The scale and depth of work carried out by Incepta Marketing Intelligence for clients in 2003, allied with its predicted growth this year, mark it out as a clear winner.
Incepta comprises four specialist names under its umbrella: DVL Smith (brand strategy work), The Wire (data collection, computer-assisted telephone interviewing), Hauck Research (brand development) and Viewpoint Field & Studios (face-to-face field work and studios).
It is predicting growth of about 15% this year, giving it an expected turnover of £19.9m and forecasts a healthy growth in pre-tax profits.
More importantly, Incepta has won many client plaudits. ICI Paints praises the group's holistic approach, working in partnership with its clients to develop specialist tools and approaches on a bespoke project basis.
One such project was to discover consumers' emotional associations with paint colour. This qualitative and quantitative project - undertaken across five countries - developed an interactive database of thousands of colours and emotional responses, ranging from such associations as 'fresh leaves on lime trees' to 'cold wartime soup'.
"Incepta produced some engaging segmentations that have been really useful," says Bill Marshall, ICI Paints' European market research and insights director. "The work showed us how consumers choose to live. Paint can transform their homes, so you do need to get into their heads to understand their purchasing habits."
It is difficult to talk about research's return on investment, but Marshall is clear that conducting the right type of activity, at the right time and with the right methodology, has led to successful product launches and understanding of the consumer.
Incepta's major business wins this year include Scottish & Newcastle, Aventis, Morgan Stanley, Reckitt Benckiser, and a major global strategic segmentation exercise for Orange.
Orange customer value research director Rosemary Hadden praises DVL's ability to operate at senior levels across the business in a consumer research project that took place in eight European countries, with the second phase starting in July 2004 and with initial results delivered in October.
"One of the things that I have been impressed with is the speed of turnaround, which was very important strategically, and the quality of the work," she says. "Another was DVL's flexibility and understanding of Orange's business requirements and its ability to fit in with requests coming from here, there and everywhere - then to report under pressure and within a tight timescale."
Hadden says she values this above a lot of the so-called 'innovation' touted elsewhere. "There are a lot of things that are just repackaged.
You are not looking for the most innovative approach, but at how an agency will work with you as a supplier and consultant. It is about the way that people build relationships across the business and stakeholders in different countries, and at different levels," she says.
Incepta has shown impressive ability to bed down quickly with clients, recognise the bigger picture and work closely with clients' qualitative agencies on projects. The result is a virtual research team.
The agency also benefits from its position within the Incepta Group.
Indeed, 15% of its revenue comes from working with such sister companies as Citigate Dewe Rogerson, Albert Frank and Lloyd Northover, particularly in East Asia, where it is expanding its offering.
It is launching an office in Shanghai, partly because its Hong Kong office is taking care of increasing work in China. Clients there include ICI, HSBC and Philips.
Incepta is also expanding its New York office, due to total eight staff by the end of the year. In the US, it is the major IT players that are providing most work - companies such as Sun, Cisco Systems and PeopleSoft - as the market starts to pick up.
Andy Dexter, chief executive of Incepta Marketing Intelligence, admits that this year has had its challenges, particularly in some of the consumer FMCG markets. "Other sectors, such as finance, IT and retail have held up quite well," he says. "But there has been a need to stay focused to maintain and grow the business in a period that has not been the easiest."
He believes next year will see an upturn, but this doesn't mean that he will be going on the acquisition trail straight away. "My priority will be around the consultancy area, maybe looking at small management consultancies or brand consultancies, but before that I would look at joint ventures to test working relationships," he says.
What is clear is that the group intends to stick to its byword of 'don't let the process kill the big idea'.
"It is all about solving problems," says Dexter, "This isn't a matter of looking at what we have done before and adapting it. It's about 'what can my team develop to solve this problem?' Sometimes it will be a bright idea, other times we will go on past experience."
Louella Miles contributes to Marketing on the market research sector. firstname.lastname@example.org.