Last week I attended the much-retooled CASRO Global Conference in Miami. The event was co-sponsored by CASRO and ARIA, the Americas Research Industry Alliance. There were around 100 attendees and the program seemed to me to be stronger than in previous years.
Day 1 was interesting. The highlight for me was a presentation by Simon Chadwick on what I would call the business side of MR. He described the evolution of international MR that has culminated in an industry structure in which a very small group of large global companies dominate. Using what Simon called "an imperial strategy" these firms have planted their flags in countries all over the world and, on the face of it at least, are positioned to conduct research anywhere on behalf of the multinationals that comprise the heart of the industry's client base. The driving force behind this strategy has been the emergence of a global/consuming middle class, first in North America, Europe and Japan, then the BRICs and now emerging market countries worldwide. Within 10 years we can expect that 90% of the global middle class will be outside of North America and Europe. The question Simon posed was whether the imperial strategy will work in that future.
He suspects not. Two key developments to be reckoned with are (1) the growth of multinationals outside of the US and Europe and (2) the emergence of new data collection modalities with the global infrastructure to support them. The former is especially important as the percentage of MR work being contracted out of the US and Europe declines while increasing in countries where multinationals like Tata and Lenovo are headquartered. In this context, regional MR firms may be able to compete successfully against the big global companies. And the continued increase of online, mobile, social media, etc. means that having feet on the ground is not as big an advantage as it once was. With the right set of partners it's now possible to conduct research pretty much anywhere in the world.
As this unfolds Simon sees two kinds of firms that are especially endangered: small companies and those with whose primary business is serving their domestic market.
I probably have not done justice to Simon's argument in this short post, but as he laid it out in its entirely it was quite compelling. And also refreshing. Market researchers are a paranoid bunch. When we gather at conferences we spend way too much time worrying about players from other industries (management consulting, business intelligence, social networks, etc.) coming into our space and eating our lunch. The prophets of doom are always with us, whether presenting at conferences or crying out in the blogosphere. Like the Flintstones character Schleprock we seem to carry around our own little rain clouds wherever we go. What I really liked about Simon's presentation is that it gave me a break from all of that. It was about what we must do as businesses, not the do or die methodology choices we absolutely must make before lunch. It's a different perspective on the industry and while it frankly is a little scary it is at least prescriptive and actionable. A welcome relief.