Next generation research: Which researchers will survive?

On November 3rd, the Dutch market research association MOA organized a debate on the future of research and its implications for the industry and the people working in it. The session was chaired by Lex Olivier, former CEO of Research International in the Netherlands and Director General at Efamro and now MOA ombudsman. Panel members to the debate were Carola Verschoor (managing director Netherlands at BrainJuicer), Govert van den Bos (Owner-director at MWM2 & Crowdtech.com), Mieke van Os (Manager Business Intelligence at Independer.nl), Marco Drenth (Manager Client Care at KPMG), and myself. The debate was structured around 3 statements intended to drive discussions between the panel members and the audience.

Statement 1

“Managers hardly need market research anymore to answer ‘what’ questions: due to the growth of business intelligence and the increasing usage of internal data sources, the role of market research will be limited to merely the ‘why’ questions. Market researchers of the future therefore need to become consultants instead of mere researchers.”
Van den Bos (MOA) kicked off and showed as a picture of an old factory that looks more like a ruin. He used this picture to outline that this can be the state of the industry in a couple of years from now if we do not act. The art of data collection and the involvement of and respect towards consumers has not received enough attention, moving the industry closer to the abyss. Next to that, market research and business intelligence go hand in hand, one reinforcing the other. In addition, the need for research on top of business intelligence will remain given the necessity to collect insights on non-clients and the fact that perception is more important than reality in marketing (research).
Carola Verschoor (BrainJuicer) contributed to the discussion that it is more relevant to talk about ‘business smarts’ than business intelligence. A business smarts perspective is forward-looking, finding answers, offering new perspectives, and inspiring actions. On the other hand, business intelligence is traditionally more focused on managing risk and killing new possibilities based on a data- and backward-looking perspective. By consequence, market research needs to focus on consumer understanding and predicting consumer behavior, thereby collecting inspiring insights and taking into account consumer emotions and the drivers behind them. Only then market research agencies will be able to become true consultants, bridging business challenges and deep consumer understanding.
Independer’s Mieke Van Os spiced up the discussion by, after openly sharing the wide list of agencies with which she is working, stating that market research consultants will never succeed in becoming real consultants, at least not on a strategic level. Consultancy demands different skills and researchers do not own these skills, despite the fact that many of them claim to have them. In other works, Van Os advises research agencies to stick to what they are good at, being collecting and interpreting consumer data. Marco Drenth rounded off the discussion by adding that the power resides in combining different information sources, independent of whether these are driven by research or business intelligence. The market research industry needs to embrace more advanced new technologies, make a shift from having a monologue with consumers to a dialogue, understand the business of their clients, and think more from a collaboration and network perspective by setting up structural partnerships with market players that are specialist in a specific area.

Statement 2

“Market research agencies of the future either position themselves as specialized niche players providing advanced analysis or data collection methods or as generalists and consultants related to consumer behavior in general. Larger agencies are typically at a disadvantage.”
I was asked to share my thoughts on this statement first. At InSites Consulting, we firmly believe that consumers will take the lead in shaping any company or brand in the future. This power shift from marketing decision-makers to consumers is radical and requires that the marketing services industry as a whole adapts to this new reality in order to survive and remain relevant. Evidently, this equally holds for the market research industry. We believe that our industry is best ‘equipped’ to represent the voice of the consumer in the boardroom of our clients, better than any other player in the market services industry (advertising agencies, consultants, innovation agencies, etcetera).

The future of research agencies lies therefore in becoming ‘consumer custodians’, facilitating brand-consumer collaboration and moving beyond consumer-centricity to consumer-empowerment. The consumer truth is that they have the ultimate power and want to collaborate on a structural basis, so why the hell do we still treat them as cavemen? Consumers can support companies in insight generation, ideation and co-creation, ambassadorship and activation, and beta-testing and fine-tuning of products and services. All of this means that the market industry is becoming more blurring, touching upon a wide array of domains such as strategic consulting, innovation, advertising, brand activation, and so on. A recent example of this is the always-on research community we have installed for Famous, a Belgian advertising agency. 300 consumers act as co-inspirators for the agency’s employees, taking the art of advertising one step further and making it truly consumer-empowered.

Verschoor shared her thoughts on the topic of specialization and said it is not size that matters, it is what you do with your skills that counts. I liked the following statement she used to support her case: “Measuring does not imply knowing, measuring is just measuring”. Today it all about being able to make the necessary change in light of the change our environment is facing. As social media are surging and consumers have different expectations towards the way they interact with brands, agencies need to invest in methods that make use of behavioral economics theories, social science, and psychology. Next to that, being fast and flexible will become more than ever elements of differentiation for agencies of the future.

Statement 3

“The type of research needed by consultants is different from what the market research industry is currently offering. Reliability and completeness need to make room for speed and relevance. Current market researchers are too conservative and not flexible enough.”
Our thoughts on the directions the market research industry should be taking at InSites Consulting is the shift from ‘doing things right’ (which has been the center of attention of our industry for a very long period) over ‘doing the right things’ (empowering consumers in many more ways than we did before and respecting them, not just using them) to ‘getting things done’ (in the end, we need to drive actions and make a business difference). This implies that our methods as well as the type of people working for research agencies need to be adjusted to these new needs. In terms of methods, we need to build more structural collaborations with consumers through always-on consumer research communities, being able to connect the dots and increasing speed of execution and flexibility. In terms of people, we need researchers mastering DJ-skills, mixing different types of methods and really engaging and activating consumers and other stakeholders. These researchers will also need to be able to surprise decision-makers, opening their eyes through using gamified techniques, escaping the comfort zone, and spreading enthusiasm internally as well as externally. On top, they will need to be able to talk business in order to become a relevant spokesperson of consumers in the boardroom. Why not even introduce the role of a ‘Chief Consumer Officer’?
Van Os added to this that, while reliability and relevance were important and will remain important, agencies have completed missed the boat when it comes to embracing new types and channels of consumer information (e.g. social media netnography, database marketing). Several new agencies have emerged that jumped on this wagon, most of them not coming from the market research industry. She is convinced that bridging the gap with these newly established agencies will be very hard for most market research companies.
Drenth ended the session by making clear to agencies that he does not believe in a one-stop-shop philosophy. It is key for agencies to be willing to say no to certain requests or transfer to another agency that has the real competences to deal with a specific request. On top of that, culture and style fit or match or critically important for agencies to succeed: they need to understand the way companies and decision-makers think and fully understand their context. Evidently, this requires companies to open up and invite agencies to sit around the table to share and discuss.

To conclude

All in all, it was a great session with a lot of debate between panel members and the audience. While not all noses were pointed in the same direction, it was good to see that MOA is facilitating the necessary debate we need to have about the future of research. As Darwin said: “It is not the smartest of the species that will survive, but the ones most adaptive to change”. Our ForwaR&D Lab is putting this statement into practice every day, making sure that our industry is responding to the needs of the current marketing environment.

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