Judith Passingham

ESOMAR Atlanta showcased a number of discussions and debates including one entitled ‘Black Hat – White Hat’, the context for which was the dilemma between the pressure to expand the scope and practice of research on one hand with an increasingly restrictive regulatory environment on the other. This could push the industry back into a narrower definition of social sciences and statistics, thereby placing the market research industry at a disadvantage against newer entrants. As the discussion was of high interest at the Congress, ESOMAR re-opened the debate on its Linkedin group.  Comment was attracted from Steve Needel, Ray Poynter, Lenny Murphy, Dave McCaughan, Reg Baker, Mike Broom, Kenneth Tomaszewki, Mike Cooke and Athesh Ravvi.

There was some difference in view about whether well enforced Market Research standards exist, whether they are desirable in the future and will assist the industry’s ‘fitness for purpose’ or are simply a distraction. At one end of the spectrum, the standards are viewed as ‘rituals’ which are not applied on a consistent universal basis across all data collection methodologies. At the other extreme (the more popular end within this discussion at least ) the industry is urged to ‘stand firm on our ethical principles … as there are too many ethically challenged players, too much ill -gotten data, and too much surrender of personal data and privacy at too low a price …’

The debate rapidly moved towards a discussion about whether the market research industry would continue to exist in any recognisable form, or act as a sub-set of something bigger. Here again opinion differed with views ranging from a perspective which characterised the market research industry as ‘… a boy with his finger in the dyke by thinking we can adopt standards and codes whilst the (new) competitive set simply goes around us …’ to a view that change always takes longer than envisaged, partial data can be particularly misleading without context, and a plea for more regulation to maintain a strong level of trust in the market research industry.

Where does all of this lead?
From my own perspective, both as a research provider and as the programme chair for the Congress, and irrespective of new entrants, new technologies, big data and all other developments, we have a duty to our customers to ensure and to prove that the information we produce is fit for purpose. That surely is beyond discussion. That we approach this requirement in a globally consistent and well understood way seems to me to be a rather fundamental objective.

We also have a clear obligation to our respondents to safeguard and protect their confidentiality, privacy and anonymity. Against this obligation I believe there is also a clear opportunity to work more proactively with legislators and opinion formers in order to develop and market the ‘market research industry’ as an appropriate, objective,  and highly trusted custodian of confidentiality within the current – and the rapidly emerging future – environment.  The fact that we are prepared to not only entertain, but embrace and operate under clear and well understood guidelines sets the industry apart and arguably could support a far stronger differentiation in the future – both to the marketplace and to respondents.

If supported as a view, this requires all of the various national and international trade bodies representing the market research industry (including ESOMAR), to work together in a far more energetic, collaborative, uniform and universal way than is the case today –  in order to drive these two objectives which are surely in the interest of our industry and central to its future positive evolution. Although initiated by ESOMAR, we all have a responsibility to ensure we collectively progress these issues to concrete conclusion.

Judith Passingham is CEO, Northern & Eastern Europe at TNS