Are market researchers afraid of consulting?

I have decided there is a new phobia in market research land; “consilatiophobia”. This means fear of consulting. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but I am beginning to think that naming the problem might be a necessary step to some more serious discussion about the problem.

I started thinking about this after a presentation I made at the CASRO digital conference in Austin several months ago. The paper that was presented was primarily focused on data fusion, brought to life in a case study. Different forms of data were formally integrated and modeled; sales data, survey data, and qualitative, observational data. The unstructured qualitative data, gathered from a semiotic analysis of visual iconography, was structured so that it could be integrated into this new data set along with the other data streams. The modeling performed on this integrated data set led to some very clear recommendations for portfolio planning. It was a fun project, and I expected and hoped for questions and challenges from the audience on the technical aspects of the process.

When the Q & A session started, however, the discussion did not focus on market research methodology or process. Instead, the discussion focused on the distinction between market research and consulting. In general, the audience felt the paper was less a market research paper, and more a consultant’s paper. Additionally, and importantly, the audience seemed uncomfortable with the role of consultant. It was one thing to be held responsible for the quality of the data and it’s “fit for purpose”. It was quite another thing to be held responsible for recommendations, which if implemented, would have consequence. One person in the audience asked the question directly – “are we market researchers or consultants?”.

There has been much in the press about the need for market research to acquire “consulting skills”; e.g., Cambiar’s Future of Market Research. In this context, the question about being a market researcher or being a consultant seems odd. It does, however, open to door to some observations and questions:

  • What exactly should market researchers consult on? The call for better consulting skills doesn’t really elaborate on this.
  • Is there a dichotomy between data collection and information application? Does this frame the consulting debate; e.g., do market researchers “consult” on data collection and analytic approaches? Do market researchers leave “information application” to the McKinsey’s and BCG’s of the world?
  • Will this dichotomy come to characterize the state of the MR industry when all the disintermediation is over? There will be market researchers with expertise in data collection and data analysis, who then turn that data over to consultants with information application expertise.
  • Is this dichotomy a way for clients to get better insight? It forces them to quit placing the insight burden on MR agencies, and to either generate insights themselves or have the consultants do.

On with the discussion.

Jeffrey Hunter is a Principal at Market Framework.

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5 thoughts on “Are market researchers afraid of consulting?

  1. Jeffrey:

    Thanks for a very insightful and important piece. For years I’ve joked with colleagues and clients that the only difference between the McKinsey/BCG crowd and an exceptional full service MR practice is “a million dollars.”

    As such, it has always been my M.O. both in my prior corporate positions and in running my current firm to go the extra step beyond methodologist and analyst to courageously leverage those findings (and our MBAs) to deliver actionable recommendations and implications. It strikes me as a huge source of competitive advantage for those MR firms that do it, and it elevates our competitive positioning away from the uneviable slot against low cost DIY platforms into a more profitable and advantageous position vs often higher overhead consulting firms.

  2. Really did like this post

    Some of my best discussions are towards the end of the presentation and usually if its senior management where both interpretation and implications of the findings are debated and discussed, and i am able to offer a lot more than just what was the subject of the presentation.

    I am also a consultant and in the consulting practice there’s a lot more ” license ” in making the leap – which even qualitative researchers can be sometimes uncomfortable to do.

    Part of this is to do with the emphasis on rigour, fidelity in Market Research. Part of this is also the fact that you soon realize that in consulting the client the market researcher is actually doing a lot more than (while charging a negligible fraction) of what the management consultants do.

    the big difference is that when market researchers ‘consult’ there is a high chance that they base this on both data as well as experience – and even if there isn’t any direct data available I’d still welcome their viewpoint.

    If the clients are smarter they’d be listening to a lot more Market Researchers and discussing their issues and problems more openly with them and even consult them to seek solutions.

    Because chances are you’d get a lot lot more from them…

  3. It’s really amazing that we are still having this conversation – and sad. From an early age, I was taught both to respect rigor and to consult off the basis of my experience and the data. Recommendations were expected and debate encouraged. As Margaret Coughlin once said, “The presentation should last 10 minutes, the conversation should last for hours.”

    If the researchers in your audience are uncomfortable with this, Jeffrey, perhaps they should heed the warning from Coca-Cola’s CMO “If you don’t like change you will like irrelevance a whole lot less.” Because that is where they will be headed. Their model is based on the old assumption that data was scarce and expensive to collect. Therefore, it was the driver of their economic well-being. Today, data is ubiquitous and cheap. It is what you do with it that counts. That means that the researcher must be prepared to be an advocate, a consultant, a synthesizer and an influencer.

    Sounds to me that was what you were doing in your project – and that it went over some people’s heads entirely. All we can do for them is to hold the door for them gently as they exit stage left.

    1. When I saw that you had commented, Simon, I expected to see reference to your vision of the three roles in the MR firm of the future–the specialists, the polymaths, and the business consultants. In that scenario it seems to me that today’s MR practitioners may be best suited either to a polymath (most likely) or specialist role. Morphing into a business consultant just does not seem to be in the DNA.

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