During the global financial crisis, the amount spent on research in New Zealand declined significantly, and the industry has struggled to gain back that ground after the recovery. But The Research Agency has grown at around 120 percent per year since it launched in 2007 and it has big ambitions to maintain that. Managing director Andrew Lewis discusses the reasons behind the company’s recent rebrand to TRA, the importance of embracing different disciplines, and why consumers need to be brought into the heart of the business.
When Andrew Lewis and Amber Coulter cut the ribbon on The Research Agency back in 2007, they pruposefully tried to separate themselves from the traditional research houses, both philosophically and aesthetically via its contemporary High St office space and its focus on design and brand. And that's worked pretty well so far, with the company now employing 26 staff, making it into the Deloitte Fast 50 in 2010 and 2011 and working with big clients like IAG, Lotto NZ, VW, Foodstuffs, Lion, Mercury, ASB, Vodafone and many others.
"But the business has changed massively from what we set it up to be," says Lewis, so it's decided to move even further away from the world of traditional research and closer to the consultancy model by taking that word out of its name and becoming TRA.
"The original brand for us was always the idea of a sign," says Lewis. "It pointed in a direction, it showed the way. Now it’s about activation of insights. 'Here’s something really interesting, but how does that come to life?' And that's the whole idea of the neon and turning it on."Paul Hartigan to create the neon sign and then Toakai Okano photographed a bunch of different backgrounds around Auckland for the brand material.
"Again, it was about understanding people and their lives ... We think it’s pretty cool. More than that it’s about being clear on what we do, even for us internally. It’s a pretty interesting combination of different disciplines. Designers, planners, marketers, researchers, analytics types. And the way we work is very collaborative. There’s a lot of stuff coming together so I think it's important to be clear on what it is that we do and to give ourselves a vision and a purpose, which is to understand human behaviour to unlock growth opportunities."
Lewis says one of the interesting trends that’s been coming through in marketing recently is the idea of the "customer-centric business". And while understanding the customer is what marketing has always been about, it's a big shift in thinking for businesses.
"Getting the voice of the customer into a business is a lot easier to do now than it has ever been before. The customer is now being seen as the second most important stakeholder when it comes to strategy behind the C-Suite. That’s really shifted up the list. The whole view of technology being the greatest influence on business performance is nearly universal now and I think those two things are hugely inter-related because technology has given power to the consumers."
Typically, he says companies work inside out: they develop a product, find out who it could be for, and then figure out how to sell it. But that needs to change.
"It’s still the mantra in many cases, but the ability now exists to really flip that on its head in a way that didn’t before. You can go out and talk to consumers. But they can’t innovate. The only way you can innovate is by taking the human inside the business and ideating around it. That's the best use of research. And that’s how problems get solved. They don’t get solved by external agencies very often. Companies know that stuff best. They just need the raw materials to start with."
In the past, Lewis says brand advertising used to be important because it gave consumers information and, in less cynical times, that information was often believed. But because the internet and social media is such an information-rich environment, he believes brand advertising is losing its lustre. Some argue that in an information-rich world shortcuts (such as brands) become even more important. And while he says brand advertising certainly still entertains and engages, "the way businesses get information to people has changed dramatically". And that means storytelling is becoming increasingly important and boundaries are blurring.
"This is where design and advertising come together. One of the interesting things about the whole converged media space when it’s less about big brand advertising is that you have a whole lot of different channels telling a cohesive story. So that story becomes really important. But you have to ask 'what are you trying to achieve and what are you doing'? And that's part of the actor theory."
So at a time when the research industry as a whole is battling, how has TRA grown so rapidly? It is, of course, a lot smaller than some of the established research brands, but he says it's been successful because it's "taking a different perspective on problems".
"A lot of where our growth has come from in the last year or two hasn’t been from the research base. The core business has been growing at 130 percent per annum since we started in 2007. But the success has come from using data analytics, design and strategy and planning with the tools of research ... I think that’s where the magic happens, when you bring all those bits together. And that’s a lot of what we’ve been developing over the last few years, hence the change to TRA, rather than The Research Agency."
While he says a lot of its competitors are talking about growth and tools, he believes focusing on understanding human behaviour is still fairly unique.
"There's been so much development in the idea of tools and techniques; these globally branded research tools that answer a specific problem or do a specific thing, but there's been very little thinking about how you tell a powerful story ... If the behavior is unconscious and just happens there’s almost no point doing a focus group because people don’t understand or can’t articulate what those are. So there’s a role for the analytics to look at actual behaviours and when you combine the two, then wrap some tools or design around it to bring the insights to life, then that’s when you can find genuine breakthrough insights that can help a business find growth ... Analytics or research is only part of the puzzle. They show you what people do, so you’re left saying why? I think there’s a lack of those things coming together. And I think they’re not asking the right questions anyway, which is where the strategy and planning disciplines come in."
So how does that thinking manifest itself? He points to some work it did for Ebos, which owns Antiflamme and has the license for Deep Heat. It found out that Antiflamme was seen as more emotional than medicinal ("a mother's hug"), so they recommended separating the core product and developing an extra strength product aimed at people who needed pain relief. He also points to the work it did with Volkswagen around moving the brand from premium into the mainstream and helping to develop the strategy of 'A Car for Every Kiwi', an idea where a lot of the advertising developed from.
"It was about understanding the market opportunity ... The creative expression of those ideas is critical. But again it’s about starting from a point that’s based on where the consumer is coming from."
Just as too much food is now seen as a bigger issue for the planet than not enough food, marketers and businesses are often struggling to cope with too much data, rather than not enough. So finding the nuggets seems to be becoming a more important skill than collecting the data.
"There are lots of alternatives for clients. There are platforms now to run surveys [in-house]. But problems around understanding your customers and putting them at the heart of the business are bigger than ever. One of the problems is how much info is coming in from so many different sources, and the ability to find the narrative in that and getting into a position to use it is a massive growth area. That’s why analytics is seeing a huge amount of growth."
But there's much more potential to do interesting things with all that data that, at present, is not often being realised.
"The only thing it really gets used for is 'we’ve got a product we’re launching so who should we target with it, or who should we DM this thing to and was it successful?' It’s used a long way downstream, where I think it can be used to answer a lot of the big questions."
Lewis says the company's big vision is to grow the GDP of New Zealand, one business at a time. He admits GDP is a crude instrument, but the sentiment is clear: "it's about helping them find the incremental growth they might not have otherwise by looking at things a bit differently."
Of course, it's also hoping to maintain its own incremental growth. It is set to move into a new office in Britomart in November, it's aiming to increase the staff count to 40 by the end of next year and it's hoping to clock in with $20 million in revenue by 2020. And if the past seven years are any gauge, it's looking likely.