There was suspiciously little competition for the canapés at the Association for Qualitative Research’s AGM on Wednesday. Hunger was stunted.
A delegation from Unilever had come to quell the hearsay about their qualitative research accreditation programme.
Concerned at the variation in quality of qualitative insight across its territories, Unilever set the illustrious Rebecca Wynberg to review global practice. She concluded that, whilst pockets of excellence exist, there was significant variation in quality. All too often qual was being used tactically (launch/don’t launch) rather than strategically. The commissioning teams were briefing poorly and only junior execs were getting involved, leading to a vicious circle of under investment on both sides, with the quality of insight falling short as a result (“…four of the six respondents liked the stimulus”).
The accreditation programme is part of Unilever’s response. Combined with internal training programmes, Manish Makhijani described how the company has now moved to an individual accreditation model for qualitative researchers in an attempt to work with the best. A team of 5 assessors will judge their peers on an 80 attribute assessment to produce a skills report, examining the quality of their thinking and how they go about solving problems. For objectivity, fairness and transparency the same process is used globally:
- Unilever issue a test brief;
- The individual responds with a proposal and suggested discussion guide;
- The individual is then invited to talk this through in detail, justifying their decisions;
- The individual then moderates a live group discussion, skills ablaze;
- The assessors observe, and discuss how the moderator would approach analysis afterwards.
The detail is where the controversy lies. Agencies are responsible for the cost of the test – probably £1,500-2,000 per person. The pass rate varies by market, from 10-50%. Seasoned, trusted partners must work through the accreditation process the same as a recent graduate. Anyone who fails is given a list of development points and is welcome to try again in 12 months. Accreditation is for life. There is no formal roster after the process, but individuals are free to build relationships with Unilever teams. Unilever want as many people as possible to go through the accreditation process – but inevitably incumbent agencies get priority.
Contrary to the tumbleweed that often follows industry presentations questioners from the floor had several points to make and were reluctant to release the roving microphone. The atmosphere was at times fractious as assorted industry grandees took their turn to be exasperated. The language reflected the combative nature of the proposition. Q: “Are we being treated like babies?” A: “No, this is a response to an industry problem – it is needed to stop the bleeding!”
Take emotion out of the equation and ask three questions. Does the industry have a problem with quality? From my standpoint, no. The competitiveness of the marketplace means you don’t get the chance to drop the ball with a client more than once.
Secondly, is accreditation needed? I’m agnostic on this one. The programme is just an expression of the desire for more transparency about what quallies do and what skills are required. We work in an industry without standardised training and certification. Whilst this freedom tends to suit the practitioner and has never stood in the way of talented people doing inspirational work, it is obviously incompatible for a global FMCG firm trying to “codify their insight processes”. Some form of accreditation might have benefits for us all, if only providing a rebuttal the challenge ‘It’s only asking questions. Couldn’t anyone do that?’
Thirdly, will this approach work for Unilever? Only time will tell. In practical terms the 3 hour assessment may be limited in judging moderator fitness even without the risk of having ‘one weird group’. Or the inconvenient fact there’s more to the quallie toolkit than groups.
By Christmas the first tranche of results will be out and the first accredited researchers will start playing their trade. Unintended consequences – like the anointed few being overworked and over approached by headhunters – may well abound. The only certainty is we’ll be hearing lots more on the subject in 2012.