Pitching at briefings, and the evolving analyst space

Here’s a story. When I first became an analyst for Bloor Research in 1999, I remember going to a briefing with IBM at Bedfont Lakes near Heathrow, with none other than Steve Mills. I knew he was important, but frankly, I had little idea why – I had come straight from an IT consulting background, and vendor politics were as familiar to me as fly fishing on the moon.

Equally, I had little idea what to do in the briefing. ‘Ask intelligent questions’  was about all I could work out – but I did speak to some of the analysts from other firms, a couple of which I knew from my first ever analyst trip a few weeks before – and one of whom, it would be fair to say in hindsight, knew the game inside out and was treating it with the cynicism it no doubt deserved.

“Briefings are for selling to vendors,” said this analyst, himself from quite a large analyst company. Sadly, this left me none the wiser – I’d never sold anything in my life, and I was rather more confident of my fly fishing skills. All the same, like any rookie analyst, I took the advice on board.

It was when I joined one firm as an associate on the basis that the money I earned would be proportionate to the business I brought in, that I started to think quite earnestly about pitching analyst services during briefings. From my standpoint, it was what everybody did, if they didn’t have full time sales teams.

However, when I actually tried to do it, it was horrible – and I very quickly learned a number of lessons that have changed my world view for good (as I said on Twitter, the whole experience was both ‘unsavoury and unproductive’). It was then I took an active decision never again to try pitching at briefings, which went down the same plug hole as writing follow-up emails happening to remark about services we offered. Since then, I have broadened my understanding still further of what it means to be an analyst – as a result, I have thrown away all such preconceptions and learned behaviours, and decided for myself what role I want to occupy in this, somewhat dubious corner of the IT industry. I’m not alone in this: Freeform Dynamics was set up on the premise that “there must be a better way” – and we have an internal mantra of “no pitching at briefings”; note however, if someone asks what services we offer, we will tell them.

Nobody’s perfect – neither do I think we should be striving for absolute perfection. However, it should go without saying that all industry analyst firms should operate ethically and transparently. Equally, should analysts be making public the times that vendors have asked them to promote a product, for cash? I’m not sure about this – because I think the whole industry is on quite a sharp learning curve since 1999, for two reasons: first – that the dot-com bust derailed the gravy train in which such activities were (apparently) the norm, and second, that the collaborative nature of today’s Web makes it very difficult for dodgy behaviour to remain “under the table”. I’d suggest we give this interesting period a chance to play out, particularly there remain some clear difficulties, even when individual analyst firms are operating at a high standard of ethics. Consider:

– a vendor asks an objective analyst whether the vendor can quote what the analyst has written on their blog, about the foolishness of organisations that have failed to implement a certain technological mechanism. The quote is independently made, but the vendor’s intentions are to sell the mechanism.
– a vendor’s PR company pulls a finding out of an analyst study which demonstrates why a specific technology or area would be of wide benefit
– a  body of analysts who happen to agree, individually, that a new technological area is of interest, succeed, as a body, of hyping up the area – we can see this happening right now in Software as a Service.
– an analyst is asked to speak at a conference about a certain topic, and does so, objectively and independently. However the conference as a whole is sponsored by a vendor, and is geared around the markets that the vendor wishes to play in.

Phew – how do you steer through that kind of morass? Our answer, and fundamental belief at Freeform Dynamics is in identifying the win-win between vendor and user of technology, but that’s for another post. But meanwhile, lets relate this back to briefings. At Freeform we recognise that in this day and age, everything we do and say is exceedingly public and rarely forgotten. So, in briefings for example, we would not give a piece of advice that contradicts what is said in one of our reports – the latter are freely available, so the advice could easily be checked. In fact, we do the opposite – as we learn from research, we strive to improve our knowledge, through reports, blogs, presentations and face to face meetings. This requires an underlying level of trust about our knowledge goals and aspirations, which would only be undermined if we took the view that briefings (for example) were a sales opportunity. Consider: “Great conversation about virtualisation we had – yeah, lets keep talking – and I’ll be sure to keep you reminded about our sponsored seminar series!” – it just doesn’t work.

This transparency is at the heart of many of the new breed of analyst firms – ourselves, MWD, Redmonk, Disruptive Analysis to name but a few. It would be blooming difficult to be both transparent and unethical, and the good news is that we’re quite happy not putting in the additional effort it would require. There’s far too much else to be done.

Pitching at briefings, and the evolving analyst space

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