Case Study of Q Research, a Marketing Research Company
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 3 August 2018
Associated with this post are the following articles are a set of powerful ideas around systems thinking and the work of Fred Emery which were the background to my setting up Q Research.
The articles in order are: 1 Causal Texture (an annotated version of Emery & Trist’s famous paper), 2 The Search Conference (a description and explanation), 3 McQuitty Causal Path Analysis (a powerful statistical methodology as an adjunct to organisational change), 4 Participative Workplace Design (a description of workplace reform), and 5 An organisational thermometer (to measure progress in workplace reform).
The accompanying article on Q Research shows how I turned some of these ideas into a successful strategic marketing research business.
Q Research: Portrait of a small Strategic Marketing Research Company
This is a portrait of a small business I started and ran for eight years from 1988 to 1995. It was a small strategic marketing research company that offered something quite different to clients; most of whom appreciated it and some didn’t.
It is perhaps a little self-indulgent publicising Q Research so many years after it closed, but there would have been sensitivities and confidentiality issues previously. Please skip this article, if the topic isn’t of interest.
The key elements described are small business, marketing research and what is involved. The theoretical framework for our approach was based on the work of Australia’s most recognised social scientist Frederick Edmund Emery, with whom I worked at ANU (the Australian National University), and in particular his Search Conference methodology, which I have mentioned several times previously (see The Art of Prophecy). Also relevant are sampling and survey research methodology, questionnaires, quantitative and qualitative approaches and analysis. Don’t switch off. I won’t be providing details.
Writing about Q Research may stimulate me to write something in more detail about these topics at a later date. (This would include qualitative and quantitative marketing research techniques: our particular approach to focus groups and perhaps our unique organisational health thermometer, based on internal staff satisfaction surveys.)
Our reports (and audiotapes of some focus groups) about 50 of them are held as Manuscripts at the National Library of Australia. They are available to researchers and are no longer embargoed. Some of them, I think, are quite important.
I/we were quite proud of Q Research and its achievements, some of which were unique. Q Research is also a good example of how to start a particular type of small business without any financial risk and with minimal start-up costs. Q Research also generated a good income for me, a reasonable income for my administrative/organiser partner and good casual employment for various people, as work permitted. We never had an office and initially used Servcorp as an answering service and for a boardroom. We later, with more confidence, just used an answering service occasionally, used the clients’ boardrooms and hired venues for focus groups.
Q Research & Marketing began by obtaining work. At the time I was working in the Australian Public Service in the Department of Industry Technology and Customs (DITAC). I had joined as a graduate trainee in early 1986 and was an ASO 8 project officer. (ASO 8 was the last ‘doer’ level, before management. I’d joined because I was broke at the time.)
DITAC was an interesting place to be then. I was working on the marketing of a new Commonwealth and State government joint program called the National Industry Extension Service (NIES). I was working closely with Robb Richards who had been brought in on contract to provide commercial marketing expertise.
Robb somehow obtained some marketing work with CPS Credit Union (Canberra based) in late 1988 and asked me if I could design and conduct the market research component. We did this under the aegis of Quantum Ideas Bureau run by Frank Arnold where Robb based himself for private work in Canberra. Frank was very supportive.
Q Research & Marketing (later called just Q Research) grew from there. Robb’s assistant at Quantum Ideas Bureau, Pamela Slocum, was neighbour of Danny McCheane. Danny came on as administrator and later as partner in the business as Robb gradually eased himself out of formal involvement. Danny’s teenage daughter Caroline Desmond began to do survey work with us. Caroline was very bright and a quick learner and gradually became important to running the survey research and focus groups.
Other important people to the business were Robyn Black (a school teacher with a solid mathematics background) to help with quantitative analysis and Garry Watson (a fellow Fred Emery network person) who could run Search Conferences and quickly became skilled at helping me to run focus groups. Garry and I became the team that conducted many of Q Research’s focus groups.
