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TRA's mission for better insights, fewer myths and actual customer centricity

New Zealand is one of the highest spenders on advertising and one of the lowest spenders on research. And this leads to decisions being made on some dodgy assumptions. Damien Venuto delves into the insights game as he sits down for a chat with TRA's executive director Andrew Lewis and head of strategy Colleen Ryan.

By Damien Venuto | November 1, 2016 | features

In the boardroom of TRA’s offices, a luminescent sign of the company logo reflects off one-way glass on the opposite side, spelling out ‘AЯT’. As fitting as this might be, it wasn’t planned, and the company’s co-founder Andrew Lewis laughs as he tells me it was just a bit of serendipity that coincided with the move into the new space in the first half of 2015.

Far removed from the conventional ‘research’ image of a dusty office filled with bespectacled folks poring over reams and reams of information, the TRA office feels more like an ad agency. It’s trendy, open-plan and looks akin to a space more suited to the development of creative campaigns rather than tedious PowerPoint presentations. And while the clever touch of reflection in the boardroom might not have been planned, TRA head of strategy Colleen Ryan joins the conversation by pointing out that the aesthetic appeal woven into the design of the space was very much a deliberate move. 

“It’s like a shop window in a way,” says Ryan. “If you walk into some office with everyone tucked away in their little cubicles, it’s dry, it doesn’t inspire you and you don’t feel engaged by it.”

Colleen Ryan

This also plays an important role in differentiating TRA in the research market, which is notoriously difficult to break into. The research industry is dominated by large incumbents who have legacy partnerships with their clients, meaning newcomers often find it difficult to win business.

For this reason, from its inception eight years ago, TRA has positioned the business as something different from conventional research companies. And this extends well beyond the flash office space to how the team goes about working with its clients.

“We don’t just wrap up our findings with a nice bow and then leave the client to do something about it,” says Ryan. “We don’t deliver information and then back out the door before anybody can ask any pressing questions.”

Ryan says TRA is averse to the PowerPoint approach, which is often seen when research agencies simple click through a series of around 20 slides to show their findings before leaving the client to contend with the business issues independently. 

“If that presentation is never looked at again, it’s such a waste of money,” Ryan says.  “So what we try to do is determine the next steps. We’re more active in terms of looking at how it can be applied in different parts of the business.”

Words matter

TRA isn’t alone in its effort to shift the research industry from simply delivering findings to giving businesses practical insights that can be used to generate revenue.  Most researchers operating in the industry today would concede there are more than enough PowerPoint presentations collecting digital dust on long-forgotten USB sticks.

Ryan believes this broader change across the industry is evidenced by the semantic shift in the way researchers refer to themselves.     

“What we call things matters so much,” she says. “And I think the renaming of ‘research’ to ‘insights’ was specifically to stop this constant generation of information that nobody could use or access.”

TRA is among the agencies that has embraced this change, referring to itself as “an insight agency” on its website, but Ryan believes the industry is still evolving.

“It’s moved onto a different stage now,” she says. “I don’t think ‘insights’ are good enough anymore. ‘Insights’ suggests that the process stops with putting creative thoughts together out of something that has come from information collection process. But so what? The real questions are: ‘what is that being used to do?’ and ‘is it driving any growth?’.

Perspective is everything

Lewis says TRA employs a three-step approach in a bid to answer these questions and add greater value to the client’s business.

It starts in the big data department, with the data analytics team, ethnographers and trend experts, who look for information that might be relevant to the client. From there, the baton is handed to business strategists (among them Ryan), responsible for identifying a business problem that could be solved by the information at hand. And then finally, it moves onto the activation stage, which involves bringing the insight to life, not only in campaigns but, sometimes, within the business itself.

“Marketing directors are busy and they’ve got their own things going on,” says Lewis. “It’s not their job to understand what consumers are doing [differently] and then find fresh ways of looking to solve problems. That’s our job.”

So far, this approach is working for TRA. After starting out as a two-person band with Lewis and co-founder Amber Coulter in 2007, TRA enjoyed consistent yearly growth to eventually employ 26 staff by April 2015, and this upward trajectory has continued, with the agency now employing 40 people across a broad range of disciplines.   

Notably, TRA doesn’t limit its recruitment to the confines of the research industry. A neuroscientist, planners, former marketing directors and communications specialists are just some of the people on the payroll at the company (Colenso BBDO co-founder Roger MacDonnell also recently joined the board).

