News & insights

(in French) “Beating consulting firms at their own game is a sign that our ambition has materialized.”

Interview with Michaël Bendavid, Managing Director of Strategic Research.

Strategic Research was born from a bet, that of ‘combining’ studies and marketing consultancy, methodological rigor, and perspective setting. The bet was risky, as it involved choosing added value over volume. Strategic Research has succeeded and is celebrating its 20th anniversary today.

On the occasion of this anniversary celebration, Michaël Bendavid, founder and managing director of Strategic Research, was interviewed by Market Research News and addresses various topics.

Michaël Bendavid: In a nutshell, Strategic Research is a market research and marketing strategy consulting firm. We operate in the segment of high-value-added strategic studies. We support large companies on high-impact topics. The areas in which we have accumulated the most expertise are innovation, segmentation, branding, pricing strategy, and marketing effectiveness. In short, all the topics that require both research solutions and client support in the adoption of results and decision-making. This specifically means more dialogue with the client than for a typical study, and often includes workshops with client teams. A point of difference in our model is that we carry out assignments relying on both our internal resources and a high-caliber ecosystem of partners with whom we have built relationships over time. This organizational method allows us to handle complex projects that require combining diverse and specialized skills without increasing our cost structure. We conduct 70% of our business internationally, given the profile of our clients who are major players in consumer goods, services, and luxury.

Not all market players seek to draw inspiration from consulting. The market research sector is more polarized than ever. On the one hand, there is a rise in packaged and standardized service offerings, off-the-shelf. On the other, there is indeed a client demand for more added value, at least on certain key projects. It is difficult for a research institute to straddle both sides of this line, as the organizational mode, resources, and economic model are very different. We chose added value over volume. This choice logically led us to attempt to combine research and consulting.

The difficulty in reconciling research and consulting into a coherent offering is due to dealing with two very different cultures. In my career, I was fortunate to have experiences in consulting (at Bossard Consultants and then at Izsak Grapin & Associés—the firm that introduced Blue Ocean Strategy in Europe) and in research (at Burke and Research International), in operational and then leadership roles. I was at the forefront, so to speak, to see the strengths and pitfalls of these two disciplines. To simplify, the best research firms outperform consulting firms on consumer-centric topics—they are more relevant, more precise, less speculative. The rigor of methods and analysis combined with a humble posture are decisive assets. However, this advantage is diminished by the fact that research firms often communicate the fruits of their labor poorly: a tendency towards pointillism in analysis that loses sight of the study’s raison d’être, belief that all reality is encapsulated in the study while other knowledge elements must be put into perspective, lack of storytelling in communicating results, etc.

Consulting firms, on the other hand, excel in contextualizing results with their sector knowledge and their ability to craft well-articulated documents, allowing them to shine and mask the liberties taken with methods and data. In summary, research is often (too) constrained by methods; consulting firms are more focused on the result and its application. When consultants use research, which is increasingly common, the study is merely a tool at the service of the consulting performance. Moreover, the value consultants attribute to research is quite relative. It’s particularly frustrating that they capture the prize on strategic issues such as segmentation, pricing strategy, or brand strategy. Often, they also have easier access to CEOs, it must be said. By creating Strategic Research, I wanted to prove that it was possible to deliver studies executed according to the highest standards and provide added value comparable to that delivered by the best consulting firms.

Part of the added value lies in making the right methodological choices and using the appropriate techniques. These decisions are foundational in research because they significantly impact the results. The democratization of research means that all types of profiles within companies are users and sometimes purchasers of studies. And let’s say that buyers’ sensitivity to these aspects has considerably decreased, opening the door to careless or uninformed players who neglect the fundamentals.

Another element of added value is the ability to communicate results effectively to diverse audiences in terms of profession, who are not always experts in marketing or, more specifically, in research. Effective communication has become crucial, more so than before.

Then, the quality of the individuals is obviously decisive. We choose our collaborators carefully; they fully contribute to the success of projects and are demanding of themselves and others. They know how to combine rigorous attention to detail with the ability to step back—two often contradictory qualities; adapting to various subjects and corporate cultures is also essential.

Lastly, at the risk of sounding trivial, it is vital to ensure that the question posed is genuinely answered. The value of a study is what clients do with it. If a study is quickly filed away, regardless of its inherent quality, its value can be considered null.

A team meeting at Strategic Research. From left to right: Agnès Broc (Professional associate), Michaël Bendavid (CEO), Ariane Griesbeck (Principal) & Alexia Kramble (Consultant). Photo Laura Briault

Our success has been in convincing top-tier clients to trust us with their strategic studies and turning the vast majority of them into regular, loyal customers over a span of 20 years. Our greatest triumphs occur when we manage to outperform consulting firms in pitches. These are not only prestigious successes but also concrete proof that our ambition has been realized.

Another key element of our success, which I’ve already briefly mentioned, is surrounding ourselves with an exceptional ecosystem of partners who have helped us complement our internal expertise and handle projects that were “a bit too large for us.” To succeed in this, one must be methodologically agnostic and avoid having ‘off-the-shelf’ products to sell. This is the spirit in which we work. Beyond the technical contribution, these partners have a very stimulating effect on our professional practice, keeping us from becoming complacent.

Finally, an important aspect of our success has been staying at the forefront of methods and innovations. We are both innovators and skeptics. We were the first research firm in Europe to implement Blue Ocean Strategy projects after being trained by mentors who were pioneers of this innovation approach (Arnold Izsak and Marc Beauvois-Coladon, to name them). We have extensively worked on brand migration issues and developed unique methodologies for this topic. At the same time, we remain indifferent to fads or innovations that seem “fake” to us—I won’t name any to avoid offending anyone! We are curious but maintain a critical mindset. Needless to say, we are eager for the advancements made possible by AI—an innovation that will surely disrupt this market.

I think we could be bigger if we had taken more risks. But to be honest, our ambition has never been to achieve double-digit growth. We don’t answer to any shareholders. And I don’t have the temperament of an industrial captain, although I have immense respect for someone like Martin Sorrell whom I’ve seen in action. In this sector, I see many medium-sized companies struggling with HR and cash flow issues. Our cost structure is flexible (a lesson learned at WPP), which gives us a lot of freedom of action and minimizes pressure.

My other regret is that we are too discreet. We have not used our successes sufficiently as a communication tool. We are recognized in the market as a leading player in value-added research and work with major clients (Disney, FDJ, L’Oréal, Nestlé, Beam Suntory, Groupe SEB, etc.). But acquiring new clients involves beating the drum a bit louder to convince prospects to break their habits and especially a systematic, sustained effort. So, we have a ‘top of the funnel’ challenge; we need to increase our visibility. To our credit, our energy is almost entirely dedicated to serving our existing clients. Until now, the bulk of our marketing has been aimed at increasing the market share we have with our large clients. In a small company, you have to choose your battles.

Overall, spending on ‘traditional’ research has been stagnant at best since 2018. It represents only a fraction of clients’ ‘intelligence’ budgets and is increasingly being challenged by rapidly growing fields such as business analytics, data science, social listening, and behavioral data (purchases, media), etc. Clients increasingly feel that understanding the consumer and predicting future behaviors requires a more holistic view, or at least a combination of various methods. I think they are right, and it’s not an insult to the real contribution of market research to say so. The result of this competition between methods is increased pressure on the prices of studies.

Some institutes choose to lower their prices while maintaining their margins, hence for example the proliferation of marketplaces on topics that lend themselves to standardization (concept testing, copy-testing, etc.). Others, and this is more our choice, aim to increase the added value of studies to better defend their prices and persuade business leaders to preserve these investments. Both responses are appropriate. We believe that studies retain the ability to enlighten companies in their decision-making and that their contribution is unique.

This market is on the brink of a revolution, even more radical than the changes our industry has experienced in the past—like the shift from face-to-face or telephone information collection to online. AI forces us to rethink our profession. It’s a real innovation that, as Schumpeter pointed out, has the potential for both creation and destruction.

In fact, we have invited a team of young graduates from HEC to think about the possible futures of the market research profession using scenario planning, which we are big fans of. They interviewed major players in data and marketing intelligence. Figures like Didier Truchot or Eric Salama have very kindly given their opinions, proving that the topic is timely. We will share these future scenarios with the public next June.

If we think short-term, we are already benefiting from the advances in generative AI in our daily activities: helping to draft questionnaires, conducting research to explore a topic, writing concepts or personas. But tomorrow, it will not just be about doing what we do today more efficiently; it will require doing things differently.

Of course, there are numerous threats as well. First and foremost, regarding employment. Paradoxically, the most concerning is the situation of the youth. Until now, the model for learning a profession was to perform simple, repetitive but formative tasks. Tomorrow, these tasks will largely be handled by AI. How will skill advancement occur then? Will it be necessary to focus on other key skills such as, for example, knowing how to prompt to get the most out of collaboration with AI? An ex-partner from a major consulting firm who I was speaking with recently, pointed out that with ChatGPT in hand and an extraordinary curiosity/capacity for exploration, he was more or less doing the job of a team of consultants.

There are other more subtle but vertiginous threats. For example, the production of synthetic data generated by AI: generative AI can predict responses from a set of real data, which is one of its strengths. Given the way things are going, we can imagine a world of data where it will be impossible to distinguish between real data—collected from actual consumers—and synthetic data. The impacts on our industry are significant. What should we think of this new world? What will the clients’ reaction be?

To return to your question, we are working on an AI-augmented research offering. We are in the definition phase of the offering and have made initial contacts with potential AI partners. We aim to launch it in the second quarter of 2025, after a pilot phase. In any case, it’s exciting to live through this moment and this revolution, to question one’s certainties, and I have no doubt that we will find a winning path that allows us to continue the adventure, continuing to renew ourselves.

The full interview (in French) :