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Is “MR Transformation” Essentially Wishful Thinking?

I've written about the need for re-shaping perceptions, expanding our toolkit, getting better at the Actionable part of insights and much besides - essentially, retooling Market Research for the future. I wonder if my hopes and wishes for Market Research are misplaced.


By Edward Appleton

As many of you who have read my bi-weekly MR blogs over the past couple of years will know, I’m a firm believer in the power of Market Research – it invariably delivers invaluable insights, with transformational potential, but hasn’t managed (yet) to achieve the broad recognition it deserves. Yes, I I am biased, but hopefully self-aware to a degree.

I’ve written about the need for re-shaping perceptions, expanding our toolkit, getting better at the Actionable part of insights and much besides – essentially, retooling MR for the future.

I’ve used the word “should” a lot. I wonder if my hopes and wishes for MR, and thereby the word “should”, are in fact misplaced.

Maybe I should just face “reality”, recognize Research for what it is – solid, needed, often unexciting, and often upstaged by more exciting “stuff” or people with better commercial acumen, communication and networking skills.

Here are some of the things making me question the value of raising MR re-positioning issues in Social Media, at Conferences and elsewhere:

1. Client-side MR Voices aren’t creating Dominant Narratives

How many Client-side Researchers are pushing for “better” research, not just “quicker” and “cheaper”?How many are engaging in debate about the need for New and Better?

We often hear about Agency innovations – but less frequently from the Client-side, angry or otherwise….. No doubt for good reasons, although I sometimes wonder and worry.

Visibility counts – and if Client-side MR folk are as reticent internally as they are in more visible spaces, that has consequences for the industry as a whole. I hope I’m wrong.

2. A huge percentage of Research work is repetitive quant. work – Brand Tracking, Customer Satisfaction.

I have read a few of Vision Critical’s Ray Poynter’s Social Media contributions over the past few months with concern. Ray suggests – I hope I give the sense correctly – that the vast majority of bread and butter MR Agency work is neither innovative, creative or fun. This, it seems, is the spec. that MR is briefed to in many cases.I find this worrying – the Zeitgeist is very much about fulfillment and meaning rather than repetitive, boring tasks. Attract talented graduates with a motivating picture of MR and we put one brick in place for a healthy, energized MR future.

3. Research is often not present at C Suite meetings – our voice lacks Influence at the highest levels.

How many Companies do you know that have a Chief Insight officer? Where Research really is a Foresight Discipline? I’d love to hear from you.

4. Are we moving to a commoditized future – quick, cheap, tactical?

As DIY options become more and more sophisticated, and access to databases gets increasingly easier, the option to  do a “quick this”, a “quick that” will become an increasing temptation. This is a volume trap.

5. Budgets: flat or decreasing?

ESOMAR has recently published annual MR growth rates 2011 vs 2010 – overall, very modest, even in markets such as Asia Pacific or Latin America. Europe showed a small decline.

My (European) perception is that MR budgets are under ongoing downward pressure; we continue to struggle for a decent share of the Marketing Expenditure pie. IT, Internet Marketing and analytics enjoy higher ROI confidence, purse strings are correspondingly looser.

Maybe the above view is unbalanced and overly gloomy. There are plenty of exciting developments in new market research – facial reaction measurement and online communities are a couple of my favorites – not to mention the ongoing power of intelligent research of any type to deliver transformational insights. But: how widely is the “new” being adapted?I’d certainly prefer not to see the MR world through a glass darkly – equally, nor do I want to continue writing the word “should” in future with a slightly uneasy feeling that I may be whistling in the wind.

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.


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20 responses to “Is “MR Transformation” Essentially Wishful Thinking?

  1. Edward,


    I think that in part the problem is that “research” is become associated with “finding things out” as a project and describing what is going on.

    But in commercial world this is not heavily associated with “doing stuff” , hitting or linking with the “value spot” in the clients mind

    How does this save me money?
    How does this save me time?
    How will this create growth (sustainably) via competitiveness or open up new markets?
    How will this make things run smoothly (efficiency and effectiveness)

    The foresight, predictive point is a good one. The future is where action lies, not the past and needs different skills.

