By Tom Ewing
I’ve only been to the ARF once before. Kantar, where I then worked, had been given a room and 90 minutes to fill, and I tagged along and did one of my social media speeches as part of it.
The main thing I realized, very quickly, is that the ARF is big. Really big. The biggest European research events get a thousand people, and re:Think draws in three times that. So even a little side event like the one I was involved in was standing-room only. Down in the exhibitor hall there seemed to be twenty presentations happening at once. (I admit not all these were so well attended: I had the awkward experience of being the sole audience member for one vendor, who gamely presented to me alone. At a British conference I suspect we’d both have simply headed for the bar.)
One effect of scale is that even the hardened presenters I was with were nervous, and we worked our arses off to make the presentation good. If that holds for everyone speaking this week, re:Think 13 won’t just be the biggest conference I go to, it ought to be the best.
But scale works both ways. Given a big audience, every speech feels like a keynote – and the temptation for a speaker is to try and be definitive, issue a mighty summing-up of the state of mobile, or social, or advertising measurement.
I hope this tendency is resisted. It feels like research is moving too fast for summaries. There are too many interesting ideas, projects, tools and technologies out there and they all deserve more than a line or two in an over-ambitious summary. Why waffle on about the forest when there’s something exciting or dangerous behind every individual tree?
If you really insist on a big picture, maybe it’s that big pictures are out of fashion everywhere. I can’t remember a time in research when there was so much excitement over the sleeves-rolled-up tactical side of marketing – from direct interventions rooted in behavioral economics to the seductive promise of big data and hyper-targeted marketing. Research used to provide recommendations and walk away. Now marketers can test those suggestions more quickly and cost-effectively than ever, and savvy researchers are realizing they need to make their recommendations the start, not the end, of the research story.
Advertising – the ARF’s pet subject – is already doing this. Advertising has always been a wish-fulfillment game, for the people making it as much as the people viewing it. It offered the ability to be a creator – an artist, almost – in the service of commerce. But the dominant metaphor has shifted – now many ad people aspire to being “makers”. Coding, building, experimenting and tinkering are fashionable skills. In a keynote speech at a “big data” conference earlier this month, Hyundai’s David Matathia made a provocative statement. The message ad is an inert, moribund creature, he asserted – instead advertisers needed to build things which yield data, like simulated test drive apps.
What I hope re:Think 13 will do is confidently embrace this agenda – showing us a research industry unafraid of building and experimenting. What I hope it won’t do is force the same old metrics into new bottles marked “mobile”, “second screening” and so on. I’m very much looking forward to finding out which way it swings. But whatever happens, it’s going to be big.