Saturday, 8 November 2014

'You show me your turnover and I'll show you mine!' An explanatory preamble about my bonkers spying career

Source: wikihow
As a lifelong Germanophile - well, from the age of eleven when I first started learning this gloriously blunt and endlessly compoundable language - I have decided to mark the upcoming 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall by featuring a German perfume house in my next post. Both it, and the post I have in mind after that (also perfume-themed, I hasten to add), reference my time as an 'industrial spy', as it used to please ex-Mr Bonkers to call me.

So I thought it might be helpful to preface the Berlin post with an explanation of this particular aspect of market research - a type of work I am happy to have given up for good in 1998 - well, in terms of interviewing direct competitors, certainly. It was becoming increasingly difficult to secure the companies' cooperation, and was pretty nerve-wracking most of the time, so I decided to quit while I was ahead...

Okay, here goes...

Readers may well be familiar with Pareto’s Principle, according to which 80% of the sales in any market are generated by just 20% of the companies trading in it.  This led the MD of my old agency to conclude that the most accurate way to size a market was to go directly to the source of supply – namely, the competition.  Marketing boasted in proposals that we routinely “broke down the doors” of 90% of competitor companies, which on a typical project with six key players equated to about five and a half of them.  We always hoped it would be the half with the head.

My friend Clare, doing a sterling impression of a spy!

So why should competitors want to see us?  Sometimes we could offer report summaries – these were well received, given the lack of published information available.   But often we relied on the surprise factor and a pleasant manner.  Occasionally, even as people tried to wriggle out of participating, their irrepressible sense of self-importance allowed key facts to slip out: “Do you realise that we are the leading supplier of chocolate enrobing equipment with a 70% share of the world market, so what can you possibly tell us that we don’t already know?”  This gave me an opening to flatter them into submission: “Ah yes, but I’m sure you didn’t get to where you are today by resting on your laurels.”

As for how much we revealed upfront about the sponsors of such studies, we found that as little as possible worked best.  Outright lying was banned, so weaselly half-truths became our stock-in-trade.  On one study for a major kitchen and bedroom company, the sponsor was positioned as “a furniture supplier looking at the kitchen market”.  If anyone had thought to ask whether our client was currently in the kitchen business, we had to say they were, but no one did.   Clients already active in a market were sometimes tenuously described (though never by me!) as “investors”, or even “venture capitalists”, and there was much airy talk of “synergies” and “forging links with partners”.

The truth was that we did get refusals - from whole people even, though not necessarily whole companies.  If say, the Sales Director of a competitor would not play ball, you would simply try the Marketing Director, who hopefully would not be sitting at the next desk, having overheard your failed attempt to recruit his colleague. Equally toe-curling were situations where you would ring the second person, and the one who just told you to get lost picked up their phone, having heard it ring as he was passing! Then, even assuming the second person agreed to meet you, there was still potential for things to implode if, on arrival at the company, you were introduced to the first colleague who turned you down - if he was more senior, he might well pull the plug on proceedings.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

The most spectacular instance of this occurred on a job in Benelux.  Following a refusal from the MD of the company in question, I managed to set up an interview with his elderly father, the Chairman and a softer target.  Three quarters of the way through, the MD burst in, grabbed my questionnaire, tore it into tiny pieces and frogmarched me off the premises.  Fortunately, my short term memory was spitting fire that day, and later, over a relaxing beer, I was able to piece together most of the information.

As if getting the cooperation of competitors were not challenging enough, we were urged to take photos of respondents and their building, to be used as illustrations in reports.  In winter, it was often dark after an afternoon appointment, which meant taking the outdoor shot beforehand.  This involved crouching behind a shrub at a discreet distance, but could backfire if the respondent happened to glance out of his window at that moment.  At the very least this resulted in a bumpy start to the meeting, and at worst a replacement camera.

But competitor interviewing was by no means just about skulking in bushes and dodging difficult questions.  Some of my best interviews ever were with companies who were happy to exchange views on an open basis.  I once spent four hours squashed between a fridge and a Portaloo on an exhibition stand in Paris with the Sales & Marketing Director of a well-known glass manufacturer, and every time his assistant popped in to say he was wanted by customers, he shooed her away with an impatient wave, and returned to the absorbing task of crunching five year sales forecasts for curved shower doors.

On reflection, Marketing’s expression about “breaking down the doors” of competitors is perhaps a little strong.   For sometimes they opened the door to us immediately, sometimes we had to knock quite hard first, and just occasionally we nipped in through a side window.

And as a foretaste of my next post, here is a photo of some truly momentous breaking down of things....



  1. You are incredible, Bonks - there is no way I could ever do what you do/did. I would be so afraid of being yelled at and being thrown out!

    1. Hi Carol,

      I couldn't do it now, that's for sure. And in the light of your second comment, you should definitely catch the next post...

  2. What an enlightening look at (a very slightly) shady world! I had no idea about this kind of research and found it really interesting. How stressful it must have been! Especially the frogmarching and lurking in the bushes. Mind you, you are so personable I can see why you were so good at it.

    Looking forward to the German perfume post.

    1. Hi Tara,

      It was a bit of a shady world, I agree! I felt happiest when we could offer people extracts from the report, for - given the scarcity of information on these obscure industrial products - any hard information was like gold dust, and provided people hadn't spun us a line along the way, the picture of the market we were able to piece together through this rather swashbuckling method was of genuine value.

      I must say I don't know many researchers who will still undertake that sort of interviewing - in today's tougher business climate I think it would be really challenging.

  3. Looking forward to your anniversary post (coming today?) and am curious which house you'll pick.
    Tonight, I might go out and have a look at some of the 8000 balloons "planted" along the former border. They light up to a 15 km long "wall of light" to be released into the dark sky after sunset to the sound of Beethoven's 9th symphony - well, Germans seem to love the extrems: On the one hand pathos like this on the other - in case you'll go for Maurer & Wirtz - demure understatement...

    ("short term momory spitting fire" is such a great expression and it's how I went through my school years, haha)
    Have a nice Sunday

    1. Hi Anka,

      The Berlin Wall post just snuck in under the wire today - I was spurred on in no small measure by your inquiry, indeed. ;)

      That wall of balloons sounds amazing - I hope you did get a chance to see it tonight. I expect people will be out in droves on such a special occasion.

      And I am pleased you could relate to my memory image - there was a lot of last minute fact cramming at school and uni, that's for sure!

  4. I don't think I could do something like that even if that was the only job available: I am so straight forward that I wouldn't probably be able to get past the first Hi or the very next phrase :)

    1. Hi Undina,

      I will be honest, when I joined the company I wasn't aware of the importance of this particular type of study in the overall mix. At least we weren't allowed to tell an outright fib, just to be economical with the truth until pressed. And I am pleased to say that I also conducted focus groups and one-to-one interviews with consumers as well, where I was much more in my comfort zone. And eventually I stopped doing competitor interviewing altogether of course, which was a relief. Though when the competitors were fully aware of the background, and still on board with it, and happy to gain some information in return - like the bloke in the glass company - that was when it all came together in the best possible way.