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Are Market Research Clients Respected?

What's going on? Research Agencies envisaging a future without client-side Researchers, and giving the thought airtime? Amazing. Are we really such a disrespected species as to be one destined to lose out in the Darwinian process?

In the space of 3 days I have heard and read consistently negative opinions about Client side researchers from the very people they are buying from – Agencies.


Certainly made me think.

First up – on the recent New MR PodCast Ray Poynter provocatively asked David Bernstein (@davidabernstein) of Rational Research: “Can you imagine marketing clients in future dealing directly with Agencies?”

Intake of breath number one.

Second – after the podcast, I received an email from a well known European Researcher who lamented the lack of social media/ networking presence amongst client-side researchers. She put it down to arrogance or ignorance.

Sitting down now, glass of water in hand.

Third – I read the RT from Jeffrey Henning reporting on a talk given by Merrill Dubrow of M/A/R/C Research, and on arrival at said blog (,  I read prediction number 1:

“As corporate research departments shrink in size….”

Excuse me? This Affinnova blog was also retweeted by the venerable Lenny Murphy, with the endorsement “Pretty spot on!”

Wow. What’s going on? Research Agencies envisaging a future without client-side Researchers, and giving the thought airtime? Amazing.

Are we really such a disrespected species as to be one destined to lose out in the Darwinian process?

OK – I can only speak for myself, but here’s my thoughts

1. It’s unhealthy for such a gulf to apparently appear between clients and their Agencies. We need to talk, urgently. And we need a forum to do so – openly. All ideas welcome.

2. Disrespecting Clients indiscriminately is about as welcome as disrespecting “Agencies”.

3. If client side researchers truly disappear – which I very much doubt – or dwindle badly via shrinking departments, then I predict a much more tortuous future for Agencies dealing with Marketing directly.

4. It should be in Agency’s interests to make their clients look good internally – not question their relevance in public. Give us better data, faster, present it in a more engaging fashion – help us sell, if you will.

5. More clients should be encouraged in whatever way to engage in discussions and forums about the state of the industry. We have too few in the SM space – regrettable. We all need to think about ways of opening things up more that results in a win-win. It shouldn’t be just about a seller – buyer game.

Maybe a different type of question to close on: what type of Clients would Agencies like ideally? How should we behave, interact, communicate? And would be (re)-invented, if we didn’t exist?

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

Please share...

14 responses to “Are Market Research Clients Respected?

  1. I think you are correct–I have also observed pockets of disrespect towards client-side researchers. Your point about the social networking comment is especially disturbing given that it was supposedly made by a market researcher who seems all too eager to jump to conclusions without any evidence. Alas, I have been observing this disrespect issue for a long time. It first struck me over a year ago, when there was a flurry of articles and social network chatter about the horrors or “DIY research” which often confused DIY done by novices with in-house research in general. This inspired an August 2010 article:

    As for why more client-side folks do not participate in social networks? I think there are at least 5 possible reasons/reality checks:
    1. Clients are cautious about participating in forums where they will get unwanted sales pitches
    2. Clients have not found value in the topics/formats commonly found on social networks
    3. Clients have other networking forums that are “private”
    4. Clients do participate, but mostly as observers (“lurkers”)
    5. Client-side researchers are less likely than agency-side to spend working hours on non-project specific tasks

    I also can’t help but wonder: Why don’t more researchers from large agencies participate? In my observation, we have a lot of folks from small-mid-sized agencies; far fewer from very large ones. If we did a “census” of who participates, what would the distribution be by company type and company size?

  2. Great points Edward and Kathryn. In all industries I have been involved with there is a strange tension dynamic between clients and suppliers; perhaps it is a by product of the interdependence of the two groups?

    In any event, in an industry going through such a massive period of disruptive change it certainly seems to be in our collective best interests to explore synergies and common ground vs. differences. I love the suggestion from Edward to establish some forum to accommodate the open sharing of ideas, although certainly many conferences have been trying to do that as well with varying degrees of success. There are some things in the works right now that may help with this situation, but only time will tell if it will make a significant impact.

