Research Minded

Intelligence gatherer

Ask Richard Waring how Millward Brown Lansdowne (MBL) sees itself in the greater scheme of things in market research in Ireland and he will boldly reply by saying that he and his MBL colleagues consider themselves “research consultants” rather than “traditional market researchers” and it's an asset that has stood to them in recent days.

While the term “consultant” is often regarded as a polite way of saying “between jobs” or “retired”, Waring uses the word as it was originally intended. A consultant is an able hand hired to give advice to clients, a professional and often dispassionate business ally.

Old-fashioned values like expertise, trust and integrity are part of the equation too. It is a service Waring believes has helped MBL to weather the slings and arrows of the current recessionary storm a little better than others. That and value – as price has its pitfalls.

While Bill Cullen drilled home to his would-be apprentices the need to count price as paramount, Waring sees value as the extra umph. He warns companies about the folly of buying research purely on price and while not being specific in mentioning any names he refers to what he calls the “non-core” research firms operating out there nowadays.

“To make any good quality decision, you need good quality research,” Waring said. “Buying solely on price is dangerous. You're going to get what you pay for and that goes for any business. It's about the quality of information a client is getting and how it's collected and the quality of insight that is provided by the researchers on the job.”

Take advertising, Waring said. The cost of testing an ad would be €12,000 to €15,000. To put it on TV costs hundreds of thousands of euro. As a researcher, he would argue that it is a relatively small investment to potentially maximise a much greater spend.

Waring points to the drive towards online research. While online is seen as quick and cheap, to ensure quality it is essential that a strong panel is not overlooked in favour of price. Good quality panels are expensive to set up and run and to offer top information and insight in terms of interpretation. Choosing cheap is a false and reckless economy.

Major research groups like Synovate saw turnover and profit fall dramatically. Some observers say they grew too fast in the good times to be able to manage the downturn. Without pointing fingers in any particular direction, Waring again mentions those who made the big switch to online and questions the zeal for the new ‘kid-on-the-block'.

“Most of those who went headlong into online ten years ago have gone to the wall,” he said. “Second-time round, there are those going too fast into it and not going in with their eyes open and dismissing the need for quality. More generally, during the boom years many companies probably moved too fast thinking the good times would continue.”

Richard Waring, Millward Brown Lansdowne
‘Market research will never make your decision for you, it helps you make a much better decision' – Richard Waring, Millward Brown Lansdowne

Online plays a big part in what MBL does but it is but one tool within its methodology box. Waring said that only a fool would ignore face-to-face contact and phone-based fieldwork. Its sister agency, Lightspeed, runs online panels worldwide and MBL and them have been working together on developing panels for Ireland north and south.

Waring is a business studies graduate of TCD. He completed his masters in marketing before working and travelling around the world for three years, including visits to Australia, North America and India. On his return to Europe, he joined SmithKline Beecham (now GlaxoSmith Kline – GSK) in London as strategic brand manager.

His interest in consumer behaviour led him into research with ACNielsen. He returned to Ireland and joined Lansdowne, which last July merged with sister agency IMS to form Millward Brown Lansdowne. Waring's experience covers corporate research, product development, advertising effectiveness, customer satisfaction and minorities' studies.

MBL is part of WPP. While the multinational group run by Martin Sorrell is, as Waring describes, “sympathetic” to how its Irish research company copes with the recession and the fact that Ireland was first in and looks like it will be the last out when the downturn ends, it does not take away from the goal of trying to build a sturdy business.

MBL Ulster operates out of Belfast. The group was originally founded as Irish Marketing Surveys in 1963, with Lansdowne Market Research starting up in 1979. The group soon developed a strong reputation for ad hoc work led by the likes of the late John Lepere and John Meagher and more recently, Robin Addis and Eamonn Williams.

The departure of two senior IMS executives, Des Byrne and Graham Wilkinson, to start Behaviour & Attitudes came as a big shock to the research business back in 1985. But such defections have occurred several times since, with people like Richard Colwell leaving Lansdowne to set up Red C and Bernadette Coyne launching Research Solutions.

