Traditional market research is, according to Clare Bruce, chief executive of research agency Nunwood, 'almost dead on its feet'.
In a recent internal presentation, she put forward an all-too-familiar scenario to staff, asking what they would do if they were marketing or brand directors working for a company with a plummeting share price and slashed budgets.
In answer to her own question, she says: 'In that situation, you wouldn't want to use agencies that were known to be data monkeys. You'd turn to a consultative partner who was prepared to step out of their comfort zone and stretch the budget by giving an informed opinion to empower a business decision, using the here and now to forecast what might happen in the future.'
In other words, it is no longer enough for in-house or agency research teams to be simple data factories or even insight providers. What marketers require is influential advisers with specific sector knowledge and experience who can use ROI models to demonstrate the real impact of customer insight upon sales.
Lorna Walters, senior vice-president of market research at Reckitt Benckiser, agrees. 'As an industry, market research is very good at navel-gazing, rather than finding business answers. But that luxury ended last year,' she says. 'My focus is on driving our share value. So I'm not interested in how much better someone's bean counter is than the rest, I want to know how they can help my business succeed ahead of our competitors.'
Nick Cole, RBS Insurance proposition development director, underlines this point. 'It's no longer a question of data-gathering as I can do that myself for £10 a month with a survey monkey account,' he says. 'I need partners who can add much greater value, through statistical know-how and expertise that provides confidence in the results.'
His firm is currently developing a new car insurance variant across its Direct Line, Churchill, Privilege and partner brands. Last year, to identify customer need, the insurer worked with Nunwood to uncover which elements of its proposed package were most favourable, and at what price.
'What was really useful, was that Nunwood built a simulator on top of the resulting data to enable us to optimise both the customer and commercial appeal of each scenario and start to explore the profit margins - which is basically what my job is all about,' says Cole.
Likewise, Gavin Sugden, head of market intelligence at T-Mobile, argues that there is now a much greater need for workable recommendations. As an example, he points to customer satisfaction.
'Internal teams don't just want simple customer service, network or billing data. They're looking for insight into the cost trade-offs between investing in those areas, to help the business allocate budget where it is going to get the most value in terms of making customers more happy,' he says.
Jeremy Brown, chief executive of research consultancy Sense Worldwide, believes that marketers are getting much smarter about using research to drive strategic decisions.
'They no longer look to researchers to provide a reactive role or validate ideas,' he says. 'It's more about the inspiration we can bring.'
His firm is currently working with the Discovery Channel on a 'Species' project, to provide a guide to 25- to 39-year-old men.
This has involved using both qualitative and quantative research to segment this core audience into four main groups: pressure providers; modern and in control; all about me; and non-committals. Following this, 18 'life issues' such as fatherhood and grooming are to be examined.
'At the moment we're developing a framework to create the right kind of promos to attract young men and match up programme values,' explains Claire O'Connor, Discovery's director of research, insights and innovations across EMEA.
In January, Sense created a 'For Your Inspiration (FYI)' web 2.0 knowledge management tool for the channel. This enables every member of staff to tag relevant content they come across into a central depository, to build on the insights already generated.
'We want to make the research get active engagement from the whole business across EMEA, so that we can look at FYI and get the latest insights,' says O'Connor, who adds that the tool is being shared with external media partners.
This idea of making research work harder by sharing data has also been taken up by Vodafone, which has invested in a library for housing its insight and brand marketing data, accessible to 75,000 users worldwide.
Indeed, many argue that in the current economic climate, marketers should worry less about stretching hard-pushed budgets to generate more data, and focus instead on better exploiting the resources they already hold.
'Many organisations are drowning in data, much of which is duplicated, so there is a case for encouraging marketers to re-analyse existing information,' says Dan Foreman, director of City-based Opinium Research.
Stephen Phillips, founder of Spring Research, adds that while research costs may have leapt up the agenda, as yet, the discipline is far from being sidelined. 'It seems to be more about cutting costs but still trying to get the same work done, which in some ways is possible, as online research has significantly reduced interview costs,' he says.
