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The Role of Marketing Researchers

The world of marketing research is changing; as researchers, we need to change or risk becoming irrelevant.


Editor’s Note: I had the privilege to be invited to the MRIA Annual Conference in St. John’s, Newfoundland a few weeks ago. It was perhaps the best overall conference I have ever attended; it was impactful, provocative and a heck of a lot of fun (check out this video of us all getting “screeched in” to become honorary “Newfies” and these pics from Nelson Davis and Annie Pettit). During the event the MRIA had their annual Research Awards (congrats to the winners, listed here) and Tim McCutcheon gave what I think may have been the best ‘State of the Industry” addresses I have ever heard. I immediately asked if he would turn it into a blog post. Here is the result. It was first posted on the MarketProbe blog. Tim will be conducting one of our “Ask The Experts” sessions at the MRMW North America conference next month; come and have a chat with him there!

By Tim McCutcheon

Research is fun.

Research is challenging.

Research is interesting.

Research is knowledge.

Research is pretty much useless if it just sits on a shelf.

The world of marketing research is changing; as researchers, we need to change or risk becoming irrelevant.

In the not too distant past, research was used to engage and inform. It used to be that presenting reams of PowerPoint slides with an Executive Summary listing key findings was considered a job well done.  This approach is now largely considered to be a job done.

Marketing research has taken on a new role within organizations, both big and small.  It needs to be used to move the business forward, either through evolution or revolution.  Marketing research needs to do more than simply inform, it needs to SHAPE business discussions, GUIDE business decisions and DRIVE business growth, whether measured by client retention, client acquisition or share of wallet. This, in my humble opinion, is what the new standard in research excellence is all about.

As a 17-year marketing research veteran, I love answering tough questions for my clients. I love consulting with them on their business and research needs.  I love the research process to the point that I sometimes ask my 3 teenage boys how their day was and ask them to answer using a 10-point scale, where “1” means “the teacher was in a bad mood and I barely passed my English test” and “10” means “we had a Supply Teacher and I spent the whole day texting”. But what I love most of all is working with my clients to ensure that the research has a lifespan that exists long after it has been presented to their internal clients. Having worked on the client side, I get how difficult it can be for client-side researchers to navigate the often turbulent waters that are corporate Canada. And, I appreciate how hard my clients work to move the research and business forward in the face of internal pressures and politics.

A couple of weeks ago, Market Probe Canada had the privilege to be the presenting sponsor of a great conference focusing on best practices in customer experience research. It was fascinating to listen to first-hand accounts from senior executives of many trail blazing companies including Vancity, Telus and Starbucks, as to the critical role played by research firms in helping improve the experiences of their customers.  These presentations helped to crystallize why we do what we do in this industry — improve the customer experience through products, service and people and key business outcomes will fall into place.  In addition, they confirmed my own thoughts that “excellence” should never be an assumed outcome of any research program. Rather, it is earned through hard work, smart employees, innovative research solutions, top-notch sampling and data collection – whether quantitative or qualitative (if that distinction is even relevant anymore – leading edge advanced analytics to tease insight from information, dynamic, interactive reporting systems, research AND business consulting and the ability to deliver excellent service to our valued clients.

As an organization that strives for continuous improvement of our people, products and services, and one which is dedicated both to “doing things right AND doing the right things”, Market Probe feels strongly that the research community – our research community – needs to adapt to the new realities of marketing research.

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6 responses to “The Role of Marketing Researchers

  1. Yes. But, experience tells me that this generation of client-side managers, who don’t use customer insight to achieve business results, needs to be taken out back and executed by paperclip firing squads so that a more enlightened generation can take its place.

    Here’s our highlight reel from the last 10 years…

    In response to the “useless crisis in MR” in 2003, we created and delivered a four hour workshop “Using Market Intelligence to Influence Organizational Change” and innovation for the AMA. It was cancelled after one, poorly attended but highly rated session. Reason: “It didn’t meet the needs of client-side marketers entering the profession.” I guess all that changey-innovation stuff wasn’t a priority…like it is now.

    Over the last twelve years, we’ve delivered numerous customer experience innovation engagements at Global 2000 firms. Executive push back is healthy, in fact, necessary to getting breakthrough results. Sometimes however, over-the-top, self-destructive, heel digging sometimes comes from client-side researchers (even though their bosses hired us.)

    BTW, “consulting” is still a four letter word in the research industry. A former AMA chapter president (who, we’d hope would be among the most enlightened) responded with contempt upon introduction: ” You’re not researchers. You’re consu-u-ultants.” …Ewe.

    When we’re introduced to client-side research managers, the first question they ask is about research techniques we use. The second is about how many employees we have. The third is about our cost. What they NEVER ask: “What business results have you helped clients achieve?”

