Rant Warning: Nodding dogs and vendor marketing – this is all our industry deserves

As an analyst, you spend your time with a lot of other analysts – for better or for worse. And, recently, worse is taking up more than its fair share. It just seems like, as an industry, we’ve lost our collective teeth, our ability to question, challenge and find out the truth.  We’d even go as far as questioning whether we’ve lost out soul.

When HFS launched ourselves  onto the market over eight years ago, the cornerstone of the firm was a blog that was revered as one place you could get the real truth about the industry, where people were safe to make a (gasp) controversial comment where we could all call a “spade a spade”.  One industry leader (from IBM of all places) even went as far as describing this blog as the “Wall St Journal editorial section of the industry”.  More recently, we’ve been called “Blue Collar” research, which I guess we’ll take as a compliment.  Anything is better than being seen as fully paid and played by the dirty vendor dollar… which is sadly how so many recent pieces of “research” have been described.

Today, most analysts and advisors use hype as their comfort blanket – even if they don’t understand it, they just circulate it because it makes them feel relevant

Sadly, at HFS, we doubt we’d have succeeded with our honesty and bluntness if we launched today.  The industry is too controlled by vendor marketeers who shower their lovely budgets at analysts and advisors alike to keep them all in line… where most just regurgitate the same hype as each other because they just don’t care anymore.  Most barely understand the hype, but regurgitate it because it gives them a sense of security, a sense of belonging.  It really is fucking sad, isn’t it?

Today, when you go into a vendor briefing packed with analysts, you’ll be confronted with row after row of nodding dogs, passively absorbing the hype, marketing drivel, and outlandish ‘thought leadership’ that has no bearing on reality today, let alone the future.

Yes folks, let’s face reality: vendor executives deliver lovely fluffy cotton candy the analysts and advisors gratefully inhale.  No one seems to want to give anyone a hard time these days… it’s all PowerPoint bullshit being delivered to plastic smiles and nods of universal agreement, even though no one really has a fucking clue what reality is versus bullshit anymore.  In fact, no one seems to care… they just keep nodding… like dogs.  I mean how can you really be an expert in RPA when you’re spinning your wheels at conferences 13 months a year?  When are you actually talking to real clients about real issues?  Does it matter in this age of #fakenews?

Vendors just insist on nurturing the nodding dogs

Let’s give you an example. At a recent event on the “future of work” (yep… that old chestnut), a room jam-packed with senior analysts listened and nodded intently to a vendor expert proselytizing on the business benefits of pushing 70% of enterprise employees onto the modern equivalent of zero hour contracts. It’s scalable; enterprises can tap into talent whenever they want, reduce costs, all of the good stuff businesses have been desperate to do. Eventually, a couple of HFS analysts broke ranks and said ‘what on earth makes you think the labor market will accept that deal?’

I mean, honestly, it’s weighted so heavily in favor of the enterprise that if government regulators and unions don’t kick it in to touch, a massive disenfranchised labor force almost certainly will. But the simple act of challenging this line of thought was almost enough to cause the immediate ejection of the analysts. The look on the faces of the professionals from the vendor told the whole story – they hadn’t been challenged in such a long time they didn’t know what to do with it. The other analysts in the room stopped their nodding briefly with dazed confusion across their faces. I can imagine it was the same reaction a courtier would get if in the middle of a banquet they told Henry the Eighth he should stop eating so much and think about his cholesterol… or his gout  For once, the nodding dogs stopped nodding and looked up in amazement…

We’re in a world where rocking the boat gets you quickly hurled overboard

There have been other occasions when plucky analysts have challenged the core narrative – at its worst, they’re ejected from the room. At its best, they have been picked on as a ‘negative person’ or someone who ‘hasn’t read around the topic enough’. The world we are building for ourselves is one in which analysts are just a collection of dullards with a single purpose – to toe the party line of whatever a vendor is telling them. Either that or be ostracised and ridiculed. You can see why keeping in the pack is a much more attractive prospect to some.  Why rock the boat when you can nod like a dog and everyone leaves you alone?

In many ways, vendors are as much to blame as the analyst firms. A short while ago it became vogue to cram analysts into large lecture theatres and run presentation after presentation – “Thanks for listening to two hours of us running through our financial performance, now you’re suitably sedated we’ll tell you about cloud, automation, blockchain, AI, GDPR, et al. quick succession over the next five hours. Unfortunately, there will be no time for questions. Try and ask a question and you won’t be invited back. Thanks, have a great day and remember your earplugs and eye masks are stored under your chairs.”

This bred a particular type of analyst – the nodding dog – that silently sits at the back of the room, nodding reassuringly when anyone makes eye contact, and briefly types out a mirror image of what the vendor has splurged out on their slide deck. “Doing lots more digital huh? great, I’ll write that down and get it off to editing.”

