Superman of market research

Maybe I should heed the words of Jim Croce before writing this and not ‘tug on Superman’s cape’, but we pride ourselves on being ‘fiery’ at Mustard, so why not live up to the company values.

Before I start, I’ll save you a trip to Google. Jim Croce… early 70’s American folk singer… had hit’s with You Don’t Mess Around With Jim and Bad Bad Leroy Brown. No? OK, didn’t think so. Nothing like a current pop culture reference eh?

Anyway, who is the Superman I refer to? Well I’m not going to name names, but let’s just say that in recent times Mustard has had the opportunity to pitch for several large tracking projects where the incumbent in each of these cases has been one of the biggest market research agencies in the world.

And why were these projects being put out to tender? Because the clients were not getting the depth of insight and actionable findings they needed to help them focus on key areas for improvement. This is from one of the most recognisable names in the industry. A research company who turnover more than a one BILLION pounds globally.

Isn’t quality of insight and the ability to use findings a fundamental requirement for our industry? A hygiene factor even? An inability to deliver actionable findings feels to me like Apple producing an iPhone which doesn’t allow you to call people or access WiFi, or buying a BMW with no steering wheel.

Now ok, I am reacting to a couple of anecdotes that I have been privy to over several months. I’m sure the Superman-agency in question do thousands of excellent projects every year. My main concern is the power that the biggest agencies in our industry have over the way in which the market research industry is viewed by decision makers and others users of insight. Market research doesn’t have a strong enough voice in the boardroom as it is, and surely the most prominent players in our industry have the greatest ability to drive change. As Peter Parker / Spider-man’s Uncle Ben once told him… “with great power comes great responsibility”.

I have since seen the (head-shaking) quality of the questionnaires and subsequent outputs from these projects, which only deepens my concerns. Interestingly I recently presented Mustard credentials to a potential client who (without prompting!) talked about how in her younger days she had previously worked for this particular Superman-agency, and described how despite ‘not really knowing what I was doing’, had managed a six figure account for a client who would have been expecting better quality and experience than they got.

And what does this do for the reputation of market research amongst senior stakeholders in these businesses – the MD’s and CEO’s and trading directors and brand directors etc.?

Of course a client-side market research manager can identify when an agency hasn’t delivered and move to the next one. It’s much easier for senior decision makers however to just dismiss market research as a whole when they’re paying hundreds of thousands of pounds for something which doesn’t deliver.

If market research from a recognised billion pound industry leader operating out of hundreds of countries worldwide doesn’t prove beneficial, why should a research-sceptic assume that a smaller agency in London, or Leeds, or Manchester would be any different?

I’ve worked client-side and encountered the buyers and brand ‘specialists’ who ‘don’t need to do research because “I know what our customers think / want”. I’ve also taken great delight in proving them wrong! But how many senior people are there in businesses across the world with the same opinion?

Now I’m not wet behind the ears. I know that for agencies of this size, business models are based on scalability and they need to get a lot of meat through the burger factory as efficiently and cheaply as they can. How do you do that? High volume cheap(er) labour operating to consistent, standardised processes, but packaged with a familiar reassuring label and a nice sales pitch. McSurveys if you will.

The short-termist in me shouldn’t complain. After all, we have been lucky enough (and good enough) to be in a position to pitch for and win projects where the big names haven’t delivered. But as I think about the bigger picture, do they not have an obligation to the industry as a whole to raise the profile and perceived value of market research? They are in the best position to do so.

Right, I’ll put my soap-box away. You can sit back, relax and enjoy some Jim Croce now. If only for the moustache…

Gareth Hodgson, Associate Director at Mustard and comic book fan (you didn’t think I weaved Superman and Spider-man into this blog by accident did you?)