    This might mean that “research” needs to align and integrate with the business process more e.g by providing the fuel for informed innovation initiatives across the business, and being used to create business tools that can be applied to planning and execution of business projects. It might disappear as a separate process.

    I also have started thinking it might transforming into an “Insighting industry” that encompasses the reality and opportunities within multiple data (qual and quant) sources and streams that are now available.

    In the past we needed to “research ” because the data did not exist so there were projects to go and get it. Now we have too much to handle and it comes to us

    The essential skill is now how to ask the question that will reveal new meaning for clients from the data soup….and there are other non-traditional specialists who can do this.

    Maybe its like Marcel Proust wrote – The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes (MR data techniques?), but in having new eyes (ways to look and integrate at the data all around us).”

    FWIW is another initiative looking at this in the UK

  2. My impression is that often MR is not seen as a essential part of the client’s business. Of course it helps, but it’s not essential. Especially on emerging markets, where very often standard (for developed markets) MR projects are seen as “high end” services dedicated to biggest/wealthiest companies. It will always be after advertising and IT mentioned in the text. I know it’s cliche, but I think competition with that areas is ”wishful thinking”. It’s on the market side.
    Apart of that cliche above there are also MR industry blames for flat/decreasing MR budgets. First – MR agencies no longer have a monopoly on data and for me it’s obvious that these are organisations, which not got used to such situation. MR is not only domain of MR professionals. Recently more and more research projects are concentrated somewhere else in terms of industry. Usability testing, social media research, big data. My impression is all of those are missed by MR agencies, especially those big ones. And important remark here is that giving away those by MR agencies to creative, advertising, BI, startups etc. really affected on their quality. Actual cause of that state is another topic.
    Second blame of an industry in my opinion is that it’s looking more and more sophisticated ways to gather the data and sometimes it’s eating own tail and not producing any new significant value for the client. For an example – “neuro” trend – expansive, “not so clearly” confirmed methods, lack of standarization etc. (not so well adapted I believe). It is sometimes more looking like finding new, interesting method, which “I would like to try” instead of providing the client with new valuable data/insights.
    MR transformation needs to focus more on the places where client’s money is started to being placed – big data startups, DIY etc. Commoditized future? May be trap, may a chance:-)

  3. The value of a Steve Jobs or Elon Musk is in their vision to see the gap and guide the process that fills the gap. Those sorts of folks don’t come along everyday. That’s why market research was once a valued tool. It provided companies with a vision. Both previous posts underscore the “lack” of value associated with market research and they are probably correct from the client view.

    Market research data is often un-anchored to operations and therefore it is used only by the stakeholder and only as a corollary in the decision process. It’s just not that important. Internal quantitative research data can be produced quickly and at a fraction of the cost of a vendor study so it has become a commodity tool in a lot of organizations. The pain may be on the vendor side now, but it’s just steps away from client side teams.

    The focus needs to be directed toward meaningful insights and not on new ways to build a mousetrap. Mice multiply really fast! Research is at a cross-roads right now where it can become an integral part of the strategic process and have a seat at the board meeting or it can become a relic of days gone past. Your Blackberry did a great job and you loved it but would you trade a Smart Phone for it today? You know the answer and you know why.

  4. @martin – was there anything you did whilst at Nokia that worked well for you in Research, really moved the business forward, that you can share? Checked on the link – who is behind this, I can see a headhunter, an Agency and the MRS as co-promoters on the website?

    @pawel – do you see the future in start-ups that are automated, low cost, technology-driven? I see this is a growing area but one that challenges the notion of human skill sets, expertise.

    @ellen – can you share a bit more about what you mean by “meaningful insights” and what essentially is holding MR back from delivering on that? I’d have thought that less than a stretch objective – more of a mandatory.

  5. @edward – Meaningful insights to me are things that stretch beyond the tactical aspect. Research began to lose ground when traditional quantitative data collection methods were compromised by unsound sampling practices and further undermined by a lack of QC due to the speed of the projects. Research companies resolved issues with a more cookie cutter approach to the research which led to a lack of insights. Although the cost of research studies went down, the delta between the findings and informing the intended purpose of the study got wider on core brand and loyalty projects.

    Today, companies are more focused on behavioral insights and how they relate to sales not how masses of people move across a threshold. Research needs to focus more on the end game and less on techniques. Listening and informing are what the board rooms need. Research needs to inform, not create more questions. That gets C-Level attention.

