In early August Susan Nathan departed Universal McCann, becoming the 14th senior research executive to exit from a top tier media agency in the last four years. The string of departures also raised the question of whether such agencies were devaluing hard analysis.
Some observers say there is undoubtedly a move to more "soft and interpretive" analysis; while true, however, it is a symptom of something greater. It is more interesting to examine why this is happening in our business and what it means for our industry.
Syndicated consumer research, such as Simmons and MRI, has now been sliced, diced, mapped and segmented to such an extent that it no longer offers agencies or clients a competitive advantage. There is not a credible media agency in the market who doesn't offer consumer segmentation, correspondence mapping, volumetrics, etc., etc. The challenge that remains with syndicated data is bringing the findings to life on PowerPoint so that they're not too generic, blunt or clumsy to be actionable.
Simultaneously, brands and agencies are being required by consumers to move away from the one-size-fits-all approach to a brand. For years, agencies would roll the drums and whip back the curtain to reveal their "Over-Arching Brand Truth," or "Single Brand Essence," or "Defining Brand Principle," etc., etc. This would be the crescendo of their client presentation.
Similarly, for the last ten years, media planning research was built around finding that single "eureka" insight that would lead the agency and client to the Promised Land.
But what if that is no longer needed? What if brands are multi-faced and multi-faceted, able to be many things to many people?
Mainstream brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonald's now mean widely different things to different groups. Add in Cause marketing and "belief" brands, and it gets even more complex.
As a result, the whole focus of research needs to shift. Clients are looking for many smaller scale insights, particularly as the average CMO feels they are becoming more distant from the lives of the core consumer.
I recently sat with a senior marketing professional who had given a brand brief to a student competition, in his words, "in the hope they might just tell me something, no matter how small, that will add to my understanding and give me an advantage."
So where does this leave agencies?
Fundamentally, with the need to re-structure and re-focus their research efforts.
In essence they need to de-centralize their research. Instead of a central function, research and the search for insight need to be a fundamental responsibility of the planner.
A good lesson for this comes from global history, and the epiphany that created China's Barefoot Doctors.
This may seem strange, but hear me out.
In the 1960s, China recognized the unique needs of its population, and denounced the West's "elitist" approach to medicine. They claimed that many physicians were out of touch with their patients and only treated rare, difficult or "headline grabbing" diseases. Instead, what was needed was thousands of workers, farmers, teachers, truck drivers, etc., who were trained to administer their own health care. Illnesses beyond their training would still be referred to specialists, but this would not be their first resort. In Western terms, what they did was democratize medicine just as we now need to democratize and de-centralize research.
The only danger with this is that, like many of the traditional quantitative techniques, it can remain a very sedentary form of research. Most of those now in the workplace see the Internet as a tool for education and information. Their computer is a portal to the outside world, but as I was once taught "If you want to study animals, don't go to the zoo, go to the jungle." The result is Project GOYA (Get Off Your ...).
But most importantly, it is more immediate, more human and more actionable.
Rob Fitzgerald is senior vice president and marketing director at Initiative. (Rob.email@example.com)