It’s been a busy few weeks in the insight world. Just like Hollywood has to cope with the Golden Globes, the BAFTAs and the Oscars arriving in quick succession, we have seen Quirks MR, the Insight Show and the MRS Impact Conference all take place within a few short weeks.
Whilst, I couldn’t attend the Insight show, I was lucky enough to be invited to speak at Quirks in Brooklyn and also to attend the second day of the Impact conference. It was both interesting and reassuring to see so many common threads across some great sessions. In this article, I’ve summarised my session at Quirks but also highlighted where those themes arose across the other fantastic presentations I saw both in New York and London.
Research conferences have historically seen some quite inward debates bemoaning some of the challenges of our industry with agency-dominated panels set up to chew the fat on ‘why don’t clients listen?’, ‘why aren’t market researchers in the boardroom?’ or ‘why are procurement teams such utter bastards?’.
It’s so refreshing therefore to see that the debate has moved on to be focused on the reality of today’s business world. Research is just one data set from which businesses make decisions and far from being data-poor, most businesses are now awash with data. The challenge is therefore less about making our individual voice heard but more about how we integrate, synthesise and communicate these different sources to drive or, as Stan Sthanunathan would say, provoke action. More data doesn’t necessarily mean more insight and better data doesn’t always lead to better decisions. With this focus on finding connections, it was apt therefore that Impact 2019 was closed by none other than Victoria Coren-Mitchell, host of the cult quiz show, Only Connect.
The first risk here is that the narrative around ‘Big Data’ has long become dominated by technology and capability. Many businesses have become seduced by the idea of building their own ‘data lake’ or ‘creating a single customer view’ as much because they feel they should rather than they actually have a clear end in mind. As Dan Ariely put it " Big data is like teenage sex: everyone talks about it, nobody really knows how to do it, everyone thinks everyone else is doing it, so everyone claims they are doing it. "
Whilst machine learning is undoubtedly creating more personal and seamless customer experiences, in the insight world the challenge is that the findings still have to be interpreted by the human brain and therefore the old cognitive biases still exist. The datasets might be bigger but those analysing them are often still looking for familiar patterns to fit the assumed corporate narrative.
Referring to The Fire, Andrew O’Hagan spoke powerfully about how hard it is to be the one championing a finding which can be seen to challenge the assumed truth. Whilst we’re dealing with far less serious issues, I’m sure many of us who have led insight teams can relate to that feeling of isolation where you have to be the one to question whether or not a decision is the right one based on evidence from customers.
That’s not to say of course that retrenching from these big data sets and relying solely on research is any better course of action; far from it. As Seth Stephens-Davidowitz so eloquently demonstrates in his brilliant book – Everybody Lies. He uses examples such as the American Social Survey to demonstrate how our claimed behaviour is so wildly inaccurate when it comes to sensitive issues like sex. In my session at Quirks, I showed how the same applies to more mundane everyday purchases like your mobile phone bill or a lottery ticket. We are, it seems, terrible judges of our own behaviour.
The opportunity then is to augment and compliment these large behavioural datasets with what, as researchers, we have always been good at; discovering the underlying needs and motivations which underpin them. In particular, it was fantastic to see so many case studies where researchers were looking to the edge of the distributions to look for those signals which indicate the future direction of a market or could inspire innovation. From an insight into the world of sneaker fans from the Bleacher Report or the emerging cannabis market in Canada, there have been some fantastic case studies on how research is complimenting rather than competing with behavioural data.
This focus on building connections was how I ended my talk at Quirks . The importance for us to hone and develop our skills as strategic thinkers and brilliant communicators. Technology shouldn’t be seen as a threat here but rather as an enabler. I often use a picture of Sir David Attenborough in the submersible Nadir when I talk about this; this advanced technology doesn’t stop Sir David being a brilliant naturalist but it allows him to discover things that previously he couldn’t reach.
It was great to see these themes echoed so strongly by Stan Sthanunathan and Tabitha Goldstaub during the AI panel at Impact but also to see so many other brilliant practical examples of how different strands of insight had been pulled together to weave compelling stories for different businesses. Danny Wain chaired a brilliant session at Impact and Flamingo and Formula 1 gave a great case study on how this approach can inspire action even in a business where research has never been conducted before.
In some ways the current climate feels paradoxical. James Wycherley from IMA summed it up brilliantly in his talk at Quirks – on the one hand, there’s never been a better time to be an Insight leader; we are blessed with a wealth of data and a raft of brilliant tools to help us understand it. On the other hand, this can feel like a curse as much as a blessing with many insight teams feeling overwhelmed.
Often this is because the original objectives get lost somewhere along the way. It starts to feel like a process and we forget the decision we were trying to influence in the first place. Mark Ritson has written a lot about 'backwards market research' and, whilst it seems common sense, I think there's a lot in this. It's critical we think about what decision we're trying to make and where the best data sits to make it.
However, we also need to close the gap between the decision makers and the agencies working on the project. The best projects I’ve worked on (and indeed the best case studies I saw at these events) were where the commercial owner and the agency genuinely worked in partnership. However, all too often the chain of communication (both agency and client side) remains too long and too cumbersome. The more we can foster this collaborative culture within our industry the more likely that evidence won’t just matter but will also drive change.
However, I left Impact this week with a real sense of optimism about the future and a sense that, as an industry, we're looking forwards more than ever; searching for the new opportunities technology can bring and embracing a world where we can augment intelligence rather than being stuck in the debate of man vs. machine.
Stan’s mantra for intelligence capital asked us to change the conversation from insights to evidence and that feels like a perfect place to finish...