Elms' research begins to take root

Elms' research begins to take root

Sue Elms: managing director of Carat Insight

THE usually dry world of media research hit the trade press' headlines recently when OMD and MindShare became entangled in a battle to hold on to Sheila Byfield.

Director of consumer research and insight at MindShare Worldwide, Byfield was poached to take up a similar position at OMD, then lured back to a higher role at Mindshare.

The tussle highlighted the value of research staff within agencies, a problem which, according to Sue Elms, head of Carat Insight, was a fault of the last recession, when researchers were considered superfluous.

However, Carat has been praised as an exception to this trend and its increased investment in research has been hailed as one of the reasons it is head-to-head with Zenith Media for the crown of biggest media buyer in the UK.

The use of Carat Insight, with its bespoke and generic research facilities, was cited as a major reason for clients, including Abbey National and Guinness UDV, to choose and stick with the agency. It has also attracted its own clients including Bird's Eye Walls and Microsoft. It is the biggest agency research facility in the country with 21 people in the division.

"Carat did the opposite to most, by investing in research when others were cutting spend and is now reaping the rewards," Elms said.

Dump the anorak

She has headed Carat Insight in the UK since June, stepping into Phil Gullen's role, who founded and managed Insight since 1997 and is now head of Carat Insight International. The UKdepartment is now an established and vital part of agency business and the increased profile of media research means it is unlikely that the coming recession will affect staff levels.

In fact, the image of research has changed beyond recognition, according to Elms. "I hate the anorak-with-a-clipboard image of research," she says. "That's so 20 years ago."

She has tracked its image change since taking her first job as research assistant at Leo Burnett, where she trained under the stewardship of Lynne Robinson, now research director at the Institute for Practitioners in Advertising.

In 1988, Elms was part of the management team which launched Initiative Media and became one of the first researchers to become a board member, heading research development.

"Research began its transformation 10 years ago when it was brought to the top table in the more progressive agencies", she says. "Then, five years ago, the face of research and researchers themselves changed when strategy and communication increased in importance. Now the importance of understanding how communications affect behaviour cannot be underestimated in an agency context."

After a six-month sojourn in a consultancy, Elms was back in media research, heading global research at Initiative, a position which allowed her to travel the world, learning about media research in a global and country-by-country context.

"Initiative was a great learning experience. I'd go to India and be talking to agencies about the technology of the future - about SMS and WAP - when most people living there didn't even have a television set. You can't go preaching the gospel of total communications across the board when some countries aren't ready. Getting the balance between global and local is more important now than ever."

Getting connected

She's happy to have unpacked her bags and settled to a London-based role at Carat. She describes it as her "ideal job" and has made her mark on the division already.

One of the main projects of her division is Carat's Consumer Connection Survey, which has been running for four years, but which was published in the public arena for the first time this year. The quantitative survey involves a panel of 10,000 consumers and mirrors the trend of increased customer-led orientation of many organizations by conducting research into customer needs and differences.

Through cluster analysis it has recently looked at the youth market - a particularly difficult subject to target - and identified the various types of young people. Thus, the tastes of "disillusioned young mums" "City boys" and "survivors" are distinguished.

As for herself, according to the terms of her own research, Elms is both a "harassed middle-aged mum" and a "progressive leader," the latter defining ambitious women.

For Elms the nature of the subject itself holds her attention. "I stay in research because there is always a new problem. If a question is easy to answer then research isn't needed, but there are always more difficult questions and challenges," she says.

"And as a researcher, you become more valuable over time. It's not like creative jobs where you're only as good as your last idea. With research, the build-up of experience is important."

Elms says that research is still back-room at many agencies, while those who caught on early are enjoying the wealth of
experience which has now developed in the area.

Carat Insight is noisier under her leadership, she says, but what's the next big thing for media research? Future plans include further cognitive tracking and psychological studies as well as building on the success of CCS.

The next big news to come out of her division is the launch of QRP, a TV research system which measures the attention which is paid to television progammes and evaluates how often people flick channels and which areas hold their attention on a spot-by-spot basis. And with agencies focusing on the vitality of data and research in communications and strategic planning like never before, it's unlikely Elms will allow anyone to make the same mistakes through this recession as were made last time. n

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