The New Insights Firm

by Bakamo CEO Jonathan Deitch

About a month ago, I participated in one of the most unique and interesting meetings of my career.

In the room were the founders of some of the consumer insight industry’s most disruptive new companies. ZappiStore, Voxpopme, Veylinx, OKRA technologies, Dalia Research, and Beatgrid Media were there, along with Daniel and myself from Bakamo, representing many corners of the industry that are ripe for evolution or insurgency.

We had come to Amsterdam to attend, present to, and—in my case, at least—chair several sessions at the IIeX Europe conference. But for all of us, this meeting was just as important. Its purpose was to share candid experiences from our growing businesses away from prying eyes and in an environment of trust.

As I reflected on the meeting over the following days, I found myself thinking about an article I had written about three years earlier. In it, I had traced the roots of the disruption sweeping through the industry and suggested five ways firms would need to evolve. As I sat and listened to the others relate their experiences, I started to reflect on what I had written. How well had my suggestions stood the test of time? Knowing what I know now, would I have still written the same things?

The short answer to these questions is Yes, but with some qualifications. If I were to write a similar article today, here's what I'd say:

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New Insights Firms tell their clients how to make money.

In 2013 I observed that, despite a lot of talk, the industry still acted as if “the insight” was the finish line. This is still true for many. To win, I argued, companies would actively participate in their clients’ execution. This point still stands tall.

In simplest terms, New Insights Firms tell their clients how to make money.

The delivery of insights at arm’s length from any business-changing recommendations is an Old Insights Firm strategy. Being a New Insights Firm requires understanding the business decision someone is trying to make and being able to offer pointed strategic and tactical advice about how to make it. In simplest terms, New Insights Firms tell their clients how to make money. To do this, you need people who have walked the walk and who can translate what they know and learn from a project into something concrete for the client to do.

Being a data provider doesn’t cut it. Having a high quality research product or service is a necessary but not sufficient condition. This is because…

New Insights Firms build their business around value, not products.

In 2013 I argued that New Insights Firms would figure out new models for achieving profitability. They would use various data sources and methodologies and would be achieve flexibility by thinking “ ‘outside in.’ Client first thinking [would] create virtuous circles insuring that firms innovate without overengineering solutions or creating needless cost.”

I’d say this differently now.

How many firms really understand what their clients value? Do clients really care about methodology? No. Do clients care about products, or surveys, or big data? No. Clients care about answers, and they want to work with people who can provide them with conviction and courage.  

It sounds obvious, but it’s not. Old Insights Firms are wedded to their products and models which, over time, calcify and inhibit reinvention. (Or they con their clients into fearing a disruption in trends or benchmarks.) Old Insights Firms take orders. A New Insights Firm will know the fundamental value it provides, i.e., the advantages its clients gain from working with it, and build its offer to get 80% of the way there. The remaining 20% becomes a push-pull challenge of being just flexible enough to run the business while adapting to fit the client’s needs. Inherently, this means that client-facing team members can’t just take the order: they need to ensure a good fit. Moreover, the 80% solution explicitly allows for learning and evolution.

To put it really plainly, New Insights Firms need to do more than build a great product. We need to constantly reimagine that product and ask ourselves if we’re still creating value and solving the client’s real problem, and then go execute on that.

How do New Insights Firms do that?

New Insights Firms seek to build platforms.

In the original article, I imagined New Insights Firms would build real assets in the form of data and people. I would take that one step further now.

In 2007, MIT business school professor Michael Cusomono wrote an article about describing a transition in business strategy that, in his view, would become the defining approach of the digital age. He spoke of companies creating platforms through which buyers and sellers would form independent relationships. While I had read Cusomono’s article shortly before I had written mine, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. It wasn’t immediately obvious to me in 2013 how a platform strategy might apply to market research. It is now.

We need to constantly ask ourselves if we’re still creating value and solving the client’s real problem, and then go execute on that.

Nowhere is there a better example of the platform strategy than Zappistore. But I can even imagine this applying to Bakamo, not just for tech, but for people. It’s clear to me that our success will be partly a function of the human platform we can build, where we work with highly talented people in mutually rewarding relationships.

Whatever its currency, the closer a New Insights Firm comes to executing on a platform strategy, the greater its competitive advantage versus other players and the more successful it will be.

That said, a platform strategy isn’t meaningful unless it gets traction…

New Insights Firms become resonant brands and sell brilliantly.

As Christophe Ovaere, Zappi’s CMO, pointed out in our meeting (which should be news to no-one) MR firms are collectively appalling at marketing. They write lofty taglines and speak breathlessly of their visions, yet their brand is never more than a few pixels on a website. Clients see Old Insights Firms not for as brands, but simply for the work they do. Brand X? They do ad testing. Brand Y? They do trackers. And, as far as I can tell, most Old Insights Firms don’t sell well, either.

Why?  

To understand what’s required, let’s turn to a New Insights Firm that really gets it: Zappistore. Zappi’s marketing is both a masterpiece of strategy and a marvel of execution. In my twenty years in industry I have never seen or heard of another MR company go to market like this. Zappi executes on three basic principles.

  1. Selling is not just about asking for business. You also need to share value. To understand what this really means, put yourself in the position of someone who’s on the receiving end of sales messages. You don’t mind hearing from people who make you smarter, but you delete messages from pests who don’t do their homework.
  2. To be a strong brand you need to stand for something as a company, and then have that infuse everything you do in ways that you become synonymous with the very idea. Example: What Google is to search, Zappi is to MR automation.
  3. Smart marketing and sales strategies require disciplined tracking and measurement. Zappi religiously tracks conversion at every stage of the funnel, from lead sources to qualification to sale to repeat business, enabling them to measure the ROI associated with building relationships via different channels.

Now, is this revolutionary? Not really. What Zappi understands is that, though they’re in a B2B market, their customer is a consumer. They go to market like a consumer brand, with the same hunger to win and the same tactics as the best B2C marketers.

New Insights Firms need to do better. From our practices to our people management to our willingness to bear responsibility for the consequences of our technology and activities, we must fully commit to acting in accordance to the highest standards of honesty and humanity.

Quality will out

When I wrote my original article, I did so from the perspective of someone whose fundamental responsibility was to run a very large panel and sample shop. I was very in tune with how terrible the panelist experience was and how very little was truly being done to solve it. My role has changed fundamentally since then. Apart from being rather thankful that I have different problems to solve, I still believe that quality—and by this, I now mean a commitment to integrity as a business—is more essential than ever. If the panel experience (writ large) is still crap, it’s because the people who run panel companies or consume panelists as if they were an evergreen resource lack the courage to create change.

New Insights Firms need to do better. From our practices to our people management to our willingness to bear responsibility for the consequences of our technology and activities, we must fully commit to acting in accordance to the highest standards of honesty and humanity.

I look forward to the next of these meetings, not least to see how much each of our companies has grown. And I’ll be testing to see whether these ideas stand the test of time