I have a guilty secret. I love The Repair Shop. I appreciate this means that I’m clearly embracing my 50s and am probably - even more worryingly - only a few episodes away from Cash in the Attic and turning into my dad, but there is something so awe-inspiring about watching experts in their craft at work.
Why would I be talking about Jay, Dom, Kirsten and the repair crew in a post about market research? For me, it’s probably the best metaphor I’ve found to describe the incredible independent researcher community (ICG) I stepped into just over five years ago.
My only experience with the ICG, prior to starting out on my own, had been a presentation I'd given as a client many moons ago. Since then, I’ve been blown away by the level of know-how that exists in the group and just how generous people are with their time and advice. Just like The Repair Shop barn, it doesn’t seem to matter how niche the problem is that comes through the door, there is someone who will have come across it before or, more likely than not, be a recognised expert in that subject. And just like the much-loved BBC show, the best work is often created through collaboration and co-operation between these individual experts.
It was amazing, therefore, to see such widespread recognition for these micro research businesses at the annual MRS Awards at the end of last year. Whilst there is a dedicated award category for independent consultants (massive congrats to Untapped Innovation and PS Research for their win and commendation, respectively) it was fantastic to see independents popping up on the list of finalists all over the place with Hush Research & Strategy, Field Notes, The Outsiders, House 51 and ourselves, Deep Blue Thinking, picking up awards on the night.
It was particularly telling that many smaller businesses had entered award categories as a partnership or consortium, reflecting what I’ve seen to be one of the key benefits of this segment of the market; the ability to bring together a dedicated team of experts to meet the precise requirements of a client brief.
The annual Research Live League Tables published this week showed promising growth for the sector but, in recognition of the increasing importance of the boutique end of the market, it was fantastic that the MRS also took the time to highlight the perspective of small independent researchers. All those interviewed highlighted the benefits of experience, flexibility and personal service that working with an independent can bring.
Yet, as I know from my two decades the other side of the fence, there are still many client organisations who are nervous about bringing in smaller suppliers. Konrad Collao from Craft referenced the ‘nobody gets fired for using IBM quote’ and corporate procurement policies can reinforced this mindset.
AURA is to be applauded for promoting smaller vendors through its ‘The Best Agencies You’ve (Probably) Never Heard Of’ event but it’s worth remembering the research buyer is often just one cog in the corporate machine. Often it can be other parts of the business that place barriers in the way of working effectively with sole traders or micro businesses.
Fixed rosters typically encourage larger brands to stick to working with the big guys; after all, if you’re restricted to 8 or 10 vendors on a roster, do you want to allocate one of those to a small, boutique outfit who might not be right for every single brief? This was a persistent challenge during my two decades client-side. The barriers to working with a new smaller vendor were often too challenging to overcome even when we could see there was undoubted expertise we could benefit from.
It would be all too easy though to place the burden of responsibility with finance or procurement functions. However, if research buyers want to tap into the talent in this part of the market, it’s important they help set the right conditions for success. Acting as an advocate for smaller businesses will ensure they’re able to benefit from a diverse supplier base.
Championing reasonable payment terms, minimising irrelevant administration forms and ensuring prompt payment are just a few of the things that research buyers can do which mean independents can focus on delivering great work rather than being bogged down in the corporate machine. Sadly, whilst we’ve seen recent high profile announcements from the chancellor on late payments, it remains a persistent issue for most small businesses I speak to and a quick glance at the published data (https://www.gov.uk/check-when-businesses-pay-invoices) reveals some fairly well-known names remain serial offenders for late payment.
My hope is that we’ll continue to see more smaller businesses coming to the fore with increasingly creative partnerships and consortia coming together to help clients truly access the best the market has to offer. However, as we enter a new year, it’s a great time for research teams to consider how they can advocate for smaller businesses to enable them both to thrive in an effective partnership - after all, there’s a whole wealth of expertise waiting behind the barn door!