For his annual contribution to our international research issue, Quirk’sWest Coast ad rep/roving reporter Lane Weiss traveled to Greece to speak to Anna Karadimitriou, client services director of Focus SA, an Athens research firm.

Lane Weiss: Tell us a bit about your company’s background.

Anna Karadimitriou: Focus is a privately-owned Greek company, established in 1988. In that same year, Focus launched the National Media Survey, which is the industry survey for radio and press media, which constitutes an important part of our company’s identity. This syndicated survey has more than 300+ subscribers including media, advertising agencies and advertisers.

We are particularly active in ad hoc research, with long-standing relations with clients in industries such as media, food and beverage, telecommunications, automotive, financial services, appliances and toys. Another client we are particularly proud of is the European Commission, for which we have conducted all qualitative studies in Greece since 1997, gaining valuable experience in social research and consumer insight on EU initiatives long before launching.

What research methods are most commonly used in Greece? For example, face-to-face research? Focus groups? Telephone interviewing?

Consulting official data from the ESOMAR industry survey for Greece, about 85 percent of the total research budget in Greece in 2004 was allocated to quantitative, while the remaining 15 percent went to qualitative studies.

When we focus on quantitative, surprisingly enough, face-to-face - at-home, in-hall or street interviewing, etc. - is still the most common practice, since it constitutes around 46 percent of total quantitative budget, but among those, very few are conducted via CAPI - approximately 1-2 percent of total quantitative uses CAPI. On the contrary, computer-assisted interviewing is the most common practice for telephone interviewing which, with gradual increase over time, constitutes today approximately 15 percent of total quantitative turnover conducted in Greece. Finally, a large part of the industry turnover is allocated to retail audits and scanning - approximately 30 percent of quantitative.

Here, however, I’d like to note that all the above data are based on turnover allocation, which of course is important and crucial, but by nature is more favorable toward the more costly methodologies, i.e., face-to-face vs. telephone; quantitative vs. qualitative, etc.

According to my personal experience, I would say that although the above depict the general tendencies, research in Greece is dynamically moving towards telephone interviews and especially CATI, while I believe that the development of methodologies such as CAPI and CASI will inevitably follow, given the numerous advantages of computer-assisted methods of interviewing.

Qualitative research is mainly conducted via group discussions, and only a small proportion of qualitative involves in-depth interviews.

Is Internet research becoming more popular and more viable in Greece?

According to the industry’s total turnover allocation, online research, either qualitative or quantitative, is very limited for the moment, less than 1 percent.

This can be easily explained given the Internet’s penetration in the total population. According to data coming from our offline syndicated survey, in terms of actual figures we are still quite behind compared to other European countries and the U.S. Usage within last month is approximately 28 percent among men and women, aged 13-70 years.

However, research via the Internet gives us valuable information and there are positive signals for the future. There is a considerable increase in consumers with online access, especially during last five years, which may reach a rate of +300 percent for specific targets. Further, we know how valuable the Internet is in accessing specific target groups, such as professionals, younger ages, upper socioeconomic classes, etc., not only in terms of research but also in terms of marketing and communication activities.

We as market researchers have no other alternative but to incorporate online research more effectively in our daily routine. But at this time, however, online research cannot replace methodologies where wide target representation is needed and personal approach/contact is necessary.

What are some of the ways you see the Internet affecting market research in Greece and around the world?

In Greece, and I suppose in equally developed countries, a major effect of the Internet that I can see is its effect on consumers’ mentality, values, needs and finally actual behavior and choices, as part of more general notions of technology and globalization.

We experience great changes in short time span and a constant resetting of what used to be taken for granted. In market research practice, as in communication and marketing in general, this means that standard consumer classifications, the traditional target groups either by demographics or psychographics, are no longer enough. When there is so much diversity not only among apparently similar individuals but also within the same individual, a close monitoring of the consumer is more than ever necessary.

Based on that, research areas that will become more important in the future may include qualitative studies for in-depth understanding of what is happening, research among opinion leaders/trendsetters to spot early changes, continuous trackers to closely monitor main indices, and ethnography to observe discrepancies of behavior that respondents/consumers themselves tend to neglect or do not even realize!

What are some of the problems facing marketing research in Greece and around the globe?

From time to time, the industry’s overall reliability and image may be harmed by discussions and disputes regarding two very specific types of research: those of political polls and media measurement. Behind those disputes and bad publicity, one can find poor use of results or wrong interpretation of results, especially by people who are not users of such research. Both these types of research are particularly sensitive thus similar problems are evident in other countries around the globe.

However, even as we speak, MR agencies, relevant professional associations and governmental bodies are in the process of finding a solution to legitimize and regulate political polls and media measurement in a way acceptable by all parties involved.

Another problem that the Greek MR industry is facing has to do with increasing competition from indirect and often not legitimate MR services.

In general the MR industry is quite mature but also in a somehow transitional phase. There are full-service research agencies undertaking all stages of research. More recent entrants are field-and-tab agencies, mainly regional, that offer primarily fieldwork services.

At the same time, almost all multinational research groups are for many years now represented in Greece, while there are Greek large and smaller-sized agencies. In view of the above, competition is quite hard, but in any case it is direct competition where agencies compete with each other on more or less equal grounds: expertise, adherence to MR codes of practice, etc.

In addition to that, the MR industry currently faces external competition coming from consulting agencies and sectors such as telemarketing, call centers, promotional firms. Such rivals of the MR industry, without having the expertise, the know-how, the means for appropriate sampling, questionnaire building, etc., and MR’s ethics codes, provide lower-quality service at a cheaper price.

To this respect, it seems more than ever necessary to familiarize and appropriately educate clients and research users to help them be able to judge their research providers and make better choices.

Do you feel that your company’s clients have reasonable expectations about what they can learn by conducting marketing research? Do they make effective use of the information they obtain from research?

Fortunately, compared to some years ago, fewer and fewer clients try to quantify results coming from qualitative studies, i.e., by asking, “How many said that?” in qualitative studies or attempt to elicit deep-rooted reasons and explanations behind responses in quantitative studies. This is probably because clients gradually become better acquainted with market research principles and thus have a more clear knowledge of what each type of research can deliver. Also, younger executives are better educated than in the past, since MR courses are nowadays included in almost all relevant university degrees.

On the other hand, an “unreasonable” expectation that has not seemed to improve over time is clients’ need to cover too many topics within the context of one study, usually resulting into overlong questionnaires or discussion guides - most of the time at the expense of the project’s quality. At that moment, it is the market researcher’s role to distinguish the necessary from the unnecessary and alleviate the client’s insecurity, but this is not always an easy task!

Finally, the difficulty of balancing cost controls while maintaining equal levels of quality increases each year. First of all, research agencies not only have to face the industry’s internal competition rules - the more agencies appear, the harder the competition - but also external competition by agencies such as call centers, telemarketing, consulting agencies, etc.

Clients on the other hand, affected by overall economic conditions, request lower and lower pricing and more favorable terms of payment, a tendency which is more prevalent among local ones, but is evident in international clients as well.

In general terms, clients in Greece are quite well-educated and familiar with market research, acknowledging its role and value. The degree to which, however, information obtained from research is effectively used in strategic decision-making seems to vary depending on the client, and specifically on such parameters as the client’s internal structure and organization, and actual participation in the decision-making process.

As a general rule, one can say that long-standing relationships between a research agency and a client are the more effective ones, which allow MR executives to become part of the client’s marketing team. Such examples, although not the common practice in our industry, are considerably increasing in the recent years.

What things can marketing research companies do to help their clients use marketing research data more effectively?

What needs to be done above all is to place market research in its precise and actual context - both internally among MR professionals and executives and externally among clients.

Recently there seems to be a debate on whether we are consultants vs. data providers or statistical analysts. I think we are neither one nor the other. We are not business consultants in the sense of analyzing in detail the overall economic background, investment economics, business plans, etc. Also, we are not data gatherers in the sense of providing data without taking the responsibility of recommendations and actionable guidelines.

Our role is to learn from a very crucial communication channel between the marketer/advertiser and the consumer. To this respect, MR has an important role in the actual decision-making process, but constitutes only a part of our clients’ total business practices and activities.

MR is not panacea, rather it is a vital and helpful tool in the decision-making process, along with other implementation plans. There are many times when research is used incorrectly or the client has unrealistic expectations and this is why we need to educate clients better on what can be attributed to MR and what cannot.

Clients on the other hand, in order to make maximum use of MR, should allow MR to become a member of the brand team, not on a short-term or occasional basis but long-term, sharing with MR people marketing and communication questions and problems, as well as future plans and aspirations.

What trends do you see in the use of marketing research in Greece? Are certain kinds of companies or industries doing more research or less research, or doing research for the first time?

