A new employee recently asked about our competitors

BY Barry Watson

At a recent new-employee orientation event, someone asked me who Environics’ main competitors are. The answer isn’t straightforward – and the discussion that followed got me thinking about how much this aspect of our business has changed.

A few decades ago, research firms tended to be full-service: they collected data, then analyzed and reported it. I’d attend a meeting of CAMRO (the Canadian Association of Market Research Organizations) – a small, collegial group of full-service market research and polling companies – and find myself sitting around a table with nearly our entire competitive landscape. We all had our distinct strengths and characters, but we did generally the same kind of work.

Today, there’s much more specialization in the industry, with a larger number of firms focusing intently on different forms of data collection.

The field is animated by more tech plays: firms exploiting Research Technology (ResTech) platforms that either leverage specialized data collection capabilities or some form of analytical IP – or both.

When this new landscape began to take shape, as the internet and its profusion of data transformed the practice of research, Environics had to decide: do we want to be a technology company? The answer was no. We wanted to remain grounded in the consulting and professional services realm, where our research capabilities combined with our understanding of social and business contexts together created value for clients. This was where we did our best work, and the work we found most engaging. We didn’t want to compete on new terms – on the quantity of data we could gather, or on an algorithm.

In fact, looking back, we had already been evolving in that direction for years. Back when telephone surveys were the dominant tool in our field, we’d tell clients, “A survey if necessary but not necessarily a survey.” Our approach has always been to start by understanding the problem a client was trying to solve, then assessing the intelligence they already had on hand, and applying what we already understood about social segments and trends. If, after contemplating all that, we still needed to know more, we’d design a research process. In other words, our first step was always consultative, focused on understanding the terrain our client was trying to navigate and figuring out how to help them do that effectively.

None of this is to say that evidence-based insights aren’t central to our approach. We’ve continued to evolve and expand our quantitative and qualitative research capabilities over time, including through ResTech. And the intellectual culture of Environics has been strongly shaped by a more than 40-year history of social values research, which provides a context for interpreting and analyzing the problems our clients face.

But these research activities – and the social values practice in particular – yield more than troves of data. They create a framework through which we understand social change and help clients make decisions. The social values methodology is also a language we share with partners and colleagues around the world. We engage with these colleagues formally, collaborating to serve global clients, as well as informally: participating in a community of practice and sharing what we’re learning about how different societies are evolving and what’s resonating in different markets. The social values approach and the colleagues who use it have had a deep influence on our intellectual culture – and ultimately they’ve shaped how we understand “our competition.”

There are certainly companies we compete with in North America, but I’m not sure there are companies that do exactly what we do. Many of the firms that used to convene through CAMRO still exist in some form, but we now occupy different corners of an expanding universe. From similar beginnings we’ve come to work in very different ways, serving more varied client needs with increasingly diverse tools.

Clients come to Environics when they’re interested in the combination of research and perspective that we offer, especially social values insights.

When we “lose” business, it’s typically because the client is looking for something quite different from what we offer, whether it’s a commodity-data offering or some other approach. Very often, clients who have gone on to work with another firm circle back to us – not because the “competitor” hasn’t delivered, but because the client’s needs are evolving and they want to reengage with us, maybe with a new infusion of data, maybe with a new set of questions.

Ultimately, we most often find ourselves working on projects where we believe we’re genuinely the right fit for the kind of work our client needs. It wouldn’t be true to say we don’t have competition, but we offer something particular and clients generally seek us out when what we do is what they need. So when I was asked at the onboarding gathering who our competitors are, the most honest answer really was that we don’t think about it very much. We try to do good work, with tools we believe in, and pay attention to how our clients’ questions are evolving. That formula might sound too simple to be true but so far it’s kept us moving in the right direction.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to reach out

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