FEATURE4 January 2023

Turning tactical necessity into strategic direction: insight can lead the way

Features Insight Alchemy

Research Live talks with Mark Thorpe, director, at Truth, about the session he will be chairing in March at Insight Alchemy 2023, the MRS Annual Conference.

Mark Thorpe cropped

Insight Alchemy 2023 will be, above all, a chance to clarify your thinking on the urgent issues we’re all facing this year. We want each session, each debate, to come with clear recommendations for what you can do “now, next and later” to cement the value of insight, defend industry standards and help you team weather the uncertain economic and social climate.

But even the alchemy or turning survival into success brings risks. And the big one is that in addressing organisations’ immediate tactical needs, we draw attention away from the big strategic questions – whether that’s in how we go about insight, or the types of questions we position it to address.

For Mark Thorpe, director of Truth and chair our Insight Alchemy’s strategy session, there’s actually a vivid line between the two. “Covid really shifted the way we think about change in society, and in the industry,” Thorpe says. “When the pandemic hit, it forced people into more strategic thinking. Just the extreme nature of the thing meant we couldn’t just down tools and wait and see how things would come back to normal.”

That’s not to say we should be complacent. Far from it. “With the more immediate crises, there’s a risk we get distracted,” he continues. “On Ukraine or inflation, for example, there’s a real danger in just ‘hanging on’ to see what happens. That leaves you hostage to the future. And it means when we get there – when the new normal makes itself apparent – we’ve lost purpose or relevance. 2008 taught us that: you need to plan for what next.”

That means thinking strategically about what the other side looks like – and preparing for it, even in the midst of a crunch – is key. “If we resort of a ‘survival mentality’ – retreat into our caves until the storm passes – we’re going to struggle later on,” Thorpe stresses. “The world changes when you have a global recession – or when the fundamentals of geopolitics change, be that war or mass migrations.”

The strategy session at Insight Alchemy 2023 will explore positive ways of looking at that. It will be a call to action to think beyond the moment, to be the people who help us all understand what this means and what we can be doing about it. “And that reinforces the role of the MRS, too,” Thorpe concludes. “The industry can be a leader, showing the way, not just a follower hoping to hold onto budgets or subsist on old projects. We need to be thinking now about what ‘good’ looks like through these testing times – and beyond.”

Research Live: What aspect of the research industry right now excites you?

Colin Strong: The recognition that no single approach can deliver the kinds of insight needed to make real commercial change. The industry has tended to promote certain methods at the expense of a rounder and deeper approach. We have seen this with the pushing of ethnography 20 or so years ago. Semiotics has had its time in the spotlight. So too have panels, communities, and online research.  Behavioural economics  has also been pushed as the science providing real answers. However, more agencies are now positioning themselves as method agnostic and thinking more about strategic solutions than just execution.

Give us one prediction for the start of 2023 – one thing you think is going to happen in the research industry this year?

That’s a really difficult one as so much is in flux. Agencies will be under increasing pressure to provide insights that feed strategy in a concise, meaningful, and energising form. It’s not about telling the story and strategy on a page – trying to do that is actually counter-productive and works better as an ideal than a reality. But researchers will need to tell stories that directly inform strategy. Clients will be much less patient with lots of ‘stuff’ and little real insight that has a strong connection to commercial strategy.

What’s the most compelling impact you’ve seen from research during 2022?

I don’t think you can point to a single event. Research is constantly being used to make a difference, whether socially or economically. There are a group of researchers who are now more willing to stand up for what they believe in. We see this clearly in relation to D&I. We need more bravery in the industry; more people who are prepared to stand up for what they believe in and to push for change.

In uncertain times, what one piece of advice would you offer younger research professionals?

Take every opportunity to learn as much as possible. Work hard and remember that the effort you put in during the early parts of your career will pay dividends later on. Above all else, be humble. You are fortunate to have a voice but that doesn’t mean you have all the answers. Be as embracing and open about what you don’t know as what with what you do.

Find out more about Insight Alchemy 2023 - programme and headline speakers