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OPINION22 November 2018

Lost for words

News UK

Keen to look like they offer all the cool bits of market research, agencies are at risk of diluting the value of genuine insight and progress by misusing descriptors argues Ben Hogg.

You may or may not have noticed, but fashion plays a huge part in research rhetoric and communications. Words in market research become fashionable, and once they do, every agency, fieldwork supplier and data tech company uses them, whether they know what they mean, or indeed are actually something that they offer. For shame.

Insight used to mean an actionable recommendation based on a deep understanding of a data set. The term ‘market research’ became unfashionable, it was old and stuffy, and focused on the process (research) not the output (insight). 

Clients wanted something new. ‘Insight’ is snappy, it sounds slick and new. Suddenly, market research agencies became insights agencies – even if they weren’t creating insights for their clients and were merely providing data. Research manager was no longer a desirable job title, and heads of insight started to become de rigeur.

More recently, terms like ‘agile', ‘automation', ‘programmatic', ‘artificial intelligence’ and ‘data science’ have all grown to be fashionable for the same reason. I’ve seen ill-conceived survey templates chalked up as automation, and I’ve seen companies claim their barely automated offerings are actually artificial intelligence or machine learning platforms. How many of the thousands of so called ‘agile’ companies are really that? Why are many companies using terms that have little to no relation to their offering? 

It seems crazy that a company would bill something as being automated when a client could see that it’s not, after even a casual glance, let alone a thorough rummage around under the hood.

It’s certainly worrying for companies that do offer actual insight, or agility, or automated services or real artificial intelligence platforms. And anyone that knows me would be right to point out that I work for one of those companies. I’m not doing this as a “hey you! Get off my lawn!”, but because I honestly feel this is detrimental to the industry, and many of us are doing a disservice to our work in using buzzwords as a crutch for business development.

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard about the need to make research sexy, and to be honest, I full body cringe every time I hear it. The argument is, that to get more cut through, to really get the value of research into the boardroom, we need to be as cool as the marketing and advertising industries; as sleek and expensive as management consultants.

In an effort to keep up we seem to have adopted the worst trope of those industries – buzzword bullshit – we have a swear jar in our office that fines people for using these risible clichés.

Over recent years, specialism has become incredibly important in the industry, but our gravitation towards buzzwords means that in some areas specialisms are potentially being perceived as generalisms.

Everyone is agile, automated and AI. This commercial fear of missing out not only means that people are claiming something that they are not, which is obviously a huge marketing no-no, but it also means they are missing out on communicating their actual USP and hiding good work behind false claims. Let’s focus on what we all do well, rather than claiming to do something that we don’t.

My real fear is that with all of the clichés, fake claims and incorrect use of words, our industry is in risk of veering towards being seen as the equivalent of the Donald. Sad!

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