What to do about the missing backbone of the research and insights industry

orking in the market research industry, I’ve come to understand a few things: researchers lack back bones.

Now, before anyone gets offended, let me explain.

To be a market researcher, someone who works in the background, is rarely ever seen or known to people outside of their field and is hardly ever granted awards, kudos or recognition for the work that they do, you have to be of a certain mindset- one that centers on humility, grace and acceptance of your role as an anonymous background player to many of the world’s greatest innovations, ads, and brand messaging. To say that we are workplace introverts does not fully capture the dynamic of who we truly are, but we are for the most part, the secret sauce to many of your favorite brand’s outputs.

For many of us- this background role is a preference. The fact that we get to see the brands we provide insights for roll out new product lines, ads, marketing concepts, partnerships and more based on our inputs can make us feel as if we’ve got a secret that no one else knows. And, depending on the extent of the NDAs we sign, no one else may ever know our role in these outputs.

There are many reasons why this “silent partner” role is problematic for our industry, but today, I’ll focus on just one.

The problem arises when clients come to us with requests that are non-sensical, or poorly planned. The innate humility of our roles often lends us to being people pleasers- we want to win the work, and we want to do it in a way that makes the client happy. It is this formulaic combination that renders us powerless when it comes to putting our foot down when clients demand things that we know for a fact are either impossible, underpriced, or inherently wrong. But, from what I’ve seen in this space, many market researchers choose to do it anyway, and this is a fundamental problem.

As a junior brand strategist for many years, it would baffle me to watch senior members of the organizations I belonged to, or partnered with, buckle to the demands of client teams who came to us with the specific request of helping them do what they could not do, or did not know how to do for themselves. In an instant, my experienced colleagues went from research specialists to “yes men” for the desire to fill a quota, or reach their revenue targets and I, was simply supposed to follow their lead.

This was a relationship I could never understand.

If you, the wearer, and buyer of shoes needed to have your shoes fixed, would you also go to the back of the shop to tell the shoe specialist how to fix them or would you simply describe what you needed and allow them to do what they were trained to do? Imagine someone going to the back of the shop, picking up different tools or pointing to different equipment and demanding that the cobbler use them because they’re the ones they either like, have heard of, or that seem cool. This, is exactly what happens in the MRX field.

This is not to say that the teams seeking out research partners are inept. In fact, it is common to find a member or several members on client teams who come from research background themselves. Ironically, this sometimes makes the dynamics even worse as those individuals move from being “yes men” to external clients to “yes men” to their internal stakeholders who often are less familiar with the processes, approaches and reasoning behind the methodologies we pursue. Those individuals essentially shift into the ones making the impossible demands which means the cycle, quite simply begins again.

The irony is that this behavior is taught to us. It is demonstrated by the leadership of the organizations we belong to. While clients may be temporarily pleased, often junior team members are forced to triage an ill-sold project with unrealistic deadlines & budgets, while trying to figure out a way to deliver what the client wants without making their senior colleagues look like ill-equipped liars.

Depending on how well these junior teams can fix problems, one of two things may happen. 1) The quality of the research suffers, corners are cut to fit into the needs of the client, ensuring diverse and inclusive methods almost always get put on the chopping block and the outputs of the insights are not as strategically sound as they could be. 2) On the other hand, if the triaging team is ridiculously good at fixing bad projects, they deliver great work, but boost the client’s beliefs that these types of requests can and do ultimately work. We essentially create our own monsters.

So what’s the solution here? How can researchers find their backbones? The answer- researchers and clients need to find a better way to meet in the middle.

From the researcher perspective, it is always astonishing to me how often researchers have little faith in the power of their words. The truth is, clients want us to help them create the right solutions so that they can look good to their stakeholders. They expect researchers to be more decisive about what we feel is right, wrong and appropriate for their research needs. But for many of us, the prospect of countering a client or suggesting an alternative solution or methodology can be paralyzing and we, quite frankly need to get over it.

I realize that I have a different kind of privilege with this line of thought. I’m a Black semiotician and cultural strategist who also dabbles in multicultural work which makes what I do particularly special and unique in our field. Clients come to me because they are usually less knowledgeable and less certain on how to tackle research that may incorporate these methodologies, and they are actively looking for me to be the expert. Additionally, because I work for myself, I don’t have the pressure of someone else’s salary and/or livelihood depending on my decision to take on new work, nor am I forced to triage anyone else’s poorly written research proposals.

However, I worked for 10 years in the agency space on general market accounts as a brand strategist overseeing qual and quant research projects. After a few years in, if I was leading the project, I got very comfortable with telling my clients “no” or providing alternative suggestions to requests that wouldn’t work, and you know what? No one died. In fact, those clients grew to love me even more.

The truth is, market research is a conversation- one where both parties, clients and researchers, should not feel intimidated in speaking to what they know, what they don’t know and what they are hoping to find out.

Clients pursing market research should be open to having conversations, and more than that, they should crave partners who have actual points of view about the research question they’ve been asked to create solutions for. I’m not talking about the larger point of view that makes it seem like the researchers are experts in your category- I’m talking about a point of view as to why they are pursing specific methodologies to solve your problem.

Clients seeking great research should be leery of research “yes men” and potentially even take a step back to ask if something about who they are, the company they represent, or how they deliver their needs may unconsciously cultivate an environment where researchers are afraid to challenge them or offer new ways of thinking about how to tackle an issue.

Lastly, we should all be more comfortable with the word “no”, on both sides. The integrity of the work we do should be the first priority when these connections are forged. If that means we need to walk away from an opportunity or research partnership because it’s not quite the right fit, that’s okay as well.

*shout out to the few of us who have been the voice of reason in these situations, quietly working to shift these dynamics for years. I see you.

Whitney Dunlap-Fowler is a Cultural Strategist specializing in semiotics, culture & brand strategy. www.touchofwhit.com www.insightsincolor.com

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