What clients want from MR agencies

Have client expectations of research agencies really changed so much in recent years?

Scott Davidson

Wow, 3 months gone already … I can hardly believe it … Seems like only yesterday when I was being welcomed aboard in my new role as Research Director in Harris Interactive’s established, but growing, Financial Services team. I think it’s fair to say it’s been a busy 3 months with a heady mix of Account Management, Project Management, New Business Development, and, dare I say it, Thought Leadership. And just to make life easier, I also moved to a new home just days before Christmas!

What has been interesting to consider over the last 3 months is if anything has changed since my client-side days when I was working closely with my roster of agencies … had the needs of clients changed as the research landscape and evolving technology changed?

I thought what better way to start writing creatively than to reflect on these last 3 months and consider how things have changed, if at all, since my previous days in agency roles.

I’d spent my early career with research agencies in London and the South East before working for circa 10 years with Tesco then Sainsbury’s retail banks as Research Manager, so I should have a unique insight to what clients want versus what agencies deliver (you can email me your thoughts here).

So what’s changed?

The first thing that struck me, and this might be a generalisation (apologies!), is that client needs haven’t really changed that much at all:

  • Observation #1 – (Prospective) Clients were still looking for agencies with relevant research expertise and experience within the client’s sector is a ‘must have’. If you don’t tick these ‘boxes’ in an initial level of a Marlow-esq research needs hierarchy, then you most absolutely won’t proceed any further, i.e. no-one will even consider talking to you!
  • Observation #2 – Clients still want to know how many of their ‘peers’ you are either (a) already working with, or (b) have worked with in the past. This “social proof” that you have worked with similar clients previously remains.
  • Observation #3 – Agencies still use case studies to reference the good work they have done for other organisations similar to that of the client’s business. Of course, much of the work is still of a ‘sensitive’ nature. This coupled with the fact agencies still lose sight of the good work they may have delivered post-debrief, means it is still hard for agencies to communicate “real, hard data” as to how they helped their client make money or save money!

The challenges for research agencies doesn’t really seem to have changed that much … and that’s before you get hit with the ‘game-changing’ question those with business development responsibilities frequently hear (you might recognise it or even been asked it recently):

“We already have full service agencies on our roster, what we are looking for from new agency is something new / innovative / different. What is it that you can offer that others can’t?”

Great question, don’t you think? And one I used to ask agencies 5-10 years ago … so that hasn’t changed either. Even now, our clients continue to look for something new / innovative / different – it can be the very difference between continuing a conversation or having the door firmly closed in your face!

Which leads to the need for research agencies to continue to evolve and invest (I’m glad to report Harris have done both and continue to do so). Differentiation from the competition can take many forms …

  • New technology;
  • New research approach or methodology;
  • Niche areas of expertise;
  • Experience with direct competitors; and
  • Personnel who have held client-side roles.

All of the above are unique ‘points of differentiation’ clients have always looked to gain from their agencies … they hire us because some does not exist within their organisation or because outsourcing these skills allows them to focus on their core business objectives better – that’s the way it’s always been and, based on various meetings and conversations in my first 3 months at Harris, clients continue to seek from agencies. Whether establishing a new relationship or kick-starting a new relationship, these ‘points of differentiation’ give you something credible to talk about – and also make great ‘topics’ for your marketing collateral too.

How many do you currently deliver to your clients?

How many more could you deliver?

How can you better bring them to life for your clients (or would-be ones)?

I am certain these questions (and continued requirements) will hold me in good stead in future days as I continue to build relationships and deliver projects.

In conclusion, it’s been a busy first 3 months but a period I’ve thoroughly enjoyed – it’s great being back to helping clients tackle their business challenges and deliver their commercial objectives; it’s also rewarding to be back doing something I am both passionate about and interested in; and, finally, good to still be working within the Financial Services industry … an industry I know only too well.