"After many years of double-digit growth, last year we stood still, and this year will be only a little better," says Peter Jackling, chairman of industry body the BMRA. "However, there are certainly signs now of recovery for 2004, with a fragile business confidence returning.
"This year was notable for many mergers, particularly among the larger agencies, often on a global scale. The climate has also enabled those with money to invest and expand quickly - the Synovate Group in particular.
At the smaller agency end, there has been quite a bit of regeneration, with difficult times encouraging new ideas and approaches."
Fiona McAnena, development director at Kantar, WPP's insight, information and consultancy division, says more demanding clients have required an influx of skills into the sector.
This is one of the reasons why Tamara Ingram, a former chief executive of Saatchi & Saatchi and McCann-Erickson UK, this year became president of three Kantar insight companies, while Research International appointed two global business directors, Annette Miller and Paul van Sprang, with a wealth of client-side experience.
Have their appointments made a difference to the WPP research companies?
Given that they are covered by Sarbanes-Oxley restrictions we'll have to wait for their annual reports, but the signs are optimistic. Research International claims to have seen rapid business growth in the latter part of the year. It has won at least six pitches worth more than £300,000 in the UK this year alone, ranging from technology to packaged goods. By far the biggest proportion of its growth, however, comes from existing clients.
Synovate, meanwhile, has continued on its global acquisition trail, recently snapping up Censydiam in Belgium and Blackstone Market Facts in India. The agency's UK turnover was £6.7m in 2002 and expects this to rise 10.4% to £7.4m in 2003, with profits up from £1.1m to £1.3m (22.4%).
It's been working on such diverse projects as the Food Standards Agency, looking at nutrition label design in anticipation of an EC Directive review, and Philips, which asked it to investigate the potential market for LCD TV.
Another company dealing with growth is TNS, still working through the ramifications of its acquisition of NFO earlier this year. This is partly responsible for a 17.3% increase in staff to 1850.
Companies beating a path to TNS' door during 2003 included Nationwide, for which it carried out a customer segmentation exercise to develop CRM treatment strategies, and a second study to identify barriers to acquisition and cross-selling.
The need for information about internal customers is often as vital - if not more so - than for external. ORC International, which is looking at 3% growth internationally on last year's £12.6m turnover, specialises in this area, and has been building up ORC e-Insight since 2000 to complement its more traditional range of services.
It produced a staff survey for Carphone Warehouse, with a user-friendly questionnaire that was promoted via e-mail updates and posters, designed in nine languages for 11 countries. Since then, employees feel more satisfied that the company offers a clear progression path for all employees.
"Having identified our strengths and areas for improvement from the survey, it is now important for us to establish an effective plan of action, to ensure everyone is clear about the way forward and help maintain momentum," says Carphone Warehouse human resources director Andrew Sherwood.
In the market research industry, innovation has a major part to play in delivering answers to ever more complex and fragmented segments. In this instance, HI Europe, whose turnover should be up 8.4% to £13.6m, while staff numbers are down 4.5% to 149, has developed QuickQuery GB.
This is an online service that enables clients to ask questions and get projectable answers from a representative sample of British adults. Although all respondents are internet users, ongoing parallel studies and experience enables HI Europe to weight the sample to represent the UK adult population, with 2000 respondents interviewed nationwide each month.
This underlines the part that the internet has to play in driving down costs and speeding up answers, as clients seek more knowledge, faster.
Information Resources International is another company that sees innovation in this area as a central plank of its strategy. It has launched CPG Network Analyzer, allowing clients a faster alternative to CD delivery.
BMRB has always stood out in the area of social research, seen by many brand owners as key to delivering insight. This year, one of its most innovative pieces of research was for Metro Newspapers, delving into a notoriously difficult area. It conceived the 'Urban Life' project to recruit and research the young urban professionals, rarely at home and difficult to reach, who advertisers wanted to target.
The project created an online panel, positioned as an exclusive and desirable proposition, with exciting incentives, and user-friendly questionnaires.
"It has fulfilled the two main criteria that we gave it: to encourage advertisers and agencies to use the survey with their own questions and, from a Metro sales and commercial point of view, it has been very successful in opening doors and gaining business," says Doug Read, project director at Metro.
Finally, Added Value - which won business from Sainsbury's, Vodafone and Cussons this year - has more than a little to crow about in the drinks market. Its innovation programme with Scottish Courage resulted in the successful launches of Kronenbourg Blanc, Bliss and Premier Cru - each targeting different identified segments. Both Blanc and Bliss drinks were launched earlier this year and have exceeded their launch targets.