Pete Laybourne

The peace and tranquillity of the qualitative world was recently disturbed by the maelstrom that is the Unilever Accreditation Procedure. At this year’s AQR AGM in the UK, researchers gathered in number to listen to Manish Makhijani, CMI Director – Savoury, Unilever and Rebecca Wynberg CEO Global Qualitative at TNS, explain the requirement and need for a global qualitative accreditation procedure.

Reaction in the room polarised between those who were openly antagonistic and those who lemming-like formed an orderly queue to sign up. Maybe it’s a measure of the topic that so many people attended the AGM or maybe it’s simply time that the qualitative research industry got it’s best practices in order.

Unilever has embarked on the procedure because they seek to ensure a gold standard of excellence amongst the qualitative researchers it uses worldwide in order to help deliver superior consumer insight. The problem it seems stems from experience in third world countries where the quality of moderation analysis and reporting falls well short of expectations. So why the UK? Manish’s response is simple “Why not?”

The UK, along with other European countries, is amongst the thought leaders in qualitative research practice across the globe. But as Rebecca Wynberg, one of the chief architects of the programme, extorts “I care about the state of my profession and the fact that there are many people who do not possess the skills that I do well”. That appears to be the main crux of the argument. Quite simply, that professionalism in qualitative research has diminished in direct proportion to the increased number of practitioners who increasingly fail to meet basic quality standards across the whole process. “In essence” Wynberg explains “the industry is fast becoming deprofessionalised”

AQR Chair Ken Parker argues differently “The AQR raises standards of qualitative researchers through our broad range of training courses. But, regrettably, not every qualitative researcher is a member of the AQR, nor has every member benefitted from our courses. In every profession there are variations in talent, I’m sure ours is no exception. Nevertheless, it’s disappointing that Unilever has decided to implement its accreditation scheme. Of course, their desire for high quality researchers is understandable, but the tried and tested ‘only as good as your last job’ has always seemed to work extremely well in the past, and even more so in today’s competitive environment. The question is whether the tests that Unilever apply are truly able to differentiate between capable and incapable? Only time will tell.”

In a people business that is a fair assessment. However, rosters have long been in existence where agencies and individuals are assessed by the quality of their individual last project output, performance and deliverables.

Furthermore, why the quest to shoot the messenger? From personal experience many of the Unilever CMI and marketing teams fall short in their ability to adequately brief or manage a qualitative project. Moreover, many do not know, understand or appreciate what is required in a qualitative project or understand the bases upon which qualitative methodologies and disciplines are adopted and used. This is recognised by Unilever, and as a consequence all the (7000) global CMI and marketing management will attend an intensive two day qualitative immersion programme about how to brief a project, how to manage it and how to use a group discussion in order to understand the consumer. In addition there is a fallback of a Best Practice Qualitative Manual (written by Wynberg) that they can reference if needed. ‘Not good enough’ I hear you cry … At the end of the day, ‘rubbish in and rubbish out’ remains a reasonable mantra. Quite simply, it is a two way street and whilst it may be reasonable to take aim at the messenger those doing the shooting are equally culpable.

So what of the process itself?
The programme was instigated in China and South Africa, two of the many markets where Unilever have experienced inconsistencies in qualitative best practice, and is now on a roll out.

To this end, the quest is ‘to find and identify gold standard researchers who have the capability of producing best in the world class quality of work’. The Unilever mantra states “The gold standard researcher is a researcher who has the ability to go beyond the findings and provide strategic advice in terms of implications of the brand or category; they need to be conscientious strategic thinkers who have empathy with the Unilever context be able to provide – ideas and thoughts and have the ability to linkup brand and category issues with consumer understanding and be challenging and proactive.” These skills and qualities need to be consistently evident over and above excellent qualitative skills in moderating. I personally believe that to be the essence of any good qualitative researcher and if they’re not then they shouldn’t be used anyway!

Researchers are then split in terms of research lead, those who would lead the study and be expected to be completely involved from briefing to debrief and would attend a substantial part of fieldwork even not if they were not conducted themselves. And moderators, those who receive the discussion guide from the research lead and conduct fieldwork and provide fieldwork to the research leads.

