Well, the answer is ‘yes.’
And it’s been happening for some time. In fact it could be argued that the role of the agency market researcher is in a state of continuous flux. However the last ten years, perhaps the last twenty, have seen a particularly significant change in the role of the agency-side market researcher.
Back in the early noughties my company had a stand at the Insight Show at Olympia. Alongside us, manning a very small stand, was Johnny Caldwell, representing a company called Research Now. We asked him what Research Now offered and he told us about access panels. We were sceptical about there being a market for these panels. I think it’s fair to say that Research Now has had the last laugh.
Fast forward a couple of years to a BIG conference some ten years ago. Nick Thomas of MrWeb ran a workshop where he analysed the kinds of market research jobs posted on his website over time. There were a number of jobs that were clearly in decline, such as face to face interviewing and associated roles (management, supervision, etc.), and even jobs relating to telephone interviewing, as online methods kicked in. There were also less standard market researcher roles. There was a growth, on the other hand, of jobs relating to panel and data management and data analysis. There are now jobs that didn’t really exist twenty years ago, relating to online qualitative research, communities and social media mining.
There are other ways in which the job of the market researcher is changing. At a fundamental level there are fewer traditional market researchers working for agencies. This has come hand-in-hand with the growth of the in-house client research team. The industry has always, of course, had client research teams, but there has been an increase in the actual research done in-house. In October this year, the MRS are running an event in which Rachael O’Leary and Charlotte Klahn of Nuffield Health discuss some of the challenges facing the in-house research team, specifically when doing their own research. Nuffield Health is one of a new breed of in-house research teams that have the skills and the tools available to them to conduct their own research. These kinds of in-house team still need external research support, but it is more likely to be fieldwork or panel providers, rather than agency research and insight professionals. So using those agency research and insight professionals is becoming the exception for in-house teams rather than the rule.
This picture is reinforced by discussion with the providers of research software, for example online survey software. For these organisations the biggest growth area is client companies who use software like Confirmit to conduct their own customer research, in addition to using the software for CRM and their other database features.
In my day job I run, with my business partner, a training course on desk research best practice, and the number of client-side researchers signing up for it far outweigh agency-side researchers. This seems to be an industry-wide phenomenon, as I understand that one of the biggest growth areas for MRS training is client-side researchers signing up for courses.
If more evidence were required, one need only look at events such as the Insight Show. Fifteen years ago those companies occupying the stands at the Insight Show would have been mainly traditional research agencies (or personnel recruitment companies, who tend to be notable for their absence from the show these days). Now the main companies exhibiting at the show are more likely to be panel providers, software companies and other support services, with the odd traditional research agency thrown in.
Twenty years ago the sponsors of events like the Insight Show or the BIG Conference would have been large agencies such as Research International or NOP. Now it’s more likely to be either a support organisation like Research Now or a consultancy like Quadrangle.
Consultancies are an interesting exception to the rule discussed above. Ten to twenty years it was a common refrain at conferences that we wanted to be taken seriously as consultants and ‘get into the boardroom.’ To a degree it’s happened, but not across the industry. The role of the agency-side researcher appears increasingly to be splitting into those offering support services and those offering consultancy. We’ve got what we wished for but not quite in the way we wanted.
Of course, there is still a role for the traditional researcher, and many agencies who offer full service research services are thriving. But for much of the industry it will increasingly be necessary to make a decision: do we try and take the consultancy route or position ourselves as offering support services to those consultancies and to the in-house research teams.