    I believe your list is a good one Kathryn and it echoes what I have heard from most client-side researchers. I also think it’s important to remember the 80/20 rule here; social media may be ubiquitous but active users such as we three are the minority; the vast majority are “lurkers” or occasional contributors. I think that applies to the big firms as well; I know that many senior members of management of the major players do monitor social media, they simply tend to watch and listen vs. actively engage, often for the same reasons you cited above.

    For what it is worth Edward, I didn’t think Merrill’s predictions were disrespectful and my endorsement of them was based on a general belief that his overall predictions were fairly accurate. In the US there has been a downsizing based on the economy in some client-side research orgs as well as a shift in structure placing researchers under the BI or Marketing organization. Also, the emergence of social media analytics, DIY solutions, and crowdsourcing has usurped some of the functions previously owned by MR and placed them in the PR, BI, or MarCom groups. As we embrace the idea of “big data” as a n insight generation tool those shifts make sense and I think it is only logical to assume that we’ll see more shrinking of the traditional client-side research function over the next few years.

  3. All very good points, which I agree with. I suspect some might have their thoughts clouded with experiences with less than perfect agencies. Of course, this feeling goes both ways but in this instance the client can simply try someone else.

    You’re spot on with interdependence. The agency has the methodological and project knowledge down to the minutest detail; the client has the stakeholder relationships and foresight to understand which aspects of the research gain both traction. It is conceivable that a single person/group – either in agency or clientside – could play both roles but they are very different skills and the current status quo of specialism (largely) seems to work well.

  4. Hi guys – Edward, Kathryn, Lenny. . .

    Edward, I think you’re on to something. I have rarely felt disrespected in my day-to-day relationships with suppliers, but in more public forums I have noticed similar themes on occassion. I think they find us lazy. That’s my guess. To be fair, I’m generally not under as much pressure as I would be in an external, client-facing role. . . but If emails sent after bed time are any indication, this insights team is not a lazy bunch.

    As for the question on social networks. . . I suspect more of us participate than you think – it’s just that we’re not talking about research. We’re on social networks to learn about the consumer and content area about which we’re supposed to be experts . . . not to talk about new methods. To that end, Kathryn, I agree with Lenny that your list is a good one, but I’d like to add two thoughts that at least explain my own hestitancy an intermittant participation:
    1. I don’t feel comfortable sharing my opinion in a forum that associates me with my company. Clearly this is a little nuanced these days, since a quick search on LinkedIn can get you there quickly. . . but frankly I don’t want my name to pop up in a company search, even if I’m being as inspired, profound, and appropriate as can be – just because I don’t want the hassle of going through the appropriate legal/corp.comms channels and/or ruffling feathers for NOT having done so. Probably the same deal for large MR firms.
    2. Client-side researchers spend their days absorbed in the content of whatever it is they work on – NOT, by and large, in the research world. In my “free” (non project-specific) work time, I’m much more likely to read a new report on shifting attitudes toward pets and their well-being or to read through the brand equity results than I am to read about a new methodology. I pay more attention these days because I got put in charge of new methods for our team. . . but honestly, getting smarter about my category and consumer makes me far more useful around here on a day-to-day basis than getting smarter about methods.

    Same with blogging. . .
    Same with conferences. . .

  5. Hi Edward,

    I don’t think it’s disrespectful to see that the client-side is changing. For many years we’ve worked directly with marketing directors and CEOs, but often with a client researcher acting as the internal consultant. The older role of a client researcher as a gatekeeper and sole channel for market information into the business is changing as on the one hand the range of market information and data increases (‘big data’ if you like) and secondly because once the mechanics are agreed and in place, a lot of development work on research projects is about talking strategy and options. These are often better discussions direct with the internal team for three reasons – one is buy-in from the internal team into the research; second is helping the internal team think in customer ways (a good agency acts as external facilitator as they stand aside from internal politics) and lastly including and covering existing non-survey information – so we’ve often seen the client researcher acting as more a facilitator than conduit. We also have an expectation that more internal people need to have a more direct customer or consumer focus – it could be from CRM data, customer sat performance targets, voice-of-the-customer change programmes, or personal monitoring of online information channels or direct marketing/web marketing activities, and through the increased visibility of research results in the business. If the client is the sole conduit for research they can potentially become the bottleneck in the process – if the job is more facilitator and overseer and internal expert and educator, then more projects can take place.

