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A Client’s Wish List

I've been struck recently about client side researchers' views of agency input - far from satisfactory, it would seem. Here's my own 2011 personal wish list for Research Agencies looking to add more value.




Editor’s Note: We’re very pleased to welcome Edward Appleton to our growing cadre of client-side authors! Edward is an active participant on several market research industry Linkedin Groups and has a devoted following on his own blog Research and Reflect. He brings a unique perspective as a progressive and forward looking research professional on the client side and is an outspoken advocate of change in the industry. I always enjoy his blog posts and comments on various forums; it’s a real treat to have him sharing his thoughts with us here! In his first post Edward offers a checklist of what he as a client-side manager looks for from his vendors which is vital feedback for the industry to hear. Enjoy!


By Edward Appleton

I’ve been struck recently about client side researchers’ views of agency input – far from satisfactory, it would seem.

    Take the piece in the August 2010 edition of Research Live covering Steve Gatt’s views (Volkswagen’s UK economic and insights Manager) – – on research agencies, which he describes as inadequate, reactive and out of touch with business needs. Ouch.

    More recently, former GSK marketing director Tim Brooks bemoans agencies’ lack of ability to helping translate findings to solve a client’s problem, being too fixated on their own methodologies and processes – Oh.

    The agency side responses to Mr. Brooks’ piece (published in the June 2011 hard copy issue of Research Live) point out reasonably enough that clients can also be to blame in the relationship game – clients who make poor Agency selections are bound to be disappointed, as are those responsible for poor briefings, and clients who are price-buyers, well, enough said.

    I could add my own stories of where agencies have disappointed me, but I’d prefer to avoid totally any kind of mudslinging, and concentrate on what could be done better. So here’s my own 2011 personal wish list for Research Agencies looking to add more value:

    1. Be both curious and communicative when writing a proposal – put in a call, find out what’s key, what’s not, what kind of issues are really at stake, what kind of trade offs possible. Shape the research design with additional insights.

    2. Be service-minded at all times – attentive, responsive, flexible. Get training if you need it on client-service relationship management techniques. Too often I find that researchers simply haven’t been sensitised as to how important service aspects are in a business relationship, especially when it’s increasingly difficult to separate different suppliers on points of fact alone. Service-based choices are surely preferable to those that are driven by price against a backdrop of proposal parity.

    3. Make recommendations – don’t just present data. And make it come alive – have a simple, compelling narrative.

    4. Be concise – 80 pages of data is difficult for anyone to digest. Try and write it down all on 1, max 2 sides of A4 paper. Use visuals if you can in presentations, avoid too many scary data-dump style charts.

    5. Be robust in methodology – too often I find that best practice is ignored in all sorts of areas – from the way rating scales are written through to an ignorance of core cognitive biases that can be introduced through, for example, using numbering of products in blind tests rather than certain alphabetical combinations.

    6. Look at pricing options, and make a proposal attractive so that any budgetary restrictions might be revisited. Test price sensitivity – serve up some sexy new methodology as an option – and maybe make it attractive price wise, gain a new user.

    7. Interpret the brief, challenge it – don’t just copy and paste. It may be accurate and risk-free, but it adds no value at all. This one takes me back to my first plea – talking through a brief.

    This isn’t an exhaustive list. In fact, I’m tempted to add “smarten up” as an overlay. Cognitive biases in terms of one’s own personal physical appearance shouldn’t be forgotten – Our industry needs a makeover in my view – everyone needs to ask themselves what they can do to help the overall picture.

    I’m also tempted to advise researchers not to strain to be “consultants” unless it’s clearly warranted by specific experience or expertise. Play to (y)our strengths as researchers – what’s better than empiricism than to either validate or reshape a marketing hypothesis? Functional expertise in a more narrow field will indeed remain limited in terms of potential impact, but it will, I would suggest, remain respected as long as it’s valid and relevant to a marketing or business agenda.

    Summa summarum – I’m pretty much in line with the top ranked client need in the GRIT 2010 industry survey – – my single biggest wish is for suppliers to listen carefully to client needs.

