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Prognosis After The Recent MRSI Conference

A summary of the takeaways from the recent MRSI annual conference by Satish Pai, highlighting important trends.

Editor’s Note: As our readers know, we are deep into conference season, not just in the US, but around the world.  Recently, we’ve had several articles summarizing the IIeX conference in North America.  Today, we go to Asia, where Satish Dai gives us some highlights from the Market Research Society of India annual conference.  

At the recent MRSI annual conference, Pravin Shekar thanked a keynote speaker saying something along the lines of while the first keynote speaker stripped the market research industry naked, this speaker had slapped the industry awake to new realities.

This was an excellent conference organized by the MRSI and I watched this on a live stream. I saw the two keynote speeches that Pravin was referring to, and agree they were quite eye-opening. There was Stan Sthanunathan opening the conference with a splendid keynote speech – the highlights of which included some initiatives Unilever had taken that they were also sharing with the industry worldwide. I missed the second keynote but got to see the ending keynote address by the marketing head of Godrej India and his presentation was exceptional too in highlighting how the FMCG companies are changing and what this means for the research industry.

While fear-mongering wouldn’t be an apt description for these keynotes, they hit close in leaving a feeling of inadequacy amongst the attendees (even though most should have been used to it by now. Many prophets of doom have been announcing that the MRX industry is dead and done, for over a decade now!!)

One couldn’t help the impression that now conventional market research agencies had absolutely no role whatsoever in helping the business leaders, in social media, other digital sources, big data analytics, etc. and all of them managed internally by companies would suffice.

Which is kind of surprising because this is in my humble opinion quite far from the truth.

If anything, as the saying goes, the more things change, the more they remain the same.

Many years earlier at a global seminar when a call was made for faster research at half the time and cost, someone commented, asking why were interview lengths then increasing?

The irony, in this case, was that the entire marketing team of this speaker’s company was highly dependent on a tracking study. Every brand manager across the globe would await the results anxiously as a lot of their KPIs were based on the findings from a survey that unleashed 2+ hours of misery on participating respondents (and 3+ if the respondent had committed the sin of consuming more sub-categories).

So, findings from social media made for great anecdotes and entertainment at seminars. But for all internal planning purposes, it was the tracking study that still ruled.

And guess what, the interview length of that tracking study only kept increasing… (Not surprising how clients are willing to cede nothing while making demands for faster, cheaper research… and let us not even go into the payment terms which the clients refuse to change – shouldn’t payments be done as speedily as timely demand for results? Many still refuse to budge from their 60/90 day payment terms!).

And one component of most conventional survey interviews that eats a considerable amount of time, is the socio-economic classification (SES/SEC/LSM) – something that doesn’t seem to matter in social media and digital analytics!

We also need to be aware of the ability of the marketing community to get carried away by fads – the more superficial, shiny and more frivolous the better (Best captured by Prof. Mark Ritson’s joke: ‘How many marketers does it take to change a lightbulb? The answer…. MILLENIALS !!!’).

In the second keynote by Godrej’s CMO, there was a chart on an omnichannel opportunity which the live stream only showed fleetingly but those numbers in the Venn diagram seemed very very high and unrealistic. Even in the western markets over 90% of all purchases still, happen offline i.e. in ‘brick-and-mortar’ retail. In India, even post Jio/WhatsApp/Amazon the digital/ e-commerce sales wouldn’t be over a fraction of a percentage of total retail.

This does not mean digital needs to be ignored – just that they should not be over-estimated and maintained in perspective (just like the ‘influencers’ where an honest discussion behind the scenes would reveal that most brand managers are not sure if the recruited influencers really make any difference to sales or the brand).

Also, Tech is an area where the MRX industry cannot be faulted. In the last two decades, even in an emerging market like India, the adoption rates have been fantastic. Simple mobile phone-based surveys and online panels had been used long before smartphones became popular. Almost all research tools in the innovation funnel, tracking, etc. have been enhanced using technology and not to forget data collection where some agencies have invested heavily and all interviews captured on tablets which ensured fidelity and quality control of the interviews (using GPS, response times, etc.). Even in qualitative, advanced analysis and collation using AI, machine learning is used by research agencies taking it beyond what digital analysts achieve.

So yes, the research industry has been aware of changes in the ecosystem and, as some of the presentations in the MRSI and other conferences in India showed, the products by Indian research agencies are as good if not better than those offered globally.

However, in creating and chasing technical advances, the research industry IMHO forgets pretty much what we stand for and what are our core strengths. At the very basic level, we report a scientifically designed measurement with fidelity and that has helped for nearly a century in building big brands and creating great marketing campaigns across the globe. More importantly, this measurement has become the recognized currency globally, as the #MediaSnack team shared.  Even though Facebook enjoys subscription by over 50% of the US population its audience data is dubious, while Nielsen media panels cover less than 0.008% of the US population but are seen to be much much, yes much more credible!!

I was part of a meeting in South East Asia that was called by a client because he felt the retail audit, panel, and tracking numbers weren’t adequately reflecting the sales and share of the company’s brands. The shock factor for me was that this meeting was not called for by the insights or marketing teams or heads – it was called by the country CEO of that company! Yes, the global HQ highly relied on the retail audit, panel and tracking numbers to assess the local unit’s performance and obviously the CEO was throwing his weight trying to see if anything could be ‘reviewed’ and then came the obvious threats. Luckily the different agencies didn’t buckle down and politely told him they stood by their numbers leaving him to stew in his own juices.

And that is a power we do not wield nor recognize and celebrate enough.

This ‘currency’ that we have achieved, as well as the trust in our performance,  is to be cherished and shouted from the rooftops. (The joke in the last couple of years was that polls and market research are not insightful, ‘never work’ nor can be trusted – except when the ad agency and brand teams are submitting their IPA or EFFIE case studies!!).

At the MRSI seminar almost on cue the next speaker after the second keynote was talking about death and mourning. And despite the difficulty of this subject, it was a fascinating presentation that discussed what could be learnt as well as how this could be applied in research and benefit marketers. And this seemed to steer us back into what we really are good at – and very, VERY good at.

However difficult (and even morbid) the issue may be, eventually, if companies need to make sense of it, the only way, and the best way to do it is through market research!

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