What Do Clients Want?

At the recent Market Research in the Mobile World (MRMW) event in Singapore, Lumi organised a session entitled “Market Research is boring, out of date, and needs reinvention” with the full regalia of a mock trial. When I agreed to speak, I didn’t realise that I would be in such good company, with colleagues from Unilever, McKinsey, Hall & Partners, Millward Brown, and Zappistore all speaking to support the motion. Neither did I realise that nobody from research was prepared to speak against the motion and defend the industry.After hearing the case for the motion, I now understand why. Speaker after speaker reiterated the need for research to make a greater impact within business, and one of the underlying themes of all of them was that the revolution caused by technology should be matched by an evolution of market research into consultancy.

For my own part, I spoke about the value that senior business leaders place on market research – not a lot. In fact, research is regarded as less useful than finance, marketing, human resources, and most other business functions (according to a survey of “C” level executives by the Advertising Research Foundation). At a time when many of the same leaders are talking loudly about the importance of businesses being “customer centric”, this is a sad reflection on market research.

But market research is in denial. In a separate study by the Boston Consulting Group, business leaders consistently rated the performance of market research much lower than researchers themselves against key metrics such as “understanding the business issue” and “providing clear recommendations”. Market research is in denial.

And things are not changing; if anything, they are getting worse. In the report-writing workshops I run, clients’ complaints about the quality of market research reports and presentations have not changed. They want clear recommendations, and not “reams of data”. But one thing has been changing over recent years. More and more clients are asking for training in the art of report writing, in order to address the needs of their internal clients. And fewer and fewer research agencies are investing in the same training. While research agencies bury their heads in the sand, clients are taking the challenge into their own hands.

These views are widespread. At the recent IIeX (Insight Innovation Exchange) conference in Amsterdam, the organisers held a special event, “Hacking Market Research”, where they invited clients and suppliers to identify and find solutions to the challenges facing market research (with a focus on bringing clients and agencies closer together). The first part of the programme was to find the problems. Predictably, these focused on the lack of impact that market research has within businesses. Specifically, market research was seen to be dull and boring, often lacking clear ROI, and associated with long and tedious generic cymbalta data dumps. The delegates then “hacked” market research to find solutions.


One of the key drivers of lack of impact was seen to be a lack of focus on business outcomes, with one solution being to make projections of ROI a more standard deliverable in market research reports. That is, if the client were to make the changes recommended in the report, what would the outcome be? If this were done, it might also be possible for agencies to be rewarded based on the accuracy of their predictions (as some clients have suggested).

Long, dusty reports were much talked about, as in any discussion of this topic, and suggestions for remedying this included using the report as a “shooting script” rather than an end deliverable. This would then be the basis of a more interactive and impactful sharing of results. Rather than a long presentation, how about one or more short videos to make the key points, or a workshop for client stakeholders to generate ideas and plan next steps rather than sit back and listen to someone talk?

Likewise, the language of market research was seen to be a barrier, as client-side researchers are too often seen to be “PowerPoint pushers” acting as gatekeepers. But perhaps the burden of change should be on market research to change how information is supplied. If the client only has a small letterbox to post the information through, why would you send a shipping container of information? This is a problem that a speaker from McKinsey highlighted at MRMW. Instead, why not create small, focused and bite-size pieces of information? If they are tantalising enough, clients are more than likely to ask for more.

There is one other outcome of IIeX that intrigued (and pleased) me. Delegates said that client procurement procedures often worked against the involvement of small and niche suppliers, meaning that clients are not able to work with specialists even when they want to, denying them access to the latest expert thinking and approaches (something I have come across). It was suggested that large agencies adopt models from other industries, such as aerospace, where big suppliers often act as talent agencies for small expert ones, building bespoke teams with the best talent and managing contractual and financial arrangements.

I’ve found that larger agencies are very reluctant to use external resources, and I don’t understand why. This is a great idea, and surely a win-win-win approach for large agencies, small agencies, and end clients.

Are large agencies willing to open themselves up to improving the impact of their communication and potentially building better bespoke solutions for clients? History suggests not. Let’s hope that the times have changed and the industry can evolve from a data supplier to a consulting model.


First published in Asia Research Magazine Q2, 2014