MARKET RESEARCH: In search of insight

What do clients look for in their market research agency? Louella Miles finds that many want to go beyond the traditional remits of qualitative and quantitative research to get much deeper consumer insights.

Clients usually know what they want in terms of market research - but can market research agencies meet their specific demands?

According to some brand owners, certain agencies tout for business using poorly researched presentations, with the client tantamount to a name on a list to be ticked off.

Do they really care about a client's business aims? Or are the pressures of an economic downturn prompting them to seek work wherever they can?

At Tesco - like many other blue-chip names - there is a list of preferred suppliers with whom it develops more of a partnership. But there are problems when it comes to expanding that list.

"We are doing fewer peripheral projects than in better times," Simon Ford, Tesco's market research manager, admits. "We have a smaller budget and that limits us to the big jobs. What that means in terms of agencies is that we are less able to trial new ones on projects that are not as important."

Instead, he has to stick with those he knows can deliver on strategic issues. There is a disparity, too, in terms of his relationships with qualitative and quantitative agencies. The work of the former sits well with the strategic projects they undertake, but it's a different story with quantitative agencies.

"I feel that the good quantitative agencies tend to be relatively big companies with products to sell," he says. "In my experience, when they get beyond a certain size, they try to shoehorn their products into your problem."

He is now challenging quantitative companies to try to convince him they can take his issues and problems and turn around a bespoke solution rather than try and fit it into what they've already got. At least one company has taken up the challenge, but it is, Ford says, a hybrid - part consultancy and part quantitative.

Maybe it's all a matter of stretching those agencies that work for you.

At Coca-Cola Great Britain, the insight and planning manager, Michael Dick, emphasises the importance of talking to consumers, claiming that it informs everything the company does.

"We're trying to take our research agencies past the 'standard' approach to research: we're interested in innovative ways of conducting and delivering it," he says. "For example, we recently did some 'encounter' research with Wendy Gordon, and we have been asking agencies to deliver research data in ways that really bring it to life - such as in video clips or in workshops."

He cites the example of Disney Winnie the Pooh Roo Juice, formulated for very young children, a new area for the company and a project that involved the specialist children's researcher Lucia Rolli, a first for the company.

"What we're moving towards," Dick says, "is using more innovative, cutting-edge, strategic agencies. Thornton Mustard, for example, helped us understand the psychological impact of taste."

At UK TV, the joint venture between the BBC and Flextech, it's a different story. Cary Wakefield, the acting marketing director, chooses to hire quantitative rather than qualitative companies because the tasks are more specific, whether it is for ad tracking or pricing analysis.

She cites the company's relationship with agencies such as Leapfrog as exemplary. "Their people are classic in terms of the approach they take to understanding your business and coming up with solutions that don't just consist of reporting what people think. They take the whole thing a stage forward."

Then again, television isn't the easiest product to monitor. As Wakefield points out: "It's changing all the time. You can't just go in and talk to a load of people. They need to have watched things beforehand or have the facility to go online or whatever. It's meant that agencies have had to adapt their techniques a bit more, and that's what the industry is looking for: companies that can test for you in a way that fits your business."

Companies are, undoubtedly, becoming more insight driven but they are not using it to fine-tune their brands.

Instead, companies such as Tesco are using it to respond to and anticipate consumer needs.

"I think clients now look for agencies that understand where the value of the consumer insight begins and ends," Leapfrog's joint chief executive, Andrea Berlowitz, says, "and aren't naive about it in the broader business context."

It's a tall order for many agencies with a bog-standard presentation, but if they seek an enduring partnership that's what it's likely to take.

BT's CONSUMER CHIEF ON THE VALUE OF CONSUMER INSIGHT

Before BT, I worked in the confectionery industry. There, market research was a precise science.

Customers knew their minds, and that made life simple. In product testing, a chocolate bar that scores more than five on a seven-point scale will sell well; a fraction less, and it's a turkey.

In the communications industry, things are more complicated. We tend to be focused on future possibilities and new technologies, and that's more tricky. Getting real insights is as much art as science. And when the whole market is depressed, the pressure is on to get things right.

Take BT's most recent major launch, BT broadband. The process of designing that product involved piecing together a jigsaw. We looked at other markets worldwide. We talked to early adopters - although they're often more interested in the technology itself than the services. We conducted customer research on an unprecedented scale - a survey of BT's entire customer base. We've just received our millionth response, and it has provided real insights into the things that really matter to people.

All this has given us the confidence to launch not just a new service, but one that breaks the mould and gives customers real choices.

Initiatives such as this have challenged, but strengthened, our agency relationships. We have demanded more insight, and less data. We have used new techniques that satisfy our need for rapid responses, without quality compromises. The development of the broadband market in the coming months will tell us whether we're on the right track. - Angus Porter is the managing director, consumer division at BT Retail.