Commodity Seller to Consultative Partner – Maximising Research Best Practices


With political polling at its least reputable, media measurement being heavily debated and campaign statistics more manufactured than revealing, isn’t it time we started to rethink the research process?

Has the commoditisation of research finally caught up with the industry? Whilst political polling has stolen the spotlight in the unearthing of this dilemma, is it only a matter of time before research agencies with a different focus areas find themselves equally red faced?

That is not to say that an inaccurate popularity poll on the latest shampoo is likely to find itself headline news on BBC breakfast, but let us not underestimate the dangers of any poll that does not match public perception. We only need to go back 10 days to find that Toblerone’s new look fell second in public outrage only to the news that the outsider, Donald Trump had been declared President Elect.

Whilst it is well regarded that we are moving into a ‘post-truth’ era the surfacing of inaccurate research still poses the greatest threat to any brand, mistrust. A word and emotion that the PR professionals among us have been commissioned to distance far from the minds of consumers as a number one priority, so how did we get here?


It is our belief that this reduction in accuracy has been formed through a loss of integration in the research process. The transactional basis in which research is now commissioned has created an information asymmetry between researcher and client. In turn, this has produced a roadblock, preventing information from moving up and down the value chain leaving both parties with knowledge gaps about each other’s requirements and as such limiting their ability to deliver the most informed insight.

It’s not that polling agencies have suddenly moved into a realm of malpractice, its more that the process has not been dynamic enough to contend with the changes we have seen in today’s electorate, and the potential to see the same happen across other research fields is very real.

Our solution therefore, is to see agencies move from a commodity seller to consultative partner and for the client side to embrace the change with open arms and a curious mind. To ensure organisations that commission research receive the best return on investment the knowledge roadblock must be removed. More open communication channels will ensure all parties have the opportunity to add relevant and specific value to the project at hand.

It will not work miracles; a more effective research process will never create a perfectly representative sample source or remove margin of error. However, this change in engagement can produce a platform for best practice and innovation to thrive.

Many research stakeholders will rationalise their client’s lack of commitment to methodological standards to price pressure, excessive competition or reduced end client budgets. It’s our belief that the most profound cause is the provider’s inability to communicate the added value found in best practice. In recent years, this has caused research agencies to engage in a price war where investments in quality are significantly lower, dragging industry standards and reputation down with the price.

With a more integrated research process, agencies will need to be far more transparent surrounding their methodologies and sample sources. The effect of this will not only ensure that the results produced can stand up to a far higher level of scrutiny (and a greater likelihood of accuracy), but instil rising levels of customer satisfaction and greater innovation. With this in mind, here are three practices we believe should be expected from research providers;

  1. Investigate the focus of their client’s brief in detail, truly understanding the journey of the data and how it will be examined at every stage.
  2. Justify why their strategy can deliver the data accurately along this journey.
  3. Engage with their clients on relevant quality control procedures (in the client’s language not in that of research industry standards) and the benefits that these procedures can deliver the final data.

This is not to say that the responsibility falls entirely on the agency. The client side must also see it as their duty to involve researchers in a greater capacity than they are doing so currently. By embracing the change, clients will be empowered to shrink the informational gap. Newly founded knowledge will deliver the ability to place pressure on their research partners to become more transparent, consultative and proactive, ensuring they get the most value from their budgets. There is also the mutual benefit of providing the researcher with greater scope of the client’s task at hand, offering them a chance to select the most applicable route to data accuracy. Most importantly, it issues a strong position for clients to engage with their counterparts on the potential biases and drawbacks that may rear their ugly heads along the way. On this basis, here are three pointers for those on the client side to proactively ensure they are getting the most from their data:

  1. Investigate your research partners methodology, data source and delivery technique – empower yourself to suggest changes tailored to your brief.
  2. Justify the use of this partner for the brief. Could you provide evidence of best practice if the data produced comes under question?
  3. Engage with your research partner to understand any potential biases or drawbacks that could be present from the agreed strategy. Be prepared to spot any misleading skews in the data before it is too late.

Investigate, Justify and Engage, will certainly not please those looking for fast and cheap insight. If we believe that the pollsters have received the first strike of the blade, then researchers across all verticals should sit up and take notice rather than hope that the knife won’t cut too deep.

Used correctly this concept can act as a catalyst in rebuilding the perception of the industry and continue to drive a healthy future based on best practice and ethics even in this crowded and confusing post truth paradigm that appears to be building around us.

After all, the campaign can be set to capture the imagination of a nation but without accurate supporting research, a substantial amount of hard work can be undone in the blink of eye!

We are extremely keen to hear from you and hope that our commitment to delivering responsible, accountable and transparent research services continues to be shaped by your thoughts and feedback.

Thanks for reading,

Robert Agnew


Associate – Vitreous World