Founded in 1996, Information Specialists Group (ISG) is an independently owned, full-service market research firm based in Bloomington, MN. We sat down with founder and president, Robert McGarry Jr. to learn how the company has grown, the trends he’s seeing in the marketplace, and how his team is addressing them.
Q. Tell us a bit about how you decided to form your company and how you went about growing it in its early stages.
A. I was working for another market research company that struggled financially, but did not lack work. I was asked to take a significant pay cut in order to help the owner make ends meet. I had two children under two years old at the time. I felt that I could do things better and staying where I was would be riskier than branching out on my own.
I leveraged the relationships I built in the industry and worked on creating momentum by delivering outstanding customer service to our clientele. We were able to maintain clients once they worked with us and we have grown organically through strong word-of-mouth and by being involved in organizations like MRA – now the Insights Association.
Q. What surprised you most about being an entrepreneur?
A. The amount of sacrifice it took to get going. There were quite a few all-nighters in those early years and more than a couple of skipped paychecks in order to make sure everyone else was being taken care of. Clearly those were the downsides. However, the highs always tended to outweigh the lows and I found it exhilarating (still do) to know that my ideas, strategies and actions had a dramatic impact on the success of each project we did and ultimately the overall success of ISG. Nearly 25 years later it’s still a thrill to come to work every day.
Q. What are the most common problems clients are bringing to your door these days? How has this changed in the past 2-3 years?
A. That’s the beauty, and curse, of being a full-service market research firm that works for a variety of different clients across vastly different industries. There are no common problems. We work with a number of mature companies and we see a trend with them seeking to expand their markets for incredibly niche products. The common challenge for us with these clients is to find those potential product users and engage them in research to help drive these product development and/or enhancement decisions. That has always been our specialty and we continually up our game to bring insights from these hard-to-find, hard-to-reach populations.
Q. You list many methods and techniques in your service offering. Is there one in particular that is still emerging and you feel holds the most unfulfilled promise? If so, why and how do you see it evolving?
A. On the quantitative side, we are big proponents of using conjoint for product development studies. We believe that these types of analytical tools will continue to be more refined and will allow for even more precise predictions in the future and bring a lot of value to clients. While it’s an established method, I’d say client adoption of it is evolving because it can be difficult to convey and convince them of the value until they’ve done it once. On the qualitative side, we are continually trying to find ways to make participation more appealing and feasible for people with busier schedules and shorter attention spans – so we’ll be doing more and more with mobile and multimedia web-based applications. We know that technology in this industry is evolving at breakneck speed. Many companies are exploring or promoting AI capabilities, which is probably the next major area for development in the industry. However, our position is that the advancements are only as useful as the design deployed through them. Thoughtful study design is something that we hope does not get lost or displaced in all of the enthusiasm around AI and other research fulfillment innovations.
Q. For several years now research companies have realized they can’t simply deliver insights, but need to consult closely with clients to help them implement and communicate insights across their corporations to have a real impact. How are you going about this?
A. There is certainly a diplomatic aspect to our work. Our consultants work closely with all client stakeholders at the beginning of a project to thoroughly understand cross-functional information needs, interests and potential insights applications and impacts. The more involved people are from the start, the more invested they will be in the results. We then do our best to represent those interests into the research design. I think something that sets us apart is our ability to tailor the deliverable and/or to offer multiple deliverables with clear and concise key insights and recommendations for different audiences. This makes it turn-key for our clients to share results with all relevant people in their organization. It is not uncommon for clients to have us give multiple presentations for different groups of internal stakeholders. They know that results will be taken more seriously from an authoritative third-party expert. It also closes that diplomatic loop by letting them ask questions and discuss findings, deepening their involvement and increasing the likelihood that they’ll carry it forward in their work.
On left, Bob McGarry and Maureen Reynosa-Braak, Vice President, consult with clients.
Q. How do you see the role of the research methods that you employ changing as data analytics continues to become more sophisticated?
A. Clearly this industry is changing rapidly. Being a smaller company, we have to be very selective about the advancements we adopt or develop. As a general rule we keep an eye out for emerging methods and platforms that we know will enhance the types of studies we do and that will also add value for our clients. Again, our chief focus is providing customized solutions and design to most effectively and efficiently answer our clients’ business questions. To whatever extent technology or analytics developments can support that mission, we are receptive and enthusiastic about it.
Q. Please share the top 3 reasons you decided to proceed with ISO 27001 certification.
A. We wanted to make sure that we minimized vulnerability for us and our clients. No company is too small to be a target for hackers.
More and more of our clients are including extensive security questionnaires as part of their requests for proposals and as a requirement to maintain preferred vendor status. We knew that ISO 27001 certification would demonstrate our compliance with the best practices that our clients demand from their research partners.
We chose ISO 27001 certification over some of the other data security certifications we researched because it seemed to be the most comprehensive. We felt if we were going to make an investment of this magnitude that it should be in pursuit of the highest level of certification. The fact that the Insights Association (through CIRQ) was providing the certification definitely played a role in going this route as well.
Q. What did you learn during the certification process that helped your company – processes, people, technology deployment?
A. Beyond the obvious improvements in data security, it has made us greater adherers to process and taught us to look for ways to ensure continuous improvement, as everything requires ongoing review to ensure that it is still fulfilling its purpose. This new level of process-orientation is helping to improve project efficiency and outcomes for our clients. Everyone needs to be on board in order to make it work and we’ve been fortunate to have a team committed to taking a more strategic approach to what we do.
Q. Any advice for fellow MR company leaders who are concerned with data security?
A. We decided that pointing to a couple of data security-related technologies/processes was not good enough. Meeting the minimum requirements for HIPAA compliance was not enough. Trying to decipher the varying interpretations and responses to GDPR concerns was not enough. We’re confident that the pendulum will not be swinging back, and that regulations and client requirements will only get tighter. Market research firms will all need to address this eventually, and we wanted to be as proactive as possible to protect our clients’ interests and our business.
Q. What are your immediate (1 year) and long-term goals for ISG?
A. Our immediate goal is to take the learnings we have from the ISO certification process and apply them across the organization. We are looking at everything we currently do through a new lens. It is helping to develop, execute and hone processes that will add efficiency for us and value to our clients.
Five years from now I’d like to have vetted and adopted or developed more methods to engage with our clients’ customers. As communication habits change in both the consumer and b2b realms we’ll need to continuously seek more effective ways to keep our clients plugged into their markets. While we will continue to provide exceptional data collection services, I also hope to expand our full-service relationships going forward.
Q. What prompted you to join the Insights Association?
A. I joined back when it was the Marketing Research Association. The Upper Midwest Chapter was being organized just as I was starting ISG and I jumped in with both feet as a way of meeting people in the industry and to learn what others were doing. I initially joined a committee that was responsible for putting on the annual Chapter Conference and then chaired that committee for two years before being elected to the Chapter board and eventually becoming Chapter President in 2004-05. We are now company members and we have found the Insights Association to be an invaluable resource for education and networking.