In five years, membership of AQR has switched from under 9% independents to 21% having this status.

This throws up some interesting questions:

  • Does this reflect a shift in qualitative research away from the larger companies to a more individual ‘bespoke’ supply?
  • And if so, what are the implications for our industry?
  • What does it say about client demands?
  • And what does it say about us as researchers?
  • Does this change reflect a shift in the perceived value of AQR or is it more to do with a massive increase in the number of independent researchers?

Definitive numbers are hard to come by to check out this question. Certainly many agencies have drastically reduced their number of AQR members (as an extreme example: AMV had 27 members in 1999 but just two some five years later), and the numerous takeovers and mergers have affected the absolute number of larger suppliers.

So should we be celebrating the growth of the independent qualitative consultant and smaller agencies?

Independents here to stay

Having scouted opinions among fellow researchers from across a broad spectrum of experience and situations, there does seem to be a feeling that the independent is certainly here to stay, and probably growing in number. Equally, though, there will always be a place for the larger international suppliers (who, of course, are being concentrated into ever fewer numbers).

The large agencies are seen to gain their stature (and indeed turnover) primarily from their quantitative research offerings. The efficiencies that they can bring to data gathering and standardised data processing are unquestionable, and they are well placed to continue this trajectory as data gathering inevitably shifts increasingly online. Online can favour both small and large agencies, but undoubtedly there will be a growth in quantitative work as a result, maybe across the board.

The large agencies are also able to bring the reassurance of critical mass — a larger team and an international network — to qualitative research, a proposition that particularly appeals to some larger client companies seeking multinational capabilities.

Furthermore, if the Procurement Department holds the purse strings then the tendency is for a contract that doesn’t differentiate between quantitative and qualitative research.

So how can the independent qualitative consultant and small qualitative agency compete to survive — and even flourish — in this situation?

There are in fact many benefits that they can offer to clients.

Advisory: an increasing number of clients have no experienced in-house Research Manager (let alone Director). Independents can offer the detailed involvement of a senior practitioner who can not only ensure that the project is conducted in a technically sound manner but (importantly) can meld their involvement in the detail of the project with clear marketing guidance based on many years experience. The larger agencies are not well placed to offer senior, more experienced people to fulfill this role.

Senior team: allied to the above, most consultants can put together a virtual team of similarly experienced researchers, which is not a cost-effective option for a bigger agency with large overheads to cover. One client describes this as “what you see is what you get — throughout!”.

Flexibility: the bigger companies are tending towards offering a few big branded techniques that their international networks are trained to deliver in a consistent manner, which can lead to a more mechanical process. Consultants are better able to truly tailor their offering to the individual needs of a specific client or project.

Specialisms: the biggest drive of late seems to be towards increasingly specialised offerings from independent consultants. Whether it is by target (children, grays…), by sector (financial, IT…), or increasingly by technique (NLP, ethnography, hypnotherapy…), this is seen as an essential tool of survival for the future.

The term ‘Generalist Consultant’ is increasingly becoming an oxymoron. Indeed, some such suppliers are moving away from the description of ‘Market Research’ altogether. In contrast, by definition the larger agencies tend to offer a broader-based service.

Value of knowledge

As Sally Ford-Hutchinson stated in a recent paper, there is an ever-increasing value placed on knowledge, and experienced researchers are all holders of knowledge. We have the potential to leverage this knowledge if we can persuade clients that what we know has real value when applied to their company.

Why are researchers moving to independent status? Usually this can be encapsulated in one word, freedom (freedom to choose type of work, freedom to specialise, free time...). And why do clients choose to work with independents? Maybe because of the detail and the breadth they can bring as well as the flexibility they offer, as mentioned above.

The AQR can serve us all, independents and those in agencies, equally well. Its constituency is likely to see further growth in the numbers of independents, a possibly increasing force in today’s research world. In conclusion, size can matter. Sometimes it is inappropriate to work with a smaller team — a larger agency team is called for; but equally there are times when the independent can best supply the client’s needs. It is worth remembering that this is an area when one size does not necessarily fit all.