Reviewing MRS Live Conference 16th March 2016

06 Apr 2016 | Research & Business Knowledge

The ICG sent two intrepid reporters to the 2016 MRS Conference.  Ed Newton reviews the first day of the conference, and Karen Cooper reivews day two – read more below…

Review of Day One:  Ed Newton

In spite of the extensive road works surrounding the Grange Tower Bridge Hotel the attendance at the first session was surprisingly good.  Jane Frost kicked off the conference with a five-minute summary outlining what was in store.  

Gavin Patterson, chief executive of BT then described his role and challenges.  BT was the first telephone company in the world originating in the 19th century.  Maintaining growth has required that innovation stays at the centre of all they do.  Information is key to fuelling innovation and BTs success has been to being able to unscramble the "signal from the noise".  Quoting Gavin "Our survival has been the ability for the company to continuously renew itself, we have a culture that can reinvent itself".  BT's continued success have the engineers and scientists who continue to develop and implement world beating communication systems within a successful management structure.

The next session was from Stan Sthanunathan, Senior Vice President, consumer and market insights, Unilever.  His presentation was in two parts and commenced with Stan outlining a possible study on ice cream.  Traditionally a brief would be written, fieldwork undertaken and by the time of the presentation was ready most of the staff had moved on.  Nowadays you can run a search via Google which will tell you what people are looking for, such as flavours and recipes liked, viewing habits from Youtube, demographics from social media.  Within a few hours a detailed presentation can be produced.  From this example Stan then went on to outline our future:

  • Nerds will rule
  • Technology is the tail that wags the dog
  • Boutiques will flourish
  • Integrators (those who can link different sources of information seamlessly) will emerge
  • Scale becomes a liability going forward
  • Quantified self – wearables that become a source of primary data about people
  • Artificial intelligence will flourish
  • Data bases that are interactive "I have the answers what’s your question"
  • Briefs are a thing of the past
  • Insights delivered in hours not in weeks

His conclusion was that if we do not change to meet these challenges then our companies will die.  The second part of his presentation was outlining the initiative, originally proposed in 2015 by Pol Polman, Unilever chairman, and the actions that Unilever Is undertaking to give more back to the world.  Along this theme "We have a unique opportunity to change the world" and to do this we are launching Paragon which will be a voluntary group of Governments, NGO’s, Academia, Research and Client companies.  

Migration: Facts, Fallacies and Facebook Posts

To some extent the findings of this collection of talks around various data sources was primarily reassuring and suggested that the end of world as predicted by the Daily Mail is not imminent.  In France the anti Muslim groups state that Islam is incompatible with the secular society.  In Germany there is Pegida which makes a lot of noise exaggerating certain characteristics such as sexual depravity. In the UK it is often stated that Muslims do not integrate, whereas other groups have done so successfully.  The evidence being collected suggest that:

  • Birth rates quickly stabilise to the national norm
  • Trend to similar educational achievement of UK standards
  • Increasing acceptance of homosexuality, birth control and female emancipation
  • Express pride in being British

The trends all point to social harmony, although there was no mention as to the effect if any of the violent minority in Paris. 

Richard Osman

Towards the end of the first day we were entertained by Richard Osman.  Famous for presenting 'Pointless' he also is a successful producer of several shows, such as Deal or No Deal and Ready Steady Cook.  His message was very simple:  

  • Programme scheduling will disappear, viewing will be on demand at a time when viewers want to watch it
  • Programmes such as Pointless and Country File will disappear, although they get good audiences they are an aging audience and therefor they will not attract the advertising revenue
  • Ratings and Audience Appreciation is the key measure.   He always finds them very accurate and predictive of whether a show will be successful or not

A confessed Geek he is always fascinated by ratings and audience appreciation measures.  He finds them incredibly accurate in terms of predicting the long term success of a show.  It is reassuring that he relies so heavily on the data, he believes them to be very accurate.

Meet The Author John Yorke

Story telling has been a popular topic in communications and research over the last few years.  To this end wrapping a story about any presentation will enhance understanding and impact. He has spent a lot of time analysing stories, he used to take a stop watch to the cinema timing the sequence of scenes and seeing what happened next and when.  "The only thing that matters is your curiosity and anticipation of what of what happens next.  Everything is driven by curiosity."

The contents of most stories involves:

  • A problem being solved
  • A quest- to solve the problem
  • A crisis
  • A resolution – often its love or marriage

Stories have been successfully applied to political campaigning:

  • Homes for heroes – Attlee
  • New Labour –  Blair
  • Long term economic plan – Cameron

Applying these lessons to our own proposals and presentations is obviously worthwhile, but nonetheless a challenge; certainly worth considering in our planning. 

This note covers just five of the presentations- attempting to remember more would be a challenge.  The topics were varied and covered most disciplines within MR; there is something here  for everybody.

Review of Day Two by Karen Cooper

The inspiration for this piece came at the very end of this year's MRS conference during the closing speech by Bill Bryson.  Talking about the way he writes, he noted that he needs space between observing  something and writing about it, and taking notes at the time spoils the experience . He finds that after a few days not thinking about it, the strongest memories float to the surface.  Well, it's been a few days (actually just over a week) and I’m trying this method out.

So what memories of that action-packed day float up for me?

I have to start with the two keynote interviews topping and tailing the day.  We were treated to Baroness Rabbi Julia Neuberger at the start and Bill Bryson at the end.  Both spoke engagingly about their lives and projects and I took out some relevant learning despite very different day jobs. #MRSLive twitter feed confirmed it wasn’t just me who felt inspired – so did much of the conference  twitterati.   (Though, I was quite frightened by Bill's joke about the next book he may write: 'Living with President Trump').

Three research-related themes have stuck in my head, and each came up more than once during the day.  The first was data, or as Magnus Willis referred to it, 'Digital Data Drama'.  I remember more about comments about the sheer volume, such as the amount of data in the world doubles daily, or Twitter's Jake Steadman stat about 1.2bn tweets on opening weekend of Star Wars last year, than tips on how to make sense of it.  Though @tomewing and Jess Owens (@hautepop) talked about the #IPASocialworks initiative to address this.  I wondered why it was the ad industry, not the research industry championing this, and this was echoed by several who said social media insight was not owned by the insight team client or agency side.  That's surely going to be an own goal?

The second theme was that research is just directional and we shouldn’t get too hung up on the detail. 'Don’t ever use two decimal points' said Annie Petit (@lovestats) in her impassioned speech about the future of market research (Day 1).  This was ever thus IMO, but even more pertinent with  the data deluge – we need to be happy with less precision.

Finally there was a theme about  the gap between what people say and what they do.  Unilever’s Marie Wolfe told us we are built to forget, so why do we ask and rely on people to remember things?

Technology is leading the way forward for better observational and behaviouaral  research such as Google glasses designed for 'auto-ethnography'. A very entertaining talk 'Sex by Numbers' author, Professor David Spiegelhalter confirmed the problem of asking people to remember things.  In trying to measure the average lifetime sexual partners, men claimed to have far higher sexual partners than women – surprised?  Either there is a lot of men-on-men action, or asking them isn’t so reliable.  Not sure the answer is observational though!

So I hope Bill’s method has worked and I’ve managed to  give you a flavour of MRS Conference Day Two (far less eloquently than Mr Bryson of course!).

A great thought-provoking and inspiring day. Thank you #MRSlive.