“Get off your ass and go knock on doors” – Phil Birchenall on the Importance of Market Research

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Being full of big ideas that are guaranteed to revolutionise the world is undoubtedly amazing but unless you can successfully sell them to audiences, you’re not going to get very far. It may sound like a bit of a no-brainer but market research is one of those key aspects of running a start-up that far too many creatives forget to nurture. Without knowing how your audience ticks, the most effective way to sell them your products and – most importantly – what they actually want, even the most sector-disrupting concept is surely doomed to fail. If this sounds like something you struggle with, don’t worry. Manchester-based creative Phil Birchenall is here to shed some light on this often-neglected area of expertise.  

Having spent the past two decades working with a variety of creative up and comers, Brichenall began noticing the same issues recurring time and time again. It was enough to inspire him to create Diagonal Thinking in July 2020, a self-professed ‘smart consultancy service for people in the creative, digital and media industries’ designed to help ensure innovative products and groundbreaking ideas actually connect with the people they’re trying to reach. As part of Creative England’s ongoing series of Screen Growth Programme webinars, Birchenall was invited to share his insight on how to best convey your company’s message – and he was all too eager to oblige.  

“A ‘diagonal thinker’ refers to the fact that typically, creatives operate from one side of the brain,” Birchenall tells us, explaining the thought process behind his bespoke consultancy service. “The right side of the brain is the bit that governs creativity and the left side governs logic. Quite often, creatives get pigeonholed as ‘right brain thinkers’ and they don’t really want to spend time on the business side of things, like understanding strategy. ‘Diagonal thinking’ is basically applying logic to creativity and actually putting plans together to think about how you make money from doing the stuff you want to do.”  

Applying a little smart thinking to your creativity does wonders when it comes to one of the most crucial aspects of sustaining a business: building products that people want and need. However as Birchenall has discovered, it’s something that very few start-ups actually utilize: “You’ve got to have this belief that what you’re doing is going to be good enough and of course that flies in the face of what the business world tells you about market research,” he reasons, illustrating the friction that exists between the blind determination needed to get your idea up and running and the logistical legwork required to ensure it’s fit for purpose. “The business world says ‘create stuff that the market wants’ not ‘build it and they will come’. It’s common that people have an idea and create great insights into how it could work but don’t do the consultation work to genuinely understand if there’s a market for it. If they make this, will people buy it?”   

As Birchenall began unpacking this issue in his digital seminar, the answer quickly emerged: research, research and more research. However he was certainly aware of how most creatives might react to this outcome. “Businesses have got so much to do. If you’re a one person operation, a five person operation or even a 20 person operation working on a production, you’ve not got the free staff sitting around that can go poking around investigating,” he admits. Thankfully, he had some thrifty tips on how time and resource poor teams can gather insight: “You’ve got to keep it as simple as possible and not over-complicate things,” he suggests. “Work out a plan to get market research that’s within your grasp and realistic because you can’t go out on a whim and think ‘If I ask enough people, someone’s going to say my idea is good’. It has to be robust – but by the same token, you’ve got to keep it simple.” 

As for how businesses can capture this easy-to-grasp yet robust market research? “Get off your ass and go knock on doors,” chuckles Birchenall, referencing advice borrowed from the TV show Bosch, whose titular detective has this exact creed plastered above his desk. “We rely so much on passively flinging emails to people but of course if you send an email, you might get a response if you’re lucky – but it might just be a very black and white response without much information around it. One of the best ways you can undertake primary market research is to get off your ass and go knocking on doors – whether that’s through phone calls or speaking to peers,” he suggests. “Previous clients, fans or people in your audience can provide a sense of whether what you’re planning fits with their outlook.”  

Another important factor is identifying when the crucial moments that require market research might be. “Anytime you’re looking to pivot,” answers Birchenall, highlighting one key juncture. “Obviously a lot of businesses have fundamentally pivoted over the last 18 months and that’s a point where intuition just isn’t enough anymore. When there are bills to pay and the core of your business has to pivot into something entirely new, you’ve got to have the confidence that there’s going to be a market for the work you’re proposing. Anything that takes you beyond your core area of comfort definitely needs some consideration of what the market is, who they are, how you get to them and all those key things. It’s about lessening the risk of failure,” he attests. “You don’t want to invest loads of time and money into something if you haven’t really got the confidence that it’s going to fly.”  

 As Birchenall rightly points out, the pandemic has been a period where having accurate market research couldn’t be more crucial. While it may have forced many into rethinking what they do in order to stay afloat, it’s provided others with a key moment of reflection. “In terms of market research, it has meant some businesses have had time to rethink what they do and spend some time conducting the market research to underpin that,” says Birchenall. “It gave a lot of businesses a chance to rethink and reconsider what they do and who they do it for. I’m cautious to call them success stories – it doesn’t feel appropriate because so many have suffered – but maybe in 10 years time we’ll all look back and think it was a time where we could perhaps unshackle ourselves from the way we’ve done things previously to find a different way of delivering what we already do. As creatives, that’s always a good thing,” he smiles. “Just because we did something one way yesterday, doesn’t mean we should do it the same way tomorrow.” 

Words and Interview by Simon Bland

Watch the webinar here: