In focussing on the issues that arise in selecting a research agency I have made the assumption that the reader already has a basic understanding of the difference between quantitative and qualitative approaches and has a good grasp of both the questions to be asked and of the sample from whom the answers will be sought. I should also make clear that my own expertise is in qualitative research and, although the points I want to make are applicable to research in general, the reader may detect some unintended bias. I want to discuss the elements that I believe will make for the most successful research outcome, by successful I mean research that wins regard as plausible, relevant, useful and insightful.

Central to such outcomes is the relationship that is achieved between client and supplier and whilst a strong understanding can be achieved on a single project clearly the relationship grows immeasurably through an enduring relationship. What are the foundations for a strong relationship? I suggest they lie in two areas, professional competency and personal chemistry. Philosophers talk about necessary and sufficient conditions; whilst professional competency is necessary it is not sufficient, it is the personal chemistry that will make your project zip along to flag waving finale.

Most industry journals, besides providing a directory of research suppliers of reputable professional standing and reputation ( MRS, BMRA,AQR,ESOMAR) also include introductory articles on the mechanics of commissioning a research project. In the main, these deal with basic competency such as the requirements on the client to provide an adequate brief. Whilst it is helpful to create checklists, the limitation is that such an approach fails to imagine how it feels to be responsible for the parameters of the research, the subjective experience of both parties.

Whilst it is possible to suggest a range of steps to ensure and safeguard professional competence there is no risk free way of embarking on the chemistry thing. This would not be such a problem if competence and chemistry could be neatly separated like the layers of sponge, jam and cream in a sponge sandwhich but research is more akin to the entwined jam,cream and sponge of a swiss-roll . Invariably, subjectivity intrudes in relation to the mechanics of briefing so that “objective decisions” are really more complex judgement calls.

Before considering examples of how this occurs and suggesting best practice principles it is worth considering what it means to research practitioners to be professional .A defining tenet of a profession has always been the possession of a body of specialist knowledge or learning . The information age is increasingly challenging this by transforming access to knowledge and demystifying technique. Marketing is beset with more and more data and shorter and shorter time-scales. In qualitative research brand managers are demanding the opportunity to talk face to face with their consumers. In quantitative research a client can opt for a D.I.Y. on-line survey, just type in the questionnaire select the sample and hey presto! Who needs the experts? Meanwhile those characteristics of plausibility, relevance, usefulness and insight are vital to our continued livelihood

My Chambers dictionary tells me that the other constituents of a profession are to be highly trained and disciplined and to have the correct demeanour or behaviour Our sense of ourselves as professionals is rooted in this .Research is an industry where professionalism matters not only because it relies on the cooperation of the public but because its product ; information and advice, is undermined if not sought in a genuine and impartial way. This is worth reiterating because it is at the same time a highly competitive environment but remains one in which the professional ethos takes precedence over the commercial appetite. For the research buyer the value of this is fundamental, for example the buyer can rest assured that when seeking competitive proposals (no more than three or at the most four is the prevailing etiquette) the researchers’ responding are not primarily setting out to win the business. As the author of a shelfload of unsuccessful proposals through my career, my continued employment is evidence of this, over time your strike rate tends to the mean. Each company will submit what they consider to be the soundest methodology at a realistic scale, cost and timing to achieve the insight sought. From the time when we are knee- high to a clipboard we are all brought up in research to believe that no one who sets out to win business by compromising standards of good practise will be successful in the long run.

To return to our Swiss roll of entwined competence and chemistry, building a successful relationship, that encompasses both, requires effort and commitment on behalf of client and researcher. Lets consider some of the issues that arise around the initial stage of research, the briefing, and lets do so by including the subjective perspectives of the main protagonists.

The step by step guides tell the client what to include in a written brief, namely; explain the business context from which the need for this piece of research has arisen, perhaps in the form of business objectives; itemise the key questions to be explored, developed, evaluated by the research in the form of research objectives; indicate the relevant target markets and perhaps suggest any methodological preferences; outline the parameters for the research in terms of timing and costing and your preferences for presenting and reporting formats. If it is a competitive tender you will be advised to find out about the experience, training and deployment of the researchers to be involved.

At first sight a fairly simple and straightforward task but like most things in life, putting this together often throws up questions that are complicated because they require judgements that involve chemistry. There may not be a consensus of opinion on the brand’s current position let alone how it got there or what needs to be done to progress towards the business objective, that is precisely why research is required. Whose interpretation goes into the brief? How much of the internal debate should be revealed to the researcher? What is the optimum amount of brand history and hypothesis to give to the researcher? Too little and there is the danger of forever reinventing the wheel, too much and you could unconsciously precondition the analysis of the findings or stifle the potential for fresh insights. Such judgement calls are informed by the internal culture of the client but you should also consider how they impact on the partnership to be achieved between the buyer and supplier of research. Whilst no researcher wants to be swamped in kitchen-sink levels of detail, openness by the client about the imponderables and competing interpretations is an invaluable way of symbolising the buyer’s belief in the researcher’s integrity and contribution Competence melding into chemistry.

At this point it seems that the role of researcher is much simpler because it is more single minded, nevertheless if we try to imagine how it feels, it is more Swiss-roll than sponge-sandwich. Researchers live for fresh problems to go out and explore and even where they are familiar with a marketplace each project has a large element of uniqueness. When they come across as enthusiastic, curious and earnest this is usually genuine rather than the patina of a service supplier. Both on paper and in person the researcher will want to make an impression on the client that will build confidence. To do so they have a two part armoury; technical expertise and marketplace experience.

The problem is the client! Are they open to innovative approaches or are they happier with something they perceive to be less risky? They may ask for the former but when “push comes to shove” they settle for the tried and tested ( a number of the aforementioned shelfload of unsuccessful proposals fall into this category). As for experience, what is the optimum, on the one hand I may seem naïve but on the other I may seem tainted! Integrity demands that I own up to having worked on competitor brands but that was five years ago and I haven’t heard a peep from them since! Usually the issue here is one of client confidentiality, direct confidentiality relating to the specific project is a given from day one of professional training; more indirectly, all researchers pick up a wealth of related background knowledge about consumers across marketplaces and each and every client gains from this, it is a process of natural justice. A predisposition towards understanding your target is, after all, part of the value that you are seeking.

Does this mean that I advocate experience of your marketplace as a key attribute to look for? One thing is for sure, no ones going to fire you for so doing, but I’m not suggesting any hard and fast rules. Experience and technical approach are the components of competency but if someone with less experience creates the right chemistry, I’d go with my hunch.