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Judge or Explorer: The Future Role of the Market Researcher

What's the Question? with Durk Bosma is back with the second edition of the series to discuss the role market researchers play in the industry.

In 2016 a very interesting article was published about the future of the insights industry: “The future of insights project”. The good news: there is consensus on what market research should be all about. Both marketeers and market researchers believe that insights professionals should play a strategic consultative role. But how remains the question.

The project is an initiative of the WFA (World Federation of Advertisers) and was conducted by Brainjuicer (now System1). The first part of the project consisted of a global quantitative survey among 300 senior marketers and market researchers. Some results struck me.

Five-legged sheep

The study focuses on 5 possible roles of the market researcher. Anyone who has anything to do with market research will recognize these roles:

  • Librarian: “Data collector and distributor. Accurate and fixed. Little or no extra perspective given. Highly Organized. Behind the scenes. ” Highly reactive, highly micro.
  • Judge: “Objective and fair. Focused on pass / fail. Hurdle builder. Focused on single business question. Official rubber punch. Element of power and respect. ” Reactive and micro.
  • Caddy: “Knows most CMK (Consumer Market Knowledge) and business tools pretty well. Trusted advisor and educator. Reacts to questions asked. Builds on others’ ideas. Their pushes recommendations. ” Reactive and macro.
  • Explorer Asks: “What we have not thought about yet? Innovator. Comes up with new ideas. Champions them and follows them through. Off looking for new business opportunities or CMK. ” Highly proactive and macro.
  • Strategic Consultant Asks: “Are we asking the right questions? Does not just go with the project flow. Proposes and pushes new ideas or routes for the team to follow. Takes into broader business consideration. ” Proactive and highly macro.

A more detailed description of the roles can be found in the report.

The ancient gap

The picture below shows what role insights professionals think they play and how marketeers see this. The differences speak for themselves. A large share of the insights professionals think they are strategic consultants, whereas a large share of marketing professionals think of insights professionals as librarians.


The research finally quantifies the gap between market researchers and their clients, marketing professionals. Market researchers perceive themselves as much more proactive and more widely involved than their target audience, the marketeers see them. The interesting thing is that there seems to be a deadlock. When I started working as a market researcher almost 20 years ago, this discrepancy already existed. I wonder why, despite all good intentions, little had changed.

The good news is that while there is disagreement about the current role of market researchers, marketeers and market researchers largely agree about what the ideal situation should be. Both find that market researchers should be more concerned with the last two roles, explorer and strategic consultant. And that makes sense, because the insights delivered by market researchers are most effective when they are used as a foundation for strategic decisions. This means a more proactive and macro role for insights.

A librarian is not an explorer

But the writers of the report make a mistake here in my opinion. They assume that market researchers should fulfil one of these roles. But should they not master all five? When working in an insights department I think one is expected to be the librarian and the judge and the caddy and the explorer and the strategic advisor. The first three roles form the foundation of the insights field. Without a solid foundation, any advice is shaky. And the last 2 roles ensure that market research has impact and thus create the right to exist.

But to what extent is this realistic? Each role requires another set of skills, often not mastered by the same person. But there’s more. Marketeers say they expect market researchers to be a strategic adviser. But do marketeers really allow market researchers to push new ideas and push teams in new directions? I wonder. Because that would mean that the market researcher is taking over the marketeers driver’s seat, rather than supporting him or her. In my view the ideal role of market researcher, is that of the familiar side-kick of the marketeer, providing him or her with the right insights at the right time so that the marketeer can shine.

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