Although the appliance of science is more important than the type of creativity a marketer would hope to find in adland, research too is a people business and needs and ambitions must. Left brain skills like maths help a researcher as does a background in marketing.

For someone specialising in qualitative research, psychology comes in handy but is not essential.

Commenting on the reasons to form MBL, Waring said a merger was a move they had thought about for some time. “2009 was an opportunity to do it,” he said. “Combined, we had 36 client consultants, so it seemed an obvious thing to do. It wasn't because of the recession we did it but it meant that we could provide clients with even greater value.”

Conflict of interest is no longer the issue as it was in the business. Waring said that confidentiality and integrity has always been at the core of IMS and Lansdowne and proof of that is the amount of clients they have had. Such is the nature and size of the market, many of these clients would have worked with other research firms.

Mention market research to most people outside of marketing and media and many will point to political polls. Waring explains that by saying that it is a public part of the business but it constitutes a small part of the MBL business – “it's in single digits”. MBL handles national polls, an activity that would amount to just one per cent of revenue.

As far as heightening one's profile among the general public such polls have a value. Lansdowne made a name for itself on the exit opinion polls which it conducted in recent general elections, referenda and presidential elections. After interviews with 3,300 voters from 7am to 10pm, by 2am the next morning they are presenting the findings to RTE.

“Value-wise to us, it's relatively modest,” Waring said, “but in terms of reputation it's substantial because it's so public.” Like most research agencies and their clients, MBL has been hit by the recession. As with people in marketing and media they have seen business suffer from less brands being launched and less campaigns being made.

MBL now has 90 full-time employees working across public and private sector industries. He is a past chairperson of the Marketing Society. MBL took part in the first annual research excellence awards presented at the society's Christmas lunch in the Shelbourne. The aim of the awards is to foster research effectiveness and innovation.

MBL picked up two awards. One was for an advertising and creative development project they did for Carlton Screen Advertising. They also won the public policy category for post-Lisbon Treaty referendum analysis for the Department of Foreign Affairs.

MBL conducted studies into the effects of the economic downturn on Irish society. After so many years of unbridled prosperity, the speed with which the recession hit Irish consumers triggered an emotional rollercoaster. Like any other extreme shock or bereavement, disbelief, panic and despondency set in. Key to recovering from such upset is acceptance and this is where the country appears to be at the start of 2010.

“2009 was a year of huge adjustment in consumer spending,” Waring said. “which brought with it a huge focus on price, even for the boom generation who had never experienced the threat of unemployment. Those worst hit were forced to forfeit their brands of choice for price. Others have alternated depending on what's in their purse, while bargain-hunters have never had it so good in terms of knock-down prices.

“While many of the excesses of the boom years may have gone for now, at the core of consumer behaviour is still the desire for brands. Protecting equity is vital so that as we emerge from the recession you have a brand that is not judged solely on price.

“As we look to the intensity of the recession easing during 2010 and 2011, consumer focus is likely to be increasingly on value and this in itself presents great opportunities. Brands need however, to be careful that they do not over discount in the drive to deliver value. A brand's intrinsic value is more than just price and volume,” Waring added.

Brands choosing to fight on price alone are doomed to an eternal flight to the bargain basement – price premiums are hard to recover. The crystal ball is seasonally snow-filled after being heavily shaken by the recession. Yet, we can discern a revised future in which consumers may negotiate with brands more forcefully than during the boom years.

With marketing budgetsbeing cut, some companies are acting on intuitionrather than researching issues and conceptsto ‘the death' as they did in the past. Waring said the trend was inevitable given the current economic realities but he is hopeful that marketers will again rely more on calling on outside experts like MBL for independent analysis.

Now that the name Irish Marketing Surveys (IMS) has been put out to pasture, would WPP consider dropping Lansdowne from its nameplate? When asked, Waring was open-minded about it and he would not see it as a case of the physician not trusting his own medicine.

If the MBL consumer – that is the agency's clients – shows a preference for a name change, they will act accordingly. Research, like politics, is dogged and it is in the genes. The Lansdowne name may fizzle out, but Waring believes that day is still some way off.

Share with friends:

Privacy Policy | Cookies Policy