Research and Strategy: Finding Success in the Sweet Spot

I spoke at the Insights Association’s annual CEO Summit last week. This was my first time at this event. It is attended by leaders of over 70 different research, insights and analytic firms across North America including several from Europe. The purpose is an open exchange of ideas that can benefit each other and the industry. All aligned around one principle…how can we learn from one another to become better people, researchers, strategists, and professionals?

It was a terrific experience. I found myself part of a very collaborative and supportive community of peers. The quality of the participation and transparency was powerful for all the attendees. Which set the stage well for my keynote, titled:  Research versus Strategy. Who Wins?

The interest in this subject was palpable as every service company wants to grow and become more valuable to its clients. Most of them believe they can do so by becoming a strategic partner. Research-centered firms want to add strategy capabilities, while strategy-centric firms try to beef up their research chops. But we all recognize that it’s only when research and strategy coexist that we can begin to deliver that next-level value. When research and strategy work in lockstep, that’s where the magic happens.

The problem is very few have managed to find success in the sweet spot. Which we at Shapiro+Raj have. And it wasn’t an accident. We saw the need and purpose-built a new model that brings research and strategy together in a way that can help clients find new opportunities and make better decisions. It was a privilege to share our journey. I talked about how Shapiro+Raj is transforming itself from its heritage as a leading social science-based research company into an integrated insight+ideas company. I laid out five core principles that guide us as we continue to learn and grow. Upon further reflection, I think these principles are applicable to any organization that wants to move where the world is going, not just react to where it is now:

  1. Live and breathe client centricity. We have a very clear focus. Client centricity is not just a principle we talk about, we walk this talk. The entire company is focused on serving our current clients. Our plan for 2018 is built on maintaining and growing our business with them. We do this by finding the most compelling insights that inspire powerful ideas to help them grow in today’s continually changing landscape. My exhortation to our teams at our annual meeting was “wake up every morning and think about how you can find a new and better way to help your clients grow their business.” Due to this focus, we have reduced the number of companies we work with while significantly increasing the quality of our financial performance not to mention the improvement in satisfaction among our teams.
  2. Solve problems, don’t sell solutions. We take an agnostic approach to find the best answers for our clients. We leverage our social science rigor and connect it with proven behavioral economic principles. However, where we create a distinct impact is by integrating these two competencies with battle-tested strategic brand planning capabilities. Our experienced strategists bring empathy and inspiration to the data. This is the reason why we’ve become much more effective at finding solutions for some of the toughest brand and marketing problems out there. And, why we get the call from our clients when they want a firm that can bridge the gap between business problems and consumer-driven solutions.
  3. Embrace incremental change. We’ve had to develop a new mindset. Traditional companies, especially research companies, like building models and methodologies that last. However, given the constantly changing environment we find ourselves in, we need to change and evolve to survive. Evolution is critical. The question we had to answer… do we evolve radically, or gradually? After failed efforts to change radically, we hit upon a better way. Our approach now is to “do what we do 1% better every day.” This method has resulted in a significant transformation without the resultant stress normally associated with so much change. My favorite words to hear… “wow, we’re so different than we were six months ago.”
  4. Strive for a better way. We had to learn how to evolve our operating model. Leveraging new technologies, plus passive and asynchronous data from unique sources has improved our ability to deliver better answers. We have made a huge commitment to invest in technology and new data sources. Based on some real-world learnings, the rule we now use is to do a task at 1/10th the (time/expense) cost of the current approach but with the potential to provide 10x the value. An example – we have developed a transcript browser with AI capabilities that has allowed us to shorten the time while unearthing more themes from qualitative research projects. Our focus is to build only those capabilities that allow us to bring better answers to our clients. The rest we acquire or license from terrific partners in the industry.
  5. Culture is King. We focus on the fact that we’re a people business. We are a sum of the unbelievably talented and passionate group of people. We have embraced some core values—integrity, commitment, innovation, loyalty, and growth. We recognize and celebrate the best of us that deliver on these values. They call themselves “Zainiacs.” As we all know, building a strong culture is the best way to build a successful company. I do believe that we are now on our way to becoming a company “our people love.”

I don’t want to leave the wrong impression. Despite sounding like we’ve already reached the stars, the most important point I made to the audience and I’ll make in this note, is that we’re only about 10% of the way to our end goal. We still have a long way to go to become all we can be.

However, for me, the journey is as much fun as the idea of reaching our destination. I’m just going to do it 1% better each day.