What is significant here are the results shown in the lower half of this chart: the proportion of senior managers strongly agreeing that research and insights (including analytics) provided a high ROI, gave the firm a competitive advantage and contributed to financial performance. All of these were way ahead of the 2015 benchmarks cited earlier. And, what’s more, a key driver of this seems to be the degree to which the insights functions received top management support.
In other words, insights got a seat at the table. The question now is how can we stay there?
In the 2015 study, there emerged a series of conditions necessary for an insights function to be viewed as a strategic partner or, even better, a source of competitive advantage, among which were:
Senior management championship (CMO is fine, but CEO is way better)
Control of the budget
A focus on strategic foresight
Engagement across the business and in the business.
To this, we would add the ‘power skills’ necessary to translate insights into action – the ability to influence, consulting skills, storytelling and the ability to spread the story throughout the business. All of this has tremendous implications not only for the structure of insights functions but also the talent that’s needed and the skill sets that are required of that talent. In the book Leading Edge of Marketing Research (Sage, 2012), Ian Lewis and I posited that, in addition to core researchers and project managers, insights functions of the future would need specialists (behavioural scientists, AI and Machine Learning, data management systems specialists and others), polymaths (to connect the dots from diverse data sources and divine the story), and consultants to take the story to senior management and tell it in a compelling way that would lead to action. It appears that we were right. These are indeed the skill sets and profiles that insights functions search for today.
But, in addition to that, insights functions are also being called upon to be accountable and to measure the impact that they have on business outcomes. Increasingly, strategically-central insights departments are having to measure – preferably in financial terms – the return on investment that they bring to the party. Seminal research by GRBN and BCG showed that doing so actually resulted not only in greater respect for the function but also larger budgets and more resources. We are now seeing that in the growth reported not only by ESOMAR but by national associations such as the Insights Association in the U.S. and the MRS in the U.K. ESOMAR reported over 10% growth in the overall sector in 2021 and 5% in “established research” while in the U.S. the equivalent figures were over 16% and 6% respectively. The more central insights are to businesses and organisations, the more we see the industry grow.
As it does so, the final question I would posit is how can providers, especially those in “established research”, contribute not only to continued growth but to the maintenance of their clients’ seat at the table? The answer, I believe, is by being more than a “vendor” (a word that should be banished from all our vocabularies) or a supplier and becoming partners to our clients’ strategic journeys. We can do this by adding strategy consulting and design skills to our armoury, by honing our own storytelling skills and involving ourselves more deeply in their quest to prove their value and measure their impact on their businesses.
An industry that has been frequently accused of being slow to change has proved exactly the opposite in the last few years. It’s not just about the technology (although that has been a huge factor), but it’s also about our role in keeping our clients’ seat at the table. We are at the cusp of a new dawn in the age of insights.
Let’s not blow it.