    Our case studies apparently cure insomnia among some client-side researchers:

    In 2009, we produced, “Bridging the Research-Innovation Gap,” a whitepaper that we promoted through PRWeb, linkedin and is still on our website. It was picked up by Industry Week, BusinessWeek Exchange and other business publications. The Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Program referenced it…yes, the U.S. federal government agency.

    Consultants (and some senior level researchers) loved the whitepaper. Media coverage within the MR community? Zero…with the exception of Bob Lederer at Research Business Report. (Thanks Bob, your check is still in the mail.)

    And, after Bob’s courageous and thought-provoking article in RBR about our white paper, what was the response from client side managers? You guessed it. Nada.

    There are a few very good research/strategy providers out there. This isn’t a supply problem, in my view.

    The problem is a shortage of client-side demand for insight, application (use of research) AND business results. Either they don’t want it, or don’t know they can get it.

    But, my early morning dopio will taste better knowing that Starbucks, for one, gets it.

    Jason M. Sherman
    Chief Facilitator

  2. Could someone (Lenny or Lenny’s fabled assistant) reinsert the spaces between paragraphs I had in my post above? It’s difficult to read and distinguish key points as is.

    Thanks so much.


  3. @Jason : beg to disagree that “consulting” is a four letter word in MR. Not my perception, nor my experience.

  4. Edward, thanks for your note. You’re right. “Consulting” is not a four letter word among researchers.

    To clarify, most researchers are suspicious of consultants selling support across the innovation value chain, not just research capabilities.

    When the conversation expands from “generating insights” to “actually innovating something” and gets into value-added capabilities (executive facilitation, opportunity definition and prioritization, CX design, business process design and change management, for example) researchers tend to react three ways:

    1) “That’s not my job”, or…

    2) “We already do that” (which, according to surveys of CXOs, researchers don’t do well, if at all), and…

    3) A misconception that the consultant’s research expertise is somehow diluted by the presence of these adjacent capabilities.

    Yet, these are exactly the capabilities that produce *returns on research investments*.

    A conversation about research techniques and insights is only about costs. Still, many researchers’ hopes of getting a seat at the strategic table/delivering more ROI/etc. seem to be pinned to the evolution of research techniques, lower costs and bigger data.

    For example, according to the 2012 GRIT Report, clients’ top selection criteria for quantitative suppliers are
    “understands client needs,”
    “has knowledgeable staff,”
    “provides highest quality data,” and
    “completes research in agreed upon time frames.”

    There are no measures specifically referring to improving innovation though-put, boosting marketing effectiveness or improving financial performance among 25 criteria.

    I believe the person I described in my first post verbalized a suspicion that persists among many client-side researchers: that a consultant who is not a “pure play marketing researcher’, but instead helps client managers contribute more effectively across the innovation value chain, is an up-selling incompetent…and a four letter word.

    Still, to Tim’s original post, I’m seeing faint glimmers of hope that a very small group of highly accomplished research execs are dramatically expanding their contributions and value to their organizations. From what I can tell, they’re out of the research box and driving value across the innovation value chain.

  5. I enjoyed reading this blog. I think Tim makes some excellent points, but nothing I read here is really all that new. The notion of focusing on or improving the customer experience isn’t new. This concept was chronicled in the Joseph Pine and James Gilmore book “Welcome to the Experience Economy” copyright 1998. It’s a 13 year old concept at best. To cite “Customer Experience” as a recommended new strategy for researchers is simply playing catch up at this point.

    I think the most impactful sentiments expressed were the following – “(MR) needs to be used to move the business forward… Marketing research needs to do more than simply inform, it needs to SHAPE business discussions, GUIDE business decisions and DRIVE business growth…” AMEN! I couldn’t agree more. Neither do I think any of my clients would argue this point. They are starved for insights (not data) that are not only inspirational, but are also immediately actionable. Bullet-point key findings are 1) boring and 2) mind-numbing, and 3) not actionable. On the other hand, an ideal experience model is not only inspirational and actionable, but they’re also highly memorable, provocative, more easily comprehended and meaningful. Insights need to be “translated” in ways that describe opportunities, align teams, align vision and focus action. If you’re a researcher and your focus is just on “data” and “findings,” then you are a dinosaur or at best a commodity.

    So in addition to Tim’s description of what Research is… (Fun, Challenging, Interesting, Knowledge), I think the most important statement is Research is Strategy. Don’t embrace the future. Create it.

  6. PS, I think Jason makes some excellent points. Sad, but excellent. Change is surprisingly slow in corporate America. For those of us on the leading edge, I think we just need to keep pushing and challenging status quo. Screw the “evolution of research techniques, lower costs and bigger data” conversations. Those are how questions. Let’s focus on the why. Let’s start talking about impact and the risk and costs associated with not getting it right.

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Tim McCutcheon

Tim McCutcheon

President - Canada, Ipsos