The High-Performance Research/Insights Department
by Jerry W. Thomas

  • High-Performance Research In A Corporate Environment
    Recently at a marketing research conference, I attended an interesting presentation on the correlates or drivers of a highly effective research/insights function. It was a good attempt, but too many missing variables, too little data, and too short a time period doomed the project to inconclusive results. However, the presenters deserve an “A” for attacking the subject and stimulating everyone’s thinking on the topic. The presentation did get me thinking about all of the high-performance research/insights departments, as well as the “dogs,” that I have worked with over the past 50 years. So, here is one opinion about what determines the success of a marketing research/insights function in a large corporation.
  • 1
    The single most important factor is support from senior management. Senior executives must understand the value of marketing research, have faith in the results of well-designed and carefully executed research projects, and provide political and economic support to the research function. Without support by senior executives, any research function is doomed to subpar performance. Likewise, the leader of the research function needs the consistent support of senior management. Research results will not always be what brand managers want to hear, or what senior executives want to hear, but senior management must set the example for the corporation and accept and support results—even when the results are disappointing.
  • 2
    The second factor is the quality of the research staff. Some might argue that this is actually the number one factor, since it’s largely the basis for senior management’s confidence in and support of the research function. The quality of research staff rests largely on one or two senior research leaders with smarts, lots of experience, and the ability to relate to senior management. Naturally, these leaders will need adequate support staff to get all the work done, but good senior leadership of the research function is essential. This helps buy senior management support, and it provides the intellectual capital to train and supervise junior research staff.
  • 3
    The third-most important factor in creating a high-performance research function is building, and selling top management on, a solid research plan and solid research systems. Senior management has to buy into the plan and systems, understand them, and support them. These are the “bread and butter” types of studies and systems (both syndicated and custom) that every brand and every company needs to have in place. The research function should be executing this research plan on an ongoing basis to create an expanding “bank” of market and marketing knowledge. Most of the day-to-day tactical questions of marketing executives and brand managers (as well as great strategic questions) would be answered by this growing knowledge bank—with little need for overnight, fire-drill surveys to answer one-off marketing questions.
  • 4
    A fourth factor in success is the organization of the insights function itself. The research department should be organized by brand, to the extent possible. That is, the research manager responsible for Skippy Peanut Butter, as an example, should review, integrate, and interpret all research data and information (sales data, syndicated data, and custom research results) related to Skippy Peanut Butter. By centralizing all brand knowledge with one research manager, all the dots can be connected and the overall patterns can be detected. Also, if the research manager is a central repository for all research data related to a brand, she is able to cross-check all of the results, identify and investigate any anomalies, and detect larger and more important strategic patterns in the data.

    An alternative scheme is to organize a research department by type of study: one research manager is responsible for all product testing, one is responsible for all advertising testing, one is responsible for all advertising tracking, and so on. This latter organizational scheme often leads to data and knowledge silos, so that what is learned in product testing never influences advertising tracking, what is learned in package testing never influences advertising testing, etc. The result is often fatal mistakes, because the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing. All of the research data and information become more valuable and more actionable when integrated and interpreted by one research manager for one brand.
  • 5
    A fifth factor in department success is the intelligent use of external research agencies. Experiment with multiple research agencies and, over time, choose the very best suppliers to be an extension of your department. Work out standard pricing for the most common types of studies, along with study standards and related systems, so that you can choose a research agency in a matter of minutes—and avoid the whole RFP (request for proposal) and proposal-bidding process. RFPs and proposals are a massive waste of time and money and drive up the real cost of research studies. These research-agency partners will learn your business, your company, and your brands over time and serve as important resources to make you and your staff be better and look better to senior management.
  • 6
    A sixth factor in research department success is avoiding or minimizing DIY (do-it-yourself) research. DIY research can quickly consume a company’s research staff, including senior leaders of the function. Designing questionnaires, programming studies, specifying samples, and trying to tabulate and analyze the results are very time-intensive. DIY tends to pull the research function into a tactical vortex, where research staff serve as mere order takers for “panic” surveys demanded by marketing. So, time that should be spent serving as senior consultants to brand managers and marketing executives, and time that should be spent on strategic issues and strategic studies, is wasted on tactical DIY surveys.
  • 7
    Another factor in insight function success is the rigorous pursuit of truth—scientific truth. Facts, evidence, experiments, controls, skepticism, and objectivity must be our marching companions and our singsong. We must always respect the opinions and the feelings of others, but we can never shy away from the truth, or subvert the truth to appease the president, the brand manager, or the board of directors. We must be very nice and speak softly, but show up and stand up for the truth—no matter what. This earns the trust of senior management and marketing executives, and we can sleep better at night.
  • 8
    The final factor in research function success is a good sense of humor. We live in an imperfect world and work with imperfect people. After all, our bosses and co-workers are members of the human race and subject to all the follies and foibles of that race (as are we). A little humor and a smile can make the bitter pill of truth easier to swallow and endear us to the powers that be.

About the Author

Jerry W. Thomas ( is President/CEO of Decision Analyst. He may be reached at 1-800-262-5974 or 1-817-640-6166.


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