MRS Annual Conference: Research 2008

Roderick White

Peter Mouncey

Day one: radars, market research and the flat world
Peter Mouncey
19 March 2008

New beginnings or the same old story?

The 2008 MRS Conference is at a new location and has a new format, with electronic voting throughout, the opportunity to text questions and comments to the session chair and extended debates built into each session.

So, we went straight into a vote on whether market research offers graduates an attractive career, producing a very divided result, suggesting that delegates are perhaps not totally happy bunnies!  

The opening session comprised video vox pops from undergraduates about whether they had considered market research as a career choice (a ‘no!’), and new entrants to the industry describing how and why they choose this path (all much more positive views). This was to pose the question as to whether we had a recruitment crisis in the industry - in my view, probably not.


We went quickly on to the next vote, on that hoary old chestnut about whether research gets sufficient airtime in the boardroom. A not surprisingly large ‘no’ vote here, but this is in line with coverage of this issue at previous conferences over many years.


Enlightenment from the past


Crispin Beale, Director of Customer Insight, Intelligence & Analysis, Royal Mail Group, and the Conference Chair outlined the conference theme: ‘Changing business through better customer understanding’ - or, more simply, make money, reduce costs, and use insight orientation (insight became something of a mantra as the day unfolded).


He then introduced his boss, Alan Leighton, Royal Mail Group Chairman, to give the opening keynote speech. Leighton, in addition to an illustrious career in business, is also author of On Leadership: Practical wisdom from the people who know, the best-selling business book in the UK since it was published last year.


Perhaps, therefore, his ‘strange what you pick up in a hotel library’ theme should not have been a surprise, but the book (yes, a book) in question was an eclectic psychology text, published in 1880. Chapter headings included ‘Miss the Tunnel at the End of the Light’, ‘Listen to the River’, ‘Find the Jewel in the Toad’s Head’, ‘Create the Will and the Rhythm’, ‘Avoid the Funeral of the Living Corpse’, all of which formed the basis for his messages for the research industry.


Leighton sees market research as the ‘radar’ of the business (‘Listen to the River’), and the need to listen to employees and customers. He pointed out that ‘companies don’t die, people kill them’ (or ‘Miss the Tunnel …’), through complacency, complexity, arrogance and/or faulty radar. Some companies ‘sap’ the energy out of their people, rather than ‘zapping’ or energising them.


We should look for the good in people, and the good people in bad companies (‘The Jewel in the Head …’),  identify the ‘influencers’, and when companies loose their way discover what led to previous success. Every great failure, after all, was once a success.


He advised us ‘don’t mate with what you hate’ (‘Avoid the Funeral….’), citing the often negative effect of merging competing organisations, and the importance of making the right choices (for you) in life. This was inspirational stuff, but whilst the principle is probably right, I don’t think we will follow his advice to rename the industry ‘radar’. However ‘radar’ became the buzz word of the day!


Does market research deliver change?


The second session focused on the role of research in transforming businesses. The opening vote on whether clients should be able to get their money back if research doesn’t lead to business change showed that just over half disagreed, but with clients more likely to support that view. If only life, and decision making, were that simple!


However, nearly two-thirds of voters thought that the key factor in a successful research project was a willingness by clients to be open minded. So, it was interesting to then hear Elizabeth Fagan, Marketing Director of Boots UK, outline the customer-focused heritage within the company, and the key role played by the extensive research programme. The Boots brand, she claimed, is perceived as the most trustworthy, expert and knowledgeable brand in the UK.


As with the case of Tesco, Boots can also draw on a wealth of data from its loyalty card programme, and it is the synthesis of data from different sources, the knowledge drawn from it, and the way this is then applied within the business, that leads to success.


Fagan described a business planning process built up from customer insights, the increasing use of econometrics to identify cause and effect, and the impact of Customer Listening Forums held at local level. These comprised 25 customers per forum, a panel of five Boots managers, and a customer-led agenda demonstrated the extent to which customer-centricity was embedded within the company.