“It’s about understanding human behaviour from as many perspectives as you can, and it’s about finding the skill sets that can deliver that,” Lewis says. “I’m probably misquoting Einstein or someone now, but perspective is said to be worth 80 IQ points.”

Down with boring surveys

By bridging the gap between research and business problems, Lewis believes TRA—and other agencies—could encourage decision-makers to spend more on understanding their customers. 

“There’s this great stat showing that we’re one of the biggest spenders on advertising per capita, and one of the smallest spenders on insights. For every dollar we spend talking to people, we spend five cents on understanding them. And that’s about three or four times lower than it is in the UK. What this shows is that we think we understand each other, because we’re a small nation and because we think everyone else is like us, but they’re not. Auckland is more culturally diverse than London.”

The problem with this is that it isn’t consistent with the marketing rhetoric we so often hear about brands being more customer centric. After all, how can you be customer centric when you don’t really understand the customer in the first place?   

“Everyone is talking about customer centricity, but no one is actually doing anything to ensure it,” Lewis says. “And I think that’s what we want to be about. We want to transform business decision-making and try to activate that idea of customer centricity.”

But that’s not easy. Understanding customers isn’t as easy as simply asking them what they think about something. Advances in neuroscience have shown time and time again that humans lie—even when they don’t really have to.  

“You can’t just sit next to someone and expect to know what they want,” Lewis says.  “People don’t know what they want. And this is even more applicable when it comes to big marketing problems. There’s no one out there with the skills or discipline to do that, and that’s what we want to be. We want to be that light for customer-centric thinking.”

One way that TRA is moving into this space is by changing the way it gleans information from consumers. Rather than simply sending out a survey with a series of generic questions about a product, TRA customises its data capturing strategies to suit the target.

One of the clearest examples of this was a research project TRA recently did with a group of teenagers. Rather than taking the survey approach, TRA tapped into the consumers' phones.   

“Four or five times they got a ping, asking them to punch in where they were, who they were with and to take a picture,” says Ryan. “In another example, we gave them 20 bucks and asked: ‘So, what are you going to spend it on?’.”

Ryan says that adapting the approach led to an immediate uptick in participation from millennial consumers.  

“With surveys, everyone fills in question one, but by question five there’s a drop,” she says. “With this it was the opposite. By day five, more people were doing it more often. It was fun, fast and immediate. We got a lot of pictures of half-eaten pies. But this was real stuff with real people sharing their real experiences.”

Not only did this provide more accurate data for TRA, it also changed the perceptions of the marketing team on the client side.

“If you change behaviour, you change attitudes,” Ryan says. “And because we changed the behaviour in terms of the way we collected the research in that company, they’ve changed their attitude in terms of how to deal with marketing to that age group.”

Busting industry myths

TRA’s experimentation isn’t limited to the young’uns. In another study conducted recently, the agency looked into the perception that beer buyers most regularly purchase the option that’s on special.

Once again, finding out the truth wasn’t as easy as simply asking consumers, who often post-rationalise their decision. So, instead, TRA filmed a liquor store and just watched what the consumers were doing. 

“We filmed stores for hours on end and realised that nobody looked at price,” Lewis says.

“60-odd percent of people walked in, grabbed what they wanted and left.”

Rather than price, Lewis says the decision was heavily influenced by what the consumer saw first. 

Andrew Lewis

“What often happens is that you have three or four options in your head, and you’re on your way to a barbecue, and there are a few things floating around, but then as you enter the store, the first option you see is the Heineken, so you just grab it. As long as Heineken beats Corona in line of sight, then it wins. It’s actually not about price at all.”

Asked about data showing that Kiwis tend to buy a lot on discount in supermarkets, Lewis responds that this is largely due to retail placements (when it comes to beer, at least).

“It just so happens that the things on promotion are stuck in the middle, which leads to consumers seeing them more. But they don’t need to be on promotion. They just need to be in the middle.”

It isn’t difficult to see the impact a finding like this might have on a marketer commissioned to generate as much revenue as possible.

The problem, however, is that many decisions continue to be made on assumptions (or myths), which have essentially been concretised by repetition.

Industry commentators often cherry-pick the sound bytes they find most complicit with their area of business and then regurgitate these over and over again. Have you ever met a content marketer who didn’t think content was a good solution or an ad agency exec who didn’t think some ads might be the way forward?

As long as the interests of other parties are given precedence, then the marketer will always be one step away from the overarching goal of customer centricity. And as long as these myths persist, TRA will have a role in debunking them and helping marketers make smarter decisions along the way.         

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