OPINION14 December 2016

What do we learn from the 2016 MRS Awards?

Awards Opinion UK

Quadrangle’s John Gambles takes a look at some of the winners and asks what more the awards can do to represent the market research industry today.

This year was the fifth successive year that Quadrangle has sponsored the MRS Awards. 

As that suggests, and as I wrote in my pre-Awards article, we think the awards matter. Not because of who wins or loses, but because of the role they play for the research industry as a whole. There are two aspects to this role:

  • Internally, the awards raise standards, drive competition and – in recognising ‘the best’ – focus our attention on what’s important in the work of the industry.
  • Externally, the awards are, by far, the best platform the industry has to prove its true value to clients. 

So, if I look at the awards through that lens, I suddenly want to ask what we learn from them. What do they tell us – and, particularly, our clients – about this industry?

Over the course of the year, the Market Research Society gives out 44 awards, of which about 25 were presented at the Awards Ceremony last week.  Looking across the year as a whole, I learn that – excluding winners who are individuals and the Conference Awards – three-quarters ( 31 ) of the named winners are agencies and a quarter ( 11 ) clients. That seems out of kilter: I’d expect clients to have more of an equal share of the limelight.

Looking at the 2016 winners, a number of things caught my eye.

The President’s Medal winner, African Voices, blew me away: a genuinely worthy choice in all senses.  As its website says ‘we leverage opportunities created by new digital communications to amplify and elevate the voices of Africans – in all of their diversity – to the levels of development and governance actors.’  To discover this came out of a four-year study at Cambridge University makes it doubly impressive.

There are three papers in particular that I look forward to reading:

  • BBC Global News’ work on engagement, which ‘raises challenging questions about how transparent sponsors’ involvement with content needs to be’, a different angle on what is increasingly a key issue as we enter a Trumpian post-truth era;
  • Firefish and PayPal’s work on New purpose – New Money which ‘demonstrates a brilliant use of research to develop a new international strategy’: we’re doing work in a similar area and I’m always up for a brilliant use of research;
  • Datasmoothie, who I didn’t know before, provides a platform to ‘create beautiful and interactive story-telling… from multiple sources’: our industry needs to be much more human and much less PowerPoint-y and this looks like a decent step in that direction.

I always try to listen to the dog that doesn’t bark and there was a deafening silence for me. Along with technology players of all types, the main source of new competition to the ‘traditional’ research industry (whatever that is) is management consultancies. Much of the best stuff I have read in recent years around insight and the commercial application of research has come from places like McKinsey. Of all the finalists, I only recognised one management consultancy, as a runner-up for the International Research award.

I was surprised by how few commercial stories there appear to be among the 2016 winners – by my count, four – and particularly so at a time when there are strong client pressures to demonstrate the commercial value of research. That said, one commercial story does stand out: the Research Live award to Penguin Random House.

I was equally surprised to realise that, of the 44 awards, just three focus on the impact or research in use. (I was pleased, though, that one of these – the Home Office’s award for its SOCA segmentation – was based on work done by Quadrangle.)  Again, this feels way out of kilter: to my mind, the awards as a whole should be about impact.

I came of age in advertising where the equivalent of the MRS Awards is the Effectiveness Awards run by the IPA.  Since the mid-1980s the IPA has published the winning papers in a hardback book, Advertising Works, which is now at volume 23 featuring 2016’s winners.   

The Effectiveness Awards and Advertising Works are conceived and work together as a set of powerful, convincing stories of the value of advertising for brands, with definitive supporting evidence.  They have created a strong, evidence-based intellectual framework to show how advertising builds brands and drives sales that has been hugely influential within the ad industry and amongst its clients.

The 2016 MRS Awards winners’ papers will be published on the MRS website shortly. In preparing this article, I therefore reviewed the winners from 2015. There are nine 2015 winners’ papers on the site and the best three or four of these approach the standard of the papers in Advertising Works. However, none of them give much data to quantify the impact of research: most of the evidence across all nine is qualitative and/or anecdotal. 

I began this piece by describing why the MRS Awards matter to the research industry.  If they are to have an impact on the industry and its clients beyond the Awards ceremony, we should link them to something that I’d hope we would have the confidence to maybe call Research Works

The challenge wrapped up in this is clear: as an industry, can we provide more and better evidence of research’s impact and commercial value to our clients? I genuinely don’t know the answer to that question but, having asked it, I really do think we need to find out.

John Gambles is chairman of Quadrangle

1 Comment

4 years ago  |  1 like

As Editor of IJMR I find John's analysis of last year's award winning papers to be very interesting, sobering and depressing! For a sector that supposedly succeeds by providing evidence to clients for them to make better decisions, how come we present awards without requiring a similar level of evidence to support award submissions? As an ex judge of the IPA Effectiveness awards, I know they do set a much higher, evidence-based, bar for their main annual awards than for many of the entries for the research sector, and the evidence from the IPA competition over many years of entries forms the IPA dataMINE that has been the subject of very useful analysis by the likes of Les Binet and Peter Field, such as 'Marketing in the Era of Accountability (IPA/Warc 2007). We have nothing in the research sector to rival that. Mores the pity!

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