Brands are now fully embracing technology to generate new datasets and avoid Henry Ford’s ‘faster horse’ syndrome, writes Kirsty Fuller.

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Over the last few months a small group of tech-enabled insight companies have come through as outliers, bucking the industry trend by reporting commercial growth, increased customer traction and new client wins. Exciting though that is for most of them, the journey to reach this point has been far from straightforward, covering uncharted territory, diversions and endless ‘go-slows'. And in all likelihood there are still significant challenges to come.

To some extent, that’s just the nature of innovation. But it’s also a function of an industry that for too long has paid lip service to technology. It has showered start-ups with words of admiration and bathed in the reflected glory of ‘tech’ – but ultimately remained resistant to substantive change, and to new, transformative methods and data. The whinnying of Henry Ford’s supposed ‘faster horse’ has been all too audible in our industry discourse. And as long as tech companies have focused on process innovation and efficiency – faster, cheaper, more automated – there has been little likelihood of a paradigm shift.

So what’s changed? In short, Covid-19.

Covid-19 is creating an ‘earthquake moment’, triggering behaviour change that would more usually unfold over a long period of time. This is true of certain aspects of consumer behaviour, but the phenomenon applies equally well to all of us who work in the insight industry. Lockdown and social distancing have forced the pace. The abrupt removal of familiar data sources and methodologies has transformed the client appetite for more foundational innovation in research methods and data types, visibility and accessibility.

Beyond social data there is growing engagement with new sources of behavioural, experiential and passive data, remotely captured in the spaces and places where life naturally occurs. No longer are the new tech offerings playing a bit part in clients’ insight solutions. They are becoming the headline act around which other data sources are oriented. No longer is technology forced to play the faster/cheaper card. Increasingly it is the strategic top trump.

Not only are new types of data enabled through technology-led approaches, so too are new types of analysis. Automated tools uncover patterns and connections which would otherwise lie latent and efficiently identify behavioural sequences, contextual triggers, linguistic patterns and emotional engagement.

But even with this digital toolkit, understanding the strategic value of the data requires a very special breed of people; people who combine the intellectual curiosity of the qualitative explorer with the disciplined intelligence of the numerate navigator. The misconception that the quality and intelligence of the people in tech insight companies matter less than in traditional agencies is finally being laid to rest, and with it the mantra of technology being solely about cost reduction.

That brings us to consider the key features of the brand and agency early adopters. They value the technology and the people who harness its value. They understand that Rome wasn’t built in a day. They are on a journey with their tech partners, investing in experimentation along the way. They are excited about the new breeds of data and the opportunity areas these are already opening up. Above all else, they want to shape the future. They recognise that they can use technology to drive far more than just process change. They are embracing genuine innovation, and that requires deeper, shared commitment and a lot more gumption. The proposition is no longer as safe, no longer predicated on doing essentially the same thing but faster. Instead it is about doing things fundamentally differently to deliver greater, sustainable customer value.

Of course, we can’t ignore the fact that good technology is expensive to build, requires ongoing investment and is disruptive to current modi operandi. This makes integration a significant challenge, especially for agencies. It demands they transition from a revenue acquisition mindset to a digital transformation one; from a revenue protection mindset to one of business future-proofing.

These shifts are easy to articulate but incredibly hard to implement. The price of hesitancy, on the other hand, is high. Waiting in the wings are the management consultancies and the data and technology companies, with deep pockets and ambitions to annex sections of the market research industry to their big data territory. There is a strategic imperative for the research industry to think less in terms of the ‘new normal’ (most overused phrase of the moment) and more in terms of an exciting ‘next.’ How many are up for the challenge?

Kirsty Fuller is chief executive of Big Sofa Technologies