CLOSE-UP: LIVE ISSUE - MARKET RESEARCH. What planners really want from market research

Four planning directors on what would make an ideal market research company.

Name a big UK market research company and the odds are it's part of WPP's Kantar Group. Last week, the company appointed the advertising stalwart Tamara Ingram to the position of president. The appointment means Ingram, best known for her days running Saatchi & Saatchi London, will now oversee Added Value, the Henley Centre and Fusion 5.

The role is a big leap for Ingram, but she's characteristically confident.

She believes her experience has made her understand that insights supplied by market research companies are ultimately accountable for a company's growth or decline.

As Ingram jumps in at the deep end, Campaign asks four planning directors to articulate what they believe makes a good market research company.

NEIL DAWSON - TBWA\London

The best researchers (whether qualitative or quantitative) see their role as the champions of insights that provide the springboard for original thinking and creativity.

This is usually found in individual researchers rather than agencies; once you industrialise your approach, you become imprisoned by the conventions of your methodology.

Great market researchers demand that marketers and agencies articulate their assumptions about exactly how their strategies and creative will work. And - irritatingly - ask how it will be different.

They are prepared to disrupt the conventions of ask/answer research methodologies to find better ways of generating insight such as observation, listening or just exploring the context around the issue.

They highlight points of departure not the consensus view. The minority of one is not necessarily wrong. It is potentially inspirational. They express subjective opinions based on their findings and make no pretence of objectivity or science.

Great market researchers are committed to illuminating a path forward, not obsessed with categorising the details of the past.

CHARLIE SNOW - Delaney Lund Knox Warren

As in any industry, it's the people that make good research companies. If they can demonstrate more than half the following, then that's a good start.

People with good instinct and a focus on the future not the past.

People that make it their business to understand the full business context.

People who make it their business to be on an equal footing with all the stakeholders (ie. both client and agency); people who can ignore the politics.

People who act as partners not police: it should be a constructive development process not a judging process.

People who understand that research is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The same goes for planning.

People who are open to quick and succinct response; the world moves fast.

People who are flexible enough to cope with individual needs.

People who have the ability to focus on what you're really trying to achieve, and not worry about the rest.

People who understand that the way you tell 'em is as important, if not more so, as what you say.

People who understand how norms should and should not be used.

ANDY NAIRN - Miles Calcraft Briginshaw Duffy

For better or worse, today's research agencies wield more power than ever before.

Generally, it's the ability to channel this power in a constructive way that separates the good from the bad. More specifically, good agencies tend to share certain characteristics.

First, they employ human beings, with a passion for the outside world and what makes real people tick; not corporate robots devoted to demographics and normative data. They can interpret consumers' words, and do not take everything respondents say as gospel.

Second, they are sensitive to the way brands and communications work.

This means a bespoke approach to each task, rather than the same proprietary model. They make allowances for unconventional ideas, which often suffer in research, but are essential for business growth in real life. They also treat multimillion-pound decisions with respect - employing senior people rather than delegating to juniors.

Third, good researchers can see the wood for the trees. Instead of focusing on peripheral details, they concentrate on the big picture. Rather than emphasise the differences between specific audiences, they pull out the deeper, unifying human themes.

Fourth, good researchers know the limits of conventional research. They know the focus group is an inherently artificial construct; they understand that quantitative research doesn't have to bludgeon people into submission with lengthy questionnaires; they realise that stimulus material is just that, and rarely does the finished product justice.

Finally, researchers are only ever as good as the agencies and clients who brief them. But that's another story.

RICHARD BUTTERWORTH - BMP DDB

Research agencies do their work in that fraught arena where big business, creative folk and consumers meet. If, in that arena, they can offer three things they'll go some way towards approaching perfection.

First off, they need to provide answers that will help big-business people decide how communications can influence the destiny of their businesses. Answers that convince them it's sensible to invest millions of pounds behind, say, a talking Brummie duck. Answers that are so robust that people can convince their superiors, often with no knowledge of Brum and little appreciation of ducks, that their decision is a sensible one.

Next, comes inspiration that helps creative agency folk work out what to say, how to say it, and who to say it to. A spark of insight that hints that something as whimsical as a talking Brummie duck may be the way forward, combined with the sensitivity to note later in the process that when respondents say with a smile, "Stupid duck, stupid accent!", they really mean: "We like it!" Finally, market researchers need to demonstrate realism. Those strange things known as "the sample" and "respondents" (ie. people) are unpredictable.

And every measurement technique and tool used by every researcher has limitations. The best researchers recognise this and have the sense to accept that showing how much a talking Brummie duck drives perceptions of "proactiveness" (to two decimal places) is only telling one side of what will normally be quite a complicated story.

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