  6. Let me make a perhaps provocative suggestion. If, as suggested in the above, the role and expertise are of Agencies is “methodology” and that of Clients is sector specific “wisdom”, how do we best enrich each other? Isn’t there a danger of Agencies wishing to get more involved in Insights/ added value stuff not really getting close enough to a clients’ business to do so? And conversely – shouldn’t we as clients have a POV at least first level of the latest and most exciting methodologies out there? What about the concept of collaboration across boundaries – wouldn’t that be enriching – eg swapping roles for maybe 1 whole day? I feel as an industry there is a stronger sense of what Lenny refers to as the Agency/ Client paradigm (tension, even conflict) than in other industries – as if Agencies think we’re (Client side) not just lazy (Tiffany’s point) but a bit off the pace in terms of methodology. To Saul’s point, I think absolutely that the Gatekeeper role is not a model that will work well in future given the quantity of data coming from all directions – but just to be a facilitator is a bit weak. The internal Client researcher needs to be able to pull together all sorts of data from difference sources and make sense of them. Can an outside company do that as well? In theory yes, but it will be a lot more difficult to execute properly – time consuming, expensive, and possibly limited in scope.

  7. Hi all – client-side researcher here.

    Similar to Tiffany, I’ve never felt disrespected in my day-to-day relationships with suppliers, but have noticed the themes you mention in public forums.

    So let me take issue with the “well-known European Researcher who lamented the lack of social media/networking presence amongst client-side researchers…She put it down to arrogance or ignorance.”

    Really? I’m surprised that she would paint us with such a broad brush of “arrogance or ignorance”.

    Now, I realize I may be the exception to the rule in that I’m a client-side researcher heavily involved in social media/networking, but I can attest to that I’m not the only one out here.

    Consider the points that Kathryn and Tiffany have already raised, but I’ll echo here as well.

    1. To Tiffany’s point: For the most part, client-side researchers are absorbed in the content of what we work on for our companies (for me that’s anything from seafood to 3D laser imaging). So are we active in the “research” sphere where said European researcher is looking? Likely not as we’re immersed in the latest seafood trends, the latest 3D imaging trends, packaging trends, etc. THAT is what we get paid for…to better understand our customer. So even if we’re not showing up in her Twitter stream with #mrx, many many of us are out there.

    2. To Kathryn’s point: Are we observers/lurkers? Sure we are. And you know what we’re observing (beyond #1 above)? The suppliers. In think social media/networking is invaluable in helping determine which suppliers I may want to work with. What is their corporate social media “voice”? How are they navigating the social sphere? If they’re doing it well and pushing out great content, then they may be able to do the same for me and my company.

    Edward, your question is a good one…what type of clients would agencies like ideally? How should we behave, interact, communicate? I know this is Pollyana-ish of me, but we’re all working towards the same goal of providing world-class research to drive our business forward. Let’s figure out how both “sides” of this debate can do this well, while playing nice together in the sandbox.

  8. We need to unite on this topic urgently as a industry and would like to invite client side researchers to find safe haven within the MRGA – you can manage your privacy and speak your mind.

    Tell us what you a forum would like and what would you need need as a client side researcher to feel the confidence of being heard?

  9. Another client side and ex Agency researcher

    I think I would agree with most of the of what Edward and Tiffany say
    Clients research is very much alive and well but what some Agencies people still seem recognise that research is just one of the tools of our trade. Personally I do find that disrespectful. As Katie says we are focussed on the brands and markets that we work on as opposed to methodology. Yes we are all trying to improve the job we are doing and ensuring we have the best tools but it is not a daily or weekly concern – for me at least.

    Why don’t we participate more in the cyberworld? I share the views that Katie made. We are lurkers and for some of us we have to make sure our views are seen as personal rather than being the corporate spokesperson.

    Whilst like the others I am not disrespected on a day to day basis there have been occasions when it has happened. In the extreme cases I have asked for a change of personnel on the account.

    I also take offence at Agencies who:
    1) Send meeting invites as their first point of contact
    2) Have not done any research on the company they are trying to sell to
    3) Think that because they work for our competitors we should use them to.
    4) Adopt a scattergun approach by sending multiple emails
    All the above happen on a weekly basis and shows a lack of respect as well as business acumen.

