From Client Side to Qualie: What’s it like switching sides?

H+A's Susie Donnelly sheds some light (and reveals her inner rockstar!)

My switch from client side to qualie was a gradual shift rather than a ‘Douglas Carswell’ moment. As I moved around strategic client side roles, I gradually built up my qualitative research skills and it became incredibly handy to be able to get out and do qualitative research myself when needed. I always loved this aspect of my work, but became increasingly curious about trying it full-time. When the opportunity came at Hope + Anchor, I leapt at the chance. Two years in and I feel I’ve earnt my stripes as a research gun for hire. Here are some of my observations from working on ‘both sides’:


Being out and about IN WORK TIME is one of the biggest changes from client side to qual agency. Travel is meant to stimulate the senses, and I definitely feel that being ‘on the ground’ has kept me engaged with evolving British lives in a way that London office life can’t always do. I’ve enjoyed spending time in homes, shops and cafes across the UK and beyond, from chicken bone strewn student bedrooms in Birmingham, to treasure-filled charity shops in Manchester, frequenting George’s chip shop in Long Eaton along the way. My research has meant meeting a fascinating mix of all kinds of everyone, and collected life-stories from taxi drivers, train passengers and hotel breakfast guests as I go.


As most qualitative researchers will tell you, the variety of agency life keeps work interesting. While we all have our specialisms, we also frequently jump between unrelated topics, and have intense periods of focus to become experts in new areas. Constantly learning is hugely enjoyable, as is connecting between seeming disparate subjects. Whether researching used cars or charitable giving, often we are talking to the same kinds of people, and there may well be a shared insight at the core. The flipside is sometimes I miss the longer-term immersion, multiple sources of insight, and hands-on tangible brand development you get client side. At H+A we are often lucky enough to have the best of both worlds, ad hoc projects on a broad variety of subjects, and longer-term clients who keep us engaged in the development as their brand evolves.


There is simultaneous translation that runs through every project; getting to the heart of what clients need and understanding the context in which the project has been commissioned, and then getting to the heart of what respondents are saying and feeding it back in a concise and engaging way. I like working with clients to help focus their projects, and I hope my understanding of the challenges they face - multiple internal clients with different interests and different levels of engagement - helps me do this in a sensitive and thoughtful way. I also love meeting the consumers, members, supporters and clients that the organisations who commission our research are working to serve, in all their living, breathing, engaging complexity. Deep behavioural analysis is intricate and absorbing, and there is a real challenge in bringing it to the boardroom in a strategic way. I know from my client side experience how difficult it can be to ensure respondents are heard and not reduced to a statistic or single slide, and this keeps me focused on staying true to their stories.


One of the skills I’ve developed agency side, has been thinking through the methodology that will best elicit the insight needed. It's not something you have much time to muse on when you are client side. From accompanied shops to real-time reaction to new TV shows, managing to capture the insight as it's happening, or within the context it would usually take place, is very satisfying. We spend a lot of time thinking through the context in which we do our research and creative ways to help respondents express themselves fully, and this drive to get as close to ‘truth’ as you can, has been an enjoyable but intellectually challenging part of the switch to agency life.


Whatever the setback or weather, the fieldwork needs to be completed in time to hit deadlines. I (usually) find satisfaction in firefighting to keep the wheels on a project. A lost voice, a lost hotel booking, or a lost respondent all have to be overcome, the show must go on! I also enjoy the performative element of moderation – keeping groups interesting and insightful keeps my adrenalin levels high. I sometimes arrive home buzzing like a rockstar. I haven’t managed to attract a fan club yet, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.