Culture, Politics and Ethics: The Wide Net of Research (MRS IMPACT Summary #1)
After two days packed full of learning at the 2020 MRS IMPACT conference — I’m reminded that even though insights industry discussion is often dominated by methodology and technology, our remit is much wider than that. And not only that, but our work sits at such an important intersection that crosses debates around culture, ethics, politics, philosophy, futurism and more.
In fact, it has been refreshing to hear that the environment research operates in is so complex that we likely won’t have the answers for a very long time yet. This was highlighted early by keynote Jamie Bartlett, who used examples of criminal activity, bitcoin and smart fridges to explain how the regulation and societal norms around data will vastly change over the next decade.
Unifying Marketing, Research and the Customer
Despite these complexities, it has been inspiring to hear the work that is being done by senior industry leaders to close the insight to action divide. Speakers from Unilever, Tesco, Barclays and Telefonica all weighed in on the importance of research as a function which advocates for customers in the boardroom — and the importance of developing a culture in which profitable growth & consumer interests are not opposing forces.
Similarly, multiple sessions touched on the value of shared understanding at the board level. Both ensuring that finance values the contribution of research activity, and that insight professionals are clear on the economic impact of their work. Closing divides and bringing previously opposing teams together — even if that means sharing ownership of key responsibilities — is most certainly a priority for the future.
The Skills Required to Drive Impact and Action
A number of practical sessions revolved around the skills market researchers need in order to be successful. Particularly noticeable were the recurring themes of storytelling, data visualisation and brining data sources together. A whole Applied Intelligence Zone session was filled with practical advice on how to tell engaging stories (including my piece on what table-top RPGs can teach us about impactful storytelling).
One of my personal favourite sessions of the entire conference was delivered by Rob Orchard of Delayed Gratification, which explored the use of beautiful data visualisation through the lens of audience engagement. And of course, it wouldn’t be fair to talk about the focus on storytelling without mentioning the perspective of closing keynote Bernadine Evaristo. An award-winning novelist and poet with a background in theatre, this was a fantastic exploration of the creative process that goes into writing prose. Structuring narratives, building characters, immersive research. Lots to mull over and consider.
Other skills included developing new models of research to answer previously unsolved questions, blending multiple data sources to find the single source of truth and thinking critically about the data we consume. A wide variety indeed… indicative of an industry that thrives when it nurtures a range of talent and brings together a wide array of professional expertise.
Rebranding Market Research
Throughout the conference’s multiple panels, and in particular, the Applied Intelligence Zone’s focus on young talent, the identity of the market research industry was robustly explored. A particularly interesting point to come out of this was that many young researchers didn’t realise they were joining the sector. Polling, insight and policy; yes. Market research; no.
But we are a sector of researchers. So why shy away from that? Jake Pryszlak hosted another interesting session on branding, and the steps we can take to promote ourselves both as collectives and individuals. The short of it echoes a point I made a few years ago. There’s room for a wide range of niches within the industry. Room to grow and room for competition. But that shouldn’t come at the detriment of what we are — researchers through and through. So, should market research be re-branded? No. But perhaps we do need a to re-find our centre.
The Big Issues
If there is a single word I think best sums up what the 2020 IMPACT Conference was, it would be inspiring. Followed closely by challenging and grounded. It’s the keynotes that really elevated these themes — exploring topics that will impact the sector, and yet at the same time, are much larger than the sector.
Extinction Rebellion Strategy Director, Paddy Loughman, opened Day #2 perfectly by exploring the data behind the impending climate and ecology crisis. Of course, this is a topic that impacts us all as people. But it’s also one that gives the insight industry a lot to chew on. What impact do we have on the planet and sustainability? What impact do we have on consumer behaviour? How do we positively affect change in our professional and personal lives?
Ben Page, IPSOS MORI CEO took a similarly broad view — sharing global research that looked at consumer views on sustainability, political outlook, happiness and other “big picture” topics. The conclusion? The world is a weird and wonderful place. The results we expect are not always the ones we get, and predicting the future is hard. But this is both the challenge of and driving force of market research. To know the unknown and to become better at understanding the world we live in; that’s really what we, as an industry, are here to do.
It’s hard to pull all my thoughts on the conference together into a single, coherent narrative. And that’s a testament to just how broad the subject matter is. As much as I’ve covered here, there’s plenty more I haven’t. Privacy and the growing connectedness of both data & devices sparked some thought-provoking panel discussion. A spotlight was shone on emerging methodological approaches, ECG, innovation, creating blended sources of data. Lots. Of. Topics.
But ultimately, I leave inspired. Comfortable in the knowledge that we are a part of an industry that is actively looking to engage in discussions that make it more ethical, more sustainable, more value driven. And this doesn’t come at the detriment of the core research profession. There is still a phenomenal effort that goes into driving greater value to our clients and understanding people. So, until next year, thank you MRS, thank you client-side researchers and thank you agencies.
This article was originally published on the FlexMR Insight Blog and can be accessed here.