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The Birth Of A New ARF Forum: Research As A Business Tool, An Interview With David Rabjohns

October 19, 2011

By Leonard Murphy, Greenbook

One of my favorite LinkedIn Groups is the ARF Group; it is always a great place for cutting edge content, great discussions, and news on all of the new things the ARF is doing to help lead the industry. Recently I noticed a new discussion thread being run by David Rabjohns on the topic of "Research as a business tool," and was intrigued by such a simple but important topic: how does market research really create business impact? It’s such a core question, but one that I think is often overlooked in industry discussions. It’s so important that David is heading up a new ARF Forum on the topic, and I am thrilled to see that happening.

I asked David if we could do an interview on what he is trying to achieve with this new Forum and he graciously agreed.

For those not familiar with David, he is the CEO of MotiveQuest, a social intelligence company. MotiveQuest uses “Online Anthropology” software to help companies create new products, improve their marketing and measure their success. Key clients include: Citibank, Nike, Microsoft, Kraft, Novartis and Audi. Prior to starting MotiveQuest in 2003, David was the youngest ever account planning EVP at Leo Burnett. David has also worked in marketing and strategy positions at IBM (UK), PepsiCo (Aus), Saatchi & Saatchi (UK) and McConnaughy (US). This is a guy who knows a thing or two about using research as a business tool and creating tangible business impact as a result!

I enjoyed our discussion quite a bit and I hope you will as well. I also hope you’ll follow the good work of David and the ARF on this critical initiative.

We conducted this last week via email. Here’s the interview:

LM: Thanks for agreeing to chat with me David! You’re spearheading a new ARF Forum: Research as a Business Tool. My understanding is that the goal is to help highlight business cases of research that had a demonstrable business impact and to drive thought leadership on the topic of how research can be utilized effectively to deliver maximum ROI to clients. First, is that an accurate description, and second, what prompted you to develop a forum on that topic?

DR: Hi Lenny, your description was perfect. Our goal is indeed to ferret out examples of the very best research projects that have had a measurable business impact. The goal is to understand how and why these projects succeeded so that we can share those insights with ARF members and they can in turn produce more impactful research of their own.

The forum emerged from two places.

1. Initially I was involved in a think tank hosted at the ARF designed to look at the future of research and the effect social research on the industry as a whole. During this conversation it was clear that the wide variety of new research solutions were providing new opportunities and new challenges to the relationship between research and business. In fact in some cases the iterative flow of social feedback was changing the core business strategies f the companies involved. So reason one was to assess the latest ways people were having a business impact with new research.

2. The second was more pragmatic. Earlier in the year Todd Powers had invited me to join the leadership of an ARF forum. He asked which forum I would like to join. After a little deliberation I said “the one that is focused on how research affects business outcomes”. He blinked for a minute and said “actually we really don’t have anything like that but how about you create something?” I will think twice about the questions I ask next time!

LM: (Chuckle) That sounds like Todd! It appears that in the changing research paradigm that were in the middle of right now that one of the key themes that is emerging is that traditional research supplier models are not necessarily positioned well to deliver real value and impact to clients. Do you agree with that? What do suppliers need to do in order to change that perception?

DR: I think that great research continues to have great value. I see great researchers helping businesses solve real business problems everyday. I see this happening both in the traditional “asking” realm as well as the “listening” side of the aisle. The real problem though is that there is not enough of it. Some observations:

* Too much research is designed as butt covering – show me that I made a smart decision – vs pioneering – find me a new opportunity.
* Too much research forgets to start with a business question (and understanding of that question) and instead starts with a research question or a request for information that is divorced from the realities of business.
* Too much research ignores the human factor – people in power with strong opinions – and instead of taking the time to sort our and test all of the hypotheses as part of the process, they jump right into the project.
* Too much research is run by order takers who prefer not to rock the boat vs chefs who are happy to be part of the,delicious, end result.

For me the single most important thing suppliers can do is to train their people to start every project with a business question and understand the implications of that question to the research design.

LM: I wholeheartedly agree, but it seems that too often suppliers have invested in technology or distinct products that they need to monetize, and when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. This seems to indicate that we need to move to more of a strategic insight consultancy model for MR suppliers, but that will be a challenging transition for many firms from a revenue generation and infrastructure utilization standpoint. Any thoughts on how firms facing that conundrum can deal with that dichotomy?

