OPINION12 February 2010

Has anyone seen the future of research?


The future of the research industry is still up for grabs, if yesterday’s Fast Forward London event is anything to go by.

There seems to be a consensus that we are at a time of great change in the MR industry. There’s less agreement about what that change means or how we should respond. In an upstairs room at London’s Science Museum yesterday, researchers gathered to try to get their heads around what the future holds.

As well as agency representatives, the crowd included an impressive selection of clientside insight bosses from firms such as MTV, Yahoo, Oxfam and the COI.

Diane Hessan of Communispace, which hosted the Fast Forward London event together with BrainJuicer and OTX, said: “We’re rebelling against conferences where you hear the same thing all the time.”

Most of the points that went on to be made by the day’s speakers were fairly familiar – what made this event a bit different was the focus on interactivity and discussion, which John Kearon of BrainJuicer was particularly keen to promote in order to prove his point about us all being ‘social animals’.

“We think much less than we think we think,” said Kearon, “and we are much more influenced by other people than we would like to think”.

Marketing and market research, with their focus on the individual, have been slow to tap into this, Kearon argued. He went on to set out the various weird directions that the move from ‘me’ to ‘we’ research could take us in – instructing ethnography participants to report on other people’s behaviour rather than their own (a technique used to study drinking culture in Newcastle) and setting up ‘predictive markets’ to get people to ‘buy shares’ in ideas they think will be successful, rather than choosing the ones that they personally like best.

BrainJuicer’s latest scheme is the creation of ‘DigiViduals’ – artificial characters with a Twitter profile and blog (complete with creepy profile picture), who are designed to represent a particular segment of consumers in a particular place. Their tweets are based on the tweets of others who fit their profile, and BrainJuicer is planning what it describes as a ‘soap opera’ involving these artificial characters. It’s an intriguing idea, although for the moment, test bot Jimmmo’s tweets are not always entirely coherent.

Graham Saxton and Ian Wright of OTX were not afraid to present a downbeat view of where the MR industry has got itself, considering they’ve just taken a big step toward the research establishment with OTX’s acquisition by Ipsos.

Saxton quoted some rather sad stats from a Boston Consulting Group survey suggesting that MR is not very highly regarded by many blue chip clients, and that few are really putting it to use strategically. “We’ve got really good at processes… rather than really good at ideas,” he said.

Not great news. So can we trust in technology to save us? Yes and no, said Saxton’s colleague Ian Wright. We can now collect vast amounts of data very quickly, he said, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a good idea. Wright urged researchers to consider carefully when speed is required and when it isn’t, whether a ‘torrent’ of data is useful, or whether we should move to a ‘drip’ approach.

The idea that top executives would rather have ‘fast’ than ‘perfect’ was one of the trends thrown up for discussion by Diane Hessan, alongside the idea that “engagement will trump sample size” in the future, and that we should never underestimate the persuasive power of “n=1”.

It fell to Federico Trovato of Philips to provide the clientside view, and pin down what these trends mean in practice. His experience, he said, is of an organisation that made the mistake of thinking it was a technology company, and is in the process of building itself around consumer understanding instead. Trovato was candid about his company: “We’re not best in class, not even for marketing,” he said. But he’s determined that consumer understanding can get them there.

“In the future research will have to stand for change,” Trovato said. “It can’t just validate.”

But in order to stand for change, research itself has to change – and that means the people doing it have to change. One of Trovato’s biggest priorities when he joined the firm two years ago was to get the right people in (and out). So what sort of people is he looking to hire? “We are looking for leadership capabilities and consultancy capabilities,” he said. “The capability of influencing your peers and management [when they’re] making decisions.”

If you’ve got those capabilities, it looks like the future remains up for grabs.