Northstar’s Nine Knock-out Moments from Impact 2017

Northstar shares 9 things that stood out most to them at MRS Impact.

MRS Impact offers us a snapshot of where our industry is today and where it could be tomorrow. It brings the best minds in the industry together alongside a series of engaging Keynotes and, as usual, it didn’t disappoint in challenging us to think about things differently.

The theme for this year was Future Fit: Strategies for Better Business and Stronger Society, and in looking forward, discussion on today’s changing political and social landscape was never too far away. As an industry, we adapt to move forward and with the quality of speakers and papers presented over the two days, it’s clear we’re moving in the right direction and ready for the challenges ahead.

Across the course of Impact 2017, 9 things stood out most to us here at Northstar:

  1. Time for Direct Digital Democracy?

The drastic changes in the political landscape because of the EU referendum and the US general election have many people questioning the way democracy functions in the Western world. Historian and broadcaster Dan Snow points out the radical idea that we live in a world where direct democracy, as the Ancient Greeks imagined it, is possible. He broached the possibility that every citizen has the capability to vote online on every issue without the logistical cost and limitations of physical voting centres. An ever-present stream of votes could decide issues real-time and allow for a more meaningful and powerful understanding of what the public want. Dan points out that Brexit and Trump are results of 50%+1 majorities and now that polling day is behind us, voters have very little influence. Although unlikely, a direct digital democracy would give us this power ‘on demand’ and not just on a few days of the year – an interesting thought.

  1. The Post-Brexit Divide

Following the UK referendum last year, ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’ have become familiar narratives, and their labels are often used to divide people. But what are the dangers of such simplified thinking? Cordelia Hay of Britain Thinks found that people are increasingly defining themselves by what they’re not, rather than what they are. The differences are stoked and exaggerated by media partisanship, but “Leavers” and “Remainers” are not real tribes. Hay argues they are largely manufactured and only become as real as we allow them to become. Rather than focussing on the differences, what can we as researchers be doing to understand both sides? And, in a time when society feels so divided, it’s important, more than ever, for researchers to maintain unbiased perspectives. A show of hands suggested a huge “Remain” majority in the industry, something we mustn’t let impact our impartiality.

  1. The Business of People

Andy Dexter (Culturise) kicked off a thought-provoking discussion on big business and their neglect for human happiness, alongside three other panellists, Louise Beaumont (Open Bank Working Group), Neera Patel (The New Entrepreneurs Foundation) and Jon Alexander (New Citizen Project). Perhaps most interesting was the mutual resentment towards the idea of Corporate Social Responsibility. In departmentalising CSR, the idea of a business working for a greater good is transformed to a series of tick boxes, indicative of a bare-minimum attitude. Jon’s remedy is an insistence that businesses must think of people as “citizens” not “consumers”. The label itself, he argues, limits businesses to think of their customers as merely consuming machines. The session challenged us as an industry to think beyond the consumer label and to find new ways to measure business success, putting human happiness at the epicentre.

  1. Collaborate when Tackling Taboos

Strong dialogue between client and agency is key when tackling sensitive research. 2CV’s Stephanie Gaydon went through two and half years and five rounds of research before TFL’s ‘Report It to Stop It’ campaign was launched to eliminate unwanted sexual behaviour on the Tube. She described how close collaboration with TFL allowed for flexibility as challenges inevitably arose with such a sensitive subject matter. Similar experiences were shared by Rosa Bransky of Flamingo, as she spoke with chieftains and child brides to paint the cultural tapestry that allows child marriage to occur around the world. Collaboration between clients and agency is always important, but the challenges and nuance required when researching taboos make it an essential part of any partnership tackling such issues.

  1. Humanising Data

Day one kicked off with an exploration of the new digital revolution with Facebook’s Nichola Mendelsohn. In 2003 there were 5GB of data in the world, now this amount is produced every five minutes and from an ever-increasing list of sources. Nichola reminded us that with this sheer volume of data we need to ensure that we analyse it through a human lens and remember the person behind the data. To quote, “people are not pixels, they are the faces of everything we do”. It’s a timely reminder; as researchers, we are flirting with the world of Big Data without owning it. In this data revolution, it’s important to remember that we are the ones best placed to humanise this data and find the real stories behind the numbers – after all, understanding humans is what we do best.

  1. The Do’s and Don’ts of Infographics

Building beautiful and informative infographics has become high on the agenda for researchers in recent years. Emma Whitehead from Kantar emphasised that researchers should never forget the differences between their audiences. What works for the Insight Team will not always translate readily to the C-Suite. Whitehead also insisted that researchers should not fear infographics. From hand-drawn charts to illustrating percentages with the composition of cocktails, there are many ways of visualising data for even the least artistically gifted researcher. To end with, a word of warning; many clients are already producing consumer facing infographics as standard. If this is the type of reporting they expect from their in-house teams, then surely it is an industry requirement for their agency partners.

  1. Value: Art or Science

Our clients are increasingly interested in unpacking the meanings of ‘value’, though the classic value equations are changing. The explosion of price comparison websites, online retailers and automation of manufacturing have changed our expectations of price. In addition to cost and quality, we need to consider the impact that story-telling, scarcity, social associations and fame have on perceptions of value. Caroline Hayter and Martin Lee of Acacia Avenue encouraged the audience to consider how these new factors of value can also be considered within the research industry. Are we, as market researchers, incorporating enough storytelling in our proposals to stand out from competitors?  How can we do a better job of demonstrating the rarity of what we do? Market research is not a commoditized industry, and our value lies in fresh perspectives and evolving our approach.

  1. Pollsters on the Defence

Recent failures of political pollsters to accurately predict the results of the EU referendum has led many to call its future into question. Both Martin Boon (ICM) and Joel Williams (Kantar Public) claim that despite recent poor performance of polls, many people underestimate just how difficult predicting the public mood can be. The consensus is that modifications to existing methods, namely a move away from stated preference alone, is needed if polling is to rebuild its damaged reputation. Asking a greater range of attitudinal questions to help validate voting preference was one argument of increasing accuracy. But the fact remains, polling has taken quite a battering and even if people underestimate the difficulties pollsters face, it’s a long way back before they will be widely trusted again.

  1. Something to be Positive About

We were taken on an entertaining stroll through history, from the Aztecs to Brexit, courtesy of the previously mentioned Dan Snow. With alternative facts and fake-news casting shadows over the world of data, Dan provided us with a timely reminder of just how lucky we are to have the wealth of resources and data available to us. He jokingly protests that often all historians have at their disposal is a single testimony from a drunk 15th Century monk. We should feel privileged as 21st Century researchers.

His talk left us feeling inspired and positive. While it may seem we are living through an uncertain time, with Brexit and Trump, Dan’s tactic is to contextualise today with the events of the past – at least we’re not about to be invaded by the Vikings!

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