Agency of the Year: Market Research Agency of the Year - Flamingo International

A focus on innovative techniques has propelled Flamingo to success this year, writes David Tiltman.

A combination of a first-class new business record and clear evidence of effectiveness has deservedly made Flamingo International this year's Market Research Agency of the Year.

Founded in 1997, the qualitative research agency has built an impressive client base, including Unilever, PepsiCo and Carlsberg, which it has added to in the past year with a series of business wins, including Reebok, Wrigley and Citibank.

In total, Flamingo added almost £1m of business this year, and with existing clients such as BUPA and Unilever raising their spend significantly, it has been able to post solid revenue figures. Turnover is up 16% on 2005 to £8.6m - an outstanding achievement for an agency of its size in a flat market.

Flamingo has been at the forefront of new techniques. It has expanded its use of semiotics, and now has two full-time researchers working in the field, which generates gross profit for it of £200,000. In addition, it has invested in a films division, using it to conduct ethnographic research and improve the way information can be delivered to clients.

It has broadened its work in product innovation, with the agency's approach being adopted by Braun across its electronic-goods categories. And as market research begins to get to grips with the potential of digital channels, Flamingo has developed its use of techniques such as online panels, bulletin boards and blogs.

To ensure it keeps up with consumer behaviour it has set up a global research panel dedicated to monitoring the habits of young people. This tracks the habits of teens and young adults in 14 cities worldwide. A regular report entitled 'Flamingo Youth Intelligence' will combine insights from these panels with results from experimental research techniques using blogs.

This commitment to keeping up with young people in a shifting media landscape was instrumental in winning the account for Wrigley, with which it is working on its youth strategy. The agency's youth division is expected to generate £400,000 of revenue this financial year, and a youth and leading-edge director was hired recently in recognition of its importance within the agency.

A high-profile example of the agency's work is its contribution to the much-feted 'noitulove' campaign by Guinness. Flamingo was involved in exploratory research in 2005, which examined the dynamics of the UK beer market and the issues facing the brand. This involved techniques from standard qualitative work to ethnographic and semiotic research, which led to a revision of the creative brief for the campaign. When a series of ideas had been proposed, Flamingo tested them, feeding into the development of the finished ad.

The results have been good; Guinness revenues rose by 3.6% year on year in a declining beer market, with both volume and value shares increasing. While this cannot be attributed solely to Flamingo, the agency's research undoubtedly played a part.

This is not an isolated example. Flamingo has also been working with an out-of-town retailer using consumer diaries, store visits, qualitative customer research and semiotics. The result has been wholesale changes to its operations, including staff uniforms, in-store visual material and range of merchandise. The agency's research fed into the retailer's first national ad campaign so successfully that it has now been asked to give strategy input on an ongoing basis.

Following its success this year, Flamingo has decided to expand further globally. It already has offices in London, Singapore and San Francisco and is now set to open a fourth in Tokyo in February.

One sign of a good agency is staff retention, and this too is a feature of Flamingo's business. No senior manager has left the company since its launch in 1997, while its overall staff churn rate of 2% makes it one of the best in the research industry.

Perhaps most notably, the agency has achieved all this as an independent. The main feature of the research sector over the past few years has been consolidation, with predictions that the medium-sized firms would be crushed between the economies of scale of the big agencies and the low overheads of the smaller. Flamingo's success is a reminder that good ideas and management are more important than size.

Flamingo's success has not gone unnoticed. It has been nominated for best agency at the Market Research Society Awards (previously the BMRA Awards) for four years running, and this year took the prize in conjunction with Freshminds. It can now add to that Marketing's Agency of the Year.

Previous winners
2005 Nunwood Consulting
2004 Nunwood Consulting
2003 Incepta Marketing Intelligence
2002 Ipsos UK

BEST OF THE REST

Nunwood, winner of this award for the past two years, came very close to making it three in a row.

The Leeds agency, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, has recorded another year of double-digit growth. With an impressive rise in revenue of 10%, it has outperformed the industry average.

In terms of new business, Nunwood has had a prodigious year, adding 31 clients, including New Look, Marks & Spencer, Vodafone, Orange and 3, accounting for about £1.3m of additional revenue. Moreover, two of its top five existing accounts have grown by more than 100% over the period.

The agency has bolstered its market analytics division with the internal appointment of Andrew Wiseman to the position of director. The department has launched several services, including a customer value modelling programme, which has been used by Orange, and an advanced mystery shopping service.

TNS, the world's biggest provider of custom research, has rolled out a raft of innovative consumer initiatives over the year. IPA TouchPoints, introduced in partnership with the Institute of Practitioners in Advertising, is the standout product.

The £1m initiative, hailed as a world first, provides industry users with an overview of the lifestyles and media habits of 5000 adults in the UK, based on electronic diaries and a questionnaire. The results are integrated to produce a multimedia overview of consumption habits, covering print, broadcast, direct and online.

The agency also launched an on-line Travellers' Panel, offering access to 500,000 international respondents across six European countries. Its scale enables TNS to identify big sub-samples of respondents, allowing bespoke insight into specific holiday travellers to inform communications strategies.

Elsewhere, Freshminds continues its ascent. Launched in 2000, it has attracted clients with its combination of creativity and commercial awareness. Business wins this year included Starbucks, American Express and the Department of Culture Media and Sport, boosting income by £750,000.

Its turnover between January and October was £3.6m, up 38% year on year - an impressive figure that does not include its acquisition of public-sector specialist RBA Research.

Freshminds also found success in its work for existing clients. When Innocent Drinks wanted to market its smoothies for kids via schools, Freshminds conducted a literature review as well as qualitative interviews to analyse the opportunities. The research went on to inform a successful transition into the schools market, which is seen as offering vital growth potential to the brand.

The agency's sterling year included being named as joint winner in the best agency category at the Market Research Society awards.

HPI Research bucked the trend for consolidation in the sector with a management buyout from communications giant Interpublic Group. The agency drew in new business worth more than £1m, including Abbey and Emap's rock magazine Kerrang!

Last year HPI conducted consumer segmentation research that helped Vodafone develop its Simply no-frills mobile handset, aimed at 33- to 55-year-olds. HPI's research influenced all areas of the launch, including design, user interface, pricing and name. It is now the UK's bestselling pre-pay handset and has increased voice use by customers by 51%.

Cardinal, its specialist drinks division, had a good year and helped run product testing for the development and launch of Foster's Twist lager. In an innovative approach, part of the research was informed by having the samplers drink five bottles of Twist on one night and the same amount of the category leader on another.

A raft of new public sector and business clients has boosted the coffers of Opinion Leader Research by a hefty £1.8m this year. Government departments, councils, watchdogs and charities sit alongside Sony PlayStation and Cable & Wireless on its wins list.

The agency's work for another new client, Sainsbury's, saw it run a collaborative event on healthy living involving parents, professionals and the Department of Health, represented on the day by public health minister Caroline Flint. The high-profile event gained positive coverage in several quality national newspapers.

Another of its assignments had implications for the wider marketing community. It conducted consumer research for regulator Ofcom on the advertising of food and drink to children, which fed into stringent restrictions announced last month.

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