A finger on the pulse

January 5, 2021

Research and strategic marketing agency MMC is providing crucial insight that is helping companies and organisations move forward in an ever-changing landscape. Steven Hugill speaks to managing director Natasha McDonough to find out more.


Simon Sinek is unlikely to visit Sunderland any time soon.

But if the international author and motivational speaker ever does arrive on Wearside’s shores, he will be buoyed by what he sees.

The pioneer of the ‘WHY’ theory – which argues people fail to truly buy into a product, service, movement or idea until they have understood the ‘WHY’ behind it – is an equally fierce advocate of business leader empathy.

Which is why, if he makes it to Sunderland, and specifically the offices of market research and strategic marketing agency MMC, the British-born American will feel right at home.

Led by Natasha McDonough, MMC has its finger on the pulse of the North East’s business landscape, with Sinek’s values at the heart of its health check.

Conducting detailed market research – including both qualitative and quantitative methodologies – it gauges the proficiency of clients’ messaging and output, which in turn leads to meaningful improvement.

“When we carry out market research, we always keep in mind that whatever we find out for clients has to be meaningful, and it has to help them transform the way they operate and communicate,” says Natasha.

“The insights we reveal often provide what we call the ‘meaningful why’.”

The list of operators to have benefited from MMC’s analysis has grown over recent months, with many adjusting their approach to COVID-19 messaging with the support of Natasha and her experienced team of researchers and marketing strategists.

When Sunderland Improvement District (BID) needed help to understand consumers’ appetite for a city
centre return amid ongoing pandemic restrictions, it turned to MMC.

Sunderland City Council’s public health and communications teams also called on them for assistance in understanding their residents’ perceptions of COVID-19 restrictions, with housing provider Bernicia tapping into MMC’s expertise to better appreciate their employees’ stance on remote working.

“With Sunderland BID, our research discovered that people still wanted to support their local city centre, however, they wanted to see things like active cleaning in public spaces,” says Natasha, who has also volunteered time to be part of a taskforce focused on the economic recovery from COVID-19.

“The cleaning was happening, but by putting videos on social media, the BID could showcase it and therefore improve the impact of their messaging.

“Furthermore, our work with Sunderland City Council helped them better understand how to engage with some of their more vulnerable communities by running a peer research programme,” says Natasha, whose research team’s qualifications include a PhD in Public Health, Msc in Epidemiology, Prince2 and Market Research Society qualifications.

“We discovered that people want to be empathised with and thanked for their co-operation with the COVID-19 measures in place.

“Our work helped them find the right tone with their messaging, which then fed into the region’s wider campaign led by the LA7,” continues Natasha, who founded MMC in 2015.

“Bernicia very quickly wanted to know how staff felt about going into the workplace, and adopting agile working, and our support meant they were able to make people feel valued and safe immediately.

“We carried out in-depth, discreet interviews with various staff members and then pulled together a thematic analysis of our findings alongside a staff survey, which resulted in recommendations on how to roll out agile working.”

Although highlighting MMC’s proficiency during the pandemic, such work also provides a valuable window into the future.

With many businesses plotting new courses following COVID-19, MMC’s insight, says Natasha, will act as a compass to map out their respective journeys.

“We can answer questions that companies perhaps didn’t even know they had,” she says.

“We can explore opportunities in new markets, run competitor analysis, and produce go-to-market strategies off the back of them.

“We’re also able to support start-ups through some of our ERDF fully-funded programmes, which we run on behalf of Digital City in Teesside and Sunderland Software City,” says Natasha.

However, it isn’t just organisations rallying against COVID-19 where MMC – which late last year became research partner to Sunderland AFC’s Foundation of Light charity – is finding market traction.

The company’s expertise is also helping businesses invert established beliefs and practices that have, in some cases, become detrimental to their progress.

“There exists the danger of presumption, where companies presume they’re doing everything they can for a client, but we reveal there’s way more opportunity available,” says Natasha.

“We work with a fantastic engineering company called Owben, which counts Nissan as one of its biggest clients.

“By interviewing some of their clients, we were able to find out what their customers wanted from them and what their customers didn’t understand about their wider offer.

“This resulted in an in-depth report helping them understand their ‘WHY’, which we then translated into a marketing strategy – off the back of which they’ve been able to land a deal this year that will potentially turn into six figures.”

It isn’t just the commercial landscape that holds MMC’s line of focus, though.

Last year, the company worked with the Association of Directors of Public Health (ADPH) in the region on
a study exploring the correlation between debt and suicide.

MMC undertook an academic literature review before performing a service mapping exercise to assess how local authorities help individuals with extreme mental health and financial issues.

Natasha says: “Our team identified areas of best practice and then presented ways forward in a shared learning event where we delivered the findings in a virtual event to more than 80 public and mental health professionals.”

Natasha also last year offered her staff counselling sessions and surveyed leaders nationally to evaluate the mental impact of COVID-19.

The study, supported by the North East England Chamber of Commerce and North East Counselling Service, found more than half of businessowners felt their mental health had worsened since the first lockdown, and Natasha says it has already laid foundations for a refreshed approach to wellbeing.

“Empathy is at the core of our values here at MMC,” she says.

“I struggled with my own mental health during the first lockdown – anxiety and concern about balancing home schooling and the running of the businesses.

“I thought that if I felt like this then others must be doing so too, and I wanted to see what kind of help and support people wanted,” continues Natasha.

“There is a lot of business coaching out there, but sometimes you want to talk about how you’re doing mentally, rather than just financially!

“The response of the survey was overwhelming –
it showed me that people really value peer-to-peer support and our findings helped with a couple of events the Chamber held too.

“Social support is definitely something we’ll develop more in 2021 and across future years.”