The anti-research research agency

We were talking recently to a fairly large, hugely successful branding agency. They explained that they were sceptical about brands. We said we were sceptical about research. We agreed that we’d probably enjoy working together.

A decade back a man called Warwick Cairns gave a talk called “Why Most Market Research is a Complete Waste of Time and Money”. We can’t exactly agree with him. We’ve seen very, very few commercial research projects that wouldn’t provide at least some ROI.  But the ones that turned up surprises, the ones that helped change the world are also in a minority.

We like discovering the unexpected and we like helping people to change the world. However, this isn’t the same as doing research. Sometimes in fact it is the opposite.

So we set up Copasetic, eager to work differently.

We started by being honest about why research can be so unhelpful. Research can be far too abstract – conducted in office buildings, on screens, with short bursts of ‘fieldwork’ in the real world; focusing on perceptions and attitudes, as though people were purely brains, when the answers often lie in our physical relationship with a product or service. Research can be venal – recommending unnecessary fieldwork, the most profitable rather than the most effective methodology, selling standardised processes that suit an agency’s business model better than the client’s individual brief. Research can be deluded – believing people care about brands, ads, or social issues far more than they really do and thereby encouraging clients to invest valuable time and money in activities of great inconsequentiality. Research can be timid – sheltering in complex analytical models, diagrams and infographics rather than confronting difficult issues. Research can be a diversion – seeming to do all kinds of sensible things like understanding the voice of the consumer whilst in fact letting an organisation ignore the questions that will decide its future.

We’ve seen research be all these things. But we’ve also seen it help change the way a whole country thinks about fair trade, seen it help revive dying franchises and turn them into million sellers, seen it unlock idiosyncratic mental switches and behavioural ticks that persuade people to fit a smoke alarm, drive more safely or quit smoking.

There is no guarantee that such magic will happen in every project. Some of the most useful research we have done has resulted from being in the right place at the right time – beginning a project just as a shift in the market occurs, allowing us to present an Insightful Strategic Direction that 6 months later would be an obvious truism. That said, there are steps that we take which make surprise and change more likely; a short manifesto of sorts, which helps us on our way….

A reason to care:  We try to talk to people who care – extreme users, early adopters, people with the most interesting, intense relationship with a category or issue. And we help people to care – creating experiments where people live with, play with the topic we’re researching in their own lives, giving them some skin in the game.

Start where you’re interested: We work on a small number of projects at any one time, drawn to topics that we feel an affinity with and where we can give full rein to our obsessive tendencies.

Frugal fieldwork: We ask what is the least amount of formal fieldwork we need to do to provide the best answer. This may be talking to experts, revisiting past research, doing desk research or informal observation, parsing behavioural data, possibly some focus groups.

Leaving the cave: We are still sometimes amazed at how much time researchers are expected to spend in their offices – being released cautiously out into ‘the field’ for a few hours on each project. We spend as much time as is sanely and comfortably possible in the contexts we’re studying – joining in with activities, conducting analysis, informal interviews, observation, noticing the social and physical context that frames behaviour.

Impatient for the future: What is changing, what may change next and what could be changed: these are the questions that are on our minds and framing the way we work. We talk to experts and leading edge consumers. We observe as well as ask – the niggles, problems, improvised solutions that might point the way to change. We consider the broader social, economic, environmental, political trends that are quietly reshaping the topic we’re investigating.

Nothing to sell: We have tried most things in research, from disabling people’s internet connections to a disastrous attempt to use stand up comedy as stimulus. There is no such thing, in our experience, as a standard process that works across many different projects. We have no branded methodologies that we are looking to sell. We start fresh each time.

Finally, just in case you wondered the link image to this article on our homepage is a still from Victoria Wood’s wonderful A Little Opinion Poll sketch.  It’s worth a watch as a commentary on bad research.