By Mark Speed


The issue of commissioning has hit the front pages thanks to the furore over comments made by Dominic Cummings and the way the government is procuring research. While this may not be the place to go into details here, the MRS was correct to step in and support the research industry. Whatever the ins-and-outs of this latest scandal, the story demonstrates how a good commissioning process is vital to ensure a successful project.

This applies to all bodies wanting research, whether they are government, PR and marketing agencies, the third sector, FTSE100s and SMEs. Research agencies should be encouraging them all to follow good practice no matter how small or large the project.

What are the new challenges?

● Lack of face-to-face opportunities– personal interaction and compatibility can slide if client and agency never meet before the project.
● Disclosing budgets – should budgets be shared at the tendering stage? The fear has been that agencies will cost up to a budget limit. However, post pandemic models have changed with less meeting and travel time and changes in qualitative and quantitative data collection techniques. Trust is required between both parties and so guidelines can save clients from getting wildly over-budget pitches.
● Staffing – Researchers may have been lost due to budget cutbacks, redundancies or working from home.
● Data protection – issues are more critical than ever with GDPR a key consideration (sometime overlooked by clients) and Brexit has possibly further complicated these issues in EU countries
● Audience shifts – The increase in remote fieldwork techniques means samples have changed in nature and as some audiences are now less accessible and this needs to be understood by clients.
● International projects need to take account of global pandemic issues and country COVID protocols, complicating what has always been a complicated project and costing process Given the changed environment within which agencies (and clients) now work, the time for more professional and thoughtful commissioning of research raises a range of dos and don’ts.

Good Practice Client Dos

● Provide measurable clear and realistic objectives, ideally with an indicative budget.
● Give at least one point of contact for the agencies to ask questions (researchers like to ask questions – it is what we do!), and ensure the contact is research literate and easily accessible.
● Provide realistic deadlines both in terms of the commissioning process and the project.
● Write a clear brief and if personal chemistry is vital, organise at least a Zoom meeting to get to know each other (or meet face-to-face if protocols permit).

Good Practice Don’ts

● Assuming there is a research-literate point of contact, don’t have that person
disappear throughout the process, leaving no other contact for the inevitable questions.
● Don’t bluff agency questions if you don’t know the answer as this is likely to lead to incorrect agency assumptions and fees, and dissatisfaction for both parties.
● Don’t avoid talking about areas you are uncomfortable with or do not want the research to reveal. Agencies can work with hurdles, so long as they know what they are in advance. It is vital we, as an industry, keep clients informed on best practice and not use the pandemic as an excuse to enter into shoddy commissioning processes. Otherwise we simply end up with both parties failing to achieve their desired outcomes.