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I’ve had the same haircut for about 8 years. Some of my clothes are nearly as old. While I don’t stand out like a sore thumb, one could say that I am quite distinctive. Hence I was not surprised when I was spotted from distance in a club last week by someone I had not seen for over a year.
That got me thinking. How distinctive are research companies? If I saw a research paper or presentation, could I accurately guess who conducted it? The answer, in 95% of cases, would be no. While a few methodologies – Link or Worldpanel for instance – are immediately identifiable, the vast majority could have been carried out by Generic Research Company.
Obviously the client’s aims and objectives are going to factor into how research is presented. But it is my belief that the industry has an image problem. Some small agencies/boutiques/consultancies that specialise in a particular field or discipline excepted, agencies tend to look the same to me. It is my experience that agencies try and swallow up as much business as possible. By trying to be everything, they don’t become anything.
This needs to be changed. To my mind, there is little difference between competitor agencies. Only a few companies can be invited to tender each time. I find that companies tend to get selected from personal experience or recommendation. Company image or perceived expertise rarely seem to factor.
From my experiences when I worked agency-side, I have encountered several explanations for a lack of brand differentiation or product innovation. These have been both explicit and implicit. The one thing that unites them is that they are myths. Below are six examples that I have experienced.
Business to business organisations operate under the radar
Research agencies may not get the same level of exposure as consumer brands, but marketing departments still have the trade press, press releases and the company website with which to reach potential clients. Company blogs can also be a great way to define an identity, but few companies seem willing to devote the necessary resources.
Clients only want an affirmative answer to their hypothesis
There are many routes to an answer. And if a client is that inflexible, is the business margin on that job worth it, or can resources be better utilised elsewhere?
Clients only care about price
There is a vicious cycle where innovation in research design is omitted because of the cost – monetary cost, the cost of trial by error, the opportunity cost of resources. Cost is obviously a factor in competitive tenders, but it only becomes so important when there is so little to tell between pitches. When there is no innovation. We rarely go for the cheapest option; we choose the agencies with the best ideas (within our budget, obviously)
Clients don’t want to experiment in case something goes wrong
Some clients are like this – not all. But few can resist the PR from a paper resulting from a successful innovation. Personally, I would like to see more papers detailing the tribulations of experimenting in the unknown, but understandably few will be willing to divulge such information.
Pitches are won and lost by the people, not the agency
Pitches are very much an idiosyncratic endeavour – the team in place will have certain skills and experiences, and this will naturally influence the response. However, no person is bigger than the organisation and individual preference should be no obstacle to instilling an overarching philosophy.
The industry is too preoccupied by consolidation
Surely this is the perfect time to forge an identity. It will be occurring inwardly – why can’t it be extended externally?
These are by no means representative views of the industry, but they are views that I have personally encountered. The theme for the forthcoming MRS conference is “Changing business through better customer understanding”. It is my hope that part of the debate will include branding and distinctiveness, and that this can provoke agencies into action.