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Marker research focus

By The Drum | Administrator

January 12, 2006 | 8 min read

Market research is one of the most useful tools in business. Done right, it is the way in which organisations find out what their customers - and potential customers - need, want and care about.

For marketing and communications agencies this is absolutely vital when vying in a crowded marketplace for customer loyalty to their brand.

According to figures published by the British Market Research Association last year, the estimated size of the UK market research industry was £1.22 billion, a figure that has since risen.

However - despite this vast sum of money being sunk into the testing of new products, new campaigns and new thinking - while the importance of research is rarely questioned, the way in which it is often interpreted and acted on is, at times, called to task.

Do market research buyers know how to ensure the integrity and reliability of research findings? Or do they listen to what they want to hear?

Research can help organisations identify new market areas and assess the scope and potential success of a particular advertising or marketing campaign, as well as develop new policies and future activities... but only if it is firstly done professionally, and secondly, the results of the research understood and interpreted correctly by the commissioning client.

Jim Law, managing director of MRUK, a leading UK research house, believes that not all research information deserves to be trusted: “Many middle ranking client staff pay lip service to research just to ‘tick the box’ to help them deflect criticism internally and not to seek to learn or improve the quality of the output. In these companies ‘any research’ will do, as long as it doesn't challenge existing thinking.”

However, this is not a view shared by George Street Research’s managing director, Jo Fawcett: “In our experience, clients who pay lip service to research are now a very tiny minority. Many clients now specify in research briefs that they are looking for real insight and new learning and will be disappointed if the researcher doesn't deliver. Everyone appreciates that challenge to existing thinking can be painful - but no pain, no gain.”

“Research is a management tool,” adds Chris Mason, director of Chris Mason Market Research. “The application of that tool is down to the client and the organisation. If the lessons never make it out of the filing cabinet, that is a weakness of the organisation. The cost of that weakness will be reflected in the client’s competitive performance.”

Perhaps one way to ensure a trusted outcome to the research is to nurture a healthy relationship between client and research team. However, like in most sectors, there are numerous restraints imposed by clients that can go against this blissful concept – money being one area of contention.

“There is an issue in how clients assess quality differences between suppliers in advance of commissioning and seeing the research output,” says TNS managing director Chris Eynon. “There is no doubt that some see research in commodity terms - one sample survey is the same as another - and hence price takes precedence in the purchase decision. The onus is on the agency to demonstrate quality differences. Often it only becomes apparent once buyers have used several suppliers and have grounds for comparison, however. It then becomes more feasible to develop longer-term relationships based on quality rather than price. The development of rosters can help in this respect, when the selection for inclusion on rosters is much more wide-ranging than simply price on an individual project.”

MRUK’s Law agrees: “Clients often talk about the desire for research companies to ‘add value’ but most choose not to build long-term relationships, putting every project out for lowest-price pitch and many often even allow their advertising agency to dominate the research process - influencing the structure, timing and nature of the research and often buying and managing the research on behalf of clients. We regularly have requests from ad agencies to amend our findings and conclusions to be more favourable to them. Therefore we see a vested interest in allowing the ad agency a position of influence in the research process.”

Stuart McLean, of Russell Ferguson Marketing disagrees: “Most research buyers that we work with have a clear comprehension of their corporate objectives, and come to us to translate that to valid research data. By working closely with them we can produce reports that make recommendations in-line with their needs, without compromising the integrity of our methodologies. The real time and work a client puts into a brief should be about clear research objectives. Without this, tender bids can be woolly. However, it is impractical to suggest that there is any one style of brief or tender response that can be held up as an ideal. All industries, clients, jobs, and projects are different, and all deserve individual attention to detail.”

“Do clients ask themselves why one research company is more expensive than the other?” asks Eynon. “Is it simply a case of bigger profits, or perhaps higher costs and investment in staff and their training, operating standards and equipment, which may impact on the quality of the product and service delivered? To be honest, most tend to assume that these are relatively standard, or at least acceptable, in all companies they approach. Otherwise why would they ask them to tender in the first place? I cannot remember the last time a client mentioned quality standards as a factor in choosing one supplier over another. They are generally - and erroneously - assumed to be hygiene factors nowadays by the majority.”

However, as a freelancer, says Clare Wade, you can still develop strong and long-term relationships with clients who return to invite you on a no-pitch basis to work for them, and provided your price is realistic, cost is not an issue.”

Wade operates Clare Wade Reasearch independently and often sees the value of a freelancer’s unique relationship with clients. “Freelancers add value through their commitment, initiative and productivity and once clients recognise this, it's a route to a good relationship.

“As a researcher sometimes you do have to look at the way you deliver findings so as not to appear over-critical which may lead to an agency asking for 'amendments', and make sure conclusions and recommendations are constructive. But, if you're putting your own name to a piece of work, it's in your interest to make sure it's good. To ensure the best results, you're going to make it your business to understand the client's business, and give all the time it needs to come up with insight and ideas.”

Fawcett agrees: “Our experience is that many clients are now positively seeking out long-term relationships to help everyone work smarter and add value. Very few will buy on lowest price, although many look for best value. When we've worked alongside agencies it's usually been constructive partnership between us, as researchers, the agency and the client. I've only been asked to change findings to be more favourable once and that was too many years ago to think about – I didn't change them, by the way.

”Some buyers who are not necessarily trained as researchers may find it difficult to know how they should evaluate the reliability of research (either statistical reliability or general quality measures). It's up to their agencies to help them with this process in the way they report and present. The analysis process should be transparent and easily understood if the client is to have confidence in the data.”

“The pressure on the researcher usually comes when findings do not yield sound bite gems,” continues Mason: “As a practitioner, my job is to reflect the consumer in the client’s boardroom. As a consultant, my job is to interpret the results into practical action. As a planner, my job is to come up with a core appeal or “bid idea” that can be translated into a creative property. This may well mean working with the agency first to identify a line of interpretation that can achieve the client’s commercial objective. That isn’t bias - it is focus on the main aim: more effective marketing. With careful presentation, a critical finding can be delivered as an honest assessment and paid off with a solid strategy for positive development. As long as everyone is aware of the basis for the interpretation, there is no compromise.

“In saying that, I have heard many uses of the word “significant” when the presenter should have said “important”. And I have seen “pre and post” comparisons between small sample sizes presented as proof of change. And if the client asks, ‘Does that mean...?’ in front of the agency, there are usually glances around the table before the answer comes out. Of course, most clients can read the glances - and the response.”

But, at the end of the day, what is the ‘right’ response? Is it the response they expected and were looking for, or is it actually the response that shows the best way to approach a project? After a little qualitative research of our own it appears that to ensure the best response, the client simply needs to keep an open mind.

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