Should Dominic Cummings be condemned or does he deserve the benefit of the doubt?
The market research industry has been criticised by clients and research users, whether current or lapsed, for producing no insights. We should answer our challengers with reflectiveness, not defensiveness.
In February 2021, ESOMAR, an authoritative market research industry association, issued a strongly-worded statement condemning Dominic Cummings, the former advisor to the UK Prime Minister, for his comments made to the High Court as part of the government’s defence for a research contract awarded to a research agency.
The market research industry is taking issue with this comment in particular:
“I knew they would give us honest information unlike many companies in this sector. Very few companies in this field are competent, almost none are very competent, honest and reliable.”
I can understand the anger, especially among the truly dedicated researchers who have spent a lot of time and efforts learning the craft, honing our skills and relentlessly exploring new ways to do better.
ESOMAR therefore responded by reiterating the industry’s position:
“Such statements — made by former top government officials — undermine our sector’s proven ability to conduct impartial research which is amongst the few independent measures of the health of our democracies. To seek to devalue skilled professionals’ expertise for the sake of one’s own personal defense is both uncalled for and dangerous at a time when societies are questioning the very basis of truth”
— Finn Raben, Director General of ESOMAR
I felt indignant too.
But was Mr Cummings’ comment completely unfounded? My answer is no. What provides the ammunition for such a comment in the first place?
I have been waiting for ESOMAR’s follow-ups on Mr Cummings’ comment that examines the industry’s past doings and suggests future improvements. Sadly there is none. As an industry association, it is as important for ESOMAR to protect the industry as for it to take the lead to reflect.
Criticisms about the market research industry’s producing no insights have been around for a long time across the continents and there is a grain of truth here. Market research reports tend to focus on findings, believing they are insights, and they typically span 100+ pages or Powerpoint slides consisting of charts only with commentaries that are largely descriptive (download to see an example here)! The recommendations usually either state the knowns or suggest the opposities to whatever the clients are not doing yet/doing well. Hardly helpful to our clients or other research users.
A major reason why I have branched out into brand strategy and other fields is to help me understand how I could use my experience in developing strategies for brands and designing services for companies to feed back into what would be useful insights for research users. In other words, researchers need to understand how research users use research and insights in order to do research. I still have vivid memory of the biggest blow of realisation in my life when a client for a brand strategy project sent me a few consumer research reports done by one of the biggest market research agencies in the world. I was prepared to use the insights from the reports in my brand strategy, but sadly I could not use anything at all! I could understand everything in the reports — why they did the things they did, asked the questions they asked, the flow they have decided on, etc. I just could not use anything from the reports.
Mr Cummings also commented about dishonesty in market research. This may not be true for the UK or European markets, but it is for the mainland China market. Ask any researchers who have had experience working in this market, whether locals or expats, they will tell you that this problem is rife! The fieldwork suppliers, including panel companies, do know their problems — an example of the extent some may go to to cover up their problems can be found here.
Instead of fixing fieldwork’s problem through hiring highly-qualified people who want to make operations their career, not just a job, and making fieldwork accountable, what research agencies do is to ask the research team to monitor fieldwork to prevent cheating and to handhold them so that they would not make mistakes. This is precious time that could have been spent on helping clients find actionable insights.
I have tried my hands on getting to the root of the problems here, here, here and here. One of the issues with market researchers is our defensiveness. The ESOMAR article is yet another example of researchers refusing to reflect.
I hope that ESOMAR and all the other market research societies around the world will do the same soul searching and lead the industry to a better place.
Note: ESOMAR does not speak for all market researchers.
My reflections on the market research industry: