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  • Nick Bonney

Data might not be the new oil but diversity, immersion and story-telling are the secret sauce

With so many unable to attend due to Covid-19 travel restrictions, I thought it would be helpful to summarise the key themes emerging from the first day of the MRS Impact Conference.


Whilst ‘big data’ inevitably was a common theme running throughout the day, it was interesting to see how the discussion progressed throughout the day. Rather than data itself being the be-all and end-all, the discussion moved first to how clients integrate a plethora of sources, on to the all-important debates around ethics and bias (building to a crescendo with Caroline Criado-Perez, and her dog Poppy of course!)


Alex Owens from Unilever opened the day, explaining how Unilever are mining digital data sources such as reviews and social sentiment to provide data more quickly to all parts of the business from the C Suite to front line teams. Despite a slightly mis-judged pitch contribution from Cap Gemini, this was a useful insight into how researchers need to adapt to the wealth of data brands have access to beyond research. It was also the first mention of one of the key themes of the day; the importance of diversity of insight teams to provide diversity of thought.


Alex Owen from Unilever's Secret Sauce

The two client sessions in the middle of the day gave a great insight into how, despite the wealth of data now at clients’ disposal, it’s critical to focus on immersive and engaging techniques to ensure insights land within the business – as Naomi Kasolowsky from Tesco pointed out ‘ we have data scientists, we’re looking for storytellers’. I particularly liked her three core principles of Interpretation, Evidence and Action which seemed like great long-standing pillars to put at the heart of an insight team. A fascinating presentation from Rob Orchard (one of my highlights of the day) echoed some of these themes – ‘there are no good infographics without good stories’.


Naomi Kasolowsky's Three Core Principles

These might feel like tropes we’ve heard at many MRS Conferences before but for me the pieces started to come together during the afternoon. First, a great session facilitated by Tom Ewing vividly brought to life how easy it is to get hoodwinked by false data-based claims. Secondly, whilst data is often held up to ‘trump opinions’ , Ivana Bartoletti and Caroline Criado-Perez did a fantastic job at demonstrating that data is there to be questioned. Who collected it? Why did they collect it? What controls were in place? (particularly for machine learning) Who interpreted the findings?


Both stressed that the key to unlocking the value from data was not in an obsessive focus on technology but in the diversity of the teams that analyse it. The risk otherwise is that we draw conclusions that conform to pre-existing biases in terms of how we see the world, whether structural (e.g. gender, sexuality, race or class) or even more mundane biases (e.g. company think).


Sources of Bias in AI/ Machine Learning from Ivana Bartoletti

Positively for those of us who see our role as helping brands de-code and understand human behaviour, people and people skills remain central to the future of our industry. The ability to read between the lines, tell compelling stories and engage with stakeholders remain critical, despite the plethora of marketing technology platforms available at our disposal.


With that in mind it’s worth looking to the future of the research and insight industry. It was great therefore to see both the &More and Wellbeing sessions focusing how we’re able to attract, motivate the best talent within our industry but also to create a working culture where the best minds can thrive.


We seem to have spent a long time looking nervously over our shoulder at ‘big data’ or getting bogged down in a people vs. technology debate. However, it seems that we may finally be getting comfortable in the knowledge that, rather than becoming redundant, our traditional focus on ethics, quality and impact are more important than ever before….

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