At first glance, this year's market research league table indicates that the industry is living up to the received wisdom that research always survives a recession.
While 2008 may have been tough for some, the sector has proved remarkably resilient in the economic downturn.
Total industry revenue increased by 6.2% in 2008, to an estimated total of £2.1bn, according to the annual survey of the UK research market by the Market Research Society.
Domestic research grew by a respectable 3.8%, but internationally it expanded by a remarkable 12.5% - despite the UK's position as the world's second-biggest market, behind the US.
However, all is not necessarily well. Anecdotal evidence suggests that the first six months of 2009 delivered much harsher economic blows.
Vincent Nolan, founder of 2CV and chairman of Cello Research, voices the troubles of many. ‘Last year was fine, but we have had more concerns in 2009,' he says.
He notes that significant budget cuts by many clients in April led to cutbacks across the board, while previous drops tended to affect qualitative, rather than quantitative, activity. However, Nolan does not believe the downward trend will necessarily continue. ‘The picture is less clear as new budgets are being created, especially in areas where there are signs of economic recovery,' he adds.
Others are less optimistic, however. According to research consultancy RSM's annual ‘State of the Industry' report, published in July, confidence is lower than it has been in eight years. The study, which is based on online interviews with 345 research suppliers and buyers and conducted in May and June, shows that the budgets of six out of 10 researchers have fallen in the past six months.
Furthermore, a third of respondents expected budgets to continue to drop over the next six months, while half predicted that the impact of the economic turndown will continue to be felt over the next two to three years. ‘For mid-sized agencies in particular, it's an uncertain time,' says RSM sales director, Mark Durham.
Despite this, or perhaps as a consequence, consolidation has remained a recurring theme over the past 18 months.
WPP's drawn-out acquisition of TNS, which was finalised in August last year, has grabbed the biggest headlines. Under the terms of the deal, Kantar Group, WPP's information and insight arm, will merge its existing Research International business with TNS Custom Division to create the world's biggest custom agency, TNS RI.
The merger is still a work in progress in the UK, but Paul Edwards, UK chairman of the nascent entity, is optimistic about the future of the service.
‘Clients want experts in their field, and we have the volume and scope of work to enable our people to become experts,' he says. ‘It also means that we can pull together teams of people, with expertise in different areas, to ensure that clients have the right people on their projects. They will only be paying for what they need, over the six to 10 weeks that they need it.'
This all sounds well and good, but marketers also want insights that they can use to deliver immediate business solutions. ¬
Andrew Gordon, head of marketing for insurance broker AON's product design and development division, agrees.
‘I need market research that adds real value to the decision-making and business processes, that can be embedded so we can do something with it,' he says. He has spent the past five months setting up a marketing function from scratch, including commissioning a research project to explore the needs of the firm's SME client base.
One of Gordon's challenges has been learning how this insight translates into shaping products that move the business forward. Finding agencies he can work with has been more tricky. ‘There's a fine line between experience with a particular sector, and preconceptions. I welcome experience, but I don't want projects done for other clients to unduly influence findings or insights presented back to us,' he adds.
This view is echoed by Catriona Ferris, insight manager for Unilever's laundry brands, which include Persil, Comfort and Surf. ‘I'm looking for partnership,' she says. ‘The more an agency works with us, the more they understand our business, our brands and the category and the more able they are to really push us.'
To support its ‘Cleaner Planet Plan' CSR push, which launched in the UK last month, Unilever undertook a project with Spring Research aimed at encouraging consumers to adopt greener laundry habits and convert to the manufacturer's more compact and concentrated variants.
‘Spring looked at triggers and barriers to changing behaviour. It talked to people in the UK, France, Brazil and India who had made small changes that added up to big differences in other areas of their lives, such as losing loads of weight or giving up smoking,' says Ferris. ‘It didn't waste our time with a debrief, telling us what we already know about people's laundry habits.'
Research agencies have their own gripes about clients, which, predictably, include marketers keeping research partners at arm's length on business issues, as well as the rise of e-procurement specialists.
‘It's unfair on us, and unfair on marketers, who are often presenting complicated briefs, with which a bit of human contact would ease the process,' says Mark Speed, joint managing director of full-service agency IFF Research, which specialises in researching hard-to-reach audiences such as intravenous drug users.
Other complaints range from marketers setting tight deadlines and then delaying approval processes, to criticisms about research being used as a substitute for judgement or to simply validate, rather than inform, decisions.