Research in a changing world


In comparison, Michael Ballard and Jean Wong, of Inside Edge, ‘abdicated’ their role as speakers by playing a video presentation based on an international survey of business leaders interviewed on their views of market research, with vox pops from some of those interviewed.


There was not much new here in terms of why market research is sometimes not seen to deliver added value, but the recommended necessary skill sets for researchers covered ones that maybe we still don’t pay sufficient attention to: understanding a business, aligning market research to business goals, speaking the language of the business (finance) world, learning from the world of theatre to make effective and imaginative presentations. Or, in short, new skills for a new world.


In contrast to this rather depressing tale, Danny Murray (Durex SSL International) and Lauri Manual (Harris Interactive) echoed Fagan by demonstrating how research can help a business successfully re-focus to meet the needs of a changing world.


The message here was not based on the findings from the Durex Sexual Wellbeing Global Survey, despite them having teased us with selected findings, such as the fact that 53% of respondents would like more experimentation in their sex lives.


Rather, it concerned the importance of collaboration across a multi-disciplined global team, and sharing a common vision where all partners are encouraged to get the best out of each other. The result was a key resource, widely used across the whole business and with insight embedded into the culture.


The key message was to trust partners to look at problems in new ways, handing them a puzzle to solve, rather than a set of instructions to follow. Following a debate on the issues raised in the presentations, 50% of delegates indicated that agencies do no have the business skills to successfully deliver insight.


The world of Web 2.0


Away from the main Ballroom sessions, the early afternoon session in the Plaza Suite focused on the business potential of Web 2.0. Dan O’ Donoghue, Head of Strategic Planning, Publicis Worldwide, described the change from ‘push’ to ‘pull’ in this virtual world, and questioned whether the term ‘market research’ - with all its connotations of control - was the right term to use where the control of data has passed to the respondent.


Are market researchers ready to accept a co-respondent world?  Dan described ‘Generation D’, who don’t accept the Victorian concept of strict boundaries separating work and play. All this presents the need for new creative orientated skills, rather than the traditional technical skills of the research industry.


Mavens, Connectors and Salespeople


Derek Eccleston and Luca Griseri, Harris Interactive, discussed whether the influencer concept of “Mavens”, “Connectors” and “Salespeople” described by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point applied in the world of social networks and how they can combine in the right circumstances to create a ‘WOM epidemic’.


Their research focused on the commercial context of Web 2.0, and while indicating that Gladwell’s concepts do not apply online, they identified a lower level of trust in the Web 2.0 environment compared with offline, confirming the current social, rather than commercial, value to users. The strong ties tend to be offline, the weaker ones online.


While Web 2.0 is, therefore, currently still primarily a social medium, the opportunities are there for commercial usage, if the barriers (such as lower trust) can be overcome. For advertisers, an integrated offline/online strategy to drive WOM is currently the best option.


The world of online gamers


The final presentation, by Ed Bartlett, Publishing Europe, and Graeme Griffiths, TNS Media, described research undertaken to establish the impact of advertising messages within online games.


The findings showed that players felt that advertising - such as on billboards within the game itself - and branded products (such as cars) added to the realism, and such funding made the games more affordable.


The research also demonstrated the value of brand building, where the context was appropriate. Among the main concerns was the possibility of ad breaks, as on TV, or a negative impact on PC performance. The possibility is there for creating a 360 degree scenario where brands are advertised, opportunities are provided to purchase online, and brand image data can be collected.


We learned that gamers are older then you might think - average age of 32, playing 12.5 hours per week (compared with the average for ITV viewership of 5.5 hours) - and had an average annual earnings of £25,000; a potentially rich seam for brand owners to mine.


The debate raised the issue of analysing and making sense of the huge flows of data generated in the Web 2.0 world - ‘learning to sip from the fire hydrant’. Boots could probably provide some suggestions!


Honing business skills


The day’s final main session discussed the skills needed by the research industry in the modern world. In his opening comments, the session chair, Simon Liddington, of The Insight Exchange (and the current MRS Chairman), asked for a vote on whether delegates thought researchers made good “insighters” - many thought they did not. The implication is that insighters are a new breed, possibly the go-betweens, linking market research and the client (weren’t these called client side researchers?).


