In the Land Of Branded Cushions: Reflections Of A Conference Veteran

By Tom Ewing

My first research conference seems like millennia ago. In a way, it was: 1999, in a hotel on the Brighton seafront. One of my then-colleagues, a wise old head, took me aside. “See some of the papers if you want, Tom”, he said, “I’ll be in the bar. That’s where you really learn stuff.”

Almost two decades later, what’s changed? There was plenty of beer at the ESOMAR Congress – it was Germany, after all – and no shortage of gossip. But the action at conferences has moved firmly back onto the stage. Free booze, a good party and a day away from the office aren’t enough anymore, and though my memories of the old style conferences are happy – when I have memories at all – it’s hard to say things haven’t changed for the better.

My colleague, Emily Ozer, just shared her reflections as a conference newbie at her first research event. Inspired, I put together this post from the veteran’s perspective. What’s shifted and what hasn’t?


The Stories: Research conference presentations used to feel like the debrief from hell – graph after graph, bullet point after bullet point, with not much in the way of theatre or human interest, unless you were watching a qual case study. The overall level of presenting skill has improved enormously, and presenters now think about their studies as stories. A lot of this is down to YouTube, specifically TED Talks, which gave the world a template for presenting. Fittingly, a TEDx alumnus, voice coach Caroline Goyder, was there at ESOMAR this year to give tips for how to use visualisation, breathing and stances to create a sense of authority

The Slides: Hand-in-hand with a commitment to storytelling has come an improvement in slideware.  Presenters have largely abandoned their brief fling with Prezi and have returned to Powerpoint promising to make the relationship work this time. They’re succeeding. The basics of presenting – rehearsal, clear visuals, clever design – are spreading, and this year’s Congress saw some slides that were (gasp!) downright attractive. The line between boldness and madness is occasionally thin: I have never seen anything onstage remotely like the McDonalds Malaysia case study told entirely through screenshots from the film Avatar. This individual streak is to be applauded, of course. God forbid we all try and make slides like McKinsey

The Self-Confidence: ESOMAR Congress started with a blockbuster video celebrating the Insights industry, ended with live bagpipes, and in between took every opportunity to celebrate Brilliance – the theme of the whole event. It’s refreshing after a long period when research conferences seemed to happen under a cloud of fear. At our best we are a brilliant industry with a lot to celebrate and a lot of resilience. It was fitting that the prestigious Best Paper Award went to Vanessa Ohshima, weaving together her personal journey battling cancer with applied lessons for insight people hoping to get more out of their career and their passions


The Selling: Research events in general are more commercial than ever, and it was great to hear outgoing ESOMAR President Niels Schiellewaert take a swipe at the pay-to-play end of the events sector, where it’s a toss-up whether any presentation is there on merit. Of course there was selling at ESOMAR too – a thriving exhibition hall and sponsors for everything from the currywurst to the cushions. But ESOMAR is proud of its non-profit status and keeping it independent will be a crucial job for whoever its new leader is

The Stats: As research conferences and researchers have got better at storytelling, they’ve found less need to present much data. The core of any research presentation used to be its charts, but that’s no longer the case. This isn’t always a bad thing – focusing on the insights and what clients did with them is very compelling. But sometimes you get presentations which are a hollow shell of methodology and buzzwords with no actual findings in the middle. Some Congress presentations bucked the trend. Dr Frank Buckler of Success Drivers entertainingly combined theatrics with wonderfully informative charts in his demonstration of how he’d used AI to help SONOS uncover their hidden drivers


The Stresses: Twenty years ago, what were researchers worried about? Pressure on costs. Earning “a seat at the table”. Being actionable. Keeping up with new technology (apparently, you could do surveys on the World Wide Web). And the nagging sense their lunch was being eaten by consultants. The technology has changed, but the hassles haven’t – in some ways the content of research conferences is depressingly stable. Only the faces of the lunch-eaters have changed, from consultants to VC-funded martech start-ups

The Spark: The most important thing of all, at least, hasn’t changed. Research then and now is a business founded on curiosity. Research events are opportunities to show and share that curiosity. The most satisfying presentations are always the ones with the spark of curiosity – so even when Lightspeed’s Jon Puleston presented an entire panel of research disasters and failures, behind every story was someone asking “Why?” or “What if..?”. Sometimes we fumble the answers, or don’t give them to clients in ways they can use. But as long as we keep asking, our industry is indeed brilliant. And unique

 By Tom Ewing, Head of Marketing, System 1