DR: It is sad if that is the the attitude of some research companies. I personally haven’t come across that approach but am sure it is true. For me the best new technologies and products emerge from focusing on answering real business questions. If you develop a tool/methodology to answer a real question it is likely that others will have the same question and the tool will have real, broad value. At least that is how we approach innovation at my company. This approach can work for the consulting business model also (BrainJuicer would be a good example of this) as well as the software model (as long as the software contains intellectual frameworks and doesn’t just count and report). As always the trick is to provide the right solution for the right question and not get greedy if you don’t have the right tool (it will only hurt your relationships in the long run).

LM: I’ve been very impressed by the leadership the ARF has been exhibiting on a whole host of industry issues at a time that the industry seems to be in vital need of that. What do you credit that success to and what issues would you like to see the ARF, or other trade organizations for that matter, tackle?

DR: I Agree, research is at a transitional time. A time of many new challenges but also great new opportunities. I think Bob Barocci is the perfect man at the helm. He is a guy that has worked in a big international corporation (Leo Burnett) but also started his own firm (McConaughy Barocci Brown). At the tiller of the ARF he can draw on both his knowledge of the reality of corporate America and the constant innovative re-invention needed to succeed as a start up. He has also fostered a culture that doesn’t seem afraid to stab a few sacred cows along the way and a smart team armed to the teeth with cow stabbers. I think the ARF like any organization needs to continue to focus on the needs of the end user, the companies looking for fresh insights and paying the research bills.

LM: Stabbing sacred cows is always a good thing! Speaking of which, what beliefs or conventions do you think market researchers need to jettison to deliver business impact?

DR: I think there are several mental barriers that get in the way of great insights:

* Objectivity at all cost: Often we are trained in research to put objectivity first. To exclude ourselves from the design and analysis of the data and to allow the data to speak. I have found that instead starting with hypotheses and designing research to test them often leads to better results.
* Service to the client: Another common approach from researchers is to give the client the research that they want vs. the research that they need. Often the latter requires you to bring an objective viewpoint to the problem they think they face and to understand the deeper business challenge they are dealing with.
* The third cow in the herd is representative sampling. I hear a lot of people giving the listening research world a hard time for not being representative (who are these crazy people online?). The truth is no research is truly representative. Focus groups are representative of people that are prepared to go to a focus group, telephone surveys are representative of people that can spend 30 minutes on the phone without shooting themselves, etc. What matters is not “representative” as much as “motivationally consistent”. Will the people who I am talking to or listening too likely be motivated to act by the same things that the people I am not.

I am sure there are more cows out there in the field but these are three that spring directly to mind.

LM: That’s a great list! OK, last question David. Where do you see the research industry being in 5 years? Will it still have a similar shape and function as it does today, or will new models dominate the business of research, and if so, what will be the key drivers of those models?

DR: My guess is that the techniques of research will look very different in 5 years’ time. The social revolution I believe is a revolution with the same kind of impact as the Industrial or agricultural revolutions. Just as the transition from the fields to the cities transformed our lives in the 18th and 19th century I think that the social revolution will also transform our lives and our research and business processes just as dramatically.

At the same time while the techniques and the environment will change there are some things that will not. Humans have evolved over the last 500,000 years. The last 2,000 haven’t changed our motivational drivers very much. If you can understand those underlying drivers you can predict human behavior today pretty well (If you are interested here is a paper I wrote on the topic http://www.motivequest.com/blog/wp-content/uploads/2011/08/Beneath-the-Buzz-MotiveQuest.pdf ). My hope is that we will continue to evolve more sophisticated research techniques for exploring these underlying drivers and get distracted less by the latest shiny technology toys.

LM: That’s a great perspective David, and one that I tend to agree with. This is has been a fantastic chat; thank you for taking the time to do it. Best of luck on the success of the Research as a Business Tool Forum!

As seen here: http://www.greenbookblog.org/2011/10/19/the-birth-of-a-new-arf-forum-research-as-a-business-tool-an-interview-with-david-rabjohns/

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