One of the most frequent lamentations at market research conferences relates to the boardroom. Market researchers are not well represented in the boardroom and many seem to think this is proof of our weakness as a profession/industry. However, I think this is mistaken, I think that market research should only rarely be involved in boardroom decisions, and indeed that majority of what we do should be tactical not strategic.
Boardrooms are not places where many decisions are taken, and those decisions tend to be about issues such as mergers and acquisitions, accounts related issues, strategic decisions about estate management, strategic decisions about issues such as outsourcing etc.
The management of companies is not, typically, achieved at the boardroom level; it is provided by the managers and the specialists. Market research is at its most powerful when it is integrated into the wider knowledge base and information system of the organisation, and this integration happens best when done by the people working with the information, not externally, and not at a level too senior to understand the complexity.
Similarly, most companies make 1000s of tactical decisions for every strategic decision. If a company is making a large number of strategic decisions, they are not actually strategic, they are more likely to be panic. Market researchers certainly want to be involved in the strategic decisions, we have a lot to add and they tend to be interesting projects. But the bulk of the industry should be focused on the tactical if it is going to grow and be profitable.
If we look at the ESOMAR Global Market Research report we can see that the continuous projects account for the bulk of market research spending by clients, including audits, market measurement, customer satisfaction, brand and advertising tracking, usage data. All of this data is used strategically occasionally, but it is principally used to manage the delivery of services and products – i.e. it is used tactically. Ad hoc research such as product testing and ad testing are, in most cases, tactical. A company makes a strategic decision to launch X new products a year, the NPD, the pre-testing, the testing, the comms testing, the monitoring of sales and advertising are all (mostly) tactical. Of course, we would encourage a company to review its tactical data to gain inputs to its strategic thinking, but that is in addition to using the data tactically.
Am I talking about me or about the industry?
One of the reasons I think the MR industry gets confused about whether its core target should be the boardroom or senior management, and about whether its bread and butter should be strategic or tactical, is down to the opinion leaders in market research. Most of the opinion leaders are more strategic than tactical, they personally do more big picture work, and they do less testing whether the font on the pack should be serif or sans serif.
I worry that too many people who do the big thinking (or who try to do the big thinking) are generalising from their own particular. If the market research industry were to focus on the strategic and the boardroom, to the exclusion of the tactical and the everyday, the market research industry would be much, much smaller, many people would have to lose their jobs, and another business sector would need to do the tactical research that clients need.
The importance of the tactical and practical
The ability of some market researchers to focus on the strategic, to offer consultancy services, rests on the scale of the market research industry and its reputation for measurement, independence, and relative objectivity. The stars in our industry are there because of the field managers, the interviewers, the programmers, the operations staff, the coders, and research executives that facilitate the scale of the MR industry.
Yes, let’s keep developing the consultancy services, let’s keep trying to garner a bigger role in strategic decision making, let’s embrace insight management, but let us also keep developing the tactical, the practical, the everyday. We need a parity of respect for all aspects of the market research profession.