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Who Speaks for the MR Industry?

I don’t think it’s the inertia of existing business models that is limiting our ability to change. I think it’s an absence of leadership. Real change will take place when we can collectively speak for our industry. Until that happens, we’ll just keep yapping to ourselves.

The Lorax


By Kevin Lonnie

Would that be a trade association (e.g. ESOMAR, CASRO, The MRA, ARF, AMA, QRCA, etc.)?  Can we name an association that clearly speaks for a majority of researchers?  No, they’re all too myopic.

What about conferences?  Is there a single must attend event?  Well every association listed above will tell you their annual conference is a “must attend” event.  But beyond the associations, we have IIR’s TMRE (The Market Research Event), the IIeX (Insight Innovation Exchange) Events held globally as well as the recent entry of the Quirk’s Event.   And that’s just to name a few of the larger conferences.

If a single association or event doesn’t speak for all of MR, what about thought leaders?  In my opinion, the vast majority of thought leaders are suppliers (e.g. Jeffrey Henning, Tom Anderson) or blogger/journalists (e.g. Lenny Murphy, Bob Lederer, Ray Poynter, etc.)

The problem with thought leadership originating from suppliers or journalists is that it doesn’t emanate on a high enough level to effect change.  The MR industry has its own caste system with corporate researchers viewed as the top of the food chain.  Well then, what corporate researcher leaps to mind as a recognized thought leader?  Would anyone gather more than single digit recognition?  My expectation is the top candidate would show support numbers similar to George Pataki, who I had forgotten was running for US President until he held a news conference to announce he was dropping out.

Speaking of a splintered industry, why do we still hang on to the term “The Market Research Industry” when significant portions of our reach/spend have nothing to do with marketing?

Does anyone care that market research and marketing research are actually two different disciplines?

Until we find a unified voice and successfully advocate for our industry, we will continue to rely on brick & mortar focus groups and ridiculously lengthy surveys.  In other words, we will reactively give corporate clients what they ask for instead of proactively suggesting alternatives that are more in touch with a 21st Century reciprocal society.

We can offer more.  We can be creative and strategic.  But first we need to speak up for ourselves.  We need to be the guardians of our own future.  And that means speaking with one voice.

For example:

  • Instead of a survey well after the actual shopping experience, how about offering customers a five question mobile survey when they enter your store, with a discount waiting at checkout?
  • Instead of passively asking customers what they think of a new concept, how about asking them to create alongside your R&D team?
  • Instead of a 45 minute tracker survey, we can answer all the “what’s” via behavioral data so that a much shorter survey focuses exclusively on the “why’s” of consumer behavior

I don’t think it’s the inertia of existing business models that is limiting our ability to change.  I think it’s an absence of leadership. Real change will take place when we can collectively speak for our industry.   Until that happens, we’ll just keep yapping to ourselves.


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10 responses to “Who Speaks for the MR Industry?

  1. I think you hit the nail on the head. I am not sure that a lot of suppliers fully grasp how much the role had changed for many corporate side researchers. Further to that point, when they do come to conferences and do reach out, they are looking for something that goes beyond the ordinary (they can do that with newer tools) and they are looking for ways NOT to ask questions but instead to interpret actions.

    Their focus has shifted from long term to tactical and often not by choice. Most seek a way to inform but the existing methods just aren’t fast enough and they don’t deep enough in many cases because they only measure a slice of the pie.

    I think it would be great to create a webinar where researchers had a chance to present their challenges and talk a bit about the type of answers they seek strategically. Most conferences and webinars end up being about tactical techniques.

  2. Interesting thoughts. Researchers shouldn’t need one person or one organization to put themselves in the Overseer position to do the right thing. There are sufficient well-informed and really smart, ethical people sharing their thoughts online so that people can draw their own conclusions. As researchers, that is our job. And those people who don’t wish to follow the ethical guidelines certainly aren’t interested in any or one organization telling them what is ethical or ‘right’.
    I also don’t believe it is possible for one person/organization to have sufficient superhuman powers to know everything that is best about every research methodology as well as every country’s legal and ethical differences. That is why I look to MRIA to provide me with Canada specific legal and ethical guidance, and why I turn to Esomar for generic guidance. Indeed, there often isn’t a ‘right’ answer.
    Anyways, debates like this are the stuff of every ethics committee I’ve even been on. Let the debates continue.

