MARKET RESEARCH: THE YOUNG ONES - What do the newer market research agencies have to offer their clients? Pippa Considine looks at the new companies and asks whether they constitute a threat to the old guard

It is received wisdom that in the past decade clients have had to become more customer-friendly and that marketing executives need to understand their consumers. Understanding the consumer is why market research agencies exist, so it's perhaps not surprising that there has been a spate of new agencies launching over the past few years.

Enter the likes of Firefish, the Nursery, Evo Research, Sense and Decision Point. These are some of the newest, with others, such as Flamingo International and the Fourth Room, although a little longer in the tooth, still included in many people's lists of ones to watch. Most will talk about complementing the offering of the larger, more well-established companies, such as The Research Business International or BMRB, but others have a bigger vision.

The new shops major on qualitative research, but a number will co-ordinate both qualitative or quantitative.

Whatever else, they are giving the big companies something to think about.

At Sense Research, which launched in 2000, the director Alistair Swanson has just conducted a major competitive review. "What you see is a rise in the emergence of boutique research and trends houses. Increasingly, there are more little companies like us getting in on the scene and kicking at established companies."

Mick Williamson, the creative director of TRBI, is taking that kicking very seriously. "They used to snap at our heels, but now they are taking business from the establishment, especially innovation projects. They certainly occupy the high ground in new products and new services. It has been his job to put TRBI back on the shopping list for this sort of work. "We've had to tear up some parts of the rule book, he says. TRBI can draw on its international resources and use its own experts to look at new methodologies or working practices.

Williamson adds that some of the small market research agencies can also complement TRBI's business - he cites Everyday Lives, a company that specialises in videoing people in their homes.

Most of the new companies feel that they are offering something cutting edge. Sense Research and its sister division, Sense Trends, mark themselves out with their panel of 500 opinion formers from across 15 countries, selected from all walks of life for expertise and a forward-thinking attitude.

These 'sensors' are available as respondents. Although Sense does work on projects using other respondents, Swanson says that "clients tend to say that they go further, faster with one sense group than three months spent with traditional focus groups."

If a client is looking for research fast, then another new agency, Decision Point, which launched in September last year, has one answer in the shape of a qualitative omnibus, offering clients the chance to buy 20 minutes on its rolling group research programme. It is something that the bigger players in the research sector have considered, but then rejected, possibly because it might cannibalise other business.

"The challenge we have is to make clients understand that we're not really an alternative to existing suppliers, the joint managing director of Decision Point, Joe Howard, says. "We are a supplement for when they haven't got the time or money for big research projects. Instead of spending £6,000 on four groups, you may as well spend £600 and eliminate a lot of petty arguments."

Decision Point's client list includes agencies such as BMP DDB, Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, Young & Rubicam and clients such as Nestle, Virgin Mobile and Nationwide; the company is already in profit.

At Evo, Nick Johnson, the co-founder and a former board director at TRBI, explains his company is offering global research with a twist: "The most important bit of research groups is where the researchers are sitting down and throwing ideas around - those conversations the client is rarely party to. So we decided to turn the thing on its head."

Instead of having presentation and debrief as the main revelation point, Evo invites its clients to come to a workshop when the research is discussed before the final debrief is presented. Evo, which is just over a year old, is based in warehouse offices to allow for expansion and although it talks about retaining its small company values, it is already keen to launch offices internationally.

Jem Fawcus, the joint founder and joint managing director of Firefish, believes that the increase in the number of new agencies such as his own, which launched back in January 2000, come in the wake of "a new wave of agencies started when youth research really became the thing. To be good or respected you had to understand youth."

"Agencies such as Informer, 2CV and Flamingo were in the vanguard with different, interesting and lively work and they gave permission for others to come in, he continues.

Fawcus also warns against too much razzmatazz over the offering of a new agency. "If smaller agencies make too much of a show of their newness, they have a definite shelf-life. That needs to be underpinned with ability and technique, he cautions.

The Nursery is another new outfit on the block. It was formed recently after The Way Forward joined with the planner and researcher Chris Forrest.

There are no great corporate expansion plans but, according to one of the three principals, Peter Dann, the company adheres to a relatively sober philosophy. "Market research represents the consumer. There is a general feeling that the consumer can never be wrong. We're here to put the brand communications first."

The 4th Room, which started up just over four years ago, is even more generalist in its proposition. According to its co-founder, Wendy Gordon, the main purpose of the company is "to help our clients grow". Gordon's background is in research, having been part of the initial team at TRBI when it was founded in 1981; several other partners bring various disciplines to the party. Research for clients is often bricolage (using a mix of different methodologies) and the company frequently takes any findings into a broader strategic service for clients.

All these newer companies seem to be attracting clients, but do they really constitute a competitive threat to the more established players?

Hall & Partners, while not as large as the biggest players, is, after ten years, a 90-person business in the UK, with offices in the US. The chairman of Hall & Partners, Marilyn Baxter, points out that most start-ups specialise in qualitative work, relying on a small number of talented researchers, and that clients want to see those people conducting the research. "There's a limit to what three people can do," she says. "There are no economies of scale. It is a self-limiting business."

FIVE OF THE YOUNGEST
Decision Point
Clients include: BMP DDB, AMV BBDO, Nestle, Virgin Mobile
Evo Research
Clients include: Allied Domecq, Hewlett Packard, Motorola
Firefish
Clients include: American Express, Marmite, Lynx, VW, The Guardian
Flamingo International
Clients include: Elida Faberge, PlayStation, Levi Strauss, Pepsi
The Nursery
Clients include: COI Communications, Guinness UDV, Unilever

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