FEATURE1 May 2009

The festival of bright

Research 2009 promised a festival of ideas, innovation and inspiration. Marc Brenner gives a personal view of the conference highlights to see whether it lived up to the promise.

Measuring delegate reaction to a conference on the day can be a tricky job. It often depends on who you’re standing next to. Is it going to be the open-minded researcher who thrives on new ideas and debate, or the curmudgeon whose dislike for the lunch menu clouds his entire day?

Perhaps I was lucky with my seating choices, because I perceived a highly positive buzz throughout the two days. A buzz that has been a little lacking in years past. The conference team did away with an overarching theme and instead opted for a range of equally weighted topics. In effect, this allowed delegates to create their own conference. Conference was designed to be a true reflection of the scale and scope of the research business.

Just for starters
Co-chairs Simon Lidington and Nick Coates opened conference with a realistic evaluation of the economic challenges ahead for researchers. But they also wisely emphasised the importance of innovation, creativity and ideas in helping to overcome those challenges. It was to be a conference that would banish all the old, tired and stale debates regarding research’s path to the boardroom. These debates dominated last year’s conference. Time to move on. The co-chairs gave an introduction free of razzle-dazzle and false promises. Put simply, it was going to be a conference by researchers for researchers.

A few years back, Rebecca Wynberg, chairman of Sadek Wynberg Millward Brown, interviewed broadcaster John Humphrys to great acclaim. It was a battle royale between researcher and cynical journalist. Humphrys gave research a rough ride and Wynberg gave as good as she got.

Wynberg had a tougher time of it with this year’s keynote Professor Robert Winston. There were highly mixed views concerning this session. Some felt that he was the perfect choice: a bold figure outside the world of research who cast a wise light on the methodologies, ethics and responsibilities of the research profession. That was in part true but, I also felt that Winston came across as uncharacteristically muddy in his thinking. Winston, a Labour peer, called for the government to conduct more market research among the electorate, in a bid to better understand and provide fuel for more effective legislation.

All well and good – however there was no acknowledgment from Winston of the cynicism surrounding the government’s research work and of how that might be overcome. That was worth a good five minutes of conversation, I would have thought. Instead he devoted five minutes to a paean to nuclear energy, which struck me as wildly out of place. If a keynote speaker should inspire some and infuriate others, Winston did his job. No two ways about it, Winston was a big fan of research, but I wasn’t convinced that he was a big fan of being on a platform at a research conference talking about it.

Rushing about
I ran four sessions at conference this year, and I’ll leave you to be the judge on how successful they were. I want to highlight a few of the speakers that embraced the format and seemed to make a splash in the room. The Ideas Rush slots offered researchers five minutes and one slide in order to present one idea – be it methodological or commercial. Some of the ideas you would love, some you would hate, but five minutes isn’t a big ask of anyone’s time to give it a spin.

Among other presentations that clearly resonated in the room were Face’s Andrew Needham who, with the aid of balloons and collective lung power, illustrated the power of influentials. BrainJuicer’s Orlando Wood floated the idea that researchers shouldn’t ask respondents about what they do, but ask respondents to quiz other respondents. Kantar’s Tom Ewing gave some particularly illuminating social media insights via The Mighty Tharg, editor of sci-fi comic 2000 AD. I’m not even going to begin to explain that one: you had to be there. Truth’s Andy Dexter gave delegates a dose of tough love with his belief that Recession is Good For You. Honorable mentions also go to Jigsaw’s Peter Totman highly entertaining presentation on The Great Methodology Swindle, Publicis’s Dan O’Donoghue on the social responsibility of research and DVL’s Smith’s David Smith who called for a working party on the effects of social networks on the research profession. Blink and you would have missed these sessions. They were created to be rough and improvisational. After all, not all ideas need twenty minutes backed up by a formal paper.

Journalist Tim Phillips made an assured debut at conference, chairing one of the trickier sessions. The Trendspotting session featured conference favourite Rachel Lawes and Anthony Tasgal. Both claimed that research could be used to predict trends. At first glance you might have thought that, in the spirit of conference as festival, this session represented the mystic’s tent. However, there was no sign of crystal balls as science, sound methodology and technology were employed to support the speakers’ claims. They made a strong case, but ultimately failed to win over the audience who took a vote before and after the presentations. I believe that such sessions from the research ‘fringe’ are vital. If you can’t float a theory with your peers at an industry gathering, then the industry has become far too process-driven and, dare I say, lacking in imagination.

I admit I wasn’t able to spend as long with Roy Langmaid in his Overturning Conventions in Group Work session as I would have liked. When I stepped into the room the delegates were up on their feet, shoeless, and chatting away like there was no tomorrow. They genuinely seemed to be having a blast. Clearing the chairs away and energising delegates after lunch seems to be an experiment well worth pursuing.