  3. Who is the lone voice for the pharmaceutical industry (PMRG, PBIRG, PhRMA, ABPI) what about the auto industry, high tech, biotech, legal, etc.? I certainly agree that the MR community has many different governing bodies, but I see that shifting as we speak. The MRA-CASRO merger is the first step towards a more consolidated voice. It is only a matter of time before we see further consolidation among the groups. Once that happens our industry resources will be more focused and we can have a stronger more powerful regulatory voice.
    As for having one organization speak for the industry about innovation and growth and what methodologies we should use sounds very limiting to me. Having many different suppliers and individual thought leaders has helped us continue to grow and evolve as an industry. The last 10 years have seen some of the greatest change and innovation in our industry with the push into social media, big data, online and mobile research, and now NCM. The individual data points are beginning to come together to form a clearer picture as we triangulate intent, behavior and emotions to better understand why consumers and customers act the way they do in the marketplace.

  4. This is the kind of “nostra culpa” rant (or, if you prefer, Chicken Little post) that really should have been banished five years ago. While Kevin’s passion and love for his industry and profession all show through, he is – sadly – looking at the issue through the wrong end of the binoculars.

    Before looking at the wider issue, let’s just challenge some of the assertions made in this post.
    (1) The associations are not relevant because they are all myopic. Trade associations, by their very nature, tend to move more slowly than their industry but that does not mean that they are irrelevant or myopic. The very fact that we are able to do what we do – even with behavioral and other passive data – is down to the success that CASRO, MRA, MRS, ESOMAR and others have had in proactively protecting this industry from excessive governmental regulation. There are some very heroic people in these associations working day in day out with very meagre resources to protect the profession and industry that Kevin loves. Yet they get very little in recognition or gratitude. I have even heard people say that, despite this, they will not join an association and pay towards their industry’s protection because “they would be doing it anyway”. Freeloaders.
    (2) Associations are the last bastion in the provision of training in this industry. Long gone are the days when General Mills (in the US) or Research International and (GfK) NOP (in the UK) were the universities of the industry. Today, 44% of client-side consumer insights units have zero training budgets. Nada. Zip. Those that do have budgets have ones that are minimal.
    The conferences that clients come to (if they have the budget) are sometimes their only means of finding out what’s new and what’s happening. It’s great that venues such as IIeX exist to fulfil this need, but let’s not write off association conferences as dead meat. Last year’s ESOMAR Congress was the highest scoring ever in terms of content – from among 1,000 delegates and 850 joining in over 3 live TV channels.
    (3) We need one voice. The MRA and CASRO announced in October that they are actively pursuing a merger to give us greater unity of voice in the US. GRBN brings together all the national trade associations to help them speak with one voice. ESOMAR does an excellent job in bringing education, representation, new thinking and new definition to the industry, as does MRS. These are organizations run by your volunteer colleagues – don’t diss them.
    (4) How many client thought leaders can you name? My career goes back quite a long way, so probably quite a few – Stan Stanunathan, Reed Cundiff, Gayle Fugitt, John Forsyth, Kim Dedeker, Joan Lewis, Ian Lewis, Donna Goldfarb, Fred John, Kyle Nel…. do you want me to go on? To say that the client community does not provide leaders is pure nonsense.