Just take your money and nod like a dog, please

Now, this may seem like a vitriolic attack on the analyst industry as a whole – which is partially correct – but this is really a look at the series of factors that have slowly eroded the value that analysts can provide to clients. The days of clear, impartial insight that fuel business decision making  on their way out unless we start fixing this industry now.

The biggest issue is that the analyst firms swimming against the current are the first to be snubbed by vendors looking for the immediate gratification the industry now offers them. Publishing something even lukewarm will see your inbox filled with demands for ‘rebuttal’. You can’t imagine the response to something which is openly critical. Ultimately vendors know this works, they hire pushy and aggressive AR people to drive their narratives into the skulls of analysts. The big firms, chasing the money, know not to fight back – drilling their analysts to nod politely and, crucially, not to write or say anything that could lose them the account.  Take your money and nod like a dog.. and we’re all cool, right?

This short-termism is pillaging the credibility of our industry.

‘Pay to play’ has become an insult so frequently used that’s it’s lost all meaning. Like that family member we all have whose frequent profanity was shocking at first, but eventually became an endearing characteristic. Corruption, subjectivity and personal agendas have become the knowns that clients expect and budget for. Frankly, it’s a constant surprise that 2×2 grid hasn’t disappeared as quickly as positive interest rates did after the financial crisis. There’s no value in them anymore – and if enterprise decision makers know that, by and large, they’re sketchy and not worth consulting, why do them at all?

Our worst fears were confirmed in a recent dispute on LinkedIn, in which industry grandee’s defended research that contained none of the major players in a market as a better way of supporting buying decisions (although they went on to argue that these reports, paradoxically, have no role to play in informing sourcing professionals!). As a sign that the industry is doomed – as with a failing company where all assets are for sale in a desperate bid to eek out a few more months – professional credibility and the reputation of a firm are up for sale for a relatively small price tag

What business are most ”analysts” in these days?  Not “research”, that’s for sure…

This is the question at the center of an existential crisis for the analyst industry. In recent years, business models have eroded from research and analysis to vendor PR and marketing. The proliferation of nodding dog analysts which serve only as a mouthpiece for vendor marketeers, and the production of research which only has market value as far as vendors are willing to sponsor it has pushed analyst firms further and further away from the core mission of the industry – to inform clients. For some, the journey back is too long and arduous – they may as well throw in the towel now, or just honestly label their output as marketing fluff. At least they’ll be able to claw back some credibility for owning up to the true nature of the business.

For others that have drifted less, they must ask themselves ‘what business am I in’. If the answer is anything other than to provide clients with truth and clarity, sorry – you may as well phone it in as well.

The tragedy is that the current analyst market incentivizes the nonsense. For guaranteed business revenue and analyst bonuses, it adds up to pump out the same hype that we are supposed to be cutting through. Blockchain and AI hype trains are mandatory for most analysts if they want to get paid. And the easiest way to join in the conversation without needing to do any actual research is to circulate what vendors are saying. Even I’ll admit that it’s easier to find free time as a researcher if you don’t need to do any research.

But this dynamic simply can’t continue. The type of people that consume analyst research are, save some exceptions, exceptionally intelligent people. As soon as they start seeing the same crap from analysts as they get from vendors – the type of drivel that doesn’t tie up with how their business works – then they’ll stop reading and listening. It’s a simple as that. Even the most remote watering hole in the desert will stop being visited by local wildlife if it gets filled up with sewage and shit.

Bottom Line: If things don’t change soon we may as well close up shop and join a circus. Assuming we’re not in one already.

So as an industry we need to keep asking us what business we’re in, who we’re serving, and why we’re doing the things we do. Luckily, at HFS we’ve built a community of candid, and often ruthlessly honest analyst, buyers, enterprise leaders, and advisors. While other vendors and analyst firms are stifling the voice of dissension, we’re giving it a loudspeaker. Because if we’re not producing truthfully honest and clear research – then we may as well jack it in as well and join a circus (or move to the part of the industry that’s already become one.)

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  1. Mic drop. Walk off stage…
    A must read rant by the unrivaled Phil Fersht, from an honest (and frustrated) place, motivated by pride for his craft, and a passion for the integrity and relevance of his industry.

  2. Phil Fersht…Largely agree with this…My $ 0.02…Most “Analysts” today have forgotten/being forced to forget the operating principle of being one…Understand, Synthesize and Communicate, being turned in reverse order of Communicate first, Synthesize later and Understand if possible…And then of course most “Analyst” firms positioning anybody and everybody as credible analysts, with pushing them for achieving higher and higher revenue targets drives the behavior you’re trying to highlight!

