Research agencies: A marriage or a fling?

As marketers, we don’t always look at research agencies as long term partners. For one, budget is always a deciding factor if you can actually afford a partnership long-term – especially if you are a small or mid-sized company.

“If [the partnership] is affordable, every company would want to work with a research agency,” said Jason Ong, head of customer relations (CRM & Business Analytics) at Eu Yan Sang, to the audience at Marketing’s Research & Insights conference.

Speaking on a panel, he added that along with budget, time is also a factor as for a lean team organising the working partnership with the research houses, it requires “back and forth discussions on the briefs and explaining the businesses”. But he was quick to admit that external research partners are in fact, crucial in helping to come up with new innovative ideas when KPIs are not being met.  Currently, the team at Eu Yan Sang complements its in-house research gathered from data and CRM teams, with external research to have a better and more holistic view of the consumer.

However for bigger companies such as Citi, having a research partner long-term and on-boarding them is crucial to the process of improvement and understanding the consumer.

“We work with agencies long-term and every year we talk about how to innovate and make the process better, and sharpen the insights. We have constant discussions on how to be better,” Solomon Huang, head of market insights and research, APAC & EMEA, Global Consumer Banking at Citi, said.

Echoing Huang, Phil Steggals, managing director of Kadence International agreed that it is important to “on-board” the agency, as one would with an employee.  “That is really the right term,” he said. Moreover, he added that sometimes, from the client’s point-of-view, there is fear that the research agency hired will simply come back with results the brand already knows.

Research agencies need to know what you already know to provide alternate views. We need to be on-boarded.

Choosing the right partner

For Jason, he says KPIs are a good indicator on when the brand needs to look externally for a research partner to come in.

“If you are comfortably hitting your sales KPIs set, it is clear your research is on the right track. But if your numbers aren’t coming in, you know something is not right and it is time to tap into an external research to help with the findings,” he explained.  He added that the company usually works with external research houses once every two years to compliment its in-house findings to form a more complete and comprehensive research.

But, deciding on the right partner is not easy.

“It’s a jungle out there,” Ong said. A company has to look at first and foremost, the credentials and track record of the agency. Then the agency is evaluated on the sector expertise and lastly, shortlisted agencies need to be evaluated to find the right fit.

“It’s just like choosing your spouse. You date a few ladies, and then you have to figure out which one to marry. Because you can only marry once,” he said.

You can’t ask management a second time for more budget for another research partner, so you have to be very careful.

For Ong, finding a research house with a local presence is also important as management does demand for instant answers and as such, research teams would be expected to give responses with shorter turnaround time.

“Sometimes after studies are done, some of the information will not gel, so you need your agency partners to be here to help in making sense of the data. If they are based in the US, you will end up losing time and sleep on conference calls,” he said.

For Solomon, other than the proposal, the people who pitched the business need to also be the people who work with the brand long-term.

“We make it clear that whoever pitches for the account, has to be there through and through. Because it has been our experience that sometimes, the people who pitch, are not the same people who work on our account. Once they get the account, we don’t see them anymore,” he said, adding,

What we see is not always what we get.

He added that it is important for a company to have the same people who pitched for the business show up, because they are the “original architects”.

“These are the people we have already invested time in getting to know and worked with. We expect the same people. When the work is handed to another group, we have to re-brief and rework, and that leads to inefficiency,” he said.

Entrance of new technology and jobs

Currently, one of the hot topics in the application of AI in research and data is tackling the problem of consumer questionaires which are too lengthy, and contains many unrelated questions. Through AI, brands and companies can better cater relevant questions to respondents by listing a different set of relevant questions based on the first few questions answered by respondents.

Huang added the AI trend is definitely coming to research and will likely take on a new role, without replacing that role of a research manager. What AI would do for data and insights would be creating challenger models which provides the ability to link up to individuals and perspectives that have never been encountered before.

For Steggals, which AI is of course the cool new kid on the block, it is always important for marketers to remember to keep their eye on the right questions they want answered and not the new technology to play with. Commenting on predictive analysis and research, he said:

“AI is almost always built upon previous research and is predictive in nature. But often the question to ask is do we have the right algorithm and tools to dissect the data and predict for the future.”

For me predictive research is always about spotting the problem areas for the future.

Meanwhile Ong added what while AI might be the sexy new field to enter, Singapore based companies are a long-way from embracing the new technology. He added that just a few years ago, data scientists were the “must have” team members.

“But right now, close to 15% of the data scientists daily work is to look for another job. A lot of companies think that data scientists are good to have but then these individuals end up working on basic mundane tasks where their skill sets aren’t fully utilised because the companies aren’t ready to have them” he said.

“A lot of data scientists find that their skill sets and aspiration are not met because the company isn’t ready structurally to have them.”