That volume represented a 12.2% growth in U.S. revenues, highest year-to-year push in the decade by the 100, according to the 23rd annual Advertising Age special report.
Worldwide, these same companies showed revenue growth of 10.1% as mergers, global expansion and technological innovation, from Internet to satellite-televised test groups, continue to change the face of the industry.
U.S. growth powered worldwide totals. International contributions of the U.S. research companies advanced only 7%, a growth mechanically stunted due to the translation of world currencies into a strong dollar.
In 1996, U.S. and worldwide revenue gains occupied the same range, 9.6% and 9.9%, respectively.
IMS Health, a pharmaceutical and healthcare researcher, nosed past Information Resources Inc. to claim No. 1 with 1997 U.S. revenue of $378.3 million, up 19.5%. IRI, the scanner-data and analysis company, showed U.S. research revenue of $366.7 million, up 6.4%.
IRI's non-U.S. growth soared a substantial 47.1% to $89.6 million, compared with IMS' 2.4% growth in non-U.S. returns to $602.2 million.
After heavy investment to move into European markets and ACNielsen Corp.'s agreement with the European Commission to halt anticompetitive practices, IRI is on a fast, if costly, track. IRI prompted the ACNielsen action in Europe.
"In Europe we are exploding, although we're not yet profitable," says IRI's CEO Gian Fulgoni.
ACNielsen, like IRI a scanner readout and analysis company, rose 8.2% to $310 million for 1997. Ranking fourth overall in the U.S., ACNielsen's international total is by far the largest non-U.S. volume of any research company -- $1.08 billion, up 0.9%.
Holding down the third domestic spot is media measurer Nielsen Media Research, at $358.6 million, up 12.3%.
ANOTHER SPLIT COMING
The shifting positions at the top of this annual research business ranking follow the breakup in late 1996 of Dun & Bradstreet's A.C. Nielsen unit, into ACNielsen and Cognizant Corp., the latter including IMS and Nielsen Media Research.
In mid-1998, that earlier amputation of Nielsen Media and IMS is to subdivide, with Cognizant changing its name to Nielsen Media Research, and IMS forming IMS Health.
SRI Consulting, ranked No. 45, grew 19.5% in research revenues to $20 million. The unit was created by parent SRI International in `96 to separate marketing research from its much larger activity in engineering and science research.
Other top-performing research companies and their specialties: Westat, No. 6 in the U.S., upped revenue 24% to $182 million on its statistical survey work flowing from congressional legislation on health, nutrition, clinical trials, and educational assessment. Arbitron Co., No. 7, where revenues hit $165.2 million, up 8%, is preparing its Personal Meter for introduction in the U.S. The Personal Meter measures both radio and TV usage. Arbitron is preparing to advance overseas.
NFO Worldwide, building itself into a sort of research mall via acquisition of specialty services, hit $141 million in U.S. revenue, up 21%.
Kantar Group, part of ad organization WPP Group, continues expanding in the U.S. with No. 14 Millward Brown International at $65.6 million, up 28.4%, and No. 30 Research International USA at $27.8 million, up 32%.
Millward Brown launched Internet research during the year (see story on Page S-6) and opened an Atlanta office to consolidate its business in the East. Research International USA is enlarging its San Francisco presence.
The research Rolodex is changing as companies combine to gain size, financing and skills.
Not all in research have the same take on acquisitions. NFO Worldwide's VP-Controller David Gorman says NFO acquired seven research companies since early 1997. Its acquisitions are in niche markets and it looks for geographical distribution rather than global bulk.
"The marketing research industry is very fragmented, with lots of boutiques and organizations driven only by intellectual capital. We don't want to acquire such companies," says ACNielsen's Nicholas Trivisonno, who nonetheless agrees with the value of niche positioning.
ACNielsen last December bought niche -- Entertainment Data, a West Coast company that counts dollar and ticket totals for about 85% of U.S. movie theaters. ACNielsen measuring and analytical systems will add information on who's buying the tickets and why.
In an information-hungry world that demands to know, variety is the nature of research. The queries and calculations range from laser-fast counting at checkout to questions in the focus group.
To sort out the difference between true memory and imagination in answering survey questions, Winona Interactive, a new acquisition of No. 24 MRB Group, creates psych-controlled environments for questioning -- virtually real fast-food restaurants, supermarkets and gas stations built as sets to provide distraction-free environments for experiencing products.
Through its own video-conference system, No. 84 FocusVision Worldwide Network brings the questioning of a focus group in Japan onto the TV screen of a client, say in Chicago.
David Miller Enterprises lets its automotive clients look over the shoulders of its focus group while interviewees reflect on the cosmetic modifications of GM, Mercedes and Toyota vehicles between major model changes.
Mr. Miller's company, with revenue of $217,300, up 118%, wraps up the list at No. 113. Ad Age limits the annual research barometer to the 100, but includes smaller companies outside this elite group.
Edison Media Research, No. 99, checks radio listening on the job and finds that for Americans the 9-to-5 workday no longer is the norm -- still eight hours, but a varied eight-hour period.
No. 26 Roper Starch Worldwide's studies help Bozell Worldwide counsel client Milk Processors Education Program in hitting key markets with its "Milk Mustache" promo.
The future is a wired new high-tech science for these companies. ACNielsen's Homescan and IRI's ScanKey are counting and analyzing purchases in-home. ACNielsen recently increased its Homescan households by 30% to 52,000 homes; ScanKey is in 55,000 homes.
Arbitron is fine-tuning its portable Personal Meter for tracking radio listening -- and maybe TV viewing -- both at home and on the street.
In 500 homes between Washington and Boston, Nielsen Media Research continues its two-year-long testing of its Active/Passive Meter system to record program viewing on digital TV.
NMR's system measures viewing by detecting a UPC-like code.
Still, amid all this technology, research executives are mindful of the human presence in what they're doing.
"Know the heart of the consumer, and you will own the future," states John Houlahan, president of FocusVision, adding, "We're no longer in mass marketing. We're now in relationship marketing."
It's this that causes Mr. Trivisonno to take a hard look at his mass-measurement business.
DRIVING TO THE BRAND
"We combine measurement of market movement with measurement and interplay of promotion and price. But then we must introduce interpretation of consumer attitude and behavior. That's what gives us insight -- what drives the consumer to brand, to price," he says.
Mr. Fulgoni says, "Scanning is founded on scanner data, and these data can be treated in different ways, given different interpretations, including use of attitudinal data."
But there is a human dimension, he says. The "people challenge" is the big factor in research now -- getting enough people who have research skills to work in the industry. Intensive recruitment plus on-site training of their own people are solutions being actively pursued.