FEATURE12 March 2013

Shock of the New – an interview with Jane Frost

Features

The MRS Annual Conference kicks off next week with sportsmen, artists, broadcasters and scientists on the agenda. But what does it all mean for research? Avery Dennison’s Edward Appleton asked MRS chief executive Jane Frost to explain all.

This year’s Market Research Society (MRS) Annual Conference has the rather provocative title, Shock of the New. A glance at the agenda reveals a clear focus on areas outside of research: keynote speakers include luminaries from the world of sports, broadcasting, science and the arts. Fascinating stuff – but what exactly is the link to research?

As I won’t be able to attend in person, I linked up with Jane Frost, the CEO of MRS, to better understand the thinking behind the event.

For those of you who don’t know Jane, she’s not a researcher by trade – which makes her view of our industry particularly valuable. Coming from the outside, she has a fresh pair of eyes, and a mindset untainted by decades of MR debate and methodological discourse. She’s a distinguished marketing professional, having worked for Unilever, Shell, the BBC and HM Revenue and Customs. Her work for the latter was recognised with a CBE.

Many thanks to Jane for taking the time to chat with me.

Edward Appleton: Jane, the 2013 MRS Conference is called Shock of the New. It clearly aims to break through traditional boundaries. Can you tell us a bit more about the thinking behind it?
Jane Frost:
The general public – our respondents – don’t play to our rules, clients and commissioners have their own definitions, and there’s new technologies too. All this combines to overturn established silos. The Shock of the New is about what research is for. It has obviously struck a chord as it is engaging record numbers of clients.

EA: You have invited all sorts of keynote speakers that have nothing to do with research – physicists, journalists, sportspeople. What are you hoping to achieve?
JF:
Research is for the curious, it should be like a magpie taking its new techniques from everywhere. The conference really is about curiosity, challenge and the serendipity that helps us decode all those issues we face and inspires us and refreshes us with a wider world view than day-to-day pressures may allow.

EA: More generally: since becoming CEO of MRS, are there things that you have discovered that have surprised you about our industry?
JF:
I am constantly uplifted by the intellectual capacity of those I meet as CEO of MRS, but I’m frequently left wondering why, with all this transformative knowledge at its fingertips, the industry is so self-effacing.

EA: What are the major challenges you feel the research industry faces, and what do you see as ways to address them?
JF:
In a macro economic sense, it must be to stay relevant and absorb new methodologies and techniques, and to widen access in a wider community. There are significant threats from privacy and other regulation. I do not think we have made ourselves important enough to clients and with many other creative industries we would benefit from greater client understanding of the importance of supply chain quality. We need to improve awareness, and part of that is encouraging aspiration to engage clients with the limitless possibilities of good research.

At MRS part of that is showcasing the excellent and reinforcing the need for standards and professionalism. Hence the launch of Fair Data and the Fair Data mark, which helps consumers identify which organisations they can trust with their data.

EA: Looking forward, what things do you think researchers need to do differently in order to succeed?
JF:
I think we need to reduce our internal obsession with silos, methodologies and differences and celebrate the industry as a major contributor to national intellectual capital, to clients’ ability to change and respond and to safeguarding healthy commercial markets and good public policy. That means we should celebrate serendipity and champion curiosity and the consumer.

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I personally find the idea of exploring the boundaries of research exciting – it encourages us to break out of our “researchy” way of thinking, which can easily become inward looking and out-of-touch.

The concept of serendipity – happy fortuitousness as I see it – is an interesting one, and perhaps not something that everyone in MR will feel comfortable with, trained as we are to be analytical and precise. Are we truly in a world of – to quote the economist John Kay – obliquity, where nothing is truly plannable because of incalculability and complexity? If you haven’t read his book on this subject, I can recommend it.

One thing I wholeheartedly agree with is that as researchers we underplay our value in the larger debates. Correcting this imbalance begins with awareness raising, as Jane rightly points out. We urgently need to begin to update a broad array of stakeholders about who we are, and what exactly it is that we researchers do in the 21st Century. Our bean-counter image should be consigned to history.

My personal view is that our future is potentially bright – unlike other industries, we are more neglected than tarnished. However, we definitely need to stop hiding our light under a bushel, and take our destiny and future into our own hands.

The MRS Annual Conference is in London from 19–20 March. More details here. There will be live coverage during the event via Research-live.com, and on Twitter via @researchlive and @tweetmrs using the hashtag #mrslive.

Edward Appleton is senior European insights manager with Avery Dennison in Munich. He has worked in research for over 20 years in both clientside and agency roles. He blogs regularly at researchandreflect.blogspot.nl

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