Zoe Dowling

IIeX is only in its second year but Leonard Murphy and the Greenbook team have created a high profile event that draws participants from all spectrums of the insights world; from client-side researchers and insights agencies to sample suppliers and technology providers. The conference exuded a dynamic atmosphere fueled by an overflowing program, an extensive range of exhibitors and approximately 650 attendees.

A number of clear themes emerged from the three days. The majority are familiar but it was interesting to hear all of them covered in one event. Importantly it felt to me that there was less panicked rhetoric in favor of a more balanced discussion on the challenges and opportunities facing insights.

The Continuing Drive to Faster / Cheaper
There has long been a tension between better, faster and cheaper. Olin Hoover (Campbell’s Soup) kicked off the conference discussing their shift to 50% of spend delivering insights within 72 hours, conducted at the same or lower cost. It was, however, good to hear that better, faster and cheaper doesn’t necessarily have to take this shape. In one of the closings sessions, co-presented by Laura Flessner (Pfizer) and Steve August (Revelation Global), the benefit of reusing research was highlighted. They revisited data from a foundational piece of work three times over the course of a year. As they put it, this was ‘irresistible data’ that provided ‘more bang for the buck’.  In a further move to faster and cheaper, I also noticed more talk of DIY research provided by companies such as AYTM, Google Consumer Surveys and Intengo.

An Abundance of Tools and Approaches
There is no question that market research now has a wealth of tools within easy reach, ranging from the traditional, such as surveys and qualitative techniques, to newer capabilities such as social media research, big data, neuroscience, crowdsourcing and gamification.  Each of these is in varying stages of ‘there’. Mobile qualitative, for example, is one of the big winners with in-the-moment capture while on the other hand Big Data, as Eileen Campbell (IMAX) reminded us, still has a sizable gap between its promise and the ability to harvest it.

In the sessions that I attended, mobile made a strong showing with experimentation taking place and a clearer understanding of its potential. John Whitaker (Lowe’s) provided an interesting example of using a mobile panel to track homeowners through spring selling season to understand where they visited and what they had purchased. This enabled Lowe’s to be with their customer in a real, intimate way without having to be present and intrusive.

However, challenges remain. How do we – can we ever – undertake complex designs, such as conjoint, with mobile as the mode of completion? In this vein we need to understand when it does not make sense to transfer to mobile as much as we need to understand when we should be using it.  It is highly likely that in some cases mobile may never be the correct approach. Jan Hofmyer (TNS) concluded his talk on mobile by highlighting the problem of ‘dark markets’. After reminding us about the infamous 1936 Literary Digest and 1948 Gallop presidential polls, he outlined the percentages of people that do not have an internet connected phone. We need to be clear on who we are reaching with mobile and who we are not reaching. I’d also argue that mobile allows us to reach certain groups that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise (one of the key takeaways of my presentation on mobilising tracking) and that there’s a fine balance to navigate.

Gamification is another long discussed tool that was touted in various presentations. Perhaps the most interesting mention came from Josh Shames (Hall & Partners) when thinking about adapting research for the hyper-connected consumer.  In their work with Upfront Analytics, who develop mobile research game apps such as Pryz Manor, they take into account the ‘always-on’ consumer and give them snack-sized tasks to engage with research. I’m not a huge proponent of survey gamification but the idea of a research game is an interesting development and I’ll be curious to follow their work as it progresses.

Slow Innovation
There was much commentary on the slow pace of innovation within the industry. Nobody doubts the extent of new innovations but there is a disparity with what’s available and implementation into standard practice. One thought is that the fear of mistakes is hindering progress. More than one presenter pointed out that it is okay to make mistakes; that they are a normal part of innovation.  In my view this is a valid point. I also wonder whether we seek too much change too quickly. If we look to startup companies beginning to disrupt other industries, it is interesting to see how long they have been in business. For example, consider that Uber is 5 years old, AirBnB 6 years, and Twitter a lofty 8 years. While Sion Agami (P&G) talked about the need to jump in, try new tools/methods/approaches and iterate, he also warned that it is going to take years.

Of course, new often means different and the tension between the unknown of fresh approaches versus the constant of established methods is another element hampering the speed of innovation. Ryan Backer (General Mills) asserted that not only is different good, it is also exciting. We shouldn’t turn our backs on innovations because we are beholden to benchmarks and norms. We need to find a way for the new and the established to work hand-in-hand to really push insights forward.

Client / Agency Relationship
It was interesting to hear discussion around the client / agency relationship within this changing context. A panel discussion dedicated to this brought forth strong views that insights must influence corporate decision making, something that isn’t currently the norm. Earlier in the conference, Anthony Michelini (CitiGroup) suggested we need to be bold in our insights and shape the way we activate brands. During the panel discussion, Claudia Del Lucchese (Mondelez) said that innovation management is essential. There needs to be a change in how insights are brought to life, embedded and activated within the organization. She proposed bringing the decision leaders into the heart of research to circumvent the status quo of static reports that ultimately just die.

The cry for action is palpable. Insights need to be elevated from the research division to the boardroom and tangibly influence business strategy and outcomes. In terms of innovation, small incremental steps would trump grand innovation should the outcome of the insight be clearly actionable.

Interestingly, just as clients are challenging agencies, the reverse is also true. Alex Batchelor (BrainJuicer) opened his presentation saying that we need to find more clients who are brave enough to explore and take chances.  And I assume this includes the understanding that mistakes may be made.

Bridging the Gap
At the end of the day, there is a clear need to bridge the gap between the innovations available and application as part of standard practice as well as to foster a more central role for insights within organisations. To do this, the industry needs fresh talent and it was good to hear conversation around the skillsets required for next generation insights. Simon Chadwick (Cambiar) talked about future researchers being synthesizers, analysts and storytellers while Kumar Mehta (blueocean) also talked about the need for dedicated relationship managers. Whatever way it is viewed, future insights departments won’t be solely comprised of pure researchers but will draw upon a wide spectrum of industries, and in my view not least those from the technology and creative industries.

There was a lot to contemplate as I made my way home at the end of the three days. It feels like the industry is on the cusp of a new era; one that is causing a lot of soul searching but also a lot of excitement. Let’s see what tomorrow brings.

 Zoë Dowling heads up R&D and Offer Innovation for Added Value North America.