FEATURE12 April 2021

Carlsberg, Aviva and M&C Saatchi on how to manage the multiverse

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A recent report by the MRS Delphi Group claimed we are in the grip of an ‘infodemic’ and asked how research can help businesses and society make decisions that are transformative, fair and more representative. Three senior leaders from Aviva, Carlsberg and M&C Saatchi respond.

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In his introduction to 'Managing the Multiverse: Understanding a world in transformation', Colin Strong, lead author and the chair of MRS Delphi Group, wrote that the research industry ‘can lead a much broader agenda for society where we have a role in bringing sense to data about us so we can find this shared understanding and prevent a slide into conflict and polarisation'. 

Senior leaders from Aviva, Carlsberg and M&C Saatchi were invited to respond to the report.

Response from Rhea Fox, head of marketing, general insurance, Aviva

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This report has big repercussions for our industry. In a multiverse of fake news, hypermedia, political and social polarisation and ‘alternative facts’ where does that leave you as an industry built on the notion of objective truth?

If you’re a clientside insight professional unable to present a credible, concise and robust understanding of the issues impacting your market / customers then the honest answer is probably in need of some other way to pay the bills.

Industry needs some degree of objective truth on which to make decisions, otherwise we might as well accept that there is no objective data worth basing decisions on. We may as well go with the hunches or lived experience of our CEOs, MD and CFOs. Eeek. With that in mind, here are a few thoughts on how best we might better respect the multiverse and practically apply our new knowledge.

Remember our training. We all know by our learning and experience that the way in which data is collected must be accurate and sensitive. We know that it must be given context in both the analysis and the reporting. The demands of industry (perhaps driven by the cult of agile) for faster ‘insight’ has led to a proliferation of fast rep-level studies, or micro single-issue surveys which rarely drive significantly nuanced insight or represent niche consumer groups. They are the bluntest of instruments. Same with very superficial analysis. How many times have you found a commercial problem that actually started years ago but was masked by flattering scorecards or revenue results? We should be proud to call out that an increasingly fragmented consumer landscape requires increasing intelligence to understand and navigate.

Brutal relevance. When representing diverse or niche views, it’s important to contextualise them. It’s very easy to dismiss outlier views of say 5% of a market, less so when it’s hammered home that audience is likely to grow to 15% in the next 10 years, or that this group is threetimes as influential or wealthy than average. Visualisations and projections are our friends here.

Build diversity. Not just of teams. We know the industry has a fairly narrow feeder pool in terms of socio-demographics and that’s something we all need to work to broaden. We’re largely unrepresentative in terms of earnings, education or region. But we’re also lacking diversity of opinion. We’re largely not representative there either. More curiosity is key and moving out of our comfort zones. If you’re not regularly reading the two most popular news sources in the UK – that’s the Sun and the Mail – and immersing yourself in mainstream social media which doesn’t fit your worldview you’re part of a different diversity problem. And unlikely to offer a sufficiently nuanced view of the multiverse in your work.

Response from Nick Rich, vice-president, insights & analytics, Carlsberg Group

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What is this transformation you speak of? Are things changing anew or are long established trends simply accelerating? Is our world of continuous, exponential data generation making our role easier or simply faster?

One could easily argue that it is ‘all of the above’. T’was ever thus.

Good businesses have always recognised the sum of its parts can never be greater than the whole. A good business knows what it exists for, what purpose it serves in the life customers and it knows its current destination, even if it does not know exactly how to get there right now.

The same should be said of society and governments. That we know our chosen destination and democracy delivers a consensus on how we approach that journey. This notion appears to be absent from discourse or maybe even be facing extinction.

Our social narratives are disrupted. Challenges we thought we had begun to address for the betterment of our society are no more resolved now than when they were first identified generations ago. The world outside appears chaotic but I would argue that our places of work are not. And there are some clear reasons why.

Our sources, methods and practices have changed significantly over a generation and we are asked to solve a much wider range of business problems and inject consumer and market knowledge across a much wider range of functions and stakeholders.

We’re handling the rise of ‘big data’ and delivered ‘single versions of the truth’ and we’re still striving to be involved at the start of projects as opposed to being called in midway to bring reason and calm to another swirl of indecision. Within those good businesses, we are there identifying in which direction growth and success can be found. We are there continuously checking whether we’re still ontrack and the engines of growth are all working in unison. And we are there to help the business navigate any detours, like a pandemic, for example.

