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A collection of thoughts, opinions and analysis on the insights, tech & marketing topics that inspire me.

  • Writer's pictureChris Martin

So, You Want to Build a Research Agency?

There are a ton of good reasons to be in the insights industry at the moment. In fact, the time has arguably never been better. The Business of Evidence report from PWC estimates that the UK market generated £4.8 billion in revenue throughout 2016, growing 62% in four years.

On a more personal note, FlexMR (similar to many research agencies) has been growing a staggering rate - over 50% in the last year alone.

So what does it take to build a sustainably successful market research agency? Over the past four years, I have learnt through trial and error a lot about that question. To the insights marketers seeking answers, these are a couple of the things I believe to be important.

Know What You Are (And Aren't)

Marketing 101 teaches the importance of a USP (unique selling point). But what often fails to accompany this point is that most businesses, research agencies included, don't in fact have a unique selling point. The USP represents a marketing fantasy - something that rarely exists, and is often quickly copied. This is especially true in a knowledge based industry such as market research.

Enter - the ESP (emotional selling point).

An emotional selling point is the feeling a buyer has when they work with you. Part reputation, part product / service and part values; emotion is how agencies are able to differentiate themselves. To develop this is no easy task. It requires introspection and the deconstruction of every element that makes up your agency.

An agency's identity is its most valuable asset. It must be accurate and it must resonate with an audience.

From here, I believe there are two important questions to ask. What shape do you believe the industry will take in the next 10 years? And how will you fit into it? A long term view forces us to think about and confront why we are doing what we're doing. Perhaps there are aspects of your offering that don't fit into that long term view. If that's the case - are they really adding any value?

Follow the Crowd, But Know Why

This is the part of the article where my ideological side wants to say: do your own thing and don't worry about the competition.

But that's not really great advice.

Marketing an insights agency comprises of a core set of tasks that haven't changed in decades. And there's a reason why; they work within buyers patterns of behaviour. Case studies, credential decks and seminars work because they give buyers what they want - an understanding how your agency operates and the quality of work you're able to produce.

Of course, there's room to tinker at the edges of this formula. Content marketing has opened up new audiences. Digital advertising reinforces brand awareness. Webinars complement physical events. But the core marketing activities never change.

Learn to Say No

Perhaps the most important piece of advice I have to offer is simply the word 'no'. A common pattern in the insights industry is for agencies to grow too broad, then having to stop and evaluate their core business before re-focusing on the niche they are best placed to serve.

This is so common, in fact, I'd theorise its a symptom of the work itself. Market research and insight are seen by much of the outside world as a cluster of similar activities. So much so, that its difficult to fathom a research agency may not be best placed to take on a particular task. Agencies themselves fall victim to this and begin to say 'yes' to everything.

And when this starts to happen, that agency's identity starts to erode. A firm that may once have been known as the go-to people for X, starts to morph into just another generic agency. All that work that went into finding and defining a niche starts to come undone.

The broader an agency's scope becomes, the more its identity erodes.

So it's become a personal crusade of mine to teach agencies the value of saying no. True, leaving a project on the table is not the most comfortable thought. But, protecting your brand and evaluating (honestly) whether you are best placed to take on that project has to be the priority. Only by vigorously defending your agency's brand as the go-to people for X, will it grow.

Parting Thoughts

If there's one thing I'd like people to take away from this article, it's this: there's no great secret to growing an insights agency, only passionate people. The insights industry is the only industry I've ever worked in that really feels like a community. And that's because of the huge amount of passionate people working within it.

It's this that I think the success of the industry can be attributed to. It proves wrong those who say there must be winners and losers. Insight agencies aren't fighting for market share, but to grow the market. That is something special, and hopefully, a blueprint other industries start to follow.

PS: If you've made it this far - I'd love to know what you think is the most important piece of advice for those looking to grow an insights businesses? My answer would be: invest in the right people. Whether graduates or industry veterans, at FlexMR we believe passion trumps knowledge, as that's something that can never be taught.

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