Hold the numbers

Unwieldy reports full of charts, graphs and numbers - this was the standard expectation for clients when they undertook a market research project years ago....

Unwieldy reports full of charts, graphs and numbers – this was the standard expectation for clients when they undertook a market research project years ago.

These days, thanks to lower budgets and faster turnaround times, market research has become a much more streamlined pursuit, with clients expecting solid, decision-making results – yesterday.

‘There’s a huge move away from the doorstopper reports of the past,’ says Steve Mossop, senior VP, managing director of Ipsos-Reid’s Western Business Unit in Vancouver. The fundamental driver of this change, he says, is speed.

Mossop says that when he started out in the industry 12 years ago, it was not uncommon for a research project to take three months, with the resulting 100-page report being pored over by several researchers before being handed over to the client. The average time frame for a research project has been cut in half – at least – over the past five years or so, he says.

The doorstoppers still exist, of course, but they’re not the main source of information for a client. They are background appendices for junior associates. The emphasis now, when presenting research findings to senior management, is on personal presentations, using PowerPoint or the like to display succinct objectives and results, rather than tables of numbers.

Linda Dominitz, who’s been in the research field for 20 years and is now research director at Leo Burnett, also recalls a time when market research could almost be described as leisurely, at least compared to today. More resources – people, time and money – were available to determine what research findings revealed about a particular brand. Clients were also more willing to take a less formal approach to research, she says. ‘In the old days, it was a matter of ‘Let’s just throw in the kitchen sink and see what comes back.”

Yet useless data still costs money – and clients are resistant to such excess. These days, market research projects are usually commissioned to address a specific decision that has to be made, and good research projects are designed to address that decision alone. As Dominitz sums up: ‘Unless it’s going to lead to action, don’t ask it.’

While agencies have been forced to respond to this market change, not all suppliers have been so adaptive, she says. ‘Some have fallen off the menu of companies that we use because they just don’t get it.’

Dominitz points out that she’s under the same time constraints as her clients and, while she’s paid in part to translate research findings into strategy, she’s more likely to use a supplier that promises to make her job a little easier. A firm that provides her with lists of tables and little more isn’t going to get called back.

In fact, she has had clients, clearly tired of being bombarded by figures, ratios, graphs and the like, who have told her outright that they didn’t want one number to come up during a presentation – or they’d walk out of the room.

When Leo Burnett is presenting AdScape findings (every agency, over time, has developed some sort of proprietary research tool for interested clients), Dominitz tries to integrate a ‘day in the life’ scenario into the presentation. She’ll begin with a ‘Hi, I’m Dorothy and I’m a 42-year-old stay-at-home mother’ type introduction, where she paints a picture of the target consumer.

‘It’s story telling,’ says Jeff Swystun, director, strategic planning and marketing for Toronto-based brand strategy and design firm Interbrand Tudhope. Short and snappy is the best presentation method for time-pressed clients. ‘They don’t have a half-day to wade through research.’

It can be a challenge to present data in a compelling fashion under such time constraints but Swystun points out that it’s much easier if a research firm does the bulk of the work up front. Defining the business strategy is the first step, and when collecting data, researchers have to be certain that it stays as relevant as possible to the initial strategy. ‘We have to remember that we’re not just presenting numbers but we’re trying to present intelligence and insight as it links to their strategy,’ he says.

He says that most of Interbrand Tudhope’s work is face-to-face interviewing, whether through focus groups or individual interviews. ‘There’s nothing better,’ he says. Because the majority of research work these days focuses on one statement or thesis, personal interviewing is the best way to drill down to the heart of the matter.

Complete market research is no longer viable – it’s expensive, time-consuming and has a too-near expiration date, he says. ‘By the time you’ve generated a significant chunk of market research, every question on that damn thing is out of date.’

The trade-off to speed is depth. And that explains why benchmarking has become much more popular for clients in the past several years, he says. The benefit of repeating studies on an annual or bi-annual basis is that different angles can be examined each time, depending on the changing marketplace.

Benchmarking is especially important in the high-tech service industry where customer satisfaction can make or break a service or brand, says John Demetris, VP, market management for Rogers AT&T Wireless, a company that regularly conducts research to gauge customer attitudes towards old and developing products.

Demetris says that former experience, presentation and cost are the factors Rogers AT&T takes into account when it comes to commissioning any one company over another for a research project.

Companies in this sector often make the grave mistake of describing a product’s features rather than how a customer can use it, says Demetris, and researchers often fall into this trap too.

Neale Halliday, EVP, head of account planning at Toronto-based BBDO, has been a planner for the past 20 years – mainly in the U.K. – and says that Canadian clients tend to commission fewer usage and attitude studies than their British counterparts. A robust quantitative benchmark study is a worthwhile endeavour because it provides regular updates on how people are using a product, along with their attitudes towards one brand over another, he says. But these studies are also expensive. ‘Clients want to use research in Canada but they don’t tend to be all that anxious to pay some of the money that is required to use research properly.’

BBDO is quite heavily committed to research. Qualitatively, it’s involved in plenty of good old-fashioned focus groups, and will often use outside moderators, says Halliday. It’s also always interested in innovation when it comes to research. Last fall, the agency experimented with the ultimate focus group – Brand Camp – where 20 consumers, along with 12 agency employees, lived together in a downtown Toronto loft for 48 hours. They were videotaped the entire time. The point was to get the target group’s take on snack foods, with Pepsi, Hostess Frito Lay, Wrigley’s and Effem Canada (Mars, Snickers, M&Ms) participating. ‘We got a great deal more from that 48-hour research exercise than we probably got from the previous two years’ worth of focus groups,’ he says.

He concedes that the market in Canada is different than the U.K., which could account for the different research approaches. But it doesn’t help that client in-house research departments have been cut back, if not eradicated altogether, over the past several years. ‘A lot of clients don’t have someone who’s capable of telling them when a quantitative extensive study would be worth the money.’ Marketers hoping to save research dollars are short-changing themselves over the long run, he says.

Molson Breweries reached that conclusion when it decided to hire a VP accountable for market research, says Michael Downey, Molson’s senior VP, global marketing. ‘There was a belief that we weren’t as rigorous in market research,’ he says. ‘We wanted to make sure that we weren’t behind the eight ball in that.’

The company also assigned a director of research to each core brand, which gives the brewery more resources to focus on gathering data, he says. ‘It’s not the historical approach where we would have done some qualitative research, some focus groups, feel good about an ad and go shoot it.’ Now, the company quantitatively researches all TV ads before a camera starts to roll. ‘It has to hit a par hurdle – a persuasion level – or it doesn’t get shot,’ he says. ‘We do not shoot ads until we know they will persuade beer drinkers to drink that brand.’

Thanks to the new directors of research, there’s also more room for qualitative research to fuel the agency’s creative team. Some of the Canadian pride insights used in the recent ‘Here’s to you’ spot came directly from research commissioned to Toronto-based InnerViews and its ZMET tool (see ‘Tapping imagery’ on page B8).

Insiders agree that innovation is key to the industry. ‘We can’t depend on just the traditional techniques,’ says Ipsos-Reid’s Mossop. ‘We have to push the envelope and go after the new.’