  3. ]Phil – you jabbed mercilesly at the weakest spot of the industry ….actually both industries in your narrative. The natural order of mans existence is similar to the flow of water and electricity – they will always take the path of least resistence. Vendors that do a lot, don’t talk and the vendors that deliver no more than flowerly lip service rant the most. Analysts were expected to be Hercule Poirot wheras auditors were designed to be Holmes. Somehow the characters got mixed up and now it’s all a bit confusing.


  4. MyPOV: Phil calls it like it is. The analyst industry is in trouble b/c many vendors are happy to pay for positive “content marketing” and “analysts” are abusing their position. Once you lose credibility as an objective industry observer, it’s gone!


  5. This is awesome Phil and see the same dynamic with many consultants and SAP Partners. The poor customers is hearing that everyone is their “trusted advisor” when in fact if the sky was falling they would tell their customer….all is fine from my view 🙂

  6. Phil and Ollie,

    Loved reading this and much needed. The analysts iundustry has lost all perspective and personality. Those abysmal Nelsonhall quadrants you discussed recently emphasised how bad things have become. Plus, it doesn’t help when observers like Duncan Chappel support this nodding dog, pay-for-play behavior. The whole space need a complete reinvention,


  7. Phil and Ollie – an excellent rant, especially after this monstrosity where half the leadering vendors were excluded:


  8. I totally agree with this assessment of the situation at hand here. I often read some of the stuff on offer and it is reaching new depths in mediocrity/superficiality, one would not even think was possible!

    Society and media at large is plagued with a similar kind of problem. Honest, unbiased opinions are difficult to find. Everyone has an agenda. But we are talking about research here not journalism!

    A few thoughts come to mind on how things may change but end of the day the reinvention must come from within the industry. The current state of affairs may be an opening, an opportunity for creating new models, new offerings or just throwing up alternative paths to consider.

    Hope things improve from here…what are the enterprises saying?

  9. Since 2008 every job has become a hustle and analysts are no different. Authenticity is not a winning attribute. To survive, being the nodding dog is the difference between having a pay check and not having a pay check and when they’ve got mortgages to pay and kids to put through college truthful, honest and clear research might not be the best bet. That’s not to say its the right thing to do, just an observation. I speak from experience also.

    By Heather Havrilesky

    ‘Remember when we thought that social-media self-marketing was a sign of narcissism? That must’ve been long before the deeply insecure, postrecession gig economy had set in — or at least before the intuition had set in that all of this “precarity” was, in fact, the new normal. Now every worker is an island — one covered in billboards advertising their personal brand.

    While some data suggests the uptick in temporary work isn’t as big as you might think, in the shadow of the crash, it definitely feels like we’re all scrambling to piece together a living, gig by gig — and to be visible is to survive. Even if you’ve mastered the art of 24/7 self-peddling, it’s hard to trust your actual talent or the value of your effort, because quality and popularity are interchangeable.
    Am I truly good at this, or just good at making myself difficult to ignore?

    What’s worse, in a world where we’re all products interacting with other products, we can be tempted to view earnest expressions and deep convictions like we might’ve viewed cereal commercials in the ’70s: “This is a sales pitch, this is virtue signaling.” How can we tell the difference between personality and brand, emotion and meme, human being and consumable? This bafflement not only leads us, inexorably, away from each other; it leads us away from our relationship to our own work, who we are, and what we love the most.’


  10. Whoa! Nigel Barron, you are opening up a whole new door here…:), a new perspective..

    Look, it is kind of a given these days to peg everything to a shift since the financial crises of 2009 -2012, but that apart, you are right – it most definitely seems to pay big for many folks to play up to the fake nodding game that runs across the business world. But the reason may run deeper and for far longer too, as Yuval Noah Harari says – ‘Humans have always lived in the age of post-truth. Homo sapiens is a post-truth species, whose power depends on creating and believing fictions.’ Never underestimate the power (and assurance) of a conforming nod. And in the comfort of mediocrity 🙂

    In strange sorts of ways, we voluntarily develop these highly unauthentic scenarios and then hang up all of our expectations to those superficialities. I am by no means saying it is a good thing, but we seem to need this kind of escapist nodding as a way to be accepted and be ‘fitting in’.

    In fact, to your point about social media, it could end up (eventually) serving a useful purpose. It may be both, a megaphone and a mirror. By showing us up to a mirror, it may actually create the turnaround conditions we are all looking for. Hopefully that happens well before the noise and self promotion drowns us all in, that is…

    But till then ‘fake it till you make it, keep the powerful happy’ appears to be the rule that sort of works fine for all of humanity and for the research community as well. Will someone rock the boat? Maybe…

  11. There are ripples in the water Manish, at some point everyone will realise that their emperors have no clothes. Lehman Brothers was the tipping point in 2008 and as Warren Buffett says "Only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked."

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