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Research heroes: Adam Phillips

Adam Phillips is a research consultant and Managing Director of Real Research. He is Chairman of the ESOMAR Professional Standards Committee and in 2015 won their prestigious John Downham Award. He has been MD of both AGB Nielsen Media Research and Euroquest, a European research network which specialised in public opinion and media research, Deputy MD of BMRB, MD of Mass-Observation and CEO of Winona Research in the USA. He also worked as a market research officer for Unilever. He is a Fellow and past Chairman of MRS and currently serves on the Executive Editorial Board of the IJMR and is Chair of the Research Network. He has also been a member of the Press Complaints Commission and Chairman of the Financial Services Consumer Panel.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career that just because people seem to know what they are talking about, you shouldn’t assume they do. They may believe what they are saying, but you should be cautious if what they are saying appears to be an assertion which they cannot explain.

I most admire Maurice Millward. He founded Millward Brown together with Gordon Brown. Maurice and Gordon created the most successful and innovative large market research company in the world from scratch. When they sold the company to WPP, the culture and the people needed to build Millward Brown into a successful global business were all in place. This is very unusual for an acquisition.

The best research project I have worked on during my career was a project I led called the Eurobarometer Continuous Tracking Survey. It was designed to track the impact of the launch of the Euro. When it was introduced in 1995 it was the most sophisticated telephone survey in the world. It used RDD with multiple recalls at different times of day, including both weekend and weekdays, and reissues to deal with refusals. Interviewing was continuous, 6 days a week, 52 weeks of the year. The European Commission required that the work was done locally using telephone facilities in every EU member state. They also demanded results in a week. The survey worked very well. Unfortunately, it was cancelled after two and a half years, mainly because the results were so negative about the EU.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career was setting up a new TV audience measurement system for BARB, when AGB Italia won the contract from TNS in 2000. The British TV broadcasting system, at that time, was one of the most complex in the world, with analogue TV, cable, free to air digital, satellite and a requirement to measure time shifted recordings for up to 7 days after broadcast. Nowadays the TV and online video environment is a lot more complex, but modern technology is also a lot more sophisticated. The measurement company was set up from scratch and grew from 3 staff to 240 in 6 months. We went live on New Year’s day 2002, which meant that most of the office staff had to work through the Christmas and New Year holidays. There were problems with the data processing and it took almost three months after the launch before we could produce reliable ratings and another three months to correct the back data.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research involved going round a sink estate one evening in the rain in the late 1980’s in order to observe interviews about employment restart programmes. This was at the height of the unemployment wave created by Margaret Thatcher’s economic restructuring. The interviewer I was accompanying came in a car that she used for working in the area. It appeared to have been vandalised. In most of the flats the electricity had been disconnected for non-payment. The only floors with the lights on were ones where old people were living. It became quite clear that nothing short of force was going to get the inhabitants down to the job centre and that answering the questions we were asking about employment schemes was beyond many of them. They were mostly friendly and helpful but simply did not open their mail, or care about finding employment, since there were virtually no jobs in the area. This was at a time when Norman Tebitt was exhorting people to get on their bikes to look for work. The only way they could have obtained a bicycle was to steal one.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance happened whilst I was in the USA and OJ Simpson, the famous American football star, was accused of murdering his girlfriend. Winona, the company I was running, was asked to recruit focus groups on a daily basis, so that the defence could test their arguments for the following day and decide which one was going to be most convincing to the jury and the general public. At the end of a long trial, OJ was acquitted on the criminal murder charge, although he was subsequently found guilty in a private prosecution for damages. His guilt was something many people assumed, not unlike the recent Oscar Pistorius trial, but OJ never went to jail for the murder.

A research project I wish I had done is a survey for the FCA, using a hybrid approach to measure the level of indebtedness of the population and its demographic and geographic distribution. The history of the banking crisis is about the authorities’ failure to realise the extent to which many people’s debt had become unsupportable and the risk this posed to financial stability. Neither the Bank of England, nor the FCA has access to reliable figures on the concentration of debt at the individual level, whether people can afford to repay it and which banks are most exposed. This puts the banking system way behind the consumer packaged goods market. At the moment, Tesco, through its Clubcard, has one of the best surrogate measures of trends in consumer confidence and real disposable income.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be working in a Grand Prix team. My university degree was in mechanical and electrical engineering and the two best job offers I got when I left university were in Ford’s advanced engineering research centre in Brentwood and in Unilever, as a management trainee. They both paid the same and I chose Unilever.

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years will be finding a way to overcome the cost and time involved in collecting data from reliable samples of the population. We will have to find effective ways to synthesise big behavioural databases, survey data, social media and qualitative research to produce reliable evidence. The challenge is that market researchers, who have traditionally provided independent market intelligence, will not succeed in sustaining this role in the future. There will be a loss of confidence in research and organisations will increasingly come to depend on providers of behavioural data and social media sentiment, like Google and Facebook, for intelligence and insight. The experience of Tesco, with its reliance on behavioural data from the Tesco Clubcard, highlights the risk of doing this.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is to keep asking questions, especially of your boss, your clients and your colleagues. If you don’t understand their answers keep probing. If necessary, go through their data and workings until YOU understand it. Trust your judgement, quite often they will be wrong in their interpretation and conclusions. Don’t be afraid to say so, in the kindest way you can. You are probably correct. Establishing the truth is what the job of a good researcher is about.

Adam is chairing Who will succeed in the new age of data discovery? on Day One of Impact 2016.

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