Developing creative skills


Gregg Fraley, GF Enterprises, reassured us that we could all learn creative skills to improve our problem solving and decision making. Fraley feels this is the most fundamental business skill we can develop. He described six ways to improve creative behaviour:

  • Write down all ideas
  • Have lots of ideas
  • Inject a sense of play into thinking
  • Separate imagination from critical thinking
  • Have some relationship with the arts or nature
  • Make deferring judgement a way of life (make lists, but make decisions later). 

Creativity is essential to being successful in market research, as it leads to innovation and increased relevance.


Connecting with a flat world


Nick Bonney, of Orange, and Jonathan Fletcher, of Illuminas, discussed the role of the researcher in the flat, looser business structures of today’s companies. Command and control cultures have been replaced by those emphasising vision, motivating values, collaboration, leadership and learning organisations - this change plays to researchers strengths, such as curiosity and collaboration, but presents new leadership and cultural challenges.


They argued that fruitful areas for market research are the trend towards customer-centricity, risk management and coherence (including the importance of pulling in one direction and integration). They see a future in teams, not gurus, and where single projects for single clients are a thing of the past.


Recognising the cultural style of the client, and responding accordingly, will be increasingly important. Should researchers be ‘wide eyed children or gnarled old sceptics’? I leave you to judge on that one!


Professional service or manufacturing unit?


The final speaker was Andy Dexter of Truth Consulting. He questioned whether the market research industry was applying an appropriate model for today’s world, and argued that the research industry is closer to a production unit than a professional service in terms of its margins and its business and investment models.


The latter spends a disproportionate amount on people, the former tend to focus on infrastructure and seeking economies of scale and cost saving measures. Professional services are built on a client-to-people model, rather than a client-to-company one. His recommended strategy focused on:

  • Admitting that data is a commodity, while thinking is not
  • Investing in developing knowledge
  • Considering alternative business models (e.g. partnerships)
  • Being prepared to take brave steps. 

Two distinctly different business models should be considered - the professional services added value option, or the cost focused manufacturing alternative. However, the latter delivers less real value to clients. His forecast for the future included a rapid growth in credible consulting agencies.


As a final thought, could someone please tell me what the difference is between market research and insight?


Day one: from burger blame to postal trauma

Roderick White

19 March 2008


From box-tickers to trailblazers


The afternoon in the main hall began with Martin Hayward, of dunnhumby, introducing a session on research in the wider marketing mix. First up, Greg Nugent, of Eurostar, effectively ignored the session title - ‘Research as part of the wider marketing mix’ - with an extended discussion of the position and credibility of research in the boardroom.


On the basis of informal research, he concluded (surprise!) that MR lacked real boardroom credibility - but that this is largely because it is tarred with the marketing brush, and “marketing” are those people who produce either advertising (shock) or gismos (horror).


In principle, he said, company boards do get research, but in practice they fail to realise its potential or value. Too often, it is seen by management as mere box-ticking.


He summarised all this under four main points:  

  • MR is often seen as commissioning results, not research - i.e., simply something to support marketing’s pre-determined agenda.
  • MR comes too much at the end, not the start of the process: it ought to be used to initiate thinking.
  • MR is too often a marketing (and not a business) tool, concerned with history rather than strategy.
  • There is, in fact a missing link between research and strategy.  

He finished by offering the industry two options: firstly, to stay as it is (which is unacceptable, and vulnerable to economic pressures), or to innovate and reinvigorate itself. This would require reframing MR to become the start of the business process, taking a wider angle of view, making no prior assumptions (ban discussion guides!), stop projects that clearly aren’t working and recognizing the growing possibility of, and need for, ‘real-time’ research.


Burger blame


Next, Chris Payne, Brand Doctors, and George Davison, McDonald’s, talked about ‘scapegoat brands’ - brands that fall victim to today’s gathering blame culture, of which McDonald’s, with its media-fuelled links to obesity, is a classic example. Payne’s key mnemonic for the attitude of people and the media to such brands is, enticingly, SEX - Scapegoating Eclipses eXactitude.