A growing concern, however, is that moves to cut costs are encouraging marketers to try to squeeze too much from single projects. ‘Within client organisations, there is always more than one interested party. There is a tendency to err towards the "if in doubt, put it in" approach,' says Roger Sant, vice-president of Maritz Research Europe, who adds that this can compromise results.
Furthermore, many are worried by the ongoing potential for waste in the sector, with studies simply recommissioned through habit, or without thought to how or whether findings will be used to implement change.
Claire Spencer, chief executive of i to i research, goes further, accusing some organisations of squandering resources by failing to centralise their brand thinking.
‘Brand tracking is still very much focused on advertising, when the reality is that the millions spent on an ad campaign can be completely undermined by something posted on Twitter,' she says.
‘Brands such as Innocent and Kodak take their online presence seriously, but others are paying the price for failing to pick up the underbelly of what's going on online.'
This reflects the ongoing tendency for organisations to silo research internally, and view marketing and brand data in isolation from social media tracking or customer satisfaction measures.
However, Deborah Mills, chief exec-utive of Hall & Partners, emphasises that research partners are not immune from such accusations themselves.
‘Historically, market research agencies tend to use only their own data,' she says, adding that sophisticated analysis of merged data sources will be the way forward. ‘The agencies who are prepared to be most pioneering, bold and innovative will be the ones who stake their claim to that first.'
Other trends include survey fatigue, especially in the online environment, where tired techniques such as relentless pop-up surveys often act as annoying distractions for potential respondents.
However, marketers and research professionals are coming up with ways to make surveys more interesting, as well as a better fit with consumers' lives and communication habits. These strategies include developing mobile methodologies and more engaging mechanics, such as image-sorting exercises and the introduction of time countdowns.
Incite chairman Sid Simmons explains how his organisation is encouraging respondent participation by taking a consultative, collaborative approach.
‘People want to know that any interview or survey could really change something of importance to them,' he says. ‘Where possible, we explain the purpose of what we're doing and the areas we're exploring.'
Others are borrowing social media techniques. In June 2008, newspaper publisher Mirror Group teamed up with Market Evolution and online firm eDigital Research to create its own online research community, Mirror Mouthpiece. A mix of forums, net chats, product ratings, polls and blogs, the site now involves about 1000 of the newspapers' readers in an interactive dialogue that complements the media group's existing research investment. ¬
‘We have used this insight across the Mirror business, feeding into editorial development, ad sales, marketing, digital and senior management,' says Mirror Group head of brand planning, Nicky Jones.
Economic pressures and technological advances are placing greater expectations on market research partners. Those that provide insights to inform decisions in a timely and cost-effective manner will survive, but those that can deliver solutions to a high standard are likely to thrive.
As Kieron Mathews, managing director of Kadence UK says: ‘Market research agencies that are not adding significant value to an organisation will have to adapt quickly, or suffer.' N
In April, Cadbury launched the Clusters Bitesize brand, backed by a TV, radio, online, sampling and point-of-sale campaign.
To evaluate how these different consumer touchpoints had an impact on key areas such as brand awareness, product interest and trial, Cadbury commissioned Hall & Partners to undertake a three-stage research project.
Alongside brand-tracking activity, the work involved getting 200 respondents to contribute to a two-week ‘In The Moment' exercise. Participants used their mobile phones to file a report each time they saw the Clusters brand, either in an ad, on the street or in-store. After texting a keyword to a dedicated number, they received a detailed questionnaire.
The data generated was compiled into a daily report for Cadbury, facilitating rapid response to issues such as the importance of maintaining an in-store presence.
‘The real-time nature of the research helped us to quickly address key business questions,' says Cadbury's senior insight manager, Majella Gunn.
Prostate Cancer Awareness Month
The Prostate Cancer Charity asked i to i research to measure the effectiveness of its first Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, which took place in March.
Before the campaign, online research revealed a gap between awareness and knowledge of prostate cancer. It then identified celebrity brand ambassadors, including Max Clifford and Dan, Peter and Jon Snow, as an effective means of delivering messages.
This insight was implemented online and across posters, leaflets, PR, sponsored events and retail activity with corporate partner Marks & Spencer.
As a result, the campaign reached about one in 10 men over the age of 50.
‘The research not only helped evaluate the effectiveness of the campaign, but was also invaluable in shaping messages and execution,' says the charity's director of operations and marketing communications, Clara MacKay