When Robb asked me to conduct my first survey research, I had no real knowledge or training in this area. It was a steep learning curve. However, I had several major advantages, which quickly became paramount and made Q Research as a small company both innovative and unique.
I was scientifically trained and understood research design and implementation. I had become a de facto statistical expert during my PhD in Zoology because of general lack of such expertise in the Department and much biology in general in the 1970s (despite the pivotal developments in statistics created through biology earlier in the century). Hence I was quickly competent in sampling theory, research design and analysis.
Similarly, I had met and become very interested in the ideas of Fred Emery. I had worked with Fred and others at the Centre for Continuing Education at the Australian National University in Canberra and had become competent in running Search Conferences in the previous eight years. Consequently, when I had to design and run focus groups I used the Search Conference methodology compressed into an hour to an hour and a half. I knew that in doing this I lost the participative nature of the process and was using the focus group as a means to quickly obtain thoughtful information from the heads of participants.
The Search Conference approach helped to bypass the trivia that most focus groups generate by taking only superficial information from participants. All people, including myself, have a lot of noise going on in their heads much of the time and for information packed focus groups one needs to get out of this space quickly and into a more reasoned ‘planning space’. Because I was committed to the participative approach but could not achieve participation in a focus group (it was more an information ripping exercise), we tried to make the process a ‘song and dance act’ and as pleasant as possible to the participants, without paying them.
(We only payed participants twice whilst the company was running because I believed it diminished the quality of the result. Instead we provided really good pastries or lunch and excellent tea and coffee. We also gave each participant a really good bottle of port or an alternative as a thank you.)
It was only later after we had conducted many focus groups, some with repeat participants, that I realised that the participants gained almost as much from the process as we did. And that over time some people, who became relatively regular participants (up to five or six times), actually and observably began improve their thinking patterns in group planning processes, in a similar fashion to repeat Search conference participants.
In summary, my accidental career in survey and marketing research was reminiscent of that experienced by David O’Gilvy, when he became involved similarly accidentally with the development of polling in the USA, under the tutelage of George Gallop.
Why was Q Research important?
In general terms the reports are representative of Australian and ACT (Australian Capital Territory) history in the late 1980s to mid-1990s.
In particular the financial institution reports were at a critical time in the history of banks in Australia. The banks had from the early 1980s in about 5 years turned from trusted financial institutions where the local bank manager was a respected professional along with the doctor and solicitor in country towns to ‘bastard bank’ (coined by a local comedian). Within this short period banks became hated. ATMs were also a new technology.
In the twenty years from 1986 to 2006, the big four Australian banks in an era where profits were easy because of the convergence of technology and the development of globalisation had also managed to lose huge amounts of money in silly endeavours that generated major losses. Only the NAB missed out on the massive bad debts the other three accrued in the crash of 1987. Yet in the subsequent twenty years the NAB had its own incredible losses and crises.
Australia was relatively unaffected by the GFC in 2008 partly because of the massive and sensible stimulus package instituted by the Rudd Government. However, there had been some failures in smaller building societies and credit unions earlier (because of corporate bad behaviour and poor decisions). This led the Australian Government to guarantee up to $250,000 in bank accounts for the big four banks (insurance paid by them), which was later extended to all banks. There was meant to be a sunset clause on this, but it never happened. The result during the GFC was that Australia’s big four banks gained an immense competitive advantage over their smaller rivals that has continued. The current Turnbull Government fought against a Royal Commission into the banks and financial institutions but caved in to popular outcry. The malfeasance uncovered by these massively profitable institutions has disgusted Australia.
Q Research’s reports on financial institutions, while not individually important are relevant historically as a context to the banking changes.
Similarly, ACTEW (ACT Electricity & Water) used Q Research to aid its strategic marketing in its slow move towards corporatisation and privatisation.
The political views of citizens in the ACT were captured in focus groups for the Liberal Party of the ACT.