    Shouldn’t be difficult for trained researchers….;)

    So on that optimistic note, I’ll sign off my Wish List blog. Just let me check – how many days until Christmas 2011? Hope it comes early this year.

    Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

    Please share...

    22 responses to “A Client’s Wish List

    1. Having worked on supply and client side of MR, this works both ways. Both supply side and client side agree that having a relationship (preferred or otherwise) works best. When there is true collaboration the projects usually deliver the most actionable and useful results. I’ll take these issues one by one.

      1. More often than not RFPs come with explicit direction of what to do in the research, and usually it isn’t always right. Doing qualitative to find concrete differences in regions of a country for example. This doesn’t work. Client siders should encourage a call, make themselves available, and procurement departments should allow it. If a project is approved, funding and POs should be issues within 24-48 hours so we can start having meaningful discussions and get to work together.

      2. This is a fair critique, but client siders should have career market researchers dealing with suppliers. They should not have someone in this role just passing through on a rotation. This way we aren’t explaining rating scales, bias, sufficient base sizes and statistical differences. Client siders should have a minimum foundation of market research expertise/skill so we aren’t starting from ground zero.

      3. This is also a good point and should be done in concerted partnership. Often times there is a lot of scope creep, so the narrative can and will shift. Making recommendations should be developed in partnership.

      4. NEWSFLASH: suppliers often provide 80 slides because that is what is requested by clients. Many client side researchers want the data cut a million different ways. Perhaps together the client side and supplier side can focus on the 10-15 slides that are most important and move the extra slides to an appendix, so that the presentation is ready for executive presentation.

      5. More and more lately,suppliers are being told what do do as part of a preferred research partnership. So there is little chance that suppliers can and will be creative with methodologies. It’s dog eat dog in this economy, and unless you have sandbox money, getting extremely creative isn’t in the cards.

      6. We’d like to get clients as many different permutations of pricing as possible so that clients can choose from a menu of options. We will do that as long as these options are explicitly explained in the RFP.

      7. Again, this is something that needs to be done in partnership, through communication. Client siders want suppliers to listen, suppliers want client siders to talk. It works both ways.

      Advice to client siders: make sure your funding is approved before you bid something out.

    2. Nicely done, Edward – agreed, particularly on point 2 – service-minded. . .We have a couple of EXCELLENT relationships with companies that make money by being so easy to work with – so helpful, so smart, so flexible, so willing to look at the data again and figure out why it’s not intuitive. . . suggestive of new approaches . . . it’s possible, but it’s not the norm.

      I’d like to add a couple thoughts and comment back to IGGREILLY.

      8. Proofread. It’s embarrassing and makes me feel like a jerk to correct your typos. In fact, I’m almost embarrased to type it and definitely feel like a jerk doing so. . . but it frustrates me to no end, and presenting your typos to my internal partners is not an option – it makes both of us look foolish.

      9. Nail the follow-ups. I expect suppliers to follow up when they say they’ll follow up. When they don’t, I’m at risk of disppointing someone on my end, because I forget about it assuming it has been taken care of. Suppliers who deliver every time and make me better at my job always get my repeat business.

      Finally, in response to IGGREILLY, I saw your point about approving funding before we bid out. I so wish I could do that. Though it’s rare, I feel AWFUL when I pull a project after the money falls through. But get this . . . I can’t secure the funding until I have proposals. Securing funding before I bit out literally is not an option. I try to be as transparent as possible in the bidding process, but sometimes it’s unavoidable. Just thought that might help assuage furstration next time it happens (which hopefully it won’t!) . . .

    3. If only more people on the client side of things would take some of your perspectives to heart. I did a major (i.e. half million dollar) bid for a client a couple of years back, and had numerous questions for them. The client got upset that I was bothering her with questions; she wanted to know why I had so many questions and wanted to discuss the RFP when none of the other bidders had raised any questions. I also asked one client to state their information objectives for the study – basically, what did they want to learn – and they told me it was my job to tell them what they needed to learn from the research.

