It's that billion-dollar question: what will the research agency of the future look like? More importantly, what business models will serve the qualitative industry best?
COVID-19 has impacted on turnover, working practices, new business development, accommodation plans, training, recruitment and more besides.
Qualitative research has been hit hard. No surprises here. Agencies that had been moving their work online have still suffered. Some talked of revenues at around 50% of what had been anticipated but picking up and hoping that they hit 75% in the last quarter. Others have not been as fortunate and are still waiting for the green shoots to break through frosty ground. Many are coping with increased work, fewer staff and tougher targets, driven by pressure from clients on cost.
In the 80s, the companies that upped their marketing through the recession reaped the benefits. In this pandemic, it's the big FMCG companies that panicked and are only now starting to draw breath, while smaller UK-based companies were more likely to hold their nerve and talk research.
There will continue to be home working, and there will continue to be office-based work. For many, that is the way the industry has been heading for a while. But some aspects will be particularly hard. One literary agent talked of staff coming in at different times and different days of the week. This, as in all industries, will affect team building. How can a team member learn from someone more seasoned if they're not going to be close enough to monitor or shadow?
Some say this won't be as much a problem in research. "We will give them the autonomy to self-start," says one owner. "We should recognise the flexibility, in productivity and life terms, that working from home can bring. Rather than go to the office because we 'go to the office', we will go there because we have a training session, or a 'how is everyone feeling' session, or a cultural immersion session, where everyone motivates and sets expectations together."
This, however, doesn't take account of the learning that comes from overheard communications between planners, marketing, researchers or respondents. WFH could impact on morale, ambiance, and pastoral care, too. There are positives, though: It could also, said interviewees, be an opportunity to stop and consider the issue of diversity and inclusion, where there is massive room for improvement.
New business development
It became clear early on that progressing existing projects could be a problem, let alone finding new work. For those in the analysis and debrief stage, this meant a shift in terms of communication methods, but how to convince clients to commission new work? In financial services, IFAs rely on existing business to provide referrals, and for clients in hard times to seek advice on creative ways to boost income. But once these avenues are exhausted, what options are available to grow their client base?
One talked of how his parent company was helping them set up webinars for existing and potential clients, outlining issues that they might all be battling, and providing experts to talk about how they might be overcome. Such occasions would also provide an opportunity for clients to come together and swap experiences. Research, though, is more about chemistry, and if meeting a potential client f2f is not an option, this could present problems.
Location, location, location
Landlords, leases and break clause issues are a common problem. Landlords may claim to be 'firm but fair', but they still want their rent even if they are offering holidays with arrears spread over time. It's forced many tenants to question the location and size of their premises.
What, said one, will our premium premises say about our business to clients? They may have enjoyed the benefits prepandemic, but will they view it differently now that budgets are so tight? Will they see spending here as profligate?
And then there is the question of need. If an office is just going to be used for meetings or as a central base/hub for a diminished workforce, then a rethink is needed. One option, already seen in California, is for leisure/work hubs, where teams can meet, brainstorm, exercise and work in convivial surroundings. But would this work in the UK?
Workforce of the future
If research agencies are under the cosh, the knee jerk reaction is to halt any hiring of new staff. The hope is that this will be a temporary aberration because the implications for the future are dire should it prove permanent. Already gaps in workforce are being plugged by those known for being a safe pair of hands, those who have worked their way up through the ranks before, for one reason or another, going freelance.
So, a nimbler, more tech savvy agency is called for in the short term, which can respond faster than ever before to client demands but expects to be paid for that speed and the quality of work. It can't afford to close its doors to new talent because that will stultify the industry. But equally it will have to invest in its junior members and organisations like AQR which provide training to ensure that awareness of qualitative research is heightened, and quality maintained. What will be the nature of qualitative research? Well, that's a different question
This article was first published in InBrief magazine, September 2020
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2020