OPINION7 April 2021

Time for real change: research post-Covid-19

Covid-19 Innovations Opinion

Covid-19 has changed the world, but Shazia Ginai argues there is much the research industry needs to do to be truly innovative.

Pink post-it note with 'embrace change' written on it

We have gone past the one-year anniversary of when work teams were sent home from the office, supermarket shelves were empty, and people were scouring the internet for reusable fabric face masks in a range of colours.

It has been tough for all sectors – for the market research industry the impact of the pandemic has been tough for a multitude of reasons. Firstly, we have been at the mercy of clients’ budgets and we’ve experienced more cuts than ever before.

Secondly, our jobs are centred around understanding consumers and a large chunk of that understanding comes from speaking to them, and observing their behaviour, face-to-face. During the three national lockdowns, this hasn’t been able to happen.

Despite this, there have been several positive impacts that have come from the pandemic. The magnitude of the shakeup has forced researchers to shift and re-think their approach to research. Clients have started to re-think the questions they are asking researchers to answer because consumer understanding has never been more important.

We’ve seen the rise of social movements reacting and responding to the atrocities against women and ethnic minorities. This has added to a need and desire for brands to better understand people and organisations.

With all of this in mind, we all tell ourselves the same thing – “we need to change our patterns of thinking” and “we need to get really innovative”. This is not the first time these words have been uttered but now, it is time for less talk, more action.

The industry has been moving along using traditional methodologies in the quant and qual space for a long time. There are increasingly more small agencies trying to cut through with new platforms and tech that enable understanding of deeper layers of the human psyche but there is still a knowledge gap. I recently attended a research forum where several researchers were not aware of what implicit association testing is.

Given the broader conversation about unconscious bias, and the fact that implicit testing was created in the 90s, this made me very frustrated. The terms ‘System 1’ and ‘System 2’ are thrown around with no real understanding of the meaning of these brain processes.

We are an industry that is supposed to be ahead of the curve, looking at real time consumer behaviour and predicting the future for brands. But there is a lot of work to be done around the discipline of research and insight. If we can really achieve the innovation we speak of, research will become the necessity we all know as suppliers that it needs to be.

So why does the culture of talking about change not always result in change happening? Firstly, clients and agencies can be quite risk averse. Researchers work with data. We analyse data and understand risks and rewards. Change involves some degree of risk and a lot of researchers I meet are inherently risk averse. Then on the client side, many gravitate towards what they know, the tried and tested methods.

It’s human nature to fall back on what provides security, and when you change things like ongoing trackers, any historical data used in the same way can lose some of its relevance. We must start taking calculated risks.

We need to be storytellers, not just data collectors. The brain is less interested in brands and numbers and far more interested in stories. Our subconscious makes meaning of life and sense of the world around us through narrative. Stories create our life context. Researchers often analyse data and draw a quick conclusion. We need more curiosity and questioning of the data points and then translation into a compelling, actionable narrative.

I really do believe that even when we have organisations where people are curious, if the group of individuals is not diverse then the depth of interrogation will never be as strong as it could be. We need more diversity, particularly at the top. Diversity results in different lived experiences and ways of thinking being involved in conversations. By diversifying organisations, we are engaging with people who will challenge our bias, and we will challenge theirs.

Finally, there is space for us all to win. The industry is dominated by a few big players and this monopolises the market. The same companies are reliant on their traditional methodologies as being the backbone of their revenue. The smaller agencies with the entrepreneurial spirit and new techniques have to scream to be heard.

I believe there is space for all of us to win and that each methodology has its place. There are enough of us doing things in different ways for collaboration and support to occur. I recommend speakers for events, agency partners for clients where we are not the best fit and also look for ways to collaborate on white papers so the microphone can be shared. I am a woman of colour so I know how it feels when the microphone is always in the hands of leaders who do not look like me. I believe we as leaders have a role to play in diversifying the face of our industry.

Shazia Ginai is chief executive officer at Neuro-Insight in the UK.