    4. I’ve been in the business since 1987. When I first learned what issues were affecting the industry, it was the same list that you’ve written here. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

      There is one more wish I’d like to add: make the client look good in front of his/her boss.

    5. What a terrific blog and post Edward and great replies so far. I am an ex-agency and an ex-clientside Insighter and now work with clientside Insight Teams to help them become more like Strategic Insight Teams (rather than Traditional Market Research Teams – to use Boston Consulting Group’s terminology). I recently worked with a global FMCG brand to investigate how to become Best In Class with their key agency partnerships. There were actions required by both sides, and quite a number of corporate culture issues which got in the way of embracing customer feedback fully.

      I also work with Market Research agencies to give them the clientside perspective of the world – something they are unlikely to hear in an open and honest fashion while in a current partner relationship. Again it is evident that their cultures and processes can get in the way of what clients want eg agencies feel a need to share all of their mass of project information to show their due dliligence that it was collected thoroughly, rather than spending time taking the information and highlighing what this all means and what the client should do with it. This takes courage and commercial know-how, which some agencies can deliver (notably those from ad planning backgrounds or ex-clientside people).

      Working with clientside Insight Teams, I support them to work with an 8 step process and bring in agencies very early on, working as collaborative partners. This requires agencies to be flexible and embrace the client challenges along the way. Some agencies can do this easily, but some large ones struggle as their business models get in the way (notably those whose projects are tightly costed for senior time and devolve as much activity as possible to juniors).

    6. Wow. So many interesting comments – thanks! Just to pick up a few points…

      To Mary Jo: you are so right, sometimes we lose sight of common sense in our concern about validition, predictive power, and all sorts of other admirable aspects. Inspiring insights in my experience often have something “almost obvious” about them – how could we have overseen them?

      To IGGREILLY, I’ll only talk to your NEWSFLASH in the interests of space and reader patience – in my experience, the amount of data required differs by audience-type client-side. Working teams will often want specific data deep-dives, senior management invariably need it shorter. Too often, researchers can do the 80 slide part no sweat, but the 1 pager is (understandibly) a challenge – but it’s a concern if the very short version isn’t to the point, insightful and actionable (if you’ll pardon these important but oft-repeated phrases).

      To Tiffany: great builds – now let me check my spelling in the original blog….;)

      To Ron – interesting perspective. Maybe we need more appropriate forums where clients and agencies can exchange viewpoints, needs and wants if you like, in a non-pitching context. Industry conferences can, in my view, often be a sort of selling arena, where if you are a client you may well be pounced on with the view to a breathy sales pitch.

      To Gerry: interesting final point about making the client look good in front of his/her boss – plus ca change, I would say. We all need to be conscious of adding value to those we serve, I think – internal clients and internal stakeholders alike.

      To Pauline – thanks for the thoughts. Just one point – you say that open and honest feedback on the clientside perspective is something Agencies are unlikely to hear in a current relationship. Curious as to what wouldn’t be shared here – perhaps you could fill me in a little?

    7. Edward et al,
      Excellent points! The research relationship works best when it is a relationship.
      The unfortunate part of today’s environment is you have two factors which can severely inhibit effective relationships; globalization and procurement.
      Globalization has seen a huge consolidation within the research industry. The big keep getting bigger and this, by nature, fuels the desire for standardization to achieve efficiency. We work in the Qualitative space, and I can tell you that rolling out the same discussion guide to 8 different markets gets you sub-optimal insights. When you combine this with the temptation to chose the lowest cost local moderator…well you get my point.
      Procurement CAN add to the difficulty of doing good research. You’ve already pointed out that some procurement processes don’t allow the external researcher to contact the internal research. How does that add value? In addition, please tell me when the lowest cost option was the most innovative? Companies will plead that procurement is not about cost, but in my experience cost is the biggest single factor.
      Some companies have made it work with preferred vendor agreements where they chose 3 or 4 “partners'” from whom the internal researcher can chose. At least that allows you to carve out your niche in the researcher’s mind.
      In conclusion, I like to think that we do all the things which Edward feels are important, but those pesky clients are making it more difficult every year.
      My plea to clients…let us have a relationship. We can offer you more than just the insight from the project. Let us into your work life. Tell us your internal challenges. What is the covert brief? Who do YOU need to help?
      Above all, YOUR customer’s are talking. Are you listening?

