For me the most contentious presentation at the recent ESOMAR Congress was one by Bill Blyth and Judith Passingham which addressed the issue of standardisation. Bill is a committed and articulate proponent of standardisation and initiatives such as ISO. I hope I am not doing Bill and Judith a disservice when I paraphrase their argument (I disagree with them fairly substantially, so I need to be careful not to create straw men).
Their case seemed to be:
a) Most market research we do now is based on principles and thoughts that date back 40 to 70 years and that this adherence to traditional techniques and values has facilitated the development of a $30 billion global industry.
b) In a modern global market MR needs to provide the sort of service that modern businesses demand, including standardised services that can delivered in a reliable way in, for example across 30 countries, and outputs that can be interfaced with other business intelligence systems within companies.
c) Initiatives, such as research ISOs, are an essential part of creating a product that will separate ‘real’ market research companies from other suppliers of superficially similar information, in the context of large and or global clients (which is something like 80% of the MR business).
I think that opponents of this view need to realise that its proponents are concentrating on something like 80% of the current market research business, i.e. the top few hundred buyers, almost all of the research being international, and almost all of it quantitative or similar (e.g. automated data collection).
My view has moved on slightly as a result of hearing the presentation. My key thoughts are:
1) The reasons market research is very similar to 40 and 70 years ago is because we have wasted chances to grow the business in the past. If MR had taken a bigger share of website testing, credit checking, analytics, benchmarking, and direct marketing when we had the chance we would today be a larger industry with a wider range of tools.
2) If we narrow our definition of what is and is not market research, we will continue to lose opportunities. For a while this might enable MR to grow in absolute terms (in line with global economic growth) but MR will continue to shrink as a proportion of Business Intelligence.
3) Standardisation is at its most effective when dealing with data collection and data processing, especially in connection with quantitative data. If a client buys a 30 country survey they want to be sure that the same standards are applied in each country, that the same checking has been applied, that the same processing methods have been used.
4) It seems to me that the ISO and standardisation debate is about dividing the research process into the ‘mechanics’ and the insight and then concentrating the process heavily on the mechanics. This may suit the large agencies, for whom nearly all their money comes from the mechanics. But it is alien to research providers who concentrate on interpretation, insight, advice, and consultancy.
5) It seems to me that in a research process standardisation runs the risk of not answering those problems that are amenable to standardisation. There are two views about measurement. A) If you can’t measure it then you can’t manage it. B) If you can measure it then it does not matter very much. I believe the truth is somewhere in between the two, but closer to B.
I think some elements of the push towards standardisation are fine, such as not cheating, accurate tabulation, ESOMAR’s questions for panel owners, codes of conduct etc. However, I think that beyond these relatively obvious areas they are at best a waste of effort and at worst they will limit the growth and change of market research.
I think that if the push for ISOs continues and is successful, most market research will be done by companies who are not part of the MR community and who will not be signing up to MR ethics, codes, or ISOs.