Good insights teams have always known there is rarely a true single version of the truth but we also know that the organisation needs to move forward to reach its goal. So, our chosen version of the truth is good enough. We can live with the ambiguity as long as we know we are helping the organisation to progress.

What good insights teams have offered business, is perhaps, what we can offer the wider world at this time. A former US secretary of state once rather clumsily opined on ‘knowns and unknowns’. Insights teams are excellent at solving for both these. We are excellent at facts, lateral thinking, asking questions, hypothesising or measuring to solve the former. And we have superpowers to tackle the ‘unknowns’ through living curiosity, discovery and executing plain old ‘research’ of the world around us. No other business function is as capable at this than we are.

We are excellent at seeing through the chaos to define the certainties, the foundational knowledge that is needed, the truth of business performance today and what our colleagues ‘should know’ in the present. And we are world-class at uncovering the foresights, the growth opportunities of tomorrow and what our colleagues ‘need to know’ for the future.

And then there lies only one more challenge to overcome. And that is to be heard. We are still striving for success in our own organisations, to be at all the right tables, top or otherwise, at the right time.

Our industry must also push even harder to achieve the same in society at large and the wider world. We have an opportunity to bring knowledge of the certainties back to the conversation and shine light on what is yet to come. And no industry is as capable of this as we are.

Response from Jared Shurin, strategy director, M&C Saatchi

Ten minutes on social media alone is enough to demonstrate that we are awash in passionate incompatibilities. The existence of a ‘multiverse of understanding’ comes as no surprise.

As the report notes, despite the vast amount of information to hand, reality itself is proving increasingly elusive. Sixty years ago, Daniel Boorstin wrote that the world was experiencing ‘a shift in common experience from an emphasis on ‘truth’ to an emphasis on ‘credibility’.’ These words feel no less accurate today, in a world where it often seems like volume trumps veracity.

What is new is the relentless, intense hammering that the very concept of the truth has received. We have all borne witness to an assault on truth, as well as the institutions tasked with uncovering, sharing, and protecting it. As the report argues, the very concept of ‘expertise’ has come under fire, a turn of events that disparages the value of truth, and simultaneously undermines those who seek it.

This report is another potent reminder that we need to be both in the world and of it. Clients consult with agencies for our perspective. Therefore, it remains both a moral and a business requirement that we have access to a diversity of opinions and of thought. If there is no range of lived experience within an agency, how can it claim to understand the world outside of it?

Part of the value agencies add is insight: audience understanding, research, parsing the data. Simply put, we help make the very decisions at the core of this report. The quality of our work depends on having meaningful access to diverse audiences and data; contexts and trends.

Accordingly, we are in possession of more insight and more data than many others, either directly or through our own partners. We act, more often than not, as gatekeepers to the multiverse. With that role, and this report, in mind, there are certain principles to which agencies should adhere. First, in the words of Haroro Ingram, we should ’do no harm; do no favours’.

As highlighted in the report, there are ‘bad actors at play here’.

Misinformation and disinformation – the accidental and deliberate transmission of false information – further cloud the landscape. Rumours and lies make it more difficult not only to find a, or ‘the’, truth, but also discourage belief that such a thing is even possible.

Our challenge is not only to account for all meaningful worldviews, but to do so in a way that avoids giving credence to falsehoods or lending credibility to unfounded rumours. Secondly, although we should respect a broad multiplicity of worldviews, there are some that remain objectively harmful to society – the distinction, for example, between those who lack confidence in vaccines, and the dedicated and coordinated anti-vaxx movement.

It would be irresponsible, and dangerous, to grant the dignity of equivalence to dangerous, deliberately false views. Finally, our work, and that of our clients, exists in a greater social and cultural context. We need to bolster those parts of society that protect the truth, and not undermine them for short-term gain. We should not add to the chaos or the noise; creating artificial problems simply for the sake of selling the solution. We can support a diversity of views without undermining trust or contributing to the increasing fragmentation of society.

As Jane Frost says in the introduction, our clients ‘can be islands of stability in a disrupted and cacophonous world’. The great problems of our era – from climate change to community cohesion – are challenges of persuasion as well as policy.

Agencies play an essential role in supporting our business, government and third sector clients in shifting the attitudes and behaviours required to achieve positive change. Our clients look to us to tell them what is meaningful, what is useful, and – yes – what is true. That is a responsibility that cannot be taken lightly.

Download the report

You can download the free report ‘Managing the Multiverse’ here.