The curious death of an entire industry


When we started Employee Research five years ago, it was with a desire to do something better than the big agencies had been doing. I’d been working at Unilever, running the employee survey and they would come in and do a beauty parade to try to get shortlisted for that lucrative project. Those Victoria, London Bridge and City offices didn’t come cheap. I’d been courted by all of them – and all of them left something wanting.

So when we started to think about approaching potential clients, we thought about which large companies we’d most likely be up against. The list we came up with was:

Towers Perrin
Hay Group
Corporate Executive Board
Watson Wyatt

None of these companies now exist. Bought out, hived off, run down or merged, they’re gone. At least two of them aren’t even looking for new clients. If that’s not a nuclear explosion in an industry, then I don’t know what is.

So why has this happened? 

  • Increased expectations and a desire for smarter, sleeker solutions to gaining employee insight

People are so exposed to cutting edge tech in their real lives, that they no longer accept outdated tech in the workplace. They hate the effort involved in a massive ‘HR project’ once a year, they won’t read a two hundred page ‘Full Report’ and no-one will accept results of a poll conducted months previously.

When we onboard our new clients, they all tell us that their previous big agencies are not fit for purpose and that the tech has been neglected for years.

A friend who works at the hollowed-out husk of one of these companies recently admitted to me:

“We tell clients that we have our own, brilliant tech, but in reality all we’re doing is putting our logo on an off-the-shelf survey tool. We’ve been doing that for ten years. If the client knew about this, they could just buy the survey platform themselves. It’s quite the bait and switch.”

  • DIY start ups

The last five years has seen an explosion in off-the-shelf, DIY solutions. They have sprouted in plain sight of the old agencies, who have been slow to react to the threat that they pose. These DIY platforms have had massive venture capital injections and they’ll need paying back at some point, which explains the high costs of those solutions. But regardless, they are successfully chipping away at the old monopoly.

  • AI and algorithms

Over lunch with the CEO of one of these companies two years ago, my view that nimble start ups, using disruptive tech, AI and algorithms would threaten the industry was met with a hearty laugh.

“Oh yeah, let me guess, they’re going to do something which none of us are doing and that’s going to end us all.”

Well yes, they did. They listened to what clients actually want and created tech solutions which fit the modern workplace. Why accept an expensive annual mega project that takes up six months of the year when you can get insight from a regular or always-on listening programme that actually addresses current issues? That’s why we do so many monthly polls and use AI to categorise open comments instantly, enabling us to get insight in real-time. The fact that we can do that – on any topic – has won us every job where we have been up against the big agencies.

All of which at least partly explains the curious death of an entire industry. And it was an industry.

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