  6. @Edward
    I didn’t mean exactly that. What I meant is that traditional MR industry is giving away areas, which should be somehow natural enviroment for it. And these are places where startups and other industries selling their expertise. That’s from more sophisticated projects side. On the other side – within simple research projects, vendors are becoming more and more unreasonable cost in comparison to DIY tools etc. There is less place for traditional MR industry nowadays.

  7. @ellen – fascinating, thanks for sharing. Isn’t behaviour the “end-game” and therefore behavioural insights particulary appropriate?

    @pawel – thanks for the clarification. Why do you think MR companies ceded or is ceding territory? Skill set, mind set? Curious. Also curious – where do you see a healthy future for MR, which areas?

  8. @Edward
    It’s hard to say what’s the cause. If I would have to pick one the most important based on my experiences – people. And this cause has two aspects. Firstly, MR Industry is rather hermetic – people change companies within industry but not the way they think. Innovative products rarely comes from the industry itself (Tobii, Emsense, MonkeySurvey etc), rather from outside Second aspect is a knowledge and experience transfer to client’s and “creative” industries – avdertising, interactive etc. Add second aspect to the development of widely available tools and question you need to answer is why people leave the industry.
    To be clearly understood. I don’t see any kind of disaster beacuse there are core MR industry competencies which are very hard (impossible?) to copy or replace e.g. copy testing, retail panels, qualitative methods. Ellen used above a metaphor of Blackberry and recent smartphone. I think more accurate would be to compare MR industry to telecom companies before 2007 and Iphone. Those companies lost a significant piece of turnover from sms premium and similar content services. Almost from year to year those money vaporised beacuse of AppStore and Google Play later on.

  9. I find the behavioural economics research solution at the moment too fragmentary and tactical. Whilst its empirical and it is also very context specific and not generalisable.

    There is now no longer an orthodoxy about the best way to find things out about what makes people tick. In addition research is not what is demanded, its increasings about simply using data to automate marketing and services via digital channels (part of big data’s promise?)

    Really no client wants “the truth”, they simply need a story to tell themselves and others that their choices are good enough.

    @Edward – What worked well for me at Nokia was turning research findings into practical business tools as quickly as possible – and using thinking frameworks to help communicate and activate insights such as Segmentation models, Persona’s, Brand experience Journey, a social behaviours model . It meant switching from seeing research as a series of projects into projects deliverables creating a re-useable Asset. this also enables easier integration and flexibility to adapt the questions asked by the business.

    The Nokia tragedy was predictable. The signs were in the research from qual to quant. The lack of perceived innovation, and OS importance, and impact of RIM and Iphone was being highlighted in the data by the Global Insights Teams in reports and trends from 2009. The challenge was finding a way to influence the mental model of decision makers – it’s difficult for senior management and strategy makers to believe there was a problem when they still had 40% of the market…why change a winning model. classic case of ignoring outliers.

    The lesson for MR is that impact has nothing to do with technique, its an ability of people in MR to affect the mental models of decision makers at all levels across a business. I have found this is helped enormously by visualising easy to remember artefacts – pictures, diagrams, tools, meeting designs….concrete experiences of the research implications.

  10. However you characterize the changes, the point is that MR is no longer a data czar. There are a lot of data streams competing for dominance and probably many that have a legitimate seat at the table. The real issue for most companies is not getting data, it’s figuring out what to do with the data they already have on hand. Data without parameters is just that, data, and it’s useless without an understanding of its drivers. Insights that inform tactically and strategically provide value. That only happens when an investment is made in a relationship. Amazon works at arms length because they are re-seller but even that model has issues because the manufacturer or service provider can’t control customer interaction. Ultimately it devalues the brand and lowers the price. That’s why companies like North Face and Apple have elected to go back to brick and mortar. They couldn’t maintain a premium price without being able to sell their value. Insights are more valuable today than they have ever been because things changes so quickly.

  11. @edward – glad to see you are now worrying less about the revolution (or the next revolution). While we should always be striving to be better, a revolution is not going to go in our favor.

