Edward Appleton

For any Researcher in Europe looking to better understand the sort of change that market research is currently undergoing, the Insight Innovation Exchange (IIEX) in Amsterdam from Feb 19 – 20, 2014 was a good place to be.

Well attended, with over 300 participants, it was a highly energising, almost overwhelming showcase of the new and shiny in MR. With two whole days of speakers, and parallel sessions on both days, no one person could have attended every talk, and no one brain – I suggest – could assimilate all the new information on offer.

My own session was on the opening day as part of a panel discussing how client-side needs can be better aligned with supplier offerings. Chaired by the genial Ray Poynter, I was joined on the client-side by Dr. Dag Piper of Mars/Effem, Philips’ Pieter Musters, with Communispace’s Diane Hessan and Research Now’s Melanie Courtwright putting forward the Agency POV. It was an interesting discussion, and one that again highlighted the gulf between MR suppliers and buyers.

Here’s my take-out, enriched with input from other speakers that touched on the same topic.

1. MR Suppliers need to innovate differently. Diane Hessan suggested that a lot of supplier-side MR innovation was driven by agencies’ own view of what might work, that innovation was insufficiently driven by genuine unmet client-side needs.
This resonated strongly with me. “More tools, better tools” is no longer a particularly motivating proposition; historical over-promise has too often lead to disappointment. Innovation needs to be a process driven jointly by Clients and Agencies, embracing familiar concepts such as collaboration and co-creation. We need to practice more what we preach.

2. Clients – are we “the problem”? Are market research clients more risk-averse and habitualised than is to be expected? One member of the audience suggested that whilst clients often claimed they were looking for refreshing new ideas, in her experience they often eventually preferred to stick with the tried-and-tested. Countering this, Dr. Dag Piper stated he conducts monthly review sessions with MR agencies, jointly reviewing possible areas of improvement and innovation. He also shared how he is happy to work with newcomers with different approaches – not insisting on suppliers already being able to offer broad-scale validation.

Who’s right? My impression from the client-side is that we have a chicken-and-egg situation: incremental innovations have historically often been over-egged by suppliers, leading to a jaded client-side perspective. Now true disruption is occurring – process-style innovation like that offered by Zappistore, Google Consumer Surveys and micro survey suppliers – I think many clients will lean forward with a different attitude.

3. Changing the contractual relationship between suppliers and clients. One barrier to joined-up innovation approaches in market research is the widespread project-based, start-stop nature of agency and client relationships – a point I brought up as part of the Panel discussion.

The project-based, essentially transactional model – with suppliers constantly pitching under conditions of a) triple-bidding and b) purchasing department involvement – clearly creates a lot of frustration as well as angst amongst suppliers. It also works counter to true partnership and continuity, stifles creativity and arguably innovation as well.

If we look at comparable professional service areas – management consultancies, advertising agencies for example – there is a legacy at least of retainer-style remuneration, running for a longer time period, often 6 -12 months minimum. This allows agencies to plan, and to overrun if necessary on the time invested in strategic projects – a year-end review can re-balance if necessary. It’s different from a strictly count-the-hours-worked approach.

Can a different MR model deliver more Insights value? It’s something the industry should look to validate.

4. Market research innovation success rates – room for improvement. Kyle Nel of USA DIY retailer Lowes stated that of 10 “new” ideas brought to him by MR suppliers, 9 were duds. Bearing in mind this was only a sample size of n=1, the statement is still sobering. It also reflects much of the opinions I hear clientside. A 90% “flop-rate” is high – as an industry, we need to improve.

Part of that could involve raising the bar on communication and sales skills. Some of the presentations were distinctly lacklustre, and could have benefited from a) rehearsal and b) constructive 3rd party feedback. Technical excellence – something market research start-ups may well have in spades – doesn’t necessarily equate with marketing abilities, and perception is invariably reality.

One final inter-cultural observation: alongside the Dutch attendees who were unsurprisingly there in numbers, delegates from the USA and the UK were very well represented. There were sadly few German or French attendees or speakers. Was this due to the marketing focus? Or maybe linguistic inhibitions – the event sped along of course in English. Whatever the reasons, it would be great to see more truly European innovation conferences in future, enabling more cross-fertilisation across geographies.

In summary, the IIEX Conference conveyed a great sense of energy and enthusiasm, the opposite of what our image is to many stakeholders in the business community: fusty, introverted, process-obsessed. Kudos to the organisers, Lenny Murphy, and for all the folk at ESOMAR who by their presence alone added to the sense of professionalism.

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

Edward Appleton is Senior Manager Consumer Insights, Coca Cola Gmbh