Of late, advertising and media agencies have turned into mini research firms. Why the sudden frenzy? And do clients see value in their efforts?
What’s noteworthy is the recent barrage of similar reports from advertising, media and digital agencies, like Publicis, Tonic Worldwide, Enormous Brands, Laqshya Media Group, Mediant Communications, TBWA, IPG’s UM and Magna Global, Mindshare, as well as content discovery platforms like Taboola, marketing intelligence companies like MiQ and social intelligence firms like Germin8. This list is not exhaustive.
We’re keeping aside judgments regarding the methodology and academic rigour involved in producing these reports, and focusing instead on why agencies are suddenly seeing merit in showing off their research chops to clients.
Jitender Dabas, COO and strategy head, McCann Worldgroup India, says, “In an uncertain world where consumer lifestyles are changing and marketers are grappling with questions about what to do next, the ability to predict correctly will come at a premium – and there will be a market for it. And therein lies the overlap between ad agencies and research firms.” McCann runs Truth Central, a global intelligence unit. Agencies that belong to large networks may feel the need to pull research tools from their existing global reservoirs, today more than ever.
But why shouldn’t brands simply turn to established research companies instead of relying on agencies for this service? Making a case for his kind, Dabas argues, “Just doing primary research and publishing it is sub-optimal and doesn’t add value. A good agency with strategy and intelligence units can support consumer research with secondary market intelligence and cross-market analysis to provide not just vanilla data or information but actionable advice and solutions for marketers. And that can be of far more value to clients.”
"Advertising will have to become a knowledge industry. This is something we have always under-leveraged"Jitender Dabas, McCann
A lot of big business ideas, like Uber, for example, were born during the 2008 economic crisis; he predicts a similar idea boom during the covid crisis. “There’s a massive role for ad agencies to play here. Advertising will have to become a knowledge industry. This is something we have always under-leveraged.”
All through 2018-19 there was lot of discussion around consultancies, like PwC, EY, Deloitte, etc., threatening the turf of advertising agencies; Accenture even acquired Droga5, remember? 2020 could be advertising’s moment to turn the tables and make a dent in the sphere of research.
Varun Mohan, head, growth and revenue (India and SAARC) at MiQ, a programmatic media partner for marketers and agencies, says, “In a post covid world, marketing will be completely data-driven, digital and focused, as opposed to regular, mass marketing. Media planning will also be more data, performance and results oriented. The old format of conducting campaigns will change. Agencies will have to work harder to get media plans approved by clients..."
He adds, "Moreover, there’ll be constraints on marketing budgets, so the TG will have to be very specific and segmentation will be done basis demographics, interest and intent. Clients will choose agencies capable of managing data-driven campaigns. And that’s what agencies are trying to prove right now, through reports and whitepapers.”
MiQ recently released a report titled ‘Mood of the Nation’ that looks at the online behaviour of consumers in red, orange and green zones, and what it means for advertisers.
"Clients will choose agencies capable of managing data-driven campaigns. And that’s what agencies are trying to prove right now, through reports and whitepapers."Varun Mohan, MiQ
An agency’s research outing is not always triggered by client demand, though. Ashish Khazanchi, managing partner at Enormous, his seven year old creative start-up, says, about his team’s recent quantitative web-based study of consumers across six cities, “No client demanded it. We just wanted to read the market.” The idea was to analyse changes in attitude and behaviour in the context of segments like e-commerce, FMCG, BSFI, auto, FMCG and retail.
For studies like these, Khazanchi is working with a USA-based data company. In fact, he foresees more such collaborations between ad agencies and data companies, a better model than trying to house these capabilities within the agency, perhaps. “It’s important to go to the right vendor for the right service. Even if you do develop data and analytics capabilities in-house, they won’t be the best of the market. And an agency can’t possibly give a data scientist an environment he/she can thrive in,” he says, in support of the outsourcing model.
"...an agency can’t possibly give a data scientist an environment he/she can thrive in..."Ashish Khazanchi, Enormous
Consumer sentiment analysis is only one kind of research that agencies are exploring. Some are speaking to experts and producing an ‘aggregated’ analysis, while others are dissecting past pandemics and recessions. Manas Mishra, managing director at Mediant Communications, a media and communications agency, has prepared a whitepaper titled ‘Marketing lessons from 100 years of economic cycles’, an attempt to glean lessons from history.
“We’ve asked our current and prospective clients, CMOs, to send it to their C-Suite; in a situation where one is fighting for budgets, CFOs and CEOs will benefit from such documents. There is anxiety and desperation in the media community... even scouring the internet and putting it all down in a concise, readable manner is valuable.”
Conducting analytical, predictive studies is not entirely alien to media agencies, Mishra reminds us. “Most of us have been doing it before each IPL,” he says, adding, “This is a time for agencies to re-boot and re-assess their role. We have to become fund managers for brands. The typical ‘you give me a brief and I give you a media plan’ model is old and reactive.”
"This is the time to re-boot and re-assess our role. Agencies have to become fund managers for brands."Manas Mishra, Mediant Communications
View from the marketer’s side of the fence...
The role and importance of research depends on the type of product category; the frequency of launching new models and variants, and therefore, the need for market research, varies for, say, a laptop brand versus an FMCG brand.
Paramjeet Singh Mehta, head of marketing, system business group, ASUS India, says, “At the pitch level, I’ve seen agencies, through their strategy departments, bringing in some research about the category/industry, and using apps/tools to bring in consumer data points like affinity scores, etc., but it’s mostly secondary research.”
As for primary research, he’d rather work with a dedicated research firm than demand this service from his ad agency (he doesn't have any agency on retainer and prefers the project model) because, “creative agencies becoming research agencies is a distant dream. It’s a complex thing; no creative agency has the strength or the capability to do primary research.”
“Creative agencies becoming research agencies is a distant dream. It’s a complex thing; no creative agency has the strength or the capability to do primary research."Paramjeet Singh Mehta, ASUS
He wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re wasting their time putting together research reports, though. “There’s a learning curve to everything. It may take time. It’s a good exercise, because normally they may not get the time to do so much research. So this will give them better perspective.”
Somasree Bose Awasthi, head of marketing (homecare, personal wash and aircare), Godrej Consumer Products, says, “Not that creative teams are not busy, but currently, the planning/strategy teams in ad agencies are the most challenged and proactive ones, because they’re trying to understand consumers’ insecurities and anxieties in the context of health and hygiene, opportunities for brands therein, what a brand should and should not say at a time like this...”
Across her brands, she works with three agencies Wunderman Thompson, Lowe Lintas and Creativeland Asia, as well as market research firms like Kantar and Nielsen.
"...currently, the planning/strategy teams in ad agencies are the most challenged and proactive ones, because they’re trying to understand consumers’ insecurities and anxieties..."Somasree Bose Awasthi, Godrej Consumer Products
Whether agencies manage to monetise their research efforts in the form of new business or whether they attract data scientists to their teams remains to be seen. For now, the spotlight is trained on the strategy/planning teams that comprise consumer behaviour scientists whose job it is to decode the covid-smacked consumer.