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The “Synergist”: Big Data + Social Science = The Future of MR



By Kevin Lonnie

When I was a young pup starting out in market research, there was an ongoing debate between two industry leaders, Bill Neal and Harry O’Neil.  The respectful discussion between the two gentlemen concerned whether market research was more of a science or an art.  Mr. Neil argued for the former and Mr. O’Neil for the latter.

I am reminded of those debates when I look at the current landscape and try to put my head around the potential synergy of customer co-creation and Big Data.

Big Data, to me, represents the science (left brain) of MR.  There is so much more data than ever before.  It’s the role of data scientists to crack the whip and organize all this behavioral and neurological data (the stuff people really do rather than the lies we get from surveys) into tidy organized gestalts.

Yet, at the end of the day, all the data in the world doesn’t get you closer to “why” people are behaving the way they do.  It’s OK for customers to be irrational as long as they are “predictably” irrational.  As Dr. Dan Ariely has stated, our misguided behaviors are driven by emotions and social cues.

In order to make sense of behavioral data and to tap into the potential of customer innovation, we need to return to the art (right brain) of MR and that falls to the “qualies.”

NOTE:     Never use the term “statistical significance” or “confidence intervals” with qualies, unless you enjoy watching facial tics.

Qualies apply social sciences tools from various disciplines (sociology, psychology, etc.) to decipher what is actually triggering customer behavior.

While there has been plenty of press and attention heaped on the emerging role of data scientists (a sexy term for quant jocks), that still only gives us one side of the coin. I would argue that we need someone equally comfortable with qualies.  Let’s call this individual, The Synergist, a person as adept at discovering behavioral trends as they are in using social science methods to determine causation.

As corporations reinvent themselves from mass marketing to a “one-to-one” customer-centric focus, the ability to synthesize disparate forms of qual/quant insights into a strategic vision will emerge as the ultimate leadership trait.  For the first time, a holistic understanding of customer needs and behavior will be used to drive company strategy.

So 25 years after the Neal vs. O’Neil debates, let me ask the question again, are we a science or an art?   Can we conclude that MR needs to integrate both the science and the art of our industry to thrive?

Sometimes the best way to reach a desired destination is not to move systematically forward, but instead leapfrog over your obstacle.  The Synergist will finally combine the art and science of MR into one all-inclusive view.

The Synergist won’t settle for a seat at the table; he/she will be sitting at the head of the table.

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6 responses to “The “Synergist”: Big Data + Social Science = The Future of MR

  1. How did I not see this coming? I believe the Synergist will be a good neutralizer in the meantime; however, I still foresee Mr. Neil gaining headway at some point in time. As was mentioned in this posting, art (right brain) of MR, falling to “qualies”, which is a social science is after all still science. As researchers, we continue to look for the logic in things happening, in an individual’s behavior. We still want to find out the why in order to give our Clients a good advice for the how and when.

  2. Hi Ruth,

    Your point is well taken. At the end of the day, be we quant jocks or qualies, we are applying science to guide our research.

    However, I don’t view The Synergist as simply a neutralizer of opposing camps. Rather I see this individual as dynamic; someone who synthesizes our ever expanding research toolkit (behavioral data, neuro-marketing, customer co-creation, etc.) to implement strategy.

  3. Thank you for your clarification, Kevin. Yes, the Synergist should be a dynamic individual/entity more than what otherwise could be construed as fence-sitting or playing it safe in the fringes of the battleground.

  4. Sure. And yes, Kevin, we’ve always sought to use both to advantage, as you and I both know. But now the mass of data has outrun the old statistical science we grew up with, and a new paradigm is emerging. The quant side is under more pressure than ever, for all the reasons we know, and the qual side has fragmented into many methodologies, many seeking software now to manage narrative input. Leave it to your creative intellect to find synergy in what seem to be total chaos. Still, while technology changes at the speed of imagination, and marketers fight for meaning in a world dominated by financial metrics, human motivations have not changed, the same old archetypes are in place, and creative insight can still not be objectively assessed. We need to have a beer so I can really inject some confusion into your noble vision!

  5. Hey Jerry,

    Always great hearing from you old friend.

    Well, I would say the best MR Synergist to date would be David Ogilvy who combined his creative talents with analytically derived insights. And David left us with this profound piece of advice; “Many people – and I think I am one of them – are more productive when they’ve had a little to drink.”

    So in honor of Ogilvy, I think this requires a follow-up discussion at the Landmark Tavern, to enhance our creative instincts, of course.

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