Political strategy development & the election of Kate Carnell
Canberra had self-government foisted upon it by the Federal Government against the wishes of its citizens. This caused problems for the first few elections. Canberra is naturally a Labor Party voting town. Therefore when Kate Carnell joined the Liberal Party and became leader in the ACT, she had an uphill battle for legitimacy. Even though many of her colleagues considered her so far left of centre, they often wondered why she joined the Liberals. (Similar views have dogged Malcolm Turnbull nationally.)
We had previously conducted focus groups for Trevor Kaine the Liberal leader in 1991 (who refused to acknowledge the results) and were approached again to do the same for Kate Carnell. This led to a year’s engagement with the party as backroom strategists to help Kate win the local election for the Liberal Party (conservatives in Australia) against all trends.
Garry Watson and I worked hard to achieve this, despite having reservations about the Liberal Party and the ability of the local politicians beyond Kate and Gary Humphries. Nevertheless, the challenge was too interesting to turn down. We worked for a year developing a strategic focus and bringing Kate back to the results of the research. To the majority of the local politicians our approach was either too difficult or an anathema. I remember when we paraded the troops to a meeting with Ted Mack (an innovative independent politician from Sydney) at the ‘big house on the hill’ (Parliament House) some of them acted as if they were being sent to meet the anti-Christ.
The help was largely unacknowledged after the event, but I believe that Kate Carnell would not have won the election without our support.
To my knowledge this was the first attempt of this kind in Australian politics. (Although David Young and I ran some Search Conferences for the Australian Democrats in 1983, we didn’t have the acceptance within the party to influence them directly at a strategic level.) The work with Kate Carnell presaged the more professional strategic analysis and developments of the Blair, Bush and Howard era (in Australia) with its overemphasis on ‘spin doctors’, but to my mind the in-depth conceptual analysis we did has not yet been matched in political practice. (Perhaps a good thing.)
The work with ACT Electricity & Water (ACTEW) — organisational thermometers
The work with ACTEW in general terms is a case study of utilising strategic research over time to guide the corporate profile of an organisation. Part of this was because of the development of a good two-way relationship with ACTEW’s then marketing manager Ken Roberts, which extended over three changes of CEO.
Part of this research was an ongoing study of customer satisfaction, which became unique when it was extended to internal staff satisfaction. Customer satisfaction is organisation dependent but staff satisfaction is a generic measure, which can be applied to any organisation. The aim was to develop organisational thermometers, which could be used as measures of organisational progress towards long-term goals. The work was also extended towards one arm of the ACT government.
In theoretical terms the development of the thermometer for staff satisfaction based on the work of Fred Emery and utilising a powerful statistical model of analysis (see Further Information) was to my knowledge a world first in the accuracy of analysis. I did briefly consider starting a new business to develop the concept as a tool for corporate analysis but other priorities got in the way.
Focus groups or perspectives sessions are effective because they are diagnostic: they require no presuppositions, they help to generate hypotheses, they are information rich and they aid overall understanding of the complexity of peoples’ perspectives on issues and their likely behaviour or responses.
The design, conduct and analysis of focus groups at Q Research was also unique. I do not think such innovative and powerful qualitative research has been repeated elsewhere. Similar learning for different purposes has been undertaken with Search Conferences, but the extension to focus groups is a very powerful research tool that could be exploited much more widely. Focus groups conducted in this way are extremely powerful and information-rich.
A focus group is a small but demographically diverse group of people whose reactions are studied, especially in market research or political analysis in guided or open discussions (Wikipedia). Our focus groups were tightly facilitated. For the types of focus groups we ran the number of participants could range from 6 to 14 but the ideal was 8 for our purposes and probably 10 for the clients’.
There are four main components to organising a focus group and a few subsidiary one’s.
- Sample and design
- Conducting the focus groups
Each is equally important.
