The hallmarks of market research effectiveness with John O'Toole

John O'Toole, seasoned Director, CEO, Sales and Marketing Professional, Entrepreneur and Business Growth Consultant, joins us on this episode of Now that’s Significant, a Market Research Podcast. John discusses with Horst Feldhaeuser, Group Services Director at Infotools what it takes to produce market research that truly makes a difference in the world. The episode touches on both Horst's and John's recent judging of the 2023 REAWARDS, New Zealand’s bi-annual celebration of outstanding market research and insights work.


So, John, what’s the most significant thing you will tell us today?

Research and Insights will always be important because information is literally power or more correctly the right information to act the right way in a timely manner is power.

Ever-improving Research and Insights is a highly valuable proposition to any switched-on organisation - I possibly do not need to make this point to Infotools people and customers though do I.

So… the second most significant thing, is that long term partnerships are critical for success - in the Research & Insights game. This means client organisations finding the right external Research and Insights partners to keep developing their Sales and Marketing Information Capabilities over time - this will be critical for long term success, and it is a clear trend that we have seen in the NZ REAWARDS over the last 2 decades.

A few weeks ago, we’ve celebrated 23 years of the New Zealand Market Research Effectiveness Awards. You have been involved as judge and chief judge for 15 plus years now - what makes this event so special?

I love the Market Research Effectiveness Awards because they go to what is at the heart of great brand strategy and execution across many "for profit" and "not for profit" organisations in NZ.

It is one thing to recognise that there is a big problem or opportunity - but to design and implement a programme of work to address it - you invariably need to employ the right research tools and techniques.

This is especially true if it is large scale and or a lot of risk involved. Put another way the larger the scale or risk of change the more important research and insights becomes.

Research is a set of tools and techniques that help organisations i.e. teams of people to...

  • Understand Problems/Opportunities better - to define the real problem better
  • Reduce risks.
  • Optimise experiences and outcomes.
  • Make better decisions faster with lower risk.

This is important for any organisation of people trying to achieve their goals but the bigger the organisation the more important research becomes…

A country is just a really big organisation of people - having a strong Research and insights sector in New Zealand is very important for all of us.

I would imagine that the New Zealand government, if it is on its game, would be trying to ensure that we maintain a strong Research and Insights industry in NZ for all our sakes.

I had the honour of being the Head Judge of the TVNZ Marketing Awards in 1997, which was the year that we introduced the Marketer of the Year Award, (that predates the REAWARDS right)- so I had to oversee creating the criteria to judge the inaugural marketer of the year Award winner.

That criteria were based around the entrants demonstrating that they consistently sought to understood their consumers at an emotional level and could demonstrate how that understanding was translated in products, services and experiences including marketing campaigns and ultimately into brand results in the marketplace.

It was focused on the entrant’s history of repeated insights to action to results examples - not any one offs.

That is why the REAWARDS are so special... they are super interesting from a big picture strategic perspective…

  • Which sectors are using research more and which are using it less over time - it tells you a lot!
  • Which sectors are embracing now tools and technologies like AI?
  • Which companies really understand their consumers at a functional and emotional level and show that they can organise and adapt fast when needed - it is pretty telling?
  • Which organisations have structured themselves to have the best market intelligence capabilities in their industry?

It is important that we recognise, highlight and celebrate great research that has made a big difference in society.

Because that's what great research does - it short cuts consumers wants and needs, attitudes and perceptions into actions and a new reality quicker.

Clarity and certainty speed up any organisational change. Research provides more clarity and certainty.

New Zealand projects and entries not only excel locally but are also recognized globally with the 2021 REAWARDS winners going on to win the global ESOMAR effectiveness awards in 2022 and another NZ project winning the same competition in 2018.

What’s your take on why the NZ insights industry is so strong both locally and globally?

New Zealand is a small but highly innovative country - we have always been.

Of course, being small give you an advantage in being innovative - the bigger the organisation the harder it is for them to innovate typically. Bigger means more inertia.

New Zealand has historically been overrepresented in other industries like the Global Advertising Awards

We overachieve in some team sports as well…

  • Rugby
  • Yachting
  • Soft Ball
  • Olympics

We are a small country that is overrepresented in many global benchmarks on a per capita basis.

Why the New Zealand Research Industry is so strong is a function of... Our small size as a country and who we are as a people.

