With all the talk these days about how the market insights business is changing, and the resulting angst over how practitioners need to adapt in order to remain relevant, I thought it might be fun (and instructive) to take a walk down memory lane and paint a picture of what things were like a mere thirty-five years ago when I started out as a young upstart in the market research industry. Readers who weren’t yet born in 1983, may question my use of the term ‘mere’ in relation to a span of 35 years. May I remind those readers that, when compared to fields such as physics or mathematics, which go back hundreds of years, market research is still pretty young!

The Way We Were…

I joined my first market research firm in September 1983. I’d become disillusioned with my job and came across an employment ad for an ‘Industrial Analyst’ – someone with an engineering degree and, preferably, a business qualification, who had an inquiring mind and a flair for analysis. It sounded like the job description had been written especially for me, so I applied immediately – and was hired!

My new employer was a small firm, specializing in business-to-business research, with a focus on market quantification and competitor analysis. A couple of months after I joined, we received a new brief from a particleboard manufacturer that wanted to grow its market share. The client, an astute and forward-thinking CEO, believed that realizing this objective would depend largely on ensuring his customers were more satisfied than if they’d gone to a competitor. In essence, he wanted a customer satisfaction study.

We were provided with a list of their customers and, after designing a questionnaire, we got to work calling the names on the list and securing face-to-face interviews with them or, if they preferred, interviewing them over the phone. Their answers were recorded manually on paper questionnaires (photocopies of a typed original) using a pencil, which was preferable to ink in case an answer needed to be changed.

B2B sample sizes are often mercifully small. In this case, as I recall, the client only had around 150 customers of any consequence, and we interviewed 100 of them, the sample accounting for more than 80% of the business.

So now I had a stack of completed questionnaires on my desk… and no computer!

The IBM PC had recently been released but personal desktop computers were still in their infancy and not yet in widespread use by firms as small as ours. It was two weeks before Christmas and the company was closing for the holidays. As any good market researcher knows, though, this meant nothing to the client, who still expected a final report by the end of the second week in January. I therefore found myself working from home over the holidays, crunching numbers on my trusty HP 25C calculator and tabulating the results on large blank sheets of paper. Graphs were hand-drawn on graph paper. To avoid shakily-drawn line charts, a flexicurve was used (if you don’t know what that is, Google has images). Scatter charts were also hand-drawn with each point carefully labelled by hand.

The report, too, was hand written, with instructions for the typist explaining where tables were to be inserted or where space was to be allowed for a graph to be inserted.

Like most companies of the time, our firm employed several typists who could take a manuscript and, within a few hours, produce a typed draft for proofreading. The inevitable mistakes (both the typist’s and my own) were then found, marked up, and sent back for correction. Small changes were made by painting over the offending text with correction fluid (a bit like white paint) which, after being ‘blown dry’ could be carefully typed over. Bigger corrections meant a page re-type, which sometimes resulted in new typos.

This process was repeated as many times as necessary to get to a ‘final’ version. The pre-drawn charts were then carefully stuck into their assigned spaces using a glue stick. Finally, photocopies of the original document were made – usually four copies for the client and one or two for the firm’s library (yes, an actual, physical space with shelves and a librarian to tell you where to find stuff!). After a final check to ensure the pages were in correct order, front and back covers sporting the company’s name, logo and address details were added and the copies were punched and bound.

At that time, PowerPoint was no more than a gleam in Bill Gates’ eye, so presentation slides were made by photocopying parts of the report onto clear sheets of acetate. If you felt particularly adventurous, these could be highlighted using coloured felt-tipped pens to make specific items stand out. To prevent the slides from sticking to one another, blank sheets of paper were carefully inserted between them.

On the due date, we got into the boss’ car with the four copies of the report and the presentation slides on the back seat, and headed off to the client’s offices on the other side of town. I should add that, had the client been in a distant city, we’d have flown – the point being that remote presentations were something we simply couldn’t have imagined. I should also mention that the presentation had been arranged by telephone (landline, of course) with the date and time being duly recorded in my day planner – a cumbersome, refillable leather binder that weighed 3 lb and contained every bit of useful information I needed: appointments, contacts, addresses, phone numbers, notes and even maps of selected cities.

At the client’s offices, after exchanging the usual pleasantries, I presented the results, placing each slide on an overhead projector. Bullet lists were presented one point at a time by obscuring part of the slide with a piece of paper, which was moved down to reveal each successive point. Occasionally, once half the list was revealed, gravity would take over and the sheet of paper would fall to the ground leaving all of the remaining points on display. Frustrating by today’s standards, but knowing no better, such occurrences were unremarkable and generally forgiven.

The Beat Goes On…

What I hope this story illustrates is the tremendous strides we’ve made in three short decades. Technology now enables us to engage virtually with thousands of respondents, capture their answers directly and manipulate the resultant data on our laptops using complex and sophisticated analytical tools. Other tools allow us to produce highly engaging, colourful, animated presentations and share them simultaneously with people scattered across the globe. We send reports via email or the Cloud and all the information we need is available on our mobile phone.

Inasmuch as these things, which we now take for granted, were unimaginable to me in the 1980s, the insights industry in 2050 will, I suspect, take on a form that is equally unimaginable to most of us today. All we can say for certain is that it’ll be a completely different game, replete with players, technologies and tools that have not yet seen the light of day.

Change, it seems, will be with us for quite a while to come.

Caldo Inc. is a product of the gig economy and as such is a very different kind of research company. In fact, we don’t define ourselves as a research company at all, but rather as a specialist insights support agency. Decades of corporate downsizing have stripped in-house intelligence departments to the bone while, perversely, many highly-skilled research professionals find themselves out of work or pursue self-employment but remain under-utilized. Caldo Inc. offers access to a top-notch professional for hire, providing skills to you on a flexible pay-as-you-go basis as and when you require them. For those wishing to engage on a more regular basis, structured support plans are available at very competitive rates.