    8. Thank you for your thought-provoking article- “Wish list”. I agree completely that we researchers need to be life-long learners about everything, especially for learning and implementing methods for providing optimum services to our clients. My background as a bilingual ethnographer has been very helpful in learning to “read” client’s spoken and unspoken needs. When all is said and done, research needs to provide clear direction- a goal that is sometimes achieved.
      Again, thank you/mil gracias!
      Rose Marie
      Half Moon Bay, CA

    9. Steve – great comment. Globalisation has been with us (at least in Europe) as a driving force for at least 15 years, and it’s a huge topic, with lots of angles. As a European, I see patchwork cultural patterns in many market segments in the EU – respecting local needs and wants is key, as is trying to look for similiarities. One size fits all isn’t what it’s about – but prove and reapply is, for sure. Btw, “glocalisation” is the word that i feel applies what is happening a bit better than the same word with a b in it. Will come back to your second point at a later date (timing permitting….;)
      Rose – wow. a bilingual ethnographer, exciting – is that Spanish/ American English? I so think that bi-cultural perspectives, or (rarer) multi-cultural ones, are fabuluously enriching, giving contrasting perspectives into similiarities and differences created by differing cultural contexts. I sometimes observe that there is a difference between claimed eg “fluent in….” and the reality – which can clearly lead to disappointment.

    10. Edward’s #1 point is, “Be both curious and communicative when writing a proposal – put in a call, find out what’s key, what’s not, what kind of issues are really at stake, what kind of trade offs possible. Shape the research design with additional insights.” I think that is indeed point #1, and perhaps as important as all the other points combined. Astoundingly, increasing number of firms are throwing up roadblocks — usually generated from purchasing, who indicates interactive communication should not be part of the process so as to be “fair.” Fair? Really? Is it “fair” not to enable the corporate researcher to be able to shape the research design with additional insights? To whom is that “fair”?

      Of course occasionally it is not purchasing, but the corporate researcher themself to blame — when they indicate they “do not have time” to discuss issues and trade offs to shape the research design with additional insights.

    11. Thanks Edward. Interesting insight. We have been talking to agencies for quite some time about a few of these as well. Often, there is interest but you know how the saying goes…It is difficult to teach old dogs new tricks. We keep trying though – through education and innovation of new services and offerings – for both researchers and the end clients alike. The big take away here I think is open, three-way communication between agencies and clients and the service providers alike. We have to figure out the best means to developing and nuturing this communication.

    12. @Jeffrey – thanks for your comments, fascinating. To your comments on the role of purchasing, I guess all companies are interested in maximising productivity gains, but exactly how this is done, and in a way to ensure that a) quality is upheld and b) that perceptions don’t arise that cheap is better per se – is key.

      @jill Ransome – thanks for your perspective, do I take it you are an intermediary of some kind? Agree with you on the point about dialogue – but even that has to be practicsed, I believe – the art of listening, understanding, being responsive can sometimes suffer under purely operational pressures.

    13. Edward – I retain an interest in the MR industry from a role I had here in the UK for a large multinational. I found the comments thought provoking. As someone with a “working” level of Spanish I entirely agree with your comments about the distinction between “fluent in” and “bilingual” when referring to language proficiency which in this globalised world then to be bandied around far too liberally! I look forward to reading more of your articles. S Ireland.

    14. Edward, et al, Thank you. I found the entire string to be a great read and very insightful. When reading such dialogs, I am humbled by the high caliber of people in our industry.

      Gerry’s idea that “what is old is new again” holds some truth. About ten years ago, a client prospect asked me the question, “what is different about your firm?”. I told him something along the lines of: we staff our programs with only senior researchers with deep knowledge about your industry; we focus on insights, not just data; we have a host of innovative methodologies; most importantly, we operate as an extension of their staff, rather than just a vendor. After I finished, there was silence. The he looked at me, and said. “Now tell me what’s different about your firm…” It seems that many have been saying the same thing for a number of years, but the proof is really in the execution; and it is here that the majority of traditional market research firms seem not to have lived up to their own billing. This has downgraded the perception of the market research supplier to that of an entity providing a measureable commodity service (which, in turn, allows procurement to gain power).