In a small market - it shakes out to a number one and two and some also rans very quickly... the bigger the market to longer it takes.

This creates a stable and profitable industry structure faster here than perhaps anywhere else in the world.

As a business mentor working with CEOs and Boards I always cask clients - would you rather have a great business in a poor industry structure or an average business in a well-structured industry. You will make more money in an average business in a well-structured market.

Our culture and creativity – is linked to our small size

As a society… we collaborate and partner in New Zealand better than most - It is much harder/harsher to partner and collaborate in Australia for instance.

We get better long-term partnerships - true win/win partnerships here - this is a growing trend in the REAWARDS over the last few decades.

When I first started judging the awards the entries were nearly all Ad Hoc research examples - now there is a lot more continuous research with long term partnerships and collaborations.

In this year’s awards we were spoilt for choice with the number and quality of entries that qualified for the special "Dynata Sustained Impact and Effective Partnership Award”.

This Award-winning entry is a world class example of research used to help make New Zealand’s roads safer over the last 20 odd years. It is really cool.

We experiment with, adopt and adapt new technology faster than most…

  • InfoTools and Yabble are great examples of this in the research sector.
  • Needscope is an example of developing new research techniques and matching new technology and then partnering a multinational research company to apply it globally.

This is linked to our "Can do attitude" - give anything a go attitude really helps us move faster and our “Number 8 wire” mentally to get to prototypes quickly.

We have a relatively strong IT sector - relative to our small size that is.

NZ has had a competitive advantage, I believe for many years in Qualitative research due to our small size and one exemplar qualitative research company training so many researchers and clients on the role, tools and techniques required for qualitative insights- me among them. That company was Heylen Research in its day.

Many American brands are still learning this lesson - only qualitative research gets you to be able to understand the emotional brand connections so important for strong i.e. emotional relationships.

You need qualitative and qualitative research techniques to get the full brand picture – think back to my Marketer of the Year criteria example.

NZ has other advantages not specific to research which we haven't got time to talk about today but those are the main research industry related ones that I can see.

  • Small Size.
  • Culture and Creativity - Including creativity in research tools and techniques.
  • Strong IT sector.
  • Strong qualitative research capabilities.

Coming back to the 2023 REAWARDS. We’ve seen some outstanding submissions and winners again. But at the same time, we had somewhat fewer submissions compared to previous years and also a number of projects entered that had very strong design and methodologies but were maybe not as effective in their outcomes.

What do you think the reason for the reduced entries & perceived effectiveness in this year's awards?

I will take question in two parts…

First - the reasons that we had fewer entries…

I think that this is just a cycle thing - I can reflect in all of the Industry Awards that I have judged over the years there have been good years and not so good years - so it is not specific to the research awards.

We have just had Covid Impact all industries over the last few years - so I think that this is a Covid exhaustion thing out there in industry generally making entering awards harder to get to for a lot of companies.

There was a Covid related flurry of activity we saw in the 2021 REAWARDS with a lot of Covid related entries.

Timing may have been harder for people this year being close to the financial year end for most companies.

Maybe some research companies are not seeing the value in supporting the REAWARDS by entering and attending - if this is true, it is of concern, and this is a marketing and engagement issue, funnily enough requiring some insights to better understand what is going on.

Why we got some entries that had very strong research methodologies but not the in-market results.

We get this every year, but I think it had a bigger impact this year because there were fewer entries.

The REAWARDS judges are very experienced industry professionals from both the research and client side who have been involved in a lot of effective research over many years and academic professionals who have spent many years studying research. We ask them to apply their judgement about what is the best exemplars of great in market brand results driven from the insights gained from the application of the right research tools and techniques the right way as laid out in the entry forms.

Judges can only judge what is put in front of them in the entries.

The funny thing here is that Report Writing is core stock in trade for any research company and the criteria by which entries are judged is very clear. So, there is no excuse for a poorly written entry that does not cover off the results well enough.

I think that when entries do not show the results either they weren't there to show in the first place or the entries were written by one person rather than involving the whole team to put the best team foot forward.

These are always team projects and outcomes.

We also celebrated a new RANZ life member and 4 new RANZ Fellows this year.

As an industry, what would you say are the most important aspects that we and our people need to focus on to be relevant in the future? So that we are not replaced by AI, ChatGPT and the likes.

