Thought Leadership and Profitable Growth – How do they co-exist?

Recently, several articles and papers have been published bemoaning the dearth of talent in the research industry relative to its size and diversity. They focus on two key areas – the lack of basic ‘craft’ skills and the inability to deliver clear and concise insights in the client’s language. One of the root causes has been put down to the increasing homogenisation resulting from the concentration of the industry into fewer commercially driven mega-agencies, where increasingly more of the leadership (unlike in other fields) has a background from outside the profession itself.

As MR has become more business-like in the last 25 years, many would say that the average level of talent or product quality has not changed, which is at odds with the generally improved margins and overall ROI. The latter has been driven by the rapid increase in professional managers holding senior positions. Amongst most medium to large size agencies, good financial and business skills along with an understanding the fundamentals of the industry are highly sought after and the preferred option for senior roles. This is a necessary evil; had the pure researchers continued to totally dominate the management, there may not have been much of an industry left to speak of.

Formerly, the sole route to the top table involved displaying strong technical skills and a good record in sales and client development, maybe coupled with a reputation as conference speaker or contributor to the main journals. This is a path less travelled nowadays and, anyway, many strong technicians do not feel comfortable with the different demands of the business leader role. Nevertheless, they do desire the recognition that comes with a senior ranking position, and it irks a few when they are under the direction of someone who does not share and at times does not appreciate their professional talents.

Setting aside the feelings of the displaced for a moment, it is fair to say that as MR has become ‘industrialised’, the lack of career researchers in senior roles has tipped the balance more towards financial and away from thought leadership. The repercussion is that the emphasis on design proficiency and concise delivery is diluted as the ‘sources’ leading these two skill sets have shrunk disproportionately to the growth of personnel entering the business.

To maintain and improve the overall health of market research, there needs to be a way where different animals can co-exist by taking on complementary roles in business and thought leadership. And it would work best where reciprocal respect and appreciation is displayed. One key area in which the newer breed of managers have been less successful is inventing structures that really recognise and utilise expert talent. The much favoured business process re-engineering initiatives tend to not recognise the qualitative benefits of giving such people decent roles and rewards. So, firstly, the business leaders need to see the financial implications of weak skills and lack of insight – respectively, increased costs and operational inefficiency due to sloppy design, and price compression due the inability to charge for any added value. This is before any consideration of the general well-being and competitiveness (against other consultant business services) of the research profession.

Good creative researchers provide a quality edge in a variety of manners. But in recognising this, these technicians must resist the temptation, as often is the case, to portray business leaders as ruthless bean counters with (as a former mentor of mine once unfairly quoted) “the collective imagination of a concrete fence post.” The correct positioning and deployment of expert and qualified mentors would free up a lot of management time and would accelerate the productivity in middle and junior staff, which in turn would give the senior managers’ work more impact.

Following on, the mentor (and I deliberately avoid the word ‘guru’ or similar) would still get the same degree, but a different type, of status compared the business leader. But, as a word of caution, to earn this kudos, it is crucial that the mentor keeps focussed on the value they bring to their company and the industry as a whole. For example, throwaway comments on current management policy like “what on earth made them think of that?” or “in the past we would have done it differently”, just serve to confuse. With the exception of raising issues to do with ethics and legality in the field of corporate direction, mentors would be better served by keeping their counsel for plugging the talent gaps in question.

This balance will need to be maintained and adapted over time, but when successful it would address much of the root cause in the skills deficiency that rightfully concerns many research industry observers. And then we might start to see maybe not a flood but surely a stronger flow of those elusive insights.

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