      However, there is a big difference today that makes me say: what is old, is NOT so new. The emergence of Big Data and the commoditization of data collection are a slow burn on the industry, and those that do not start “walking the walk”, rather than just “talking the talk”, may have a somewhat heated existence over the next number of years. Wishful thinking, unfortunately, is not a good business strategy. Traditional consulting firms such as BCG (that Pauline mentions above) are smelling blood in the water and they are swimming furiously to enter the space. In a way, these firms are better positioned since they often have higher level relationships and have the teeth of their other consulting practices (read: technology/business intelligence/big data analytics). There are certainly ways the traditional research firms can defend, but I’ve likely already said enough for this post. The point is that it’s hard to swallow the idea of business as usual these days.
      Portland, Oregon

      1. Thanks for the post Tony; I think you nailed many of the critical positioning issues MR is facing today. I’m more guilty than most in getting caught up in the “who/what/how” debate, but the really important question is “why?”. Why will clients pick many MR suppliers over new competitors that may be able to deliver more value and impact? I’d love to hear more of your views on that!

    15. Good to hear from you, Leonard. Given that was my first comment on your blog, I much appreciated seeing your response this morning. Bertrand Russell said that there is a simple answer to every complex problem, and that answer is usually wrong. Your question is a great one, but somewhat loaded (as you likely already know). With that said, here’s my thinking on the topic. (I’d love to hear your response back).

      From a strategic differentiation perspective, I’d suggest that the traditional market research firm will need to move upstream into a more strategic role, develop and sell a niche software, or become the low-cost provider. I’ll call them the Strategic Insights Model, the Software Model, and the Low Cost Model. I’ll tackle the latter two models, first. The Software Model is obviously a tech play with a different go-to-market strategy than the traditional MR firms. I think people like Kristin Luck at Decipher and some of the EFM companies have exploited first mover advantage here and are going to continue to do well (Of course, there are many other opportunities around mobile data collection, social, etc.) The Low-Cost Model, at least on a global F500 basis may be exploited by larger firms that act more like global data collection/field-and-tab houses (e.g. Synovate’s low-cost strategy over the last few years before the Ipsos merger). On a more local basis and for global firms that are more technology savvy, the low cost provider is the individual insights consultant/industry analyst (or small group of consultants) who knows the “in-house” system or can leverage their own low-cost data collection (read: license agreements). This also taps the direction of many corporates who are strategically sourcing smaller shops. So that leaves the Strategic Insights Model. Here, I see two possible directions. One would be that the supplier firm acts as a general contractor knowing the best-of-breed solutions across a variety of tools and suppliers. These firms will enable a seamless network to serve a company (across the “what”, the “so what”, and the “now what”) and will become more important as the business intelligence side of the house begins to work more closely with the traditional research function as well as learning systems and change management initiatives. These firms will need to provide a holistic viewpoint and have a clear “best practice” roadmap for multiple types of insights initiatives. (Read: get alignment with what’s already happening in the client organization). Alternatively, the strategic insights partner may provide value by being niche focused. Unlike the generalist firm, these suppliers will provide very clear and specific subject matter expertise. Examples may be along the lines of data integration and quality control, pricing, product development, etc. These niche approaches must be accompanied by specific vertical industry knowledge. The key is that the value emphasis will focus more on the category expertise and outcomes and less on the research or data itself (Unless, of course, the data quality and integration focus is the core offer).

