Don’t mention the ISO

When one thinks about contentious topics of conversation, market research accreditation doesn’t usually leap to mind alongside things like Northern Irish politics or Obama’s healthcare policy. But a minor storm has been brewing on LinkedIn in recent weeks in a discussion on that very topic.

Last month US research association Casro announced that it was setting up a body to audit and certify agencies in accordance with the international ISO standards for market research. On the Next Gen Market Research group on LinkedIn (which hosts regular discussions among its 8,000+ members on MR-related topics) a thread was started asking whether ISO would matter to US research buyers.

As of today the thread has racked up nearly 100 comments, with close to half of those coming from the group’s owner, Tom Anderson, who runs Anderson Analytics and serves as Esomar’s representative in the US.

Anderson’s initial response was to ridicule Casro’s move, suggesting that ISO certification was better suited to cement companies or fishmongers than MR agencies, and inviting people to post ISO-related jokes. Anderson called ISO “useless” and “insidious”, “great stuff for killing innovation and the human spirit”. He went on to say that he would think less of a firm that boasted ISO accreditation than one that didn’t, given his experience of the firms that tout it as a benefit.

There was clearly some surprise among readers at the force of Anderson’s opposition to Casro’s plans. Those looking for a reason why were quick to point to the way Anderson appeared to pit the ISO initiative against his own Federation for Transparency in Offshoring (FTO), of which Casro has been a critic.

Still, there was evidence of agreement from both agency and clientside with Anderson’s concerns. A clientside insight boss from the UK said ISO standards were a drain on admin time that small companies can’t afford. “We don’t need to see ISO for research accreditation because a five-minute conversation will confirm whether they’re muppets or not,” he wrote. Even buyers with less strong views agreed that ISO “wasn’t a differentiator”.

However, some people couldn’t see what the fuss was about, with representatives of small MR agencies and public sector research buyers in the UK and Australia describing why they saw ISO as a benefit. Others shrugged their shoulders and said that interest in ISO will vary between markets, between sectors, between clients, between small and large agencies. “It’s not a polemical issue,” said a senior exec from a top 20 US agency.

But Anderson clearly felt that it was – and began posting dozens of links to photos and cartoons lampooning anyone who boasted ISO certification.

Eventually Simon Chadwick, managing partner at Cambiar and editor-in-chief of Esomar’s Research World magazine, weighed in saying that Anderson had misrepresented Casro’s position, which he said was not “pushing” the standard, but “defending the North American research community and ensuring that their voices are heard in what was an international push for ISO in our industry”.
“It would be nice if you would inform yourself of facts in matters like this before blogging,” Chadwick added.

By this point the tone of the discussion had clearly turned off many of the contributors. One said the “jabs, cartoons, pictures and one-liners” had prompted him to leave, and some of the most poorly judged posts, including one that questioned the credentials of a contributors’ firm, were later removed.

One commenter said the thread was at times a “disturbing read”, while another questioned the appropriateness of Anderson’s repeated mentions of his own initiative, the FTO, and set up an alternative thread as a forum for a more “objective debate”.

Eventually, none other than Finn Raben, director general of Esomar – the organisation for which Anderson acts as a representative in the US – decided to get involved. The thread, said Raben, “seems to have degenerated from the discursive to the vindictive, and anybody who disagrees with Tom’s views on ISO is simply to be subjected to scorn, ridicule or criticism – no doubt I and Esomar will be next”.

Raben wasn’t the only one who felt that way. In response to Anderson’s claims that he wanted the thread to be “fun”, Simon Chadwick said it might be fun “in a puerile, schoolboyish sort of way… but it is also damaging”. Interestingly, Chadwick later revealed that he “doesn’t like” ISO either, but not nearly as much as he doesn’t like “people impugning other people’s motives without bothering to find out facts”. Anderson in turn complained that accusations of being “puerile” were just as much a personal attack as anything he had said.

Certainly, the discussion generated more heat than light, and some contributors chose to rise above it. It was interesting, commented one, “to study how people become adversarial and gravitate to two opposing views when there are often multiple perspectives that aren’t actually in opposition”.

This discussion was supposed to address the question of whether ISO accreditation is helpful, unhelpful, or damaging. You could ask the same question of the discussion itself.
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