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Market Research Innovation Challenges

There are a lot of interesting conferences happening in the Market Research community (many of which I am missing!) about change and the direction Market Research is taking. The question is which research firms will survive?


By Navin Williams

A few days ago I read the blog post by Tom Anderson covering the MRIA annual event in Canada.  It seemed like a very lively discussion and wish I had been there!  There are a lot of interesting conferences happening in the MR community (many of which I am missing!) about change and the direction MR is taking.

From Tom’s blog two quotes struck me and I have them verbatim below:

  1. “it’s telling that many now seem to understand that probably well over half of the ‘research’ firms out there won’t be around 5-10 years from now”
  2. “how the biggest firms in our industry have stifled innovation because it has been in their best interest to do so”

Though both the above lines were separated by more than a third of the post, I found them interrelated in the sense that the first is pretty much driven by the second.  The question is who will survive? Will it be the Goliaths of market research who seem reluctant to change the old ways or the new age firm David’s with radically different approaches in their DNA?  In an ideal world it should be a bit of both. The big firms lead with innovation and therefore lead the industry and a bunch of smaller firms cut through the clutter. Is that happening? Maybe a little. Is enough happening? Probably not.

This is not to say all the big agencies are not thinking ahead as some of them are and have been. Many are radically changing to embrace the coming future. Few agencies actually have or have started innovation divisions & innovation officers/executives whose whole brief is to think ahead of the curve.

Below I have tried to explain some of the reasons why I think the industry (as a whole – not individual firms) is where it is:

  1. Industry – the MR industry is conservative. Its role is like an insurance policy for decision making. And given this role it needs to be conservative in nature (can’t have another AIG!).
  2. Protecting the Norms – Many firms have accumulated norms over years if not decades. Never mind if many of the norms being used are outdated and out of touch with the world today; the norms are a strength to be protected. I had an interesting conversation recently with a friend of mine who said that the mobilization of their current methodology was not possible as it was too radical and the norms they had wouldn’t be applicable any longer. And calibration wouldn’t work either as it was also too radical. He wasn’t telling me mobile is a poor method, just that his current USP would be junk!
  3. Structure – the size of some agencies require systems and structures in place to ensure economies of scale and efficiencies. However these same structures stop them from doing things differently or using methods which don’t conform to existing structures. For instance when we started in 2009 an agency was very keen but they didn’t know who should lead any discussion so I was moved from the Operations team to the Telecom research team and then the Consumer research team. Still no one knew who would take it forward. The conclusion was all of them should be involved but none of them were in a position to lead discussions as long as they were straight jacketed in roles!
  4. Outsourced – in recent years another trend has been the outsourcing of a lot of areas like panels, IT, etc. All benefiting the agencies in growing their margins but depleting a lot of their core strengths.
  5. Out of Touch with Core Competence – many of the handlers of these outsourced areas within the agencies lose touch over time as they don’t get their hands dirty enough and only have a helicopter view of things. And in rapidly changing areas especially those involving technology that is crippling as what was used in the industry 6 months ago has changed and the skills required in the past may not be valid any longer.
  6. Courier Boys vs Multitasking – Increasingly young executives find themselves working in well oiled machines  as part of a process,  knowing little beyond their area. Increasingly, well rounded researchers with a grasp of all the components that comprise a solution are hard to find. If its methodology or sampling there’s a specialist – if it’s advanced analytics there’s another person and so on. I am sure self motivated researchers will find a way to grasp everything, but the system is not designed to absorb the whole research experience.
  7. Poor Pay – Not sure if this is restricted to the developing world, but we have a serious issue of retaining talent and the chief reason is (despite ours being a highly intellectually stimulating industry) that pay scales are not sufficient to retain the best talent. This is compounded by the problem of poor agency side retention – as often half baked researchers move to the client side and therefore are not equipped to demand and drive serious change from the business as usual production houses.
  8. Sales Focus – Please don’t get me wrong as this is a good thing! The industry needs to grow from a tiny USD 30 billion industry to at least a 100 billion gorilla to hold any sway in the marketing budgets across the world. But the sales drive should be from value; good research will lead to industry growth. A sales push by executives who take no part in the delivery of the service will have us running in place for a long, long time.

The fact is no company is just going to roll over and die; they will try to compete in this new environment using the old models and some will make radical changes to try to take advantage of the new opportunities, although some will move faster than others. In the race to win business guess which ones have the greater risk of getting trampled?


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2 responses to “Market Research Innovation Challenges

  1. Great article Navin. Innovation is the way to stay relevant in the market. Those who do will prosper while those who don’t will fall by the wayside. Today’s information age is accelerating the pace of change and the exchange of information so I think it will be possible to see dynamic changes. However, market research is a b2b product which is largely sold on the basis of relationships and reputation. I think once the new methods begin to take hold you will see the big boys adopt mostly through acquisition because they can’t innovate themselves.

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