As everywhere in the world, market research in Greece follows the overall product/service development, market trends and communication activity. To this respect market research in our country is used by almost all industries and services that I can think of. These include traditionally heavily advertised categories and industries such as FMCGs, automotive, food and beverage, but also more recent ones such as telecommunications and IT, financial services and banking, pharmaceuticals.

Media research made its entrance in late 1980s/early 1990s, along with the launching and consequent booming of privately-owned radio stations, TV channels and international and local publications. Political research has a long-standing presence, with increasing investment and dynamic media exposure/support in the years that followed.

The most important development during the last five years is a considerable increase of MR activities on behalf of the public sector in general. Public or semi-public organizations and enterprises have become more and more interested in market research, as part of their privatization or simply in the process of modernization in line with free-market rules. In addition to that, many public initiatives and policies include communication support/campaigns, the effectiveness of which needs to be evaluated via MR either on a local or national level.

Does marketing research seem to be respected by businesses in Greece? Is conducting research seen as a worthwhile expenditure?

As I mentioned earlier, MR’s role and importance is generally acknowledged. More and more businesses realize the enormous risk of taking decisions and proceeding to investments without prior solid investigation. Also, both multinational and local enterprises use continuous research tools in order to regularly monitor the overall market development and their products’ positions.

What things can research companies do to help improve the reputation of marketing research among Greek businesspeople or businesspeople in general?

Greek research agencies can do things individually but also collectively through the industry’s association, SEDEA, which was founded 16 years ago. It has done considerable work in setting the rules and codes of practice of MR in Greece, as well as the industry’s promotion both among the general public and among institutional bodies.

I believe that the best way to ensure an agency’s good reputation is via top quality work while respecting client’s time and budget. Of course, good reputation is built through time.

One of SEDEA’s most important contributions to the industry is the creation and implementation of a quality control of data collection system. Based on this, current members are regularly controlled, while candidate members/agencies prove their good practices for a period of one year, prior to entrance.

Are the research departments in the client companies in Greece growing or shrinking?

Traditionally, individual and well-organized research departments were most often found at large multinational companies. However, in the last decade, along with the increasing use of research, many businesses acknowledge the effectiveness of having among their marketing team employees with a research background who are able to organize and monitor research projects and analyze research results further.

Such businesses come from the advertising sector, the media environment but also from middle-sized businesses both national and international. So as a general trend, clients’ research departments in Greece are growing, even if in practice this does not necessarily mean a well-organized department with many executives. Rather, it’s often a team of few people.

This development is generally positive in the overall cooperation between MR agencies and clients. One somewhat negative effect for the MR industry per se is that as more and more MR professionals move to the client side, it becomes even harder for MR agencies to find, educate and keep well-trained and valuable executives.

How has globalization of the world economy affected marketing research?

I think I can only speak about Greece’s position in the global scenery. What I recently feel is that Greece is gradually gaining ground as an important player in the Balkan region and Northeastern Europe. Many Greece-based enterprises are expanding in Balkan countries, which is probably the reason behind the gradual increase of international research in Greece.

Another relevant aspect is the introduction of euro. For sure, transition to the euro was not easy, especially for consumers, who experienced considerable increases in the cost of living, although all acknowledge the advantages in a wider perspective. One reaction on the business side to that was the need for cost controls from the part of the clients, and costing difficulties for MR agencies that I mentioned earlier. In practice, however, the introduction of euro brings clarity and convenience in costing issues for international studies (which mainly include European countries) while it eliminates the cost of money per se.

Are most of your clients based in Greece or do you have some U.S.-based clients as well?

The majority of clients - more than 90 percent - are local based ones which include a large number of multinational companies - both manufacturers and distributors - as well as purely Greek companies. International clients are mainly research agencies from abroad, subcontracting research in Greece as part of an international project. To a lesser extent they are also international companies conducting research in Greece, and of course the European Commission that I mentioned before. International clients typically come from Europe, notably the U.K., Germany and France rather than the U.S. or other areas of the world.

Do you think more client companies will rely on a global marketing approach or will they tailor their marketing efforts - and also their marketing research efforts - to each country?

What I anticipate for the future is a “global strategy with a local air.” Globalization is a fact, so global marketing approaches are expected, but I do not think that a global marketing approach excludes or conflicts with tailor-made local marketing efforts.

On the contrary I think that the only route for success is to customize global marketing to each specific country’s characteristics and this, apart from local market structure and availability, includes local mentality, social background, behavioral rituals and everyday life elements.