Is bigger always better, and is bigger always appropriate?

businessman protecting customer or human resources from competiThe past several years have seen something of a transformation in the structure and presence of senior personnel within the four “major” research agencies. It is timely to consider these changes and their implication on researchers, competitors, and buyers of research.

There was a time when bigger was perceived as better. Agencies advertised the benefits of having hundreds of offices across Asia matched by hundreds of researchers who were trained by, and whose findings were presented by, experienced senior managers, which all assured clients of coverage, expertise, and timeliness of project completion. This was allied to a stated availability of senior executives with aeons of experience, skills, and expertise to assist the research buyer achieve “actionable insights” and from them develop market-share-winning, profitable strategies.

All appeared to work well until events in recent times. Of late, we have witnessed a “forced/coerced” mass exodus of senior management from the “Big 4”, together with a growing unease from middle management as to what their future may be. In many instances, clients have experienced, after witnessing the disappearance of the agency’s senior team, a loss of the insights, experience, and expertise that characterised the partnership. It seems that the resulting knowledge gap has not, in many instances, been covered by the emerging middle management, through no fault of their own. Adequate training and mentoring from their now “dearly departed” seniors were sorely lacking. They simply lack the years of experience required to build depth of knowledge.

While the recent cost and labour reduction, allied to reduced training at all levels, has contributed to this loss of knowledge, nothing printed can truly act as a substitute for first-hand experience often gained when a middle manager accompanies seniors to briefs and presentations, supported by the gaining of marketplace knowledge.

While it is quite understandable that economic circumstances, plus the sheer number of senior managers in the “Big 4”, has necessitated tightening of the expenses ledger, the impact of this belt tightening is having a very detrimental impact on client–agency relationships.

Is there a better way to manage the exodus and the economic constraints to better preserve the relationship? Your humble correspondent doesn’t have a panacea for all ills – each organisation has its own framework within which it must function – but is acutely aware of the damage being done.

An outcome of this form of “downsizing” has been that clients have changed their focus and perceptions. It appears that bigger is no longer necessarily better, as there is now a constant shift by clients from the large agencies with hundreds of offices to the smaller, more agile and adaptable agencies. Many boutique- and medium-sized agencies are capitalising on this shift of focus and finding opportunities that were not present as recently as two years ago.

In addition, as much of what was the sole domain of the “Big 4” has been more recently out-sourced (data, field, and expertise), clients are more inclined to follow the senior talent to their new destination. This will inevitably lead to an increase in their collaboration with the boutique- and medium-sized agencies.

The impact has an interesting consequence, and perhaps even an option for employees. Is it still appropriate for researchers to consider their careers, or even the start of their careers, being aligned with gaining skills, experience, and a level of expertise with the “Big 4”? Or should they consider using these big firms as a stepping stone to smaller, better things? Does the phrase that “good things come in small packages” ring truer now?

Perhaps the time has arrived when the smaller agencies are able to offer more as a total package – a good mix of clients, better growth opportunity for those with the ability to make a mark, and more hands-on learning of skills. This, allied with the agility and pro-active attitude, is characteristic of what once made the “Big 4” successful.

Big is now not always better, and the option of working with one of the “Big 4” may prove to be less alluring, as such a pathway may not be appropriate for researchers wanting to excel.