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  • Writer's pictureNick Bonney

The Power of Why - Reflections on the 2023 MRS Insight Alchemy Conference

How brilliant it was to see people face to face at the MRS ‘Insight Alchemy’ Conference this week. For those of us who attended the last such in person in event in 2020, it brought into sharp focus the tumultuous last few years we have just been through.

Very Bad Photo Credit: Nick Bonney with Hair Courtesy of Jem Fawcus

Back then, the room was half empty as large corporates dictated staff couldn’t attend due to fears over Covid and, whilst we awkwardly elbow-bumped, we had no idea we were about to head into the first national lockdown the following week. This year, however, the room was packed to the rafters and there was a veritable buzz about the place as we all caught up with faces both old and new. It was also a fitting send off for research industry 'ledge', John Bizzell, who has made such a massive contribution to all the various events and award ceremonies over the years and who will most definitely be sorely missed.

Overall, it was a great day and not just for the benefits of face to face contact! From my own perspective, we may have swung a little too far in favour of the panel format but obviously this is a more low risk strategy for the first foray back into a big annual conference. However, whilst I completely endorse the move away from formal paper submissions, it felt as though we could have had a couple more of those killer presentations / case studies that lodge in the mind long after the after party hangovers have subsided. The fact I can so vividly remember Jeremy Bullmore talking nearly 20 years ago or the role of research in Blair’s election campaign, presented by Charles Trevail and Roy Langmaid the following year would suggest there’s still a role to play for these kinds of ‘set piece’ presentations. One thing we’re definitely not short of as an industry is amazing thinkers and speakers!

Rather than summarise the content from the day (ResearchLive will do a far better job than me at that!), I thought it would be useful to summarise the key themes which, on reflection, the day set up as challenges for us as an industry for 2023 and beyond.


The first thing that emerged as a common thread throughout the day is that there seemed to be a much more bullish perspective about the value of the research industry from those outside the industry than from practitioners themselves. Right from Claer Barrett’s opener (and echoed throughout the day), the users of research were clear that ‘understanding the why’ was a crucial value the research industry brings. Tamara Rogers from Haleon went as far as to demonstrate as to how ‘deep human understanding’ was now a central tenet of their corporate strategy.

Yet, as researchers, our tone sometimes risks being almost apologetic. The very premise of some of the sessions (e.g. how can we position qual as essential?) suggests a underlying nervousness that the industry is constantly facing an existential threat. What emerged from other sessions throughout the day was, if anything, the exact opposite. Even digital powerbrands such as Deliveroo or LadBible recognise that, whilst they might have access to a wealth of real-time behavioural data, there is still a real need to build empathy with their audience in a way which only well run research can do. We add the power of the why.

It’s at times like this I wonder whether it’s possible for a whole industry to suffer from collective imposter syndrome. I’ve regularly attended the MRS conference for over 20 years and, almost without fail, there is a debate at some point about why won’t they let us in the boardroom or why do those pesky management consultants get all the love, money and attention. Rather than looking fearfully at whether strategic thinking or qualitative research under threat, let’s be bold and celebrate the unique qualities that research can bring. Let’s lean forward into new techniques and celebrate the diverse toolkit that technology has given us as researchers rather than worrying whether or not we must defend the face to face group.


My second challenge would be the dangers of assumption. For a category whose very reason for being is to focus on the customer, we can often spend our time revelling in our own glorious echo chamber. This week again, we were at risk at times of characterising senior decision makers as faceless automatons who respond only to facts and figures. Often, the perspective of research users was relayed through the mouthpiece of research buyers. Whilst senior clients undoubtedly have a great handle on the needs of their internal stakeholders, I think there can sometimes be a risk of over-dramatizing the gulf between senior leaders and research suppliers. To illustrate the point, this is the equivalent of using parents to research children – a really useful perspective but nothing quite as powerful as hearing from the kids themselves.

For the future, having greater representation from the C Suite themselves on stage would be something which both client-side researchers and agencies alike could learn from. Kudos to Andrew Jerina from Flume for recognising that the C suite is not filled with alien lifeforms but that, at the end of the day “we’re complicated humans trying to communicate to other complicated humans about complicated humans”.

As someone who once took a 10 minute verbal beating from the CFO of our shareholder concerning the project name on a title slide (which I didn’t choose, by the way!), I can testify that even leaders whose job title suggests they should act 100% rationally, are more than prone to fits of emotion! It was fantastic to hear Chris Molloy provide some concrete examples of how investors can sometimes be even more interested in qualitative insights as their data rooms are already crammed full of quantitative metrics.


Of course, conference wouldn’t be conference if there wasn’t a healthy dose of ‘magpie syndrome’ about the latest thing which is going to kill/ transform/ revolutionise (delete as appropriate) our industry. Over the years we’ve seen much soul searching on social listening, big data and self service tools. This year, the culprit was the impact of ‘AI’ which popped up as a recurring theme throughout the day. We’re not alone in getting fixated on the pornography of change of course – Ben Page spoke so eloquently a couple of years ago about our innate human tendency to focus on short term changes at the expense of longer term trends.

The umbrella term 'AI' seems to be using interchangeably with the much vaunted release of Chat GPT (and now Chat GPT v4). Yet, to some extent, AI has already started to have an impact on the way we work for some years – from sentiment analysis in CX trackers through to something as simple as running automated transcription software such as Happy Scribe or Indeed, Paul Hudson made the excellent point that the most significant benefits may well be seen in productivity or process improvements rather than any client-facing innovation in the foreseeable future. Would it be too glib at this point to suggest the most widely-used AI application in research at the moment is still Microsoft Outlook telling you that you forgot to attach a file?!

Whilst it’s always easy to get distracted by the potential these new tools open up, the panel chaired by Colin Strong, did I feel strike the right balance in pointing out that, for all the fervour in LinkedIn posts, AI is likely to add another string to our bow rather than decimate the industry.

Indeed, if we want to look for inspiration for the future of research, the closing conversation with David Olusoga (brilliantly handled by Sinead Jefferies) was a fantastic example of the skills that any researcher should be looking to emulate. David was articulate and passionate about the story he wanted to tell. He was evidence-based but used those facts and figures to add weight to his argument rather than spouting data for data’s sake. He was also empathetic to his subjects and felt a deep connection to their plight; a responsibility we all have to our participants, given our Code of Conduct.

So, for all the soul searching on threats to the industry, perhaps David’s was the clearest lesson of all. Irrespective of the shifting technology landscape, the true skill we need to all hold dear as researchers is the ability to use, synthesise and interpret data to build a compelling case. Clearly, we are in turbulent economic waters but there is still so much for us to be positive and confident about as an industry. After all, the message from those who use research was clear – we need you more than ever!


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