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Richard Marks 

Two New Year's resolutions for the research agencies?

Two New Year's resolutions for the research agencies?

In his last column of 2013 Richard Marks of Research the Media argues that, for the major media research agencies to secure their long-term future, they need to invest in a different type of talent and shout from the rooftops about why good research matters in the first place.

A couple of weeks ago I attended a debate at Westminster at which it was proposed that 'Big Data has made market research redundant'. The motion was resoundingly defeated by a committee room packed full of - you guessed it - market researchers.

So that's alright then.

However, emerging onto Parliament Square from Committee Room 12, I couldn't shake the suspicion that the people driving the Big Data revolution were actually off doing it, as opposed to attending debates about it, and that they would find the whole idea of a formal debate with motions, proposers and seconders just so last century. As a result we were left with a room full of Chelsea fans debating whether Arsenal will win the League.

Worryingly, Alex Chruszcz of Asda argued convincingly that market research was not getting its point across, that the clients of the future just did not understand the relevance of 'traditional' market research techniques.

For me, the debate was timely as I have been interviewing representatives of the main UK currencies - BARB, RAJAR, NRS, Route and UKOM - and of the leading media research suppliers about their views on the future of media research. I unveiled the findings at last week's MRG annual conference held at BAFTA.

The origins of the project lie in the report that I carried out over the summer for the IPA, which focused on the opportunities offered by Big Data. In that report I touched briefly on the implications of the Big Data revolution for the research agencies and it was a topic I was keen to expand upon. You can download a copy of the charts I presented at the MRG here, but in this column I really want to focus on two themes in particular that seemed to resonate with the audience last week.

Firstly the skills gap.

Arguably media research has a slight advantage over other forms of research in that at its heart lie the industry currencies which have to be independent, transparent and robust in order to justify the money that is traded as a result - they are bastions of 'proper' research.

However, all the main currency players are now working on, or contemplating ways in which server or IP data can be incorporated into the currencies to increase their granularity and their ability to measure across platforms.

Consequently, they are looking to their research suppliers to be able to innovate when it comes to ways of combining research samples with server data and this is causing a real bottleneck.

Data is the new rock and roll and a young data scientist may feel that Google offers a sexier career path."

Generally, there seems little antagonism between the clients and their current and potential research suppliers - or perhaps this is just British politeness (check out @SoVeryBritish by the way). However, there is a clear frustration that media research, in the UK at least, is suffering from a skills gap.

I have argued before that media research is actually splitting apart into three distinct skill-sets. Alongside traditional - and essential - research skills in survey design and analysis skills, it is clear that advanced statistical skills, especially modelling and fusion, are becoming more and more important. Allied to that, IT experience in handling and processing large or census data sets is a major challenge to an industry focused on analysing samples, on quality not quantity.

There is a clear perception that the future of UK media research lies in the hands of a very few skilled experts - particularly in the areas of fusion and modeling - who are very much in demand and in danger of being run into the ground as they rush from plate to spinning plate. There is a growing queue to use them and a perception that all roads lead to these people which causes a bottleneck.

The challenge for the research agencies is how to recruit more of these sorts of experts in the first place. We live in a world in which data is the new rock and roll and a young data scientist may feel that Google offers a sexier career path, or that investment banks are a more lucrative home for their algorithms.

So attracting this sort of talent won't be cheap. Clients I spoke to seemed willing to pay, indeed in one case had already offered to do so, but the challenge is that the research industry is used to recruiting graduates as, effectively, blank slates and training them up on the job, as opposed to breaking the bank on new talent in the first place.

Putting the sexy back in 'robustness' is going to be a bit of challenge."

Market research has never been a prominent career path - I certainly did not run around the school playground pretending to be a market researcher.

However, without a significant change in the mix of those working at the major agencies, the path will be clearer for the newer entrants to the market - companies who are seen as 'getting' the new digital ecology.

The second - and closely aligned - theme is one of education.

To ensure its future, the media research industry needs to come out fighting and win the argument as to why research, or 'proper counting', matters.

I would argue that, rather than the main agencies wasting money on generic advertising attempting to differentiate themselves from their rivals, the industry as a whole needs to invest in powerful arguments about the role and value of research in the first place: for the newer breed of client, particularly on the advertiser side, the issue is not which research agency to use, but why do I need research in the first place? This new real-time algorithm-obsessed generation of client may not see a role for research at all and urgently needs to be persuaded.

In November I spoke at an excellent event organised by Thinkbox called 'Blind Data: How to navigate to data you can love'. However, rather than just looking to the clients to do this, perhaps, as one of my interviewees put it, the media research industry needs its own promotional body, a 'Research Advertising Bureau' to get its message over, just at Newsworks, Thinkbox and RAB do for their industries.

However, getting the message across won't be easy.

Too much of what is coming out of media research at the moment about Big Data is too reactionary, too defensive; it's talking about what Big Data can't do, or how scary it is, or personal anecdotes.

We need to talk about the opportunities of Big Data and the strengths of what research can add, advocating consumer centric as opposed to data centric insights. In particular, we need to target the advertisers, very few, if any, of whom attend research conferences in the first place.

The other challenge is one of vocabulary.

Big Data has all the sexy words at the moment: 'real time', 'dynamic', 'targeted', 'granular'. When people try to describe the benefits of research the most common words used are 'reliable', 'representative', 'robust' and 'balanced'.

Putting the sexy back in 'robustness' is going to be a bit of challenge. We need to focus on the user benefits of those words, in terms of the informed decisions clients will make, as opposed to the minutiae of the research process itself.

Media research has a battle ahead to win over hearts and minds. That battle isn't going to be won just by holding debates in Committee Room 12.

Richard Marks is the Director of Research The Media. Find out more here.

Twitter: @RichardMlive.

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