    Then we get to the meat of the argument. Kevin says that, until and unless we get strong, unified leadership, we will be an industry stuck in doing things the old way and inertia will rule. This is where Kevin needs to turn the binoculars around. Over the last decade, there have been hundreds of new research and analytics firms born, some of which are going on to very great things. They come from all over the world and they come in many different shapes and sizes – analytics, communities, mobile, behavioral economics, text, video, passive, active. Think Incites Consulting from Belgium, Blueocean from India, BrainJuicer (and so many others) from the UK, RIWI and Vision Critical from Canada, De la Riva from Mexico – and I haven’t even started on the US yet! 600 new companies in America received VC money in the last five years, many of them in marketing analytics, but some of them groundbreaking in other respects, too. Think Qualtrics, Medallia, Decooda, Eyefaster, GCS – this list goes on and on. And then there are the “traditional” research companies who are busy transforming themselves to face the new age – Gongos, Morpace, Lieberman WW, Insites Planning – and with great success.

    To use the time-worn analogy of the car industry and buggy makers: some buggy makers refused to transform and gradually went out of business. Others did transform and became great car makers. And were joined by yet others who were brand new. This is how industries transform! It’s messy and ugly and exciting and exhilarating and scary – some make it, others don’t. And those car makers? There was very little demand initially – they were on a wing and a prayer and had to be huge believers in the future.

    And this is where we really get to the rub in MR: a superficial reading of the data would suggest that clients are crying out for innovation and that suppliers are being real laggards in delivering it. Cambiar’s own studies suggested this until we really dug deep into client budgets and saw what was going on: yes, clients are asking for, embedding and experimenting with experimental techniques – but the BUDGET for these is still way behind that for traditional research. Clients are just not spending that much on new techniques, however much they say they want to. Add into the mix that most suppliers deal with mid-level researchers in client organizations whose managerial capacity for implementing innovation is limited and you have a situation in which – for now, at least – supply is actually outstripping demand. It would have to be a very brave supplier CEO indeed to invest broadly in innovation to meet all the anecdotal needs of clients when real budget constraints mean that she has to make big informed guesses on which trends really will take off and which will remain “nice to haves”.

    Bottom line: there is plenty of leadership in the industry. There is plenty of innovation in the industry. Yes, we could use a more unified voice, especially in the USA. This is not an industry in decline – it is an industry in transformation. And it is transforming pretty bloody well, all things considered. The job of thoughts leaders is to help it to do so even better, one client at a time, one speech at a time, one blog at a time, one conference at a time, one article at a time.

  5. When you send an article to Lenny, you never know what editorial inspiration it will illicit. “The Lorax of #MRX”, eh? Well, if you’re going to be a Dr. Seuss character, I think that’s as good as it gets. Sure, beats The Grinch.

    And thank you Ellen, Annie & Simon for your insightful observations.

    I honestly don’t know if it’s best or even possible for the industry to speak with one voice. On one hand, it seems we should be able to point to a specific organization as the voice of the industry. Disparity brings specific expertise, but does it limit our ability to reach common ground?

    To Simon’s point, that it is the suppliers that are actually leading the need for change, I quite agree. We need an equal level of conviction and acceptance on the client side to bring significant change.

    I read recently how important the Data Scientists at Airbnb have been to that firm’s strategic direction. To me, this is where MR is going.

    I think MR is capable of doing more by synthesizing more data sources and thinking strategically. I feel this will happen organically at companies that really get the value of customer insight.

    The future is happening whether folks are on board or not and while one more speech and one more blog post might help, we need research clients to champion that need.

  6. Simon: Two questions: Do you think market research is more valuable (or as valuable) and relied as heavily by corporate DECISION makers as it was five years ago?

  7. Hi Ellen. The evidence we have (and which we will be publishing over the next weeks and months in concert with BCG) suggests strongly that, yes, it is. However, progress is still much slower than all of us would like. What’s more, clients tell us that the RoI on research is still significantly higher than it is for big data analytics – whether that will remain the case is anybody’s guess, but it makes you think, doesn’t it?

    1. Thank you Kevin for prompting a great discussion; I couldn’t help using The Lorax reference, but it was applied with much love and respect my friend!

