The Talent Debate, or, how are the skills needed by an MR professional changing?

Lucy Davison of Keen as Mustard reviews the BIG Forum meeting of 4 June

A lively meeting was held on a sunny evening in June at the brand new Research Now offices in Blackfriars to discuss the future skills needed by market researchers.  Nick Thomas, aka ‘Mr Web’, chaired the meeting and opened the dialogue by reviewing the 100,000 job ads which have been placed on his site since 2008. He asked the question ‘What’s happened in MR recruitment since 2008? – is it all doom and gloom or just mostly?’….  Although there was (sadly) no prize for reading the tiny print on some of his slides, Nick was relentlessly cheerful in true Joe Dolce style and his insertion of ‘surprising’ visual slides (Mr Dolce included) and use of ‘Fatify’ ‘Oldify’ and ‘Baldify’ (look them up!) kept us entertained.

Nick’s analysis found that at most middle and senior levels on the agency side there was not in fact a huge change in the rate of posting ads, but that graduate recruitment ‘fell off a cliff’ in 2009, with some implications for skill shortages now. An analysis of salaries over the last ten years showed a sharp decline in real terms for REs and SREs, requiring urgent action, he feels. In terms of trends, Nick’s view was that social media is not so relevant for B2B (discuss?), neuroscience is currently being hyped massively but is not going to take over the world and that the big agencies are embracing new technologies and the management of big data with gusto.

We then heard the views of the panel of experts – Damon Thomas of recruitment firm Hasson Associates, training consultant Danny Wain and Clive Warren of CSA Recruitment.  They each spoke briefly about how the skill set for MR has changed and what they see as likely to change in future.

For Damon the job titles and skills mix had changed a great deal and the landscape has become much more diverse.  Job titles have gone from being very standard (research executive, research manager, associate director, director…) to a varied range including digital data consultants, co-creation consultants, social media analysts and insight managers. This opens up more options for candidates and he has seen a change in the mix and source of candidates – now coming from high tech and non-traditional research backgrounds such as media, PR and ad agencies – which he thinks will continue to evolve.  This seems to be a benefit for research as boundaries are blurring and data becomes an increasingly important business tool.  In terms of B2B Damon sees it as the younger sibling playing catch up with these trends, with social media for example only just starting off in B2B.

Damon sees the challenge ahead as being how to attract and nurture talent within the industry, in particular given that salaries are not hugely different from 12 years ago.

Danny Wain spoke about the growth in softer skills and a decreased focus on the need for technical research skills. He sees a need for a new breed of ‘business-savvy’ researchers who have a confident point of view which is rooted in a grasp of the bigger commercial picture.  These researchers will need to understand and communicate not just ‘what?’ and ‘why?’ but ‘so what?’ and ‘what next?’ Danny is called on increasingly to train researchers in negotiating and influencing skills and people and performance management, as well as in storytelling and the communication of insight.

For Clive, the research industry is now paying for lack of entry level recruitment in 2008. He sees a lack of talent coming through the ranks and a strong need for entrepreneurialism and business acquisition skill as well as the more traditional technical research skills.

A lively discussion then ensued with lots of participation from the audience including recruitment supremo Liz Norman who offered her perspective on recruiting in this area since 1984. Liz questioned the size of the ‘universe’ of MR, Clive questioned if it includes community managers and social media managers and Ben Hogg from Research Now commented that perhaps we are all a bit too concerned with semantics – entertainingly describing his agency as a  digital ‘inquisitory consultancy’ employing ‘insight masters’.  Keith Bailey talked about the move to insight manager as a job title during his time at Nokia but cited that it was a problem because some internal clients actually wanted research and data, not insight and stories.

This led to a discussion of the difference between insight and research and the nature of the researcher as a hybrid creature – part technically brilliant analyst, part business guru.

We ended with a plea for the industry to recruit the talented researcher of the future by improving its brand image overall and in particular by improving its profile with students at universities. David Smith talked about his work as a council member for ESOMAR which has recently visited universities in the US, Belgium and Italy, using case studies to promote the industry. This sounds like a great initiative which we all felt would help change the profile of the industry and secure our future – whatever we call ourselves.

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