FEATURE30 December 2020

Preview 2021: Biggest challenges

Brexit Covid-19 Data analytics Features Healthcare People Trends UK

From driving actionable outcomes to keeping up the industry’s commitments to inclusion and handling ongoing uncertainty, our contributors discuss some of the biggest challenges facing market research over the next year.

Deborah Mattinson, founding partner, BritainThinks
Impact of Brexit on the economy.

Shazia Ginai, chief executive, Neuro Insight
I genuinely feel that the industry is still a bit behind the curve when it comes to really understanding the bigger picture. Ad land moves at a different pace with creativity at the forefront, but researchers still see themselves as data gatherers as opposed to storytellers of insight and ultimately gate keepers of human truth. I still have a lot of client contacts who say that agency teams need to get better at driving actionable business outcomes vs just reporting data sets.

Andrew O’Connell, managing director UK, Dynata
Resource. During the last recession, most research agencies kept hold of their staff in the expectation of a short-term dip, but they have not done so to the same extent this time around. Furlough has helped with some staff retention, but those who have made redundancies this year will lose out next year by not being adequately resourced to take advantage of the bounce back.

Stephan Shakespeare, chief executive, YouGov
Budgets in a lot of sectors will be tighter, meaning clients will need to know they are getting value for money. Slow turnaround times were a real issue when reacting to the events of 2020 and this will continue to be a problem for some as we emerge into the flux of a post-Covid-19 world.

There is also the question of GDPR that some see as a barrier but others – including YouGov – see as an opportunity for people to securely generate value from their personal data. The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of being able to target very specific audiences – for instance gym members in Tier 3 areas – to see how they are reacting to new measures. This is not only important right now when it comes to issues of public health but in the longer term for advertisers looking to get in front of bespoke audiences.

Lizzie Gilthorpe, managing director, Differentology
One of the major impacts of the pandemic has been that a lot of very talented people have found themselves out of a job. I’m hopeful that will lead to new agency start-ups, bringing with them a lot of enthusiasm, ideas and entrepreneurship. It would be great to see the industry being shaken up a little, and for new entrants to show some of the big players what ‘agility’ really means. Clearly, however, not everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. I think one of the biggest challenges for the industry in 2021 is to figure out how to get research higher up the agenda, to give those out of a job a fighting chance of finding a new home.

Joe Staton, client strategy director, GfK
Return on investment. As an industry, this is an area where we need to get even smarter in the face of falling levels of investment (see IPA Bellwether for proof positive of year-on-year decline).

Caroline Hawkings, senior vice-president, Savanta
2020 has shown us as an industry how we need to be able to cope with ambiguity and be ready to adapt to ongoing uncertainty.  We have had no choice but move away from what we know, what we trust and where we feel comfortable. There has been lots achieved already with digital methods adopted, fast-tracking of technology within businesses, and creative alternatives to that old favourite – the Christmas office party, but we can’t stop now.  We will have to continue to work out how to progress in ever-evolving circumstances and be able to cope when ‘normality’ doesn’t come when expected or in the form we hoped for.

Ray Poynter, chief research officer, Potentiate
Research mostly needs to be faster, cheaper and easier.

Annie Pettit, research methodologist
Keeping up the momentum on commitments we’ve made to equity, diversity, and inclusion will be a challenge. Our industry made fantastic progress with regards to diversity and equity this year. We can’t settle back into our usual routines until equity is our usual routine. Diversity is better for people and for business. Keep pushing forward!

Sinead Jefferies, founder, Vela
There is a big challenge in terms of what happens to budgets. Where client spending has had to be reined in, will it grow again or will there have to be an adjustment in terms of the overall size of research spending? This will either mean being smarter and more efficient (not necessarily a bad thing) but also the challenges for businesses to continue operating because it’s not financially viable.

Jane Frost, chief executive, MRS
There’s no avoiding the fact that data sets have been disrupted and our sector will be at the centre of unpicking that next year.  Rather than sitting back and thinking ‘woe is me’, we must view it as an exciting opportunity to build on the brilliant innovations of 2020 and shape a sector that is fit for the future.  I know we can rise to the challenge.

Caroline Frankum, chief executive, Kantar Profiles
The biggest challenges we face as we head into 2021 are the ongoing uncertainties from rising geopolitical concerns, the yet unknown impact of a Covid-19 vaccine, record unemployment, and technology advancing faster than ever as the economic realities of the pandemic continue to bite. Many sectors are predicting that they will not be back to 2019 revenues until the beginning of 2022. So, 2021 will need a mindful approach to coping with: shifting restrictions; higher customer expectations; clients needing answers to more questions faster and cheaper; fulfilling diversity and inclusion responsibilities; spotting and tackling remote employee mental health concerns; and balancing business operations with future strategic business thinking.

Jake Steadman, vice-president, customer insight and user research, Deliveroo
I think it’s the uncertainty, caused by both Covid-19 and Brexit. We're all looking at 2021 hoping it’s not going to go the same way as 2020, but the uncertainty makes people risk-averse and kills creativity.

Peter Totman, head of qualitative, Jigsaw
The challenge of political ‘objectivity’ in a job that has always been about understanding subjective truth. I have seen lots of research content this year that is unashamedly ‘partial’, even ‘activist’ in nature. I think this is a problem, especially now in our more polarised and fractious political culture. Maybe we have an empathy problem?  This is a subject I am discussing at MRS conference, Sorry/not sorry for the plug.

Ryan Howard, freelance data science consultant
We need to show that we understand why and when research is commissioned, and why our teams are valuable, then lay out our shopfront accordingly. If we spent half the time speaking about how we facilitate business outcomes as we do waffling on about our nebulous use of AI, it would be a fine start. It’s time to challenge aggressively the pretence that AI is replacing market research, not only because it’s a lazy interpretation, but because it dampens investment, undermines our own value, demoralises our colleagues and deters clever, enthusiastic folk from joining the industry.

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