      From a tactical differentiation perspective, I’ll just talk about trying to move upstream to the strategic position during the RFP process. If the supplier firm wants to be perceived as different, they likely want to stop chasing every single RFP that walks through the door. The supplier must know their key advantage and be willing to walk away if they are not well positioned (see above; also Sun-Tzu). This is easier said than done for many firms, but the downside is that the supplier loses many deals rather than winning a few. Perhaps more important is to get on the phone and figure out if you are really being considered or just invited to fill an empty chair. (There are multiple ways you can tell, but I won’t go into those here.) If the RFP plays to your strength and you know you’re not an afterthought, then put the money and the effort against it; deliver a first class proposal; manage the process as a true consultancy, not as a widget vendor; deliver thinking that is different and compelling. Definitely read Edward’s article above (and the string that follows it).

      That went a little longer than I expected, but hopefully this helps answer the question at least a little. My fear is that giving a general answer like this does not do justice to the very unique wants, needs, and requirements of specific organizations (read: please take what I say with a grain of salt.)


      1. Sorry for the slow response Tony! This is great, and dovetails nicely with my own thinking, as well as that of many of the folks that inspire me, especially Robert Moran of Strategy One. We may be drinking the same Kool-Aid, but then again, when multiple folks arrive at the same conclusions independently that would seem to be decent validation to me!

        I wrote about this previously and it seems appropriate to reiterate it here to see if you agree. My general take is that the deck is being reshuffled now across the board, and we’ll see an awful lot of winnowing out, consolidation, and repositioning over the next few years in response to those trends. We already are, although it’s early still. Overall I see these changes producing a “teeter-totter” effect, with traditional, survey driven quantitative research suppliers being forced to rapidly adjust their business models and value proposition to compete, while qualitative researchers experience an upswing due to the need to have smart consultants who can connect the dots and tell a story from disparate data points and sources.

        Launching a traditional boutique MR firm in this climate would be slow financial suicide. To be successful in the future, MR firms must have some combination of either true strategic consulting bench strength, proprietary and cutting edge technology offerings or a unique use of existing technology, and recurring revenue streams via highly desired and critically useful products or services. Some firms may be stronger in one area than others and that will power their growth and guide their evolution; in some cases, they may not even be what we think of as MR firms. Being a “me too” company, regardless of how you spin it, won’t be a recipe for long term growth and success.

        We are in the beginnings of a transition phase from the traditional model of market research as practiced for the last 50 years to a new model that will look very different:

        Ultimately I see the industry segmenting into three broad groupings:

        Tech Providers (including DIY and field/data collection services)
        Insight Consultancies (strategic focused, methodologically agnostic)
        Niche Providers (Neuromarketing, Advanced Analytics & Modeling, etc..)

        The vast majority of current MR suppliers are already working to reposition themselves as Insight Consultancies, and failing due to their commodity positioning with clients.

        I think this realignment of the MR industry will take 2-5 years, possibly less as the forces of social media and mobile migration speed up the pace of consumer cultural change and the concomitant demand from clients to engage with and understand global markets using insight generation methods that offer real ROI across the organization.

        We may see the largest firms combat these trends by purchasing these new tech firms in order to replace their rapidly shrinking primary research revenue streams and by having two different internal divisions: data collection technology services and strategic insight consulting.

        Many smaller MR firms will find it difficult or impossible to compete effectively under this scenario and will either:

        Be absorbed into the corporate Goliaths
        Refocus on niche market offerings
        Develop their own innovative offerings that capitalize on the evolving needs of clients
        Fold up shop

        I suspect the fourth option will impact many of the current small to mid-size data collection-centric suppliers.

        I also love your take on developing a more tactical and deliberate sales strategy to get out of the commodity game. That will be one of the biggest challenges in the current value chain and why I think many SMBs will have a hard time; the potential cash flow and business management issues involved will be untenable for many firms, not to mention that I think the market place HAS to be reduced in order for anyone to thrive; we can’t all be consultants, can we? I think clients will be looking for a very few key partners to work with who will lead the charge.

        Good stuff Tony! If you ever decide you want to expand on this with some blog posts let me know; I’d be very happy to give you a slot here on GreenBook blog.

    16. Leonard,
      I’m afraid my response is even more delayed- sorry for that. You’ve really thought through these issues which makes for interesting reading. I’d love to make contributions from time to time – I really appreciate the offer. I’ll shoot you an e-mail to follow up unless you suggest something diferent.
      Best regards,

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