work in the private sector!

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6 years ago

I think the inherent difference lies in a part of the value we deliver as researchers: objectivity. Not only does that apply to the way we execute research, but it also applies to the way we conduct our relationships with clients: as an objective 3rd party providing the insights, whether good or bad. We can deliver on the objective honesty and integrity of our results because we're not invested in their strategic decisions the same way VPs may be internally. To begin to invest ourselves, as subtley as using "our" in the way we talk about the client's business, strategy or products, could sound as unnatural to their ears as if we were referring to ourselves in the third person. As a good researcher, though, it is a theory I'd like to test.

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