Both Cole and Sugden say their organisations recognise that informed decisions can be made only with robust research and relevant insight to hand.
Sugden adds that T-Mobile is currently relying more heavily on a handful of its 25 rostered agencies. 'It's a double-win situation,' he explains. 'While we get a cost reduction on the volume of work, they become more knowledgeable about our industry, business and stakeholders by working on areas that complement each other.'
Publicis Dialog planning director Andrew Smith agrees. 'We're using research more, as clients currently need even more reassurance that any creative work is based on decent strategic consumer insight, while many marketers are in a position where they have to provide detailed justification to get budgets signed off,' he says.
Indeed, following last year's TNS acquisition, WPP chief Sir Martin Sorrell indicated that his firm is to significantly shift its competitive profile away from traditional media and advertising to become a more strategic, insight-led organisation. In January, he told an IAB lunch gathering: 'Clients won't move in the future unless they get quantitative justification for what they do. We may not like it - creative departments of ad agencies certainly don't - but that's the way the world's going.'
Certainly, this is the argument researchers put forward to encourage marketers to maintain their investment in the sector. 'We can provide the end-to-end decision-making support,' says Alistair Leathwood managing director of Fresh Minds Research.
He argues that marketers should ask more of their research partners, from framing issues and giving the market context at the outset of the process, right through to compiling the results and making sense of the outcomes.
'Sometimes generating real commercial insight can stop a bit short, as marketers just outsource the middle bit of the process - the practicalities of doing the research,' he says.
Furthermore, Leathwood maintains that involving the experts at the outset can also deliver huge cost savings. 'A good research agency will always look at the level of rigour needed to test hypotheses and weigh up the best solution, which is not always asking 10,000 respondents online,' he says.
However, Market Research Society chairman Rowland Lloyd warns that while budgets may be tight, marketers should be wary of buying on price alone.
'If the research is cheap, people need to ask about the reliability of the results and whether the design is the best solution,' he says. 'Currently there is a need for people to have a more intelligent conversation at the proposal stage. And one of the key skills that clients should expect from agencies, is a level of sophistication about matching the right research to the right situation.'
VODAFONE - THE JUNGIAN APPROACH
In 2008, Vodafone set about defining its global brand personality and creating a set of consistent values that would resonate across its various geographical markets.
Working with brand development and insight specialist Added Value, the mobile network operator rolled out a series of internal workshops across three continents, based on a board game, incorporating celebrated psychiatrist Carl Jung's theory of archetype personalities.
Called The Archetype Game, it was designed to bring alive the firm's more traditional brand and ad-tracking data to engage and inspire brand teams and identify any inconsistencies within local activities.
Developed using visual language, the game allowed the teams to identify the archetypal personalities of the Vodafone brand and the key imagery, language and feelings communicated, both by its and its competitors' advertising.
The game, which is still being used by the mobile operator, provides a framework for discussion around local brand communications.
'It plays a critical role in enabling us to build global consensus around our identity destination and in reviewing our brand expression,' says David Erixon, Vodafone's director of brand strategy and manifestation.
DAILY MAIL - TAKING THE MIDDLE GROUND
To shape ongoing revenue streams and promote the value of its audiences to advertisers, A&N Media set up two online panels of 2500 respondents who fit the 'MidBritain' mindset of its Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday readers.
Working with BMRB and predictive analytics specialist SPSS, this has enabled the media owner to quiz the UK's 'super consumers' on issues from finance to lifestyle, with multiple surveys being conducted every three or four weeks.
The results are fed to senior managers across different business divisions, while quarterly reports on issues such as Gordon Brown versus David Cameron are used for media work and made publicly available through a MidBritain website.
'We've also used the panels to pre-test a Daily Mail ad campaign, identify suitable products and services for our online Mailshop and support the launch last year of the Mail on Sunday's new lifestyle section,' says A&N panel manager Rachel Cassidy.