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11 Impactful Ideas From the MRS Annual Conference

Speakers ranged from TV producer Richard Osman, re-creating his gameshow ‘Pointless’ live on stage, to Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger DBE, suggesting researchers should be at the front line of policy-making on data protection.



By Nichola Kent-Lemon

Northstar recently attended the MRS Annual Conference: Impact 2016, on the theme of ‘Curiosity, Insight and Revolution’. A host of fascinating speakers contributed, treating delegates to some truly thought provoking and insightful sessions.

Interviews and keynote speakers ranged from TV producer Richard Osman, re-creating his gameshow ‘Pointless’ live on stage, to Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger DBE, suggesting researchers should be at the front line of policy making on data protection. We particularly enjoyed hearing John Yorke, author of ‘Into the Woods’, interviewed by Acacia Avenue’s Martin Lee. Yorke’s skill at deciphering the complex world of storytelling with his perceptive humour had us laughing at our own tireless ability to hear old stories in new disguises.

From the many ideas shared across the two days, we have chosen 11 that stood out for us as particularly relevant and impactful:


Should research agencies play their part in the shared economy by sharing their data and insights? Unilever’s Stan Sthanunathan thinks so. During his keynote speech he advocated ‘Paragon’, a partnership of clients, research agencies, academics, NGOs and government bodies who plan to share resources in order to tackle UN global goals.

Over the course of the conference, several other speakers and delegates promoted in house data and insight sharing platforms that aim to position market researchers as providers of sound consultation and strategy as opposed to primary research outputs.


By designing methodologies specifically intended to explore negative realities we can bring clients face-to-face with difficult truths that, if tackled, can have a huge impact on business success.

Northstar’s Samantha Bond, with Great Western Railway’s Janneke Dobben, revealed how ‘Business to Employee’ research is an undervalued resource in uncovering hard truths. When GWR addressed difficult working realities revealed by their employees, they were able to boost customer satisfaction.

Similarly, by talking to brand rejecters, Pizza Hut, working with One MS Research, was able to tap into some tough consumer criticisms to successfully reinvent their dining experience, improving both customer satisfaction and footfall.


Is there a better way of getting research heard by key decision makers?  We heard some great stories about insight socialisation within large organisations such as Jaguar Land Rover and IKEA. Speakers felt that we should not be discouraged by senior stakeholders who are seemingly distanced from research. We should trust in the knowledge that being left out can be a powerful motivator, even at the most senior level. If there is enough buzz created around research insight, business leaders will take an interest. 


True belief and engagement with research findings is often rooted in one or several ‘aha’ moments during analysis. If researchers reach their conclusions alone and then dictate insights to clients, we deprive them of these key moments of discovery. John Yorke suggested we follow the lead of traditional story tellers and help our clients to connect the dots themselves, giving them greater ownership of insights and greater enthusiasm for research.


Can corporate/start-up partnerships replace consumer-led insight? A fascinating debate between Colin Duff, Hilary Ingleton and Louisa Livingston, from Argos, EE and Hachette, took the audience back and forth on this topic. The debate concluded with a near unanimous audience acceptance that both routes to insight are valuable. The power of start-ups to inform business decisions was clearly demonstrated, particularly in terms of technological innovation. There is unmistakeable truth to William Gibson’s assertion that ‘the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed’, we should certainly be following start-up innovations to inform ourselves of impending change.


We only need to have followed the recent Apple vs. FBI debate to understand the societal importance of data protection and its governance. As the historical keepers of data – its appropriate collection, analysis and reporting – Rabbi Baroness Julia Neuberger argues that market researchers are well placed to be involved in this debate and to share our expertise with legislators in a beneficial way. Neuberger asks, ‘can business be good?’ Perhaps we should be doing what we can to help ensure that personal data can be used as a force for good without infringing on the privacy of individuals. 


The debate on whether research helps or hinders the creative processes has been a long one. However, the evidence put forward at the MRS conference shows that researchers and creatives can work harmoniously across a variety of sectors from air travel to cleaning products and television. The poignant question is where in the creative process do insights best intervene and what models of hybrid research and design thinking are needed for this to work? It appears that this question should really be answered on a case by case basis, with researchers and creatives working together to define the best use of research so that insights can be received with enthusiasm rather than scepticism.


In the midst of the trust economy, quantitative researchers need to question whether they can trust their own statistics and take them at face value.  Professor David Spiegelhalter exposed the reality that there are certain issues we lie about, even to ourselves. If an issue is important to our self-esteem we tend to inflate or deflate the truth to demonstrate behaviours we deem appropriate and socially condonable.  Techniques such as confidence levels help to remove this bias, but we must remember that as researchers it is our role not to just question consumers, but to interrogate our own assumptions so as to avoid falling foul of the ‘lie-bias’.


With storytelling high on the research skills agenda, author Bill Bryson demonstrated how dimensionalising large numbers can make them more relevant and comprehendible to the reader. By describing a volume as akin to the amount of popcorn it would take to cover the entire US at a depth of 9 miles, we are able to conceptualise these dimensions, bringing the scale into focus in a meaningful way. It is clear that such comparisons have the ability to put context, understanding and meaning behind even the biggest of big data.


This message rang out loud and clear through the conference, right from the opening keynote speakers when Sthanunathan stated ‘action is the edge’ – data, insight and methodology alone no longer have the power to differentiate. Steve Hill from JLR went on to articulate that the research industry has traditionally worked in shades of grey and there is a need for bold, definitive recommendations. Paul Leatherdale from Insight Inside suggested we should think like designers who must argue the case for their creative solutions rather than sitting on the fence. 


We know that creating empathy is a potent tool in our industry, one that can be very persuasive in driving action. John Yorke informed us that good stories generate feelings, empathy and an understanding of what it’s like to be someone else, and numerous other tools for building empathy around insight were discussed. However, it was Bob Cook from Firefish who put forward the most exciting and innovative route to generating empathy. Surpassing the traditional ethnographic film, Bob has provided clients with the opportunity to virtually enter the world of their consumers, stepping inside their homes and taking a respondent-led guided tour. Time will tell the commercial viability of this approach, but it is an exciting application of VR, and it certainly takes engaging and immersive client deliverables to a whole new level!

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Nichola Kent-Lemon

Nichola Kent-Lemon

Director, Northstar Research Partners