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How to choose the right insight agency

15th May 2009
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MyCustomer.com

The market research sector is not short of good research agencies, large or small. But how do you choose the right insight agency? Simon Lidington takes a look at the changing landscape and offers his tips on the vital questions you need to ask to weigh up which agency is the perfect fit for you.

By Simon Lidington, Insight Exchange

The research industry has just about got over its concern that insight was just another research re-labelling exercise. This has been led by clients' growing appetite for new thinking, new ideas and new ways of seeing problems. No longer is it enough for research agencies to present findings and leave the client to work out the rest.

Agencies need to deliver much more and whether you see insight as just good old fashioned research or a new kind of discipline, there can be no doubt that it is bringing about rapid change in the kind of agencies around to meet the need.

In some ways, business’ use of insight is the same as ever: research agencies still carry out research; clients still want information, understanding and interpretation. But in other ways the landscape has changed dramatically. Insight is bigger than research. It draws on a broader set of inputs that certainly includes primary, sample-based research, but extends well beyond it into web searches, database information, online interactive research, blogs, forecasting data, futurology, ethnographics, film, frontline staff workshops, neuroscience, crowd behaviour, semiotics and many other approaches.

"If you want to be a genuine insight agency you can no longer stick to providing just data or information. You will be judged by your ability to help clients use research-based work creatively and effectively."

One major global cosmetics brand estimates that its spend on a philosophy consultancy, ethnographics and film accounts for 65% of its 'research' budget. It's not that long ago most research industry professionals would have written this off as a collection of unscientific 'fringe' activities.

There is a reason why the fringe is becoming the mainstream - clients have become increasingly jaundiced at the lack of insight offered by much traditional research. More research buyers find their operational and marketing colleagues demanding insight that helps them drive change, innovation or business improvement. If you want to be a genuine insight agency you can no longer stick to providing just data or information. You will be judged by your ability to help clients use research-based work creatively and effectively.

So, what makes a good insight agency?

Are they innovative? Do they have something different to offer and a track record to back it up? It's always wise to find out about their other client work. If they are a start-up you'll have to base it on the key individuals' backgrounds and previous work they've been responsible for. What changes have resulted from their work? Are they happy for you to talk to their other clients? They should have been instrumental in helping create organisational and culture change, the development of brand values, product or service innovation and strategy development, as well as behavioural change, training, communications strategy and execution, and customer value propositions.

How strategically important to their clients are they? That's not to say that good tactical insight is not important, but an insight agency should have a consistently profound effect on its clients’ businesses or organisations. So, have they worked with clients for long periods of time on a variety of projects? Or do they apply the findings from a large continuous research project creatively? Do they get buy-in from teams across their clients' businesses? Does their work touch the frontline? How essential are they as a 'partner' to their clients? Do their clients say they have made them or saved them real money?

What are their people like? Do they have 'stars' and their accolytes, or do they build their agency by consistently taking on the best talent at all levels? The old adage 'people buy people' is still true. Clients tend to stay with agencies because key individuals repeatedly prove themselves. It's more evident with smaller agencies, which in itself can cause problems. Agencies built on one or two people's star ability can either limit their own growth – because the 'stars' have limited availability – or quality can suffer because the stars become overstretched.

Can your agency communicate – I mean really communicate? Insights are not insights unless enough people believe they are, and very often the best insights are not obvious to everyone straight off. Imagine telling Volkswagen Commercial Vehicles 20 years ago that they did not have 'van values'. They understood trucks and cars well enough, but had never properly treated vans as vans. Being able to stand your ground and communicate an insight that challenges the status quo requires exceptional communication skills (not to mention confidence in your own work). The agency's ability to present concepts, arguments, evidence and different thinking, which is carefully built into a compelling and captivating story, is a must.

"It's one thing to buy cool, stimulating, thought-provoking and visionary methods; it's quite another to present a business case for a new product concept or strategic direction to the board."

Are they rigorous? It's all very well being creative, but there's a paradox in the way clients are now using insight. At the same time as opening their minds to a new world of intuitive insight methods that are re-defining the research sector, they are also becoming far more hard-headed. It's one thing to buy cool, stimulating, thought-provoking and visionary methods; it's quite another to present a business case for a new product concept or strategic direction to the board.

Rigour comes from well-engineered processes, attention to detail, a clarity of thought, logic, intuition and purpose, and a proven methodology. It does not simply apply to the research method, but to the insight method: the way agencies do their job of taking fragments of evidence, thought and imagination and weaving them together into something close to complete; and how they then use that to inspire a client to see new possibilities. Doing it once may just be luck. Doing it consistently whatever the sector, client or context, takes both rigour and creative energy. It may be good to know that your agency has Investors in People or an ISO standard, but even more important is their ability to convince you that they have real depth.

Do you like them and respect them? An agency does its best work when the client is clear about what it wants, and when the agency feels tuned into the client's culture sufficient to challenge and suggest different perspectives. If you don't quite trust their judgement, worry that they are going to upset senior management, or fear that they are not going to be respected by your colleagues, then you probably need to look again. Insight is too important to leave to chance. You need an insight agency that you can rely on.

Simon Lidington is chief exchanger at Insight Exchange

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