    Whilst I’m on a rant. I understand Saul’s views about gatekeepers but don’t necessarily agree with them. I’m proud Gatekeeper of 20+ years standing and do not believe it has had a negative impact in the companies I have worked for. I’ve always had strong relationships with senior management and any direct enquiries to them (or anyone for that matter) always land on my desk within 48 hours.

    I could carry on but don’t have the time and find my day job more interesting

  10. This discussion thread hit a bit of a nerve with me. Although eleven years ago, I will never forget what I experienced when I moved from the client side to the agency side of marketing research. I went to an interview at an agency where the owner (I won’t name her) said to me “you are not a researcher – you are just a purchasing agent.” (I had spent close to fifteen years in a client side role – and was a global research officer.) Needless to say, I was shocked to have received such a response. So, unfortunately, this bias does exist. Happy to say that now I am the president of a thriving research agency. So, yes, I guess I’m not a researcher. (Kidding, obviously.)
    Having worked in both realms, I can fervently say that a strong client-side research team is invaluable to our industry. Working collaboratively with agencies, they are frequently the drivers of innovation, and often much of the strategic research done today. They push us to be better.
    Client side individuals are just as much researchers as agency side – however, their focus is different. They are charged with creating a research program that can answer to the needs of the C-suite. So, just because they don’t need to know the nitty-gritty of regression analysis, doesn’t mean that they are not researchers. They are key to methodological determination, as well as the application of research. Areas that we strive to improve upon on the agency side.
    As an industry, we are challenged on both sides to be better – to be more strategic, more consultative, more innovative. Spending less time harping on one another, and more time focusing on the best applications of our joint talents would be a better use of our time.

  11. Interesting discussion. From an agency point of view I can say we have worked with all extremes from mega-gatekeepers to those who went client side and all of a sudden thought they are better than agency researrcher to those who are true intermediaris and help the agency to work better with everyone in the company.

    Regarding respect, we’ve experienced it many times the other way round – where the client-side researcher sees the agency purely as a data-provider and doesn’t respect our expertise in providing insights. In particular if they are ex-agency side researchers – do the feel treathened?

    I think the main point is about communications and respect between client side and agency reseachers.

    What works extremely well includes:
    – Open dialog between client side researchers, their internal clients and all agencies (not just the research agency)
    – All agencies are involved in the strategic planning or at least get regular strategic meetings with the client marketing / strategic teams – so we know where the journey goes
    – Agencies are allowed to talk openly and freely with each other for the better good of the client (i.e. media, ad, research etc.)
    – Client-side researcher are ideally the intermediaries NOT gate keepers, sometimes that means that we work directly with internal stakeholders if needed (but keep the client researcher in th eloop)
    – Our job is to make them look good internally
    – Their job is to help distribute and communicate the research to internal stakeholders AND allow us to talk to them directly as well if that’s beneficial

    Coming back to my point above, if we as researchers (and other agencies) know where the journey should go, we can help the client and particular the client-side researcher. It’s a two- or even more way communication process.

  12. What’s absent from this discussion is what corporate research department’s are talking about internally. Namely, imagining a future where surveys are conducted without use of external suppliers. As online research grows, the opportunity to speak directly to the consumer becomes a more viable option. It is often faster and cheaper to go this route. Granted, the downsides to this are the absence of consultants who are slightly removed from the day-to-day business and can give objective feedback, as well as the opportunity to have some additional hands to help out doing the analysis and reporting. But there are serious advantages to going down this path. The only way suppliers will keep our business is to do great work and provide added value.

  13. Coming back to this post after a few weeks as I’ve got the strong suspicion that many Agency suppliers don’t understand the client context enough and so are in danger of navel gazing and being overly vocal at the same time. Sorry to say that, but check out some of the recent “debates” – see a client voice or POV anywhere? No, me neither. What’s the point of “talking amongst yourselves”? Working client side gives you breadth of business context – purchasing, sales, marketing, finaance, General Managment, customer services – the whole caboodle. Research is a part of a jigsaw puzzle – and if we link up with other bits of the value creation chain, we get taken more seriously. If Agency suppliers aspire to having Impact, then maybe they could check out how other service providers – eg Management Consultants – operate and maybe learn from that. I continue to remain optimistic and continue in my quest for reasons to support this ambition.

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