Choosing a market research agency can be a fraught process, but Michael
Roe has marked a trail to lead you safely to the right choice
Market research is the business of risk reduction. In this role,
particularly over the past ten years, it has established its place as a
primary marketing service tool, beside advertising, design, direct
marketing and PR. And it is still relatively cheap, accounting for only
around 0.1% of its clients’ net sales value.
But research is also a classic people business and confidence in the
source of supply is intimately linked with the people who deliver it. So
you are often choosing an agency on the basis of personal chemistry.
Nevertheless, there is a logical decision tree that research buyers can
follow on their path to the best supplier solution. This map should be
of assistance, given that the technicalities of market research -
quotas, weighting, utilities, confidence limits and so on - often make
the task appear more daunting than it really is.
The selection process might stand apart from the nature of the topic to
be researched. You could be dealing with consumers of packaged goods or
customers of services, you might be in the business-to-business sector,
you might be evaluating opinions or measuring market share. Whatever the
task, the fundamental selection process is the one shown on the
The first step along the path should always be to ask: ‘Does the
information I require already exist?’. Rigorous desk research of
internal and external sources could reveal much that you need to know at
little or no cost. We live in an IT world and information is all around
us, so this is the place to start.
The next consideration relates to the booming interest in foreign
markets. Either singly or as part of a multinational study, these demand
contact with a UK research agency that is part of an international
network or group. For example, Nielsen and Research International have
offices in many countries around the world; many other agencies have
formed a loose association with like-minded companies.
It is probable that there is no country in the world where it is
impossible to conduct research of at least an acceptable, minimum-
quality standard on such key aspects as research design, interview
skills and interpretation. Even standards in Eastern Europe are now high
- as is the enthusiasm of the researchers themselves - it’s still the
infrastructure that’s the problem!
An early and fundamental decision to be made is whether to go for
qualitative research (that is, focus groups), or quantitative (that is,
large sample studies). Of course, in the ideal situation, the former
leads to the latter, but often a choice is necessary and the best guide
is to decide whether you are seeking insight or facts.
Most research agencies offer both of these skills, but from different
specialist individuals. Some agencies focus on one or other technique.
The Market Research Society Year Book provides a good guide to the
agencies and their focus. It is available free of charge (0171 490
4911), while on a worldwide scale the European equivalent of the MRS,
ESOMAR, also offers a listing (contact Amsterdam 664 2141).
Following the quantitative route, key decisions revolve around the
choice between syndicated or customised service suppliers. Generally,
the data available from syndicated suppliers - such as retail audits or
media data - would be too expensive to collect yourself.
Customised or ad hoc agencies conduct studies confidential to the client
paying for them, usually focusing on their own brands, products, or
services. This kind of research includes surveys, observation studies
Of course, it is not all so clear cut. One option is to ‘buy’ questions
in an omnibus survey conducted by companies such as BMRB, RSL, or
Gallup. But don’t forget you will have little or no control over the
environment immediately surrounding your questions.
Finally, market research data is most valuable when it is gathered
regularly, which accounts for the spectacular recent growth of tracking
studies. In the advertising arena, Millward Brown has established a pre-
eminent position, but most ad hoc research suppliers can design a
tracking study for you.
Trackers now cover quality of service, brand and corporate image and
such fundamental market statistics as awareness, trial and usership.
Michael Roe is executive director, Research International