Article #34: Agencies buying software companies

Tim Macer on the growing trend of MR buying into software

Agencies step up software wars

For market research agencies with global ambitions, this summer's hottest property has turned out to be software. No sooner had TN Sofres announced its acquisition of Dutch mr agency NIPO and along with it, NIPO Software, than Kantar Media Research revealed that, via BMRB, it was purchasing Steve Perry Consulting, a software bureau specialising in media software. In the case of TN Sofres, NIPO brings to the group a valuable agency base in the Netherlands and a real jewel in the crown in the form of the NIPO software suite. In Kantar's case, it gets a crack team of media software developers strong on the TV side, and SPC's X-pert analysis suite for TV measurement data. But how does this leave these erstwhile independent companies existing clients now they find themselves buying their software from a research multinational and very likely a competitor in their own back yard?
KMR, through BMRB, had already been developing its own media analysis and scheduling tools. Andy Brown, md of BMRB Media Services and a director of KMR, explained the logic of the purchase. "SPC brought us basic TV analysis tools; a workstation we could complement the specialist TV optimisation analysis tools with and a platform in Europe to build on, together with a critical mass in software development. Although based within BMRB, we want to provide a specialism in software and give it as much independence as possible, so it can provide genuine focus on the software."
Next year, Brown will bring together the existing BMRB and SPC teams under one roof in London when the real work will start. "Our big plan is to develop cross media analysis tools. The demand is there now, especially since media owners now have an interest in developing these tools."
What of existing customers, who now find they are dependent on a large mr agency rather than a software bureau for their software? Brown does not see this as an issue with media data. While he feels Kantar's advantage is that it will have ownership of much of the data its software will use, there is already a healthy climate of openness in terms of data sources for such as BARB and NRS.

It is rare for MR agencies to achieve success as MR software sellers

He says: "We have no real intention to restrict access to just our data, because at the end of the day we want our clients to have choice. We will be very happy to provide the software without the data or integrate with other data sources. Of course, we will be inheriting some clients like this through the SPC acquisition."
Will the same hold true for the 150 plus agencies using NIPO for ad hoc work that now find they have acquired TN Sofres as a supplier? It is rare for mr agencies to achieve success as mr software sellers too. There is a lot of potential for disagreement when you find you are competing not just for contracts but for skilled staff too, or find that you have unwittingly divulged commercially sensitive information or confidential data to the tech support people.
NIPO is a laudable exception to the rule. Operating mainly on a local scale in the Netherlands as a research agency, its software arm established a reputation for pragmatism in respecting the confidentiality of it clients. Buying your software from the number one mr agency worldwide, and an acquisitive one at that, is a different proposition.
Niels Grommé, md of NIPO Software is optimistic. "The strengths of NIPO have been our pioneering [developments] in the use of technology. TNS wants to take advantage of that knowledge. I do believe that TNS is very aware that to work at that level, to keep the team going, the best thing to do is to have competition. Developing for third parties is very beneficial. Internal departments tend to become sleepy if they are not working in a competitive environment."
Will TNS be interested in continuing to support its existing customers? Apparently so. When Tony Cowling, Executive Chairman of TNS had visited NIPO, he stated his intention that the software team should continue to maintain an independent development policy based on the needs of all its customers and the market in general.
Working within TNS will give his team first hand experience of the needs of worldwide research operations. Multi-site research is an area NIPO had already been tackling with some originality. Last year it formed a strategic partnership with the USA's leading CATI supplier . While both continued to produce and market their own very comprehensive software solutions, they were able to pool support operations, and in doing so,
span the globe. The first fruits of this alliance is a new jointly developed "Script Composer" that will allow end users to develop CATI or CAPI questionnaires to run on either NIPO or CfMC, or translate between the two.
While CfmC only learned of the takeover from the same press releases as everyone else, Leif Gjestland, CfMC's co-founder and chairman is hopeful that "business as usual" messages from the new owners are genuine. "If you look at the mechanics of the operation, TN, Sofres, Intersearch; none of them had a significant software development group. None had developed their own CAPI or CATI or tab or web software. NIPO have developed packages that are widely used and TN also uses other packages. We are hoping and expecting that that situation will continue. The logic points in that direction". At the moment, CfMC and NIPO Software are investigating the possibility of extending Composer to work with other CATI or CAPI systems.
For anyone struggling with the logistics of fielding a CATI study in ten different countries using as many different CATI systems, a tool to translate one into another is highly appealing and could do for CATI what triple-S is doing to the transfer of collected data. With an intriguing symmetry, noone would benefit more from this move than TN Sofres itself, with its eclectic array of CATI systems. Let's hope TNS is brave enough to stick to its word.

Published in Research, the magazine of the Market Research Society, October 1999, Issue 401.

© Copyright Tim Macer/Market Research Society 1999. All rights reserved. Reproduced with permission.

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