Let’s bin the debrief
The first day included a cracking performance from Grey Advertising’s Nick Southgate. He was being interviewed as part of the Room 101 session where research folk could bin a hated element in the research process. Expertly chaired by Dan O’Donoghue, Southgate opted to scrap the traditional research debrief. It was a tour de force. Funny, heartfelt and true. Southgate remembered being taken into his first debrief to a client and being told to “keep his mouth shut” as this was no place for ideas. I was genuinely bemused at why the audience chose to ignore his passionate plea and voted to keep the debrief intact. Still, Southgate, who has made a mark at many research conference, outdid himself. I could have listened to him for the full half-hour.

6 minute, 40 second heroes
Virtual Survey’s Ray Poynter rightly scooped the Best Contribution to Conference last year. He was back again, steering a group of young hopefuls, through a Pecha Kucha session entitled “When I run the market research industry”. Poynter has carved out at a niche at conference where young researchers are given a voice. They didn’t let themselves down. Although Mesh’s Nathan Evans and Monty Cholmeley put on the razzle-dazzle in their presentation, for me InSites Consulting’s Niels Schillewaert was the real star. I can’t remember the last time I saw such an assured conference debut. The man was terrifyingly professional. As far as I was concerned he spoke like someone who was already running the research industry. If he isn’t, he will be.

All the rage
Author, innovator and strategic advisor to government and business Charles Leadbeater kicked off the second day with a keynote presentation that was as wise and measured as it was illuminating. Leadbeater apologised for being a bit groggy after ingesting some “dodgy tuna” the night before. Despite this, he guided delegates through the fast-changing world of social media and creativity. Leadbeater doesn’t hit you over the head with his theories but invites you to stand back with him and observe the way in which society has become a collective of doers. These are people who are no longer satisfied with sitting back and reacting to events. They want to be at the heart of them. They want to be involved in their very creation. Surely this engaged community is the ideal pool from which to draw research respondents? Campbell Keegan’s Sheila Keegan had her concerns. She said that the use of groups in co-creation “encourages stereotypes” and “blocks out information that challenges the group’s thinking”. And with that one of the biggest ding-dongs at conference began. Leadbeater proceeded to attempt to demolish Keegan’s views. And Keegan hit back. Keegan also had to parry thrusts from the floor when one delegate said that the rules, regulations and standards were already in place to guard against her concerns with co-creation. This was real debate. Chairman Nick Coates superbly kept the conversation on track and all credit to Keegan for challenging one of research’s hottest and most attractive issues.

The X Factor
Conference closed with what, on paper, would seem to be a risky enterprise. The Research X Factor was created to unearth a compelling communicator: a champion debriefer. Each entrant had been given an identical set of data regarding a fictional bank and had to provide an entertaining debrief to conference, presenting their recommendations. Conference would then vote on a winner. Would enough agencies enter? Would the presenters deliver on the day? Would the session avoid the toe-curling factor and stand as a memorable contribution? Yes, yes and yes.

The three clientside judges, BSkyB’s Danny Russell, Vodafone’s Matthew Spencer and eBay’s Barbara Langer, all played their parts. Russell made a particularly convincing Simon Cowell, waspishly criticising one big agency for having “bottled it” before the final.

The entrants gave great platform. RDSI’s Andrew Burns withstood much ribbing over his hairstyle and gave a strong account of himself. Opinium’s Dan Foreman, lacked nothing in the bullish confidence department, but the overall winner was Mesh Planning’s Erminia Blackden who, frankly, stormed it. With the aid of a stuffed hare and tortoise Blackden proved the value of strong storytelling, level-headed analysis and compelling presentation style. She is certainly going to be one to watch.

Final thoughts
So, after 48 hours of solid programming, how did this year’s conference measure up? The Research conference has a notoriously chewy brief. Everyone has a firm idea idea of what it should be and invariably, those ideas are all very different. It has to feature commerce, thought-leadership, academic rigour, new thinking and, of course, value.

Within the space of two short days, it has to appeal to a very wide range of constituents, all of whom treasure their various interests and want to see those interests given decent stage space. Overall, this year’s decision to jettison an over-arching theme was, on balance, the right one. It allowed for the promised festival of ideas. A little something for everyone.

There was a general buzz at conference this year. And, for the first time in a while, people were not discussing the lunch arrangements, or the venue, or the diary clashes: they were talking to each other about what they had seen or heard. That’s what a conference should be about.

?Five things you should have seen

  • Nick Southgate’s barnstorming performance on Room 101. A compelling, hilarious, though ultimately unsuccessful justification of why debriefs should be consigned to the dustbin of history.
  • The lively spat between Charles Leadbeater and Sheila Keegan regarding co-creation as a tool in research.
  • Erminia Blackden scooping the X-Factor prize, with a little help from a stuffed hare and tortoise.
  • Nathan Evans and Monty Cholmeley’s double act in the “When I Run the Market Research Industry” session.
  • A roomful of delegates blowing up balloons, under the direction of Andrew Needham, and then being asked to sit on them. All in the name of illustrating the power of the One-Percenters.