Changing market research from an industry to a profession – what’s the point?

Posted on 10th October 2013 by Youth

ESOMAR recently featured a short article by Anna Peters, co-creation director at our sister agency, Bright Young Minds. We republish it in full below.

An industry is: Economic activity concerned with the processing of raw materials and manufacture of goods in factories.
A profession is: A paid occupation, esp. one that involves prolonged training and a formal qualification.

Established, powerful, and with bodies such as ESOMAR and MRS doing a great job of raising our profile and representing our interests, market research behaves, in many ways, just like a profession.


Philosophically, however, we are still an industry: we don’t have the specificity (nor the standardised qualifications) that are associated with a true profession. This is driven by just how diverse the skill-sets within market research are – from statistical wizards, through to neurolinguists, and psychologists.


Our brains remain raw materials, and our reports the goods churned out by our insight factories. In the words on one industry expert:

“Market Research has become too diffuse for it to be a profession”
– Anonymous, Industry Expert.


But does this diffusion de-value our trade?
Market research is an umbrella term that describes a number of specific trades (arguably, specific professions) – and with this vastness comes the risk that the real value of our trades are being overlooked: would transforming these various ‘trades’ into true professions overcome this issue of diffusion and de-valuation?

Professionalisation of our trade might offer several advantages to stakeholders:

  • Researchers: would benefit from a clear career trajectory, with clarity on reward, remuneration and progression.
  • Clients: could be more confident that the product they get from us is protected by a quality guarantee.
  • Consumers: code of conduct already exists, but in a world where online research and co-creation exist [see my article on ‘are we taking advantage’] it offers reassurance that they really are going to be treated well.


There is a strong argument for the protection the professionalisation offers to researchers, clients and consumers – but what impact does it have on innovation in our industry?


The impact of ‘professionalisation’ on industry innovation:
Innovation has driven MR from the get-go: we’re not just mathematicians and statisticians reporting on historical data sets, but we are linguists and sociologists predicting future behaviours and guiding business strategies. Innovation in our industry has been a direct result of being ‘un-professionalised’ – and we should work to protect our networked skill structure, which encourages the cross-fertilisation of ideas and disciplines.


‘Professionalisation’ in the traditional sense means the standardisation of skill-sets. And, with standardisation comes measurement, a specific focus on individual trades, and ultimately more silos. ‘Professionalisation’ signals the death of innovation in our industry.


A solution
Standardisation kills innovation. But nevertheless, recognised qualifications are vital – they protect researcher, client and consumer. They also act as a catalyst for constant development and growth of our skill-sets:

“Continuous development programs are vital….often [in other ‘professions’] they are compulsory if you want to practice or grow: most of us learnt our quali skills as apprentices and, while there’s much strength in that system, the apprentices learn their master’s faults as well as their strengths!
Roy Langmaid, The Langmaid Practice.


Current options for training and development do currently exist – but my feeling is that very few of them place an emphasis on what is really needed, i.e. constant development and growth and reassessment of our skills. For example, my time in advertising earnt me various IPA and APG certificates – but all I really gained from these exams was how to tick a few boxes on a multiple choice exam paper. More practically focused qualifications (such as those required to run focus groups for large global corporations) seem to offer a ‘quality control’ assurance to the global business – but be of less benefit to practitioners or consumers. In short, the options currently available today undermine the independent thinking and innovation that I value so highly in my work.


Good constant development programs are hard to find, and that’s because you cannot standardise the values that have served MR so well over the years – constant curiosity, engagement in theory, and empowerment to apply this thinking to new situations – aren’t taught in a program which churns through graduates. Personally, I have found programs run by experienced industry figures, such as Roy Langmaid, to be rooted in sound theory – and it’s this type of training that offers ongoing value to my personal skill-set whilst encouraging the kind of curiosity that will continue to drive innovation in our industry:

“As an industry we must constantly practice and develop our understanding of how people tick – and learn techniques that are rooted in empirical evidence – that is we must teach things that have proven validity and efficacy”
Roy Langmaid, The Langmaid Practice.


To standardise or not to standardise
To standardise or not: it’s a bit like the debate that rages around our school SAT system – should we teach our youngsters to be curious, engaged, and self-defining. Or should we teach them to all be the same? I know what type of kids I’d rather have.

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