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Research 2008: The Great Debate (Part 1 of 4)

Part 1 contains (1) Introduction, (2) Welcome to the Great Debate and (3) Ensuring Transformation


The 2008 Market Research Society conference was the third year I have attended, and the one I took the most away from. Entitled Research 2008: The Great Debate, the event’s stated aim was to “change business through better customer understanding”, which seemed to involve a lot of soul-searching about how business leaders perceive the industry.

This review became a lot longer than I initially envisaged, and so I have split it into four sections – morning and afternoon sessions of both days. Apologies in advance for either including too much detail or for misquoting or misattributing any information (my handwriting isn’t the most reliable of things)

Day 1 Session 1: Welcome to the Great Debate

The conference opened with a brief introduction from the organisers, who went over the aims of the conference and explained the electronic handsets on our seats. These had two functions – a voting mechanism and a text facility where questions and comments could be relayed to the speakers. This was a great innovation. The voting tended to be top-level and incidental – though no less interesting for it – but the ability to comment anonymously allowed a level of candidness that really improved the contributions (when they weren’t ignored).

We then went straight into the keynote speech by Allan Leighton, Chairman of the Royal Mail Group. A witty but no-nonsense speech, he boiled research down into 3 r’s that, when used correctly, gives companies a competitive edge. Research provides radar – and when the company radar is pointing the right way, it creates rhythm and it gives the opportunity to listen to the “river”.

He gave the example of their monthly employee satisfaction survey and how problems have been resolved by listening to the people that do the work. For instance, better waterproofs and comfier shoes improved the morale of postmen and women.

There was a short Q&A afterwards but no real “debate”. His profile made Allan a good choice for keynote but I would have liked a bit more insight into the boardroom mechanisms – most of what he was saying was common sense and didn’t really add anything to any debate. A solid start nevertheless.

Day 1 Session 2: Ensuring Transformation

The keynote for this session was delivered by Elizabeth Fagan, Marketing Director at Boots. Again, it was great to have a high-calibre client side speaker, but it would have been nice if she left the company spiel at home.

Despite this, the second half of the talk boiled down to four useful points:

  1. Research needs a solid foundation of data, but only relevant measures should be reported
  2. It should be customer embedded e.g. Boots run a weekly customer panel consisting of 20-25 consumers (either customers or non-customers) and 5 Boots managers
  3. It needs to be integrated into the process i.e. it needs to be meaningful and actionable
  4. Customers should be linked to the business agenda to justify the returns of research to the business. Boots use econometric analysis is used to link customer performance to financial performance e.g. 1 additional point of brand health equates to a 15,000 transaction uplift.

I particularly liked the customer panels. As a way of facilitating (small-scale, admittedly) conversations between the company and the consumer, I think this is a great way of delving into the minds of shoppers to deliver fresh ideas and insights.

The keynote was followed up by Michael Ballard and Jean Wong from The Inside Edge, who, rather than deliver a speech, instead presented a video. I believe this split opinion among the attendees but I for one didn’t mind it. It effectively cut out the middle-man (i.e. the presenter) and took us straight to the source of their findings – the interviews with their business leaders that resulted in benchmarking and measures of best practice.

There were four “universal findings” of things these people didn’t like about research. Sadly, they are all elementary things that any decent researcher would avoid.

  1. Lines that don’t move in tracking
  2. Unimaginative slides
  3. Results that can’t be actioned
  4. “So what” presentations

It was said that in the end, customers want people and not processes. This could be achieved by allowing for mental space and thinking time, incorporating an intelligent point of view – such as a strategy planner, using external agencies to advise on what can be done differently and having a business empathy and commercial understanding. This is easier said that done but it appears to leads back to recruitment and training processes – researchers need to be more than just data monkeys.

Ultimately, the four conclusions were to align research with business goals, to make it real and relevant, to leverage customer understanding and to motivate change by measuring performance. Aside from the latter, which can translate into a business case and make research profitable in itself, these all seem like fairly basic remedies. I don’t have much experience with the boardroom, and if this is their perception of research then I don’t think this will be changing in the near future.

The final paper of the session was by Laurie Manuel of Harris Interactive and Danny Murray of Durex who took us step by step through their large-scale international research project that resulted in Durex moving from a “safer sex” to a “better sex” position. The paper was fairly standard stuff but I was interested to note that Durex had used some of the insights gained in their PR – something that often seems to be overlooked in research.

A Q&A panel discussion closed the session, chaired by Marc Brenner of Research Magazine. There was a recurring theme that research is not an end in its own right and that it only forms part of the insight process.

Responding to a question about how all these extra skills required would affect the price of research, Nick Johnson of Evo Research made the very good point that price should only be a factor when dealing with a commonality – “truth”. Since research is “informed subjectivity”, price should therefore be a secondary consideration.

There was also some interesting discussion about the relationship between client-side and agency researchers. Danny Russell of BSkyB said that the relationship is too one way at the moment and that clients need to enable agencies. Simon Carter of Thomas Cook was more negative towards agencies, saying that they didn’t understand the pain of being client-side and that client-side researchers are needed to translate what the agency provides into what the client wants. Surprisingly, though perhaps because of the amount of clients in the room, the audience agreed. Put to the vote, half said that agencies don’t have the skills necessary for business transformation (1/3 said yes with the rest not sure). I agree with Simon – after all, they may be more knowledgeable on the wider environment but which agencies would know the core issues better than the clients themselves?

The panel discussion was definitely the highlight of this session – it was a shame that other sessions didn’t leave a similar amount of time to talk through the issues. Not having much exposure to the boardroom, I picked up some nuggets but left with a general sense of disappointment over the image of researchers. Clients (such as myself, admittedly), should make more of an effort to maximise the utility that research agencies can offer. To do that, they should pick the best, not the cheapest, and lay out exactly what they expect an agency to contribute.

Go to Part 2 here


3 Responses

  1. MRS Conference = Groundhog Day?

    A colleague protested to me that he was rather disappointed to hear the same old same old at the Market Research Society conference again this year: It was a bit like Groundhog Day. It always seems to be themed around

  2. […] to comment on through first-hand experience. So, to get a more balanced view, do pop here, here, here, here, here or here – you should get something more articulate and […]

  3. Keep it up, bookmarked and referred some mates.

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