There were two key research lessons from the quite successful project to re-establish McDonald’s UK business: firstly, to involve the very willing new CEO deeply in the research process, and, second, to recognise the trap posed by the textbook ‘funnel’ approach to research - if you start with the wider context, you merely allow all negative and hostile views to frame the subsequent discussion of the issues you really wish to cover, and respondents will not believe anything good in what you show them.


McDonald’s used US polling expertise to develop a consumer strategy focused on ‘swing voters’ (mums with kids), leading eventually, with the aid of considerable product development and wider communications, to enhanced trust and improved sales.


What are the lessons for other scapegoats? Direct resistance and denial don’t help; embrace real brand intelligence and ally this to innovative communications thinking; research adaptively, and focus on ‘climate’ not just brand; listen selectively; concentrate on perspective; recognize that brand attitudes are not predictive; and, most importantly, remove the funnel!


Postal trauma


Another troubled brand is the Post Office, hit by declining mail volumes and reduced government business, leading to many (highly unpopular) branch closures and declining staff morale.


Caroline Bates, of the Post Office, and Sophie Spence, of Mother, gave a straightforward account of how research identified the key role of trust in supporting the Post Office’s entry into new markets (such as insurance and telecoms), and the potential strength of trust in the organisation.


This was translated into a multi-media campaign for ‘The People’s Post Office’ - see the commercial below - that both re-motivated staff and enabled the PO to launch new products. Research shows that, after six months, much of this has worked, at least in people’s minds, though their willingness to take up the new products is still lower than it should be.

In the brief panel discussion that followed, Jane Frost, of HM Revenue & Customs, showed how basic, successful groundwork could enable a clientside research team to move on to do more creative research, once its credibility had been established, with examples both from HMRC and the BBC.


The role and value of insight


For the final main session, Simon Liddington, The Insight Exchange, and MRS Chairman, introduced a series of presentations on insight, asking ‘can researchers be insighters?’ The audience thought, by a small margin, that researchers could indeed add this new coinage to their job descriptions.


Gregg Farley, author of Jack’s Notebook and a creativity and innovation consultant,told us that creativity can be taught, or at least enhanced, however uncreative we might believe ourselves to be, and offered six ways to be more creative.


His key observation is that we have 70,000 ideas every day, and should write these down in a notebook, because we’ll forget half of them… sounds like a full-time job. There’s lots of detailed wisdom on his website (


Organisation and insight


In the first of two very detailed and challenging papers, Nick Bonney (Orange) and Jonathan Fletcher (Illuminas) looked at the ways in which changing business structures, especially decentralisation and flatter management, create new needs and challenges for insight management.


Exactly how insight can fit into companies depends very much on the culture and creative style of the company, but an understanding of these is a necessary underpinning for the effective management of insight within the organization.


The key, unsurprisingly, is that MR (= insight) should be looking to produce results that can help drive business change, not just give itself a warm feeling. This requires the right balance of trust and skills, and active collaboration both between clientside researchers and agencies, and across the business disciplines in the team. Teamwork is key.


Industry futures


Andy Dexter, Truth and the (absent in Hong Kong with new baby) Alice Page, of UBS, talked about how the industry could structure itself to produce more, better insight. This involved a valuable analysis of the pressures on the industry (which are not exactly new), and views on how researchers might expect to achieve the necessary trade-offs between time, money and talent, in the face of clientside pressures and the looming menace of procurement (where have we heard that before?).


Dexter argued that the key distinction in all this is between data as a commodity and insight as added value; and that by no means all research agencies are likely to want or be able to deliver insight in such a way as to get properly paid for it - and, indeed, some may not wish to do so. This all sounds a little like the old qual versus quant arguments recycled under new colours, but it was done with considerable panache.


Subsequent discussion emphasised the importance of context in how insight(s) can be regarded within a company. And questions from the floor raised the hoary challenge of intrusion by management consultants on the sacred turf of research insights - a challenge quite brusquely dismissed by Bob Adams, formerly of AMEX, now of Capital Group, one of the panel, who observed that consultants were useless when it came to being creative.