Focus groups are qualitative research. Attention to detail at each stage of the process is critically important. For example, the sample of participants is designed for diversity rather than randomness, but it can be stratified in the same way as a random sample, for example by age, gender, location or particular characteristics, such as football players, or types of shoppers or community activists, types of voter etc.
With regard to analysis, I found an immersive or ‘gestalt’ approach was best. Long drives in a car listening to tapes was one method I used frequently. Often after conducting one or two groups, one has an intuitive feel for what the results might be. However, in complex research situations after analysis, the intuitive feel may be off the mark and sometimes be quite wrong.
Two good examples of qualitative focus group research were work for the Liberal Party (political strategy) in the ACT and for Cayzer Real Estate in Melbourne.
The Cayzer work came about through Neville Jeffress Advertising in Melbourne because at the time Victoria was being called the ‘rust belt’ and it was a tough time for real estate. (One of those once in a lifetime opportunities to buy.)
Cayzer was a small boutique firm concentrating in the Bayside area who were finding difficulty competing with a much larger aggressive real estate company.
Gary Watson and I who conducted the research knew almost nothing about real estate. The budget was tight and we conducted only three focus groups. The participants were a diverse selection of recent buyers and sellers in the area and some seekers, who ranged from first time buyers or sellers to regular dealers in real estate.
Neville Jeffress Advertising were meant to do the recruitment but had difficulty and fortunately found a really good niche recruiter. The three groups comprised a similar mix of participants, including couples and were gender balanced.
In the end three groups were all that was required. The process was exhausting but we learned so much that we felt we’d become instant experts in Bayside real estate in Melbourne. The report was a masterful analysis of the problem.
Cayzer were a good boutique company but they were confronted not only by a large aggressive company of ‘BMW’ drivers, but also one that did the little things very well too. Cayzer needed to improve its provision of service, but the business also needed a strategic approach to compete with the large company on even terms. We’d provided them with a wealth of detail or ‘ammunition’ to be able to do this competently and professionally.
We were quite experienced at focus group research at this time, but the Cayzer report was one of those little gems that showed the breadth and depth of possibility that could be achieved economically through focus group research.
Quantitative Research or Survey Research
Research is about diligent enquiry to find the best means of yielding the correct answer cost effectively.
Quantitative marketing research usually involves surveys and is the meat that proves (or should) in numeric terms some well-contrived marketing or survey proposition. Unfortunately, the field of marketing research is littered with poorly designed, conducted and analysed material that proves nothing. Often but not always the questionnaires are poorly designed and usually ask too many questions. One cannot and must not bore the participant, or the results are suspect.
Design is similar in concept to qualitative research (focus groups) but for a different purpose. Sampling is usually a stratified random sample i.e. putting the population into boxes e.g. age group, gender or proclivity but choosing the participants within each box by a process of random selection. However, sampling is not always like this and may be quite tricky to design or accomplish.
The most well known type of quantitative survey is polling research, frequently published in newspapers (e.g. the original Gallop Poll).
Quantitative Surveys at Q Research
There are five main steps (similar to Qualitative Research)
- Defining the problem
- Sampling and research design
- Data Collection
- Data Analysis
- Report Writing and presentation
The approach is very similar to the scientific research model, which is why I took to it ‘like a duck to water’.
In the beginning (except for exit surveys and a few others) much of our survey research was conducted by telephone. This is not possible these days because of the demise of the landline and the reluctance of people to communicate with strangers by phone. As a professional, I’m not surprised that polling research gets it wrong frequently, just because the public environment has changed so radically.
We trained our telephone survey operators meticulously and in our first few years we had a 95 to 98% success rate with interviewees (i.e. a cold call leading to a completed survey). It also helped that our surveys were short and the questions relevant. By 1995, this success rate had fallen by 10%. That was still amazingly high and never interfered with the validity of our sampling. [However, I suspect and remember anecdotally that other survey research was rarely as meticulously designed or conducted.]
