Thinking about the role of the corporate research function recently, I thought of a presentation someone sent me a few years ago. It was a summary of leadership lessons from Colin Powell written by Oren Harari. You can see the entire document here http://govleaders.org/powell.htm , but I think the first and last “lessons” are especially appropriate for marketing researchers:
- Lesson One: Being responsible sometimes means pissing people off.
- Lesson Eighteen: Command is lonely.
So, what does this have to do with research? I think research as a profession (especially within client-side organizations) must take on a leadership role to be successful, but I also think these two “lessons” apply in a broader sense to marketing research. Hopefully General Powell will forgive these slight edits:
- Being a marketing researcher sometimes means pissing people off.
- Being a marketing researcher is lonely.
I think these translate well to the marketing research world. Making people angry is sometimes a consequence of doing our work well. Being lonely is a choice we must sometimes make so we can do our jobs well.
Why You Should Sometimes Make People Angry
We are in the truth-seeking business and sometimes our clients are not. If you’ve been involved with research for even a short period of time, you know exactly what I’m referring to. If you are new to this world, you will soon know.
While many clients are genuinely interested in knowing and understanding the needs and desires and opinions of customers or potential customers, there are those who have other agendas or just don’t care about customers. These clients will not be happy with your efforts to uncover the truth.
And there are cases when the truth is really just too much to handle. Several years ago while working as a moderator, I conducted several focus groups for a company that was by far the market share leader in their agricultural herbicide category. During several outings of positioning work for their leading product, I continuously had to redirect the discussion away from a new, genetically modified seed that was due to hit the market soon. What I eventually realized was the growers I was talking with were much more interested in discussing this new seed because it would mean they no longer needed the product I was there to talk about.
While this was an unexpected finding and not directly related to the assignment, I felt obligated to deliver my clients the truth that their market-leading product was at great risk. It did not go over well. The marketing and product executives involved simply could not stomach this truth and nearly kicked me out of the room. Within a couple of years, they were reduced to positioning their product as a limited-use backup to the new technology—a technology that dominates the category today.
Why You Should Sometimes Be Lonely
This is a tough one because we meet some great people in our work and what I’m suggesting here is being careful about getting too close to some of them. It may sound cold, but I always consider my “client” to be the corporation or entity I’m working for. I’ve been on the end-user side of research for more than 10 years now and that means I consider my employer, not the individuals I’m working with on any given project, the client.
The company won’t ask you to leave something out of your report, cut the data in a more favorable way or game the system in some other manner. Fortunately, most people won’t do these things either, but if you don’t recognize those that will and limit your time with them, you won’t be able to do your job well.
I’ve been fortunate to work with some great people over my career, and most of them have appreciated my stance on this issue. Unfortunately, I know my stance has meant a few less party and golf outing invitations over the years as well.
I’m sure this post is going to make someone I know angry and make me a little lonelier as a result. Of course, General Powell may give me a call to thank me for the mention…but I don’t plan to wait by the phone.