      To a very great degree, the evolution of this blog and all that has sprung from it (IIeX, GRIT, The Insight Innovation Competition, Gen2 Advisors, etc…) has been driven by the need for a conduit for client voices, the traditional industry stakeholders and new supplier thinking/offerings while creating a fertile ecosystem for them all to engage and grow together. I think we’ve been pretty successful at that mission, and one key to that has been collaboration with all of the trade bodies too since they do indeed play an important role. What we have learned is similar to what Simon and others have said: innovation is alive and well, transformation is happening apace as expected, clients are slowly but surely speaking with their budgets (which is what counts) and actually speeding up the transition from traditional models to new ones as budgets are trimmed, and that investment dollars are flowing more freely into this space than at any time in our history. Those are all good signs, and although I agree “one ring to rule them all” would perhaps be a good thing in some ways, we do have bodies like GRBN that perform some of that role, and ESOMAR has always had a strong history of collaboration with other local trade trade orgs and industry influencers (including GreenBook).

      So net/net yes the industry is fragmented but collaboration does occur, and clients, innovators, and thought leaders all have multiple channels to help push the industry forward. Change never happens at the pace we would like, but it IS always a constant force.

  8. I guess I thought one of the main points here is in listening more to what client researchers see as a need. Many of these folks are so tied up in the day to day that they don’t spend a lot of time pondering a better mousetrap but perhaps they know what they don’t want or can’t use.

    The danger in one sided innovation is that we either just add on to existing techniques (or convert them to new modes) or we go far outside the box and it is difficult to tie the findings, however good, into the bigger picture.

    Having sat with clients for years who have presented challenges and ask for solutions, the one thing that is always true is that whatever they do has to justify ultimately to a marketing ROI. All projects, products and communication efforts have a budget. The higher you go, the more it’s about cost justification.

    Today, many researchers don’t have independent budgets and they are busier than ever because so much is done in house and on ever tightening time lines. Every vendor is aware that major companies have or are in the process of having tiered vendor lists with tight price controls. Although cost is a factor, it’s more about speed and results. That doesn’t bode well for experimental techniques unless they are in an early stage area.

    Yes, Simon, clients are probably using research more, but the research is one of many data points and often not a tipping point and the projects are smaller and earlier in the process in many cases.

    The question I have though is whether today’s researchers care? It seems like the roles are more about the production of resource data and less about influencing outcome. Part of that no doubt is because research struggles with ROIs and the data is often too thin for modeling.

    Younger researchers are very keen to incorporate the social aspect of marketing and to explore areas where actions speak louder than words. The new voice of research is probably not an organization or even a researcher but instead those who weave the information into a composite that can demonstrate a revenue impact.

    I can’t help but think that there is a piece missing here; we don’t know how insights flow (or even if they do flow) through an organization. If they stop with the stakeholder which may often be the case, then they are the sponges of data, an evolutionary dead end.

    The other elephant in the room is that research is really good at answering for the past and asking questions about the future, but it is really bad at addressing the here and now. In a world where the average attention span for any piece of information is less than nine seconds, opinions are going to change quickly. Where is the baseline? Is there still such a thing? Consumers are really good at stating what they like and dislike when the subject is finite. Finite comes in many forms and in many shapes and sizes.

  9. Thanks Simon for being willing to occupy the center of the storm in this discussion. Talk about Heroes and Warriors in our Industry, you certainly fit this title. We have both been active in CASRO and AAPOR and even locked horns on several occasions. However, I have always respected your great passion, intelligence and need to improve our industry and our businesses. We both acknowledge the importance of values and ethics in this process. Personally, I would not like to see any one group or person speak for our industry. There are so many different forms of survey and marketing research ranging from products and services to public policy and politics. to legal/forensic research that no one organization or person can be the spokesperson, or has the answers for all. Bottom line, although I have been in this industry approaching fifty years – some might even consider me a luddite or an anachronism – I still have active clients and a live business because I listen at conferences, read articles, newspapers, and stay on top of developments in our industry so I can stay relevant. I like to think of myself at one end of a log conveying to a client on the other end of the log the findings and recommendations developed from a survey and objective projectable data to answer a question, issue or a need for their organization. This model has served me well over the years; nearly half a century in fact.

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