Yes, I was reflecting on RANZ life members and fellows and what they had seen over their careers – Like me I suspect - a lot of change but the core human and brand relationship things staying the same.

It seems to me that technology keeps changing and impacting society at an accelerating rate, but human beings and our fundamental needs aren't changing fast at all.

Technology is just another set of tools and techniques just like Research – IT tools help us do certain things better than we can without them.

Like any tool it is only as good as the craftsman using it.

A master craftsperson knows not only what tools to use but also how best to use each one in a given situation.

A bad craftsman blames his tools which really means that he doesn't know how to use them properly.

To become a master research craftsperson today we need to train people on a much wider toolset and knowledge base while still training them it ultimately about understanding people, brands and relationships.

I believe that is vital that New Zealand maintains a vibrant Research and Insight industry - it is one of the keys to our ability to innovate and thrive.

To answer your specific question - To remain relevant the research industry here in NZ needs to... Develop a Powerful Industry Plan and Structure that incorporates Ecosystem thinking as enabled by the new digital technologies.

You design industry structures just like you design organisations, brands, customer journeys and experiences. The order is always Strategy, Structure and then the right people capabilities.

The Research Industry touches every sector of New Zealand. To survive we need to design and innovate for the global market not just service the New Zealand market

When you compete with the best in the world you become one of the best in the world. Think of Rugby in New Zealand it is an ecosystem that goes from schools and grass roots community rugby right through to the All Blacks, the Rugby World Cup and World Rugby.

NZ Yachting is the same – it has an ecosystem approach. These case studies all have the same thing in common – Aiming high - to be the best in the world, and an adequately resourced plan that creates a sustainable ecosystem to achieve their long terms goals and ambitions - Allows them to compete globally long-term.

We also need to develop our People Capabilities Systematically including maintaining our competitive advantage in qualitative research tools and techniques.

We need to keep innovating with an eye to the long-term global market – Research Tools, Techniques and Technologies. The 3 T’s.

New Zealand is one if not the best test market in the world to develop and prototype many things including research.

Now I think it’s fair to say that the REAWARDS evening and last year’s conference were great celebrations of our industry and a coming together of like-minded people.

What else can we do to further share our successes and strengthen our industry? Anything we can learn from other related industries like Marketing, Advertising etc.?

Share our successes… The wholly grail of marketing is Word of Mouth marketing - Products & Services/Experiences so good that people want to tell their friends and family about them. They create brand evangelists. After Word of Mouth comes PR. Today these two earned media marketing techniques are greatly boosted by web and social media.

So, to answer your question, RANZ and research companies need to get good at WOM and PR including web and social media marketing. Globally we need to help NZ research companies get better and Account Based Marketing to global companies.

Funnily enough winning local and global awards is one of the best ways to generate new-news - WOM worthy news and PR. We need more NZ Research companies entering their potentially award-winning research – this helps them as a business and the NZ Research industry as a whole.

Strengthen our industry… A strong plan for the whole Research and Insights industry with stretch goals and a complete ecosystem perspective which includes the government and a focus by sector in New Zealand but with a global perspective around innovation and people capabilities.

So, to quickly recap, today we talked about

  • How market research helps organisations to short cut to consumer wants and needs, understand challenges and opportunities, and make better business decisions faster and with lower risk. And that’s what the REAWARDS show case in particular.
  • How being a small but highly innovative country gives New Zealand insights professionals an advantage and often also leads to better long-term relationships - a growing trend in the REAWARDS over the last few decades
  • How REAWARDS judges can only judge what is put in front of them in the awards entries. We are rewarding research effectiveness, so showing impact from research clearly is crucial
  • That to become a master research craftsperson today we need to train people on a much wider toolset, including ResTech, AI etc., but cannot forget our ultimate role of understanding people, brands and relationships
  • That New Zealand is of the best test markets in the world to develop and prototype many things including research – so it’s great to be here
  • That entering awards and conference submissions strengthens client relationships and can grow insights businesses and the NZ Research industry as a whole.

A big thanks for joining us on today’s episode, John. It has been an absolute pleasure chatting with you.

For those listening, if you’ve liked what you heard today, please subscribe to the podcast, leave a review, and feel free to share it with others who might also find it helpful. Thanks for listening to Now that’s Significant.



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