We all have the tendency to use research as a drunkard uses a lamp post — for support rather than for illumination.
(O’Gilvy in 1963 used an older quotation without attribution.)
Q Research provides illuminating research. Our strengths lie in design, analysis and interpretation.
At Q Research most of our clients were after illumination, but not all.
We had an amazing time at Q Research the jobs were interesting and challenging. Some of the problems were difficult. On two occasions I hired a retired sampling expert for advice.
Neville Jeffress Advertising in Canberra was interested in purchasing Q Research at one stage, but sadly it was a one-man show and I had little interest in tying myself down in an Advertising Agency.
We probably could have earned more money and grown had we lowered our standards or moved to Sydney or Melbourne.
In 1995 Denise and I took a year off to travel up the Karakorum Highway from Pakistan to China and spend time in India, Thailand and Burma.
The aim was to walk away from Q Research. Danny wanted to continue the business and had found someone to take my role, secure clients and conduct the research. However, Q Research continued only another year before it closed.
I am not a believer that businesses must continue. Sunset clauses always intrigue me as a possibility and also that they are so rarely implemented.
Posted in Mon Repos, Queensland
Key Words: Q Research, marketing research, market research, focus groups, surveys, survey research, qualitative research, quantitative research, Fred Emery, Frederick Edmund Emery, Search Conference, David O’Gilvy, Neville Jeffress Advertising
Wikipedia on Fred Emery
Someone has snuck a quite nice summary of Fred Emery’s career onto Wikipedia. A starting point at least.
The Q Research Library
NLA Catalogue Listing for Q Research Library of Reports
Wikipedia on David O’Gilvy
Neville Jeffress Advertising
Wikipedia on Neville Jeffress is very basic and of limited interest. The Sydney Morning Herald obituary is not much better!
Wikipedia on Focus Groups
Quantitative Research & Survey Research
Wikipedia on Survey Research Methodology
This article overs some of the basic issues but is not particularly illuminating.
Q Research & Marketing has had a great variety of clients over eight years some of whom were:
National (and international) focussed research
Australian Patent, Trade Marks & Designs Offices, Australian Sports Commission, Aussie Sports, Department of Industry Technology & Commerce, Federal Office of Road Safety, Joint Houses of Parliament, Commonwealth Environment Protection Agency
MacLaser, NICAN, SIARS media consultants, Willing and Partners Civil Engineers, Neville Jeffress Advertising, Burnett Property Management
Image, corporate profile and strategy research
ACT Association of Credit Unions, Advance Bank, CPS Credit Union
The Canberra Centre, The Canberra Labor Club, Cayzer Real Estate, Pavis Property Group
TAFE, ACT Electricity & Water Authority, Liberal Party of Australia, National Capital Planning Authority, Comcare Australia, Open Family Foundation
McQuitty Causal Path Analysis
Fred Emery in Systems Thinking Vol 1 Penguin 1969 included an article on (McQuitty) Causal Path Analysis. Fortunately, someone has posted a PDF of this article online.
I’ve also included a download of this PDF.
FE Emery, Causal Path Analysis
Fred’s article is rather technical and not that intuitive. Basically, causal path analysis is about developing road maps or pathways of causality from correlations between variables. It reduces complexity by linking large numbers of variables in causal chains. Its great strength which initially may appear a weakness is that the analysis does not imply a directionality to the pathways revealed. You need additional information outside of the analysis to suggest directionality. I’ll eventually write a simpler users guide for McQuitty Causal Path Analysis. It is a very powerful statistical technique if used wisely. And, it is important to have a broader theoretical understanding of the field than that merely provided by the statistics.
I also found some other work suggested by Fred at Tavistock in London while he was there on Linkage and Path Analysis in the development of Causal Models, but haven’t followed it up.
Focus groups and their value have always fascinated me. Thanks for sharing your experiences.
No problems Peggy! Hopefully will get round to a more detailed article on the power of focus groups. Thanks for your comment.