OPINION27 October 2010

What if David and Goliath worked together?


There are many advantages to choosing either a large or small company to run a research project. But the two types of firm are not just different, they are complementary. Simon Kendrick of Essential Research asks, why not employ both to work together?

Having worked at both a large agency (NOP World/GfK NOP) and a small one (Essential Research) in addition to a spell on the clientside (ITV), many of the points made in the ‘Is bigger better?’ debate in the October issue of Research resonated with me.

In his defence of big agencies, Paul Edwards of TNS-RI rightly points to the greater level of stability and consistency. This offers reassurance to clients across a range of criteria – including financial security, direct experience and expertise, internal investment, fully audited quality procedures and comparability of data.

“Recruiting two agencies to work alongside each other requires a more strategic, long-term approach to research planning”

On the other hand Jan Shury of IFF Research provides compelling reasons for working with small agencies – there is a greater flexibility and adaptability in approaches, and the extra visibility and accountability of a smaller project team promotes greater personal investment and reward.

Of course, in addition to the relative advantages of each approach there are also relative disadvantages. Larger agencies can prioritise consistency over personality, resulting in bland, corporate outputs at a standard only as strong as the weakest link in the project team.

Smaller agencies don’t have the same ability to spread resources evenly across projects, which could cause variability in quality. And while there may be a strong personality and culture emanating from the company owners, there is no guarantee that this will suit the client.

So, why can a client not select both a large and small agency to work on projects, leveraging the advantages of each while minimising their drawbacks? There are clear, complementary roles for both types of agency to play.

The advantages that Paul Edwards outlines are best suited to data collection and management. The scale, scope and security of a large agency enable confidence in the reliability of data capture across markets and over time. The agility, personality and entrepreneurial spirit that Jan Shury advocates are well suited to consultancy at both the project scope setting and analysis and implementation stages.

Specialisation is both accepted and successful in other industries. A brand will employ both a creative agency and media agency to design and place its marketing (not to mention PR agencies, digital agencies and other specialised disciplines). A sommelier would not serve bread at the dinner table.

However, there are evident tensions between these. I’d expect similar competitiveness among research companies, particularly since it could be construed that I’m positing an uneven distribution of skills and responsibilities. The smaller agency is the driver of the partnership, providing direction and decision-making. The larger agency is providing all of the power and resources, which would make them the car.

If this model were to achieve traction within the research industry, several challenges would need to be overcome:

  • Recruiting two agencies to work alongside each other requires a more strategic, long-term approach to research planning. Rather than commission on a project-by-project basis, the client would benefit more by employing agencies on a retainer not dissimilar to its marketing agencies.
  • Unless the research industry splits completely into sub-sectors, the large and small agency will still be competing against each another on some level. This can make communication and cooperation fraught and may require the client to babysit the two agencies in addition to managing their stakeholders and ensuring the project remains focused on its core objectives.
  • There is no guarantee that the relative advantages and disadvantages of each agency will last. The majority of small agencies want to grow bigger, which can dilute their strengths. But there is no reason why a boutique research consultancy can’t operate within the infrastructure of a larger company.
  • The best possible outcome is reaping the relative benefits of both companies, but there is a risk of ending up with the drawbacks of both – inflexible data collection implemented in a rushed and unsuitable manner.

Clearly, this relationship isn’t suitable for all clients – nor for all research needs. But in the right circumstances, it can work. We at Essential Research have worked successfully with larger agencies on multi-methodology projects and I believe a partnership could be successful on a broader scale if the following requirements are met:

  • The larger agency should be recruited first – it will be a quicker selection process since there are fewer to choose from, and there needs to be confidence in all potential methodologies or techniques required.
  • An extensive search should be undertaken for the small agency, perhaps even through an open tender. This should not be rushed and there should be zero ambiguity in the key criteria for selection.
  • Before any contracts or retainers are signed, several chemistry meetings between the client and both agencies should take place, with the scope and “rules of engagement” clearly established and agreed upon.
  • The client needs to set out priorities in project management (quality, time, cost or scope), logistics and anticipated communication lines. Is it going to be a three-way relationship? Will the client act as a central point of contact between both agencies or will the smaller agency interject between the client and larger agency?
  • The process should be fully piloted in order to refine the working relationship, before projects of critical strategic importance are undertaken.

David and Goliath may not seem like natural allies. But why make the choice between strength and cunning (or reliability and agility) when you can have both?

Simon Kendrick is research manager at Essential Research. A version of this article appeared first on Simon’s blog. He also contributes to the Essential Research blog