The goal is that Unilever will only work with the accredited research leads and moderators in the future

In short, in response to receiving a brief and responding to it in terms of a proposal and discussion guide, candidates are then expected to conduct a one hour group discussion and have a subsequent dialogue in terms of how they may approach the analysis and debrief, although no actual analysis, debrief or presentation is required. The accreditor then makes a recommendation to the accreditation board and “accreditation or not granted”

The process will assess a match in skills and capabilities of the researchers and moderators to the requirements for undertaking various Unilever qualitative research projects. Those meeting the standard will be given accreditation to work on projects. In addition, agencies are expected to pay for the privilege of assessment, not on an agency basis but per candidate per group including, if required, a viewing facility for the accreditor. A costly sum with no guarantee of work once accredited.

As an aside, at the time of writing, over 300 research leads or moderators are in the process of assessment by up to 6 or seven accreditors.

Who judges the judges you may well ask. Who are this unique band of experts who have the ability to assess whether any individual is worthy of accreditation? And on what basis? Apparently, a number of the great and the good in the qualitative industry had a workshop to decide on what criteria researchers were to be judged. The upshot being that 80 characteristics were identified upon which potential candidates were to be assessed or found wanting. In effect candidates were expected to pass on the majority of the characteristics identified by their peers in terms of what makes a good qualitative researcher. So a creative discipline is to be judged by mechanical process where most boxes ticked wins?

To the casual reader, at this point in time, it may be interesting to observe that group discussions are only one of the many methodologies and disciplines available to qualitative researchers; that moderation alone is not the only means of determining research excellence; analysis interpretation and presentation are as much if not more important elements of the art. Moreover, when was the last time anybody conducted a one hour group? Furthermore, I have met many planners who have sat behind a two-way mirror seeing a good moderator and thinking that they could produce the same result. As Simon Chadwick former CEO of both RI and NOP observes, “we all applaud efforts to improve quality in this industry. However, I have concerns in this instance both about the way in which accreditation is taking place (one group really cannot tell us anything) and about the potential for this process to preserve in aspic old ways of conducting qualitative research when so many new approaches are now opening up the field in so many ways. The intent is laudable, but the execution is deeply flawed”.

So is the Unilever process flawed?
In short, not as a concept. Unilever have simply identified a problem one which has been existent in qualitative research for many years and that the industry has done nothing about.

No self-respecting qualitative researcher would argue against the inauguration of a quality standard that embraces the heart of what they do for a living. We all want to deliver the best and Unilever have nailed their colours to the mast in that they will only deal with those who they perceive to be the best.

The concept is commendable; the execution open to debate; but the intent has to be admired and accepted. At the end of the day, the procedure has been implemented and is in process of delivery. You either buy into it or you don’t. More importantly, the onus is on the professional bodies to have a dialogue with Unilever so that it becomes the blueprint for across the board quality standards for all qualitative researchers. As Jane Frost CEO of MRS has stated, “ MRS believes that standards are important and that is a key emphasis as is any attempt to improve them and we will embrace and engage with such initiatives”.

The danger is that other companies may adopt the Unilever ethos and may only use Unilever accredited qualitative researchers.

The final word rests with Adam Phillips, ESOMAR Chair of Professional Standards and Legal Affairs Committees, he says “Unilever has an absolute right to choose any supplier it wants and to set the standards they are expected to meet. This particular action has been controversial among qualitative researchers because Unilever is seen as a thought leader in research and, therefore, likely to be followed by others. I understand that there is some concern about this initiative, as an assessor for the MRS Fast Track full membership assessment we know that the quality and fairness of the assessment depends on the experience of the people doing it and the detailed guidance they are given for their assessment. I can understand why qualitative researchers are nervous about being assessed and I appreciate the risk to their reputations in agreeing to be assessed, but there is no reason why the Unilever system could not deliver the same standardised quality of assessment as the MRS. If I were in charge of research for Unilever, I would want to maintain diversity of experience and approach among my approved qualitative researchers and I would like to ensure that any quality assurance process did not lead to a completely uniform “plain vanilla” approach to this creative and stimulating  type of research.”

It is patently clear that, the professional bodies need to retake the moral high ground rather than talk about it, quickly, now.

But whatever you personally believe, think or feel, no matter how rattled your sensitivities may have become, you’re dammed if you don’t engage with the current Unilever process if you want to be considered for their business.

Pete Laybourne is Chairman at Fathom International in the UK.

If you are interested in attending the ESOMAR Qualitative 2o12 conference in Amsterdam more details including the full programme can be found on the ESOMAR event pages.