    @ellen – I think you’ve completely missed the point. There are not a large number of data streams feeding into a company, although this does not mean that a lot of irrelevant information doesn’t come in unfiltered by MR. Data that inform tactically and strategically also provide value – doesn’t need to be insightful. And relationships are totally not the issue.

    You need to go back in time to understand how MR got in the predicament it is in IN SOME COMPANIES (my emphasis). In some manufacturers, MR works hand in hand with marketing, who works hand in hand with sales. In others, MR are order takers who contribute little to the game. If MR wants to evolve, to become more relevant to their companies, they are going to have to switch from ONLY being reactive to being proactive some of the time – and I suspect that they will have to be proactive tactically, not strategically, as a start.


    This video on IDEO and Design Thinking, at 22m in, stimulated another thought.

    The Shift from Consumption to a Participation Mindset. The fact is that “research” is a consumption concept. You gather stuff, package it and deliver it. Participation is different. It means interaction, mutual learning, giving and getting…and emergent deliverables, that were unplanned, but which are solutions, designed through the process. maybe this is a way to re-invent the original reason for research – to understand consumers and markets so as to make (design) informed choices and decisions.

    Later in the videos it refers to the need to move from Telling stories to creating Movements. Again maybe this is a strand to look at in any transition. It implies the need to look at how information can be converted into compelling ideas that move people to take action to achieve something meaningful.

    I feel the answer to @Edwards question will come from looking beyond the boundaries of the insighting sector and redesigning the whole experience the client has with the data and practices of discovery, problem solving and innovation that was or is the basic reason that any “market research” is undertaken in the first place. Maybe design thinking practices could be used to redesign the “research” experience?

  13. @martin – thanks for sharing details on your time with Nokia. I’m curious: when did 40% become eg 35%, and when did “outliers” become “early adopters”? To me, there are too many examples (another:Kodak) which invest in Insights but still fail to react to – apparently obvious – changes in the market place.

    @Steve – do I detect a degree of emotional excitement perhaps unwarranted by the topic (It’s only Research, after all….not the Rolling Stones…..) Maybe it’s the invigorating European air you’ve been breathing recently….;) I tend to disagree with what you suggest, I really believe MR is – horrible generalisation – facing an issue. We’re getting bypassed, without knowing it possibly, by the RIVER of analytics – internet based stuff, for example – that is surging through Companies. With our “surveys” we play an important strategic role, but we need to get a hold of multpile data sources. More important. we need to be able to understand what are the – likely very few – real business decisions that Senior Management need to make, and how we can help inform those more intelligently and empirically. So – in bold contradiction of what you suggest – I would say it’s definitely about relationsihps.

    @ellen – agree with much of what you say, perhaps with a caveat on the last sentence, where you state that insights are more valuable than ever. I love the optimism, but is it a touch theatrical? I’d say insights are becoming more like a rare bird, that needs protection from extinction – and a sponsored self-help course thrown in….;) We are DROWNING in data, and speed is absolutely powering us forward or somewhere – to the extent that the word Inight to me is too big a word – it’s about managing the micro-present, with micro-insights, making quick decisions based on imperfect data sets. We have more and more at our disposable, but possibly understand ever less about a complex and rapidly changing environment.

    Now – if that isn’t a call for someone to come back with a good dollop of optimism, what is?

  14. @edward- I love you candor and perhaps that was a bit overstated but the point I was trying to emphasize was that to have an assigned seat at the table you have to either impact strategy or provide insights that are visible and used (or at least considered) by senior management – I hear client side researchers lamenting all the time about how little the research is used – as well as how far down the chain a lot of them have moved – in that scenario how long will it be until researchers are asked “exactly what do you do here?”.

  15. Hi Edward

    Came across your earlier thinking on this in 2011.

    Kind off relates to my earlier thoughts. “Insighting” is now different from Market Research.

    It is time to transition….but I think it needs it a new name when people in the industry move beyond doing MR and start interpreting and integrating multiple information streams as there value ad.

    If the contents of the tin have really changed, you really need a new label or you confuse people?

    I am thinking now MR is projects that are about defining and designing tools and techniques for gathering market and customer data primarily by asking questions, observing etc.

    “Insighting” is the process of integrating, interpreting synthesising and developing relevant multiple (qual/quant/digital data streams into knowledge frameworks that helps structures management thinking about consumers and markets for future decision making.

