At what point would you say the ‘research project’ starts? At the first interview? When the fieldwork is booked out? When the client commissions the work? Or, when the researcher pick up the phone and the client says, ‘I’ve got a project coming up….’?

This is important. If research consultants were lawyers or management consultants, the job would start at the ‘picking up the phone’ stage. That’s when the time clock — and the billing — starts. I suspect, however, that most agencies consider the job has started when the client says, ‘Yes, we’d like you to go ahead…’

So how do we — researchers and clients — view that bit of the job before it is formally commissioned: the discussion stage, perhaps briefing meeting, before writing the proposal? Is it, currently, a fair and balanced commercial exchange between client and research agency?

Familiar scenario

At one extreme there is the, somewhat parodied, scenario, familiar to us all

It is a fairly straightforward job. The client sends a briefing document, with well thought out objectives. There may or may not be a face-to-face meeting. The agency writes a proposal. It may or may not be competitive — but the client tells the agency if other companies are pitching. The agency may or may not get the job. The client explains why. Most of us would accept this situation as ‘normal’ and uncontentious.

…And, at the other extreme, equally parodied:

It is a complex job. The objectives are woolly, not sufficiently well thought through. The client is unclear about the target market. The brief may be poorly written, but the client doesn’t want a preliminary meeting. The agency doesn’t insist but decides to just go with the information they have. It is unclear whether other companies are pitching and the agency does not inquire.

The researchers spend a day or two trying to tease out appropriate objectives and a plausible sample from inadequate information. They send off the proposal, but don’t hear that they haven’t got the job until they phone to inquire. They aren’t told why. Perhaps, reading the proposal helped clarify the client’s thinking and they now feel they do not need to do the research? They feel used. This is the type of situation that provokes resentment, even anger. Most researchers have experienced aspects of this scenario at some stage or another. But how has this situation come about and what can be done about it?

Agencies at fault

To a large extent, agencies bring it upon themselves. Often they are not explicit, up front, about their terms of business. Perhaps they’re simply too nice, or too anxious to get the job. Maybe research agencies give their advice and recommendations freely because they do not value them sufficiently.

There is nothing wrong with a client being unclear about objectives or targets. Business issues are complex and messy — perhaps more so today than ever. Researchers have the experience, facilitation and analytical skills, the marketing and business experience, to help clients who need help to explore and define the research problem to be addressed. This is consultancy. So let’s call it consultancy and charge for it. If researchers did this, clients would value them more.

A half a day of paid time would be client money well spent if it helped to clarify the research objectives and optimise the value of the research. Clients either need to be clear about their initial requirements or prepared to pay research consultants to work with them to define the research parameters. In the latter case, the research starts from the first phone call.

Positioning research

This is part of the wider issue of how qualitative research is positioned: the reluctance to acknowledge and charge for consultancy input because it is feared — erroneously, I believe — that this will detract from the impartial researcher role. Research is not alone with this dilemma; PR and advertising have similar problems. So how do agencies engage with clients and persuade them of their worth without delivering their pearls of wisdom for free?

The IPA, jointly with other industry bodies, has produced a very useful ‘best practice’ guide to agency search and selection that highlights the problems and offers practical solutions. It stresses the importance of a thorough written brief, broaches the thorny issue of cost and recommends that the client makes some financial contribution to the pitch’s cost because it shows the “commitment and the seriousness” of their intent.

Its guide emphasises honesty and restraint in the number of agencies asked to pitch — “It is not only unprofessional, it is commercially irresponsible to engage more than three agencies in the process”. It also stresses the need to inform the unsuccessful agency, by phone, promptly. Basically it is all about mutual respect and understanding the other’s position.

More recently, it has introduced what amounts to a voluntary ‘pitch protection code’, to help prevent advertisers from stealing ideas from agencies. It has unveiled an intellectual property rights database, allowing agencies to register their ideas and thus, hopefully, preventing clients from using them following an unsuccessful pitch.

Now, a similar code may be impracticable for research but it does hint that suppliers are starting to fight back against what they see as clients taking advantage.

Archaic pricing structure

If research agencies do feel this is the case, one solution is to abandon their archaic pricing structure once and for all. In the main, work is still charged by unit rather than by day rate. A day rate is a wonderful discipline. It clarifies priorities. As a client, do I spend the time working through the research objectives and parameters, or is it more cost effective — and will I get a better job — if I work with, and pay, a research consultant to do it with me?

The down side is that a day rate costing system would require a radical overhaul of the way that agencies and clients do business. I, for one, don’t think that this is likely in the near future.

Another option, along the lines of the IPA recommendations, is much greater clarity up front about costs and time commitments, and more honest communication between researchers and clients about what it is reasonable to expect. In essence, then, we need a greater sense of collaboration between partners, rather than a client-supplier relationship. There are certain elements of the client-agency contract that should, perhaps, be sacrosanct:

  • If a client wants/needs consultancy: an exploratory meeting to explore and define the research problem, let’s call it that and quote a price, not label it euphemistically as a ‘briefing’.

  • If a researcher is to spend a day or more writing a proposal, then it is reasonable to expect the client to meet with the researcher face to face for a ‘proper’ briefing.

  • Equally, researchers need to be confident enough to challenge the client’s thinking — to justify their consultancy role — rather than accept research objectives at face value.

  • If more than one agency is pitching, the client should inform all the agencies involved. It is unreasonable for a client to expect an agency to invest time in a process where the odds are unreasonably stacked against them.

  • It is basic courtesy to let an agency know when they have not got the job and to give reasons.

Time for guidelines

Often, these basic principles are breached through lack of knowledge on the part of inexperienced clients or by over-compliant agencies, coupled with the lack of clearly defined ‘norms’ in the area of ‘pitching and proposals’. To date neither the MRS nor the AQR has produced guidelines on this area. Maybe it’s time we did so.

If we did devote time and effort into devising such guidelines — and distributed them to both clients and agencies — it would improve awareness of this important business issue and help establish benchmarks for client-agencies relationships. It’s time we — clients and researchers — had an open debate about this and agreed on reasonable and mutually beneficial guidelines.