By Edward Appleton

A few months ago, I shifted roles – I moved from being a client-side researcher with Coca-Cola to the agency-side, joining Happy Thinking People, a global qualitative consultancy.

To quote Lenny Murphy of Greenbook fame – I have now joined “the dark side of suppliers”. Wow.

Whilst the language was evocative, with vaguely sinister, mythological undertones, the sentiment isn’t new: “why would you shift from the high ground of “buyer” to the lower echelons of service-provider?” It’s a question I have heard from a few people over the past few months.

As someone who has worked on both sides of the insights fence, perhaps it’s worth sharing a few thoughts on the “client-agency” divide based on my personal experience, highlighting where in my view perceptions are lagging reality.

Client-side Experience: Invaluable!

It’s a truism, but worth repeating: a broader business understanding is something that would help many market researchers add more value to their core insight skills – where better place to get that than client-side?

Ray Poynter’s recent (excellent) New MR webinar talk entitled Embracing the Future underlined the area of “business skills/ knowledge” as an area of weakness amongst researchers. This can involve any number of areas:

How do companies earn their money? How do salespeople use panel data in retailer negotiations? How are touchpoint and consumer decision journey insights translated into operational reality when brand managers talk to media agencies? What persuasiveness skills do client-side researchers need?

I’ve learned massively and broadly from being an Insight Manager in some of the world’s largest organisations such as Coca-Cola and Nestle. I’d wholeheartedly recommend client-side experience to anyone on the agency-side even if it’s just a secondment, or shadowing activity.

Shifting Buyer-Supplier Realities

Having said that, I’d suggest that the imagined differences between a “cosy” client-side market research world and the coal-face (“darker”) aspect of supplier life are not as clear cut as popular imagination suggests.

Increasingly client-side research life is characterised by high levels of change, sometimes existential – regular restructurings/ downsizings, budget justification battles, threats from Big Data acolytes, internet marketing departments, competitive cultures where supportiveness can suffer….It’s not all roses.

In contrast, agency life can benefit from the upsides of being often much smaller – quicker, more flexible, open to change, ideas can be tested more quickly, creativity can exist alongside methodological rigour. Yes, there is less obvious “certainty” – but as I suggest above, that is for many just a memory on the client-side.

I am of course biased – but having sampled the grass on both sides of the research fence, I’d say that corporate culture is a more important factor than buyer-seller status.

I can’t wait to read the forthcoming “Insights Benchmarking Study” from Boston Consulting Group/ Cambiar/Yale to see how things have progressed from the 2009 BCG perspective. When’s it coming out, I wonder?

Bridging the Client-side – Agency Divide

All buyer-seller relationships are challenged by their very nature – is market research any different to those in related industries such as consultancies, advertising or PR?

I would say: well, we’re improving from the days where MR departments had an academic nimbus, protected from the hurly-burly of commercial realities, where we didn’t need to worry about things like networking, personal branding, or…selling!

But (ironically) for a “people business” I’d say researchers are pretty bad at relationship management. A sweeping generalisation of course – I’d love to hear from those that disagree.

My consistent impression is that researchers see themselves as, well, researchers, and researchers don’t do things like selling, do they?

Follow-up calls after project-completion? Follow-up contact after change of job emails? Off-site meetings? Not heard from a client for a while? Hmmm….

In addition, the forums for exchange and networking are often either client-only, thereby “closed” to agencies – PUMA in Germany and AURA in the UK many others exist in other countries. If “open for all”, as is the case with many market research conferences, they are invariably over-populated by agencies in search of the lesser-spotted-client…

A degree of frustration can easily arise from investment in these types of events, leading over time to raised eyebrows amongst budget owners or sponsors (who often aren’t trained as B2B marketing professionals) ….we tried that for years, we couldn’t see any measurable benefit…..

So yes, I would say there is a clear divide – with obvious downsides that can come to bite us all if we’re not careful.

Client-side insight realities are changing fast, with multiple challenges to status, budget and staffing – agencies are in danger of being left out, becoming out-of-touch, reduced to delivering-on-demand rather than acting as strategic insight consultants.

It does of course take two to tango: agencies can only help if the doors are opened to them – and of course agency staff at all levels have to wish to step up to the plate and act strategically, challenge briefings sensitively, look at outcomes not just methodological innovations.

There are signs for optimism – the ESOMAR Skills Blueprint initiative lead by David Smith and Giles Finnemore is one example (Research World Nr. 53/ September 2015). Webinars are also a popular and valuable bridging tool – the GRIT 2014 report highlighted the relatively high client-side usage of virtual events.

Nonetheless, it’s an area we could do more in – faster, low-cost, easy and more fun ways of bringing together clients and agencies in an environment that fosters debate and genuine exchange.

There’s much more to say on the topic of the agency-client side divide – but to come back to my original question, is agency-side really the dark side?

From my own personal and recent experience: no.

Agencies can be great places to work, and that includes Happy Thinking People – if any students are reading this, great!

The agency-client side divide definitely exists, but it’s just one way of viewing the market research world – culture is equally important. You can be unhappy and therefore ultimately unproductive as either a “buyer” or “seller”, however large or small your organisation is.

Relationships work best when we complement each other – counterbalancing the multiple short-sightedness’s and organisational blind spots that exist as a matter of course on either side of the market research fence – talking more frequently, fostering relationships, working jointly on creating or maintaining the sense of enthusiasm that the words “market research” need to suggest amongst budget owners.

Wow – now, where’s the link to some Tony Robbins stuff on You Tube….;)

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

Edward Aplleton, Director Global Marketing, Happy Thinking People