  16. @Martin – first, I hate creating new verbs. Second, why would you create a bifurcated organizational structure that is almost guaranteed to be less potent, because each part would be less knowledgeable. Rather than narrow the definitions of various aspects of our job, I would think we want to broaden them.

  17. HI Edward
    Couple of late thoughts
    1) I don’t think it is a problem that the largest part of the MR industry is providing something that clients need, things like tracking and audits. No matter how big the ‘fun’ part of MR gets, I hope we’d never be too big to offer services that are needed. I also hope we keep evolving how we offer those services, in the light of technological changes.
    2) as Steve says, we should not ignore the fact that many organisation are using market research (even though some like Jobs and Apple find it politically useful to claim they don’t).
    3) Most research is NOT going to be strategic, unless the MR industry becomes tiny, but most client needs are for ongoing management and tactical issues. Strategic issues should be rare – if you have ever been in an organisation that changes its strategy every few months you would know what I mean.

    Over time, what we know as market research will reduce in size, as automation and alternatives are found. MR will only grow if new needs are found and added to the range of what we do. This is what Millward and Brown did when they invented brand tracking, this is what people did when they institutionalized customer satisfaction tracking, this is what Nielsen did with store audits. We need to keep expanding the needs we meet – in some cases helping create those needs.

  18. Hi Ray, thanks for chipping in. I guess I differ from you in the sense that I would prefer to see MR playing a higher value role – and yes, I do think it is a motivational problem, especially in attracting talent to our industry at all levels, if much of the work is repetitive, boring even. Perhaps I misquote you, but that is what I recall you saying from previous SM comments.

    Regarding the point on “strategic” – I think you (sorry to be direct) need to separate two issues, a) companies that you refer to that change strategy every 2 months ( I don’t know of any btw) and b) MR being part of conversations and decisions that are strategic, not tactical.

    The latter to me is extremely important – indeed I find it concerning to read you state – with the use of caps…. – that “MR is NOT going to be strategic, unless the industry becomes tiny”. This to me is chicken and egg, and essentially a confirmation of the status quo. Why shouldn’t we become “strategic” and more broadly relevant?

    Needs can arise from what you see on offer – innovation is a key to that process, as you suggest.

    I may, as I suggest in the title, be whistling in the wind with my perhaps unfounded optimisim for a dynamic, fun and consultative MR future.

  19. Hi Edward. my point about the tiny MR industry is that only part of what we do will be strategic, if we are to be only or even mainly strategic we would have to divest ourselves of the work, money, and jobs that currently account for the bulk of MR. So, even if we grew the strategic part considerably, a purely strategic MR is a smaller MR.

    The MR I work is in fun, innovative and often results in changes that are visible to both the client and their end customer. But that is a choice I have made, I have not specialized in one of the big functions of MR I have sought the ad hoc and the boutique elements. But, for me there is no problem in recognizing that the bulk of the industry is about scale, and mostly about continuous research, whilst at the same time choosing to be in other parts of the industry.

    Also, I do not accept that the large, continuous, major projects do not attract good people. The people may be different from the people in the leading boutiques, but some of the best minds in the industry are in some of our largest companies. Millward Brown did not get to be so dominant with having some very good people. What is different, from my experience of working for MB for a year, is that their talents are somewhat more focused than those in the wings.

    I think the distinction between strategic decisions and discussions is a useful one, and I find that working with clients on insight communities does bring the agency into those discussions. Almost every project within a community is tactical, but the ongoing conversation between the agency and the client can and often does engender a strategic level of importance.

    I think the thing that gives me confidence for MR include: I love what I am doing, I am learning new stuff all the time, and I see my clients and customers benefiting from what I do

  20. @Steve. I was more referring to “Insighting” as a higher level construct under which the activity of market research is now only one input and information source amongst many.

    I do not think you have to change any org. structures just think about what you are doing differently.

    Changing language, is a reflection of changing the way one frames ones thinking. In my mind Insighting focuses on the continuous “creation” of new meaning about customers in the marketing environment from multiple sources, whereas is is “researching” that is the narrower collection, analysis and description of phenomena from defined projects.

    Personally, I find nothing wrong with playing with the idea of turning nouns into verbs in a world that is in constant process of motion and evolution.

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