I had heard a lot about the MRS Conference, the networking and the parties, never mind the conference sessions themselves, but since I joined MRX during COVID I have never actually been to a ‘physical’ research industry event – ever! How would this leading industry event, shape up to being purely virtual? From looking through the programme, I could tell this was a line-up of big names – from politics and the arts, and both client and agency-side. So, I got my notepad and pen at the ready for avid notetaking.
The first session which stood out to me was keynote interview between Marc Brenner and James Graham, OBE, Olivier award-winning playwright and screenwriter. This juxtaposed two industries which turned out to be more similar than I ever imagined. For example, the two discussed the role audience research has in the creation of art, with James expressing the need for empathy when creating characters. He shared his top three questions to ask when creating a character- ‘What do they want? What’s stopping them from getting it? How will they get it?’. This seems very close to understanding people and the work we do in research.
Another highlight was Dieter Deceuninck, Global Director of Strategy & Insights at Danone Waters who partnered with Martin Oxley, Managing Director at buzzback to discuss their view of consumer-centricity, and how critical it is for Danone Water’s business. Dieter explained that it is usual for budgets for insights to be overstretched compared to other budgets within the company. But according to Dieter, this is all the more reason to focus on insights strategies, and the pandemic has made it even more critical for brands to bring the outside in and stay in touch with what is going on in the world.
As a Bristolian myself, I enjoyed hearing from Philippa Neal, Morris Hargreaves McIntyre, and Andy Boreham, Bristol Beacon, about the renaming of music venue the Colston Hall in an act of shedding the city’s slave trader associations.
I also really enjoyed Peter Totman, Head of Qualitative at Jigsaw Research, who spoke to his audience about something I had never considered before – the fact that the market research industry is saturated with liberal, empathetic viewpoints, which can mean that we tend to look at things too one-dimensionally, and speak mainly with people who have the same opinions as us. According to Peter, we must place effort on managing our internal biases, as there is a risk that rather than representing consumers as they are, our views are filtered by the researcher’s own ideology. He advised actively reaching out to people with different views and challenging your own beliefs. I think this is something which we can take out of the industry, and into our own lives. Naturally, we tend to be friends with people who hold the same attitudes and opinions as us, but there is value in stepping out of these comfort zones and actively having discussions with people who we wouldn’t usually converse with.
Naturally, discussions around the pandemic were dotted around the conference. Dr Carol McNaughton Nicholls at BritainThinks shared their ‘Coronavirus Diaries’ study alongside their client Nationwide, represented by James Powell. Dr Rachel Williams at Ipsos and Tamatha Webster at CQC discussed patient experience during COVID-19. It is easy to feel a little overwhelmed by all the Covid talk which has dominated many events, but in this instance, as the end is (hopefully) in sight, it felt a little more welcome and manageable than at previous conferences.
And I can’t speak about Impact without giving a shoutout to our own Colonel Mustard, Lucy Davison who was joined by journalists Katie McQuater, Robert Langkjaer-Bain and Alex Brownsell in ‘How to be Famous’. Lucy explained the need for PR in the industry, and how to use it to get your insights story across. Featuring the ‘four bees’: bee original, bee an expert, bee evidence-based, and bee busy, Lucy’s lessons taught the audience the value of media exposure and -most importantly- how to get it.
Of course, hosting any event during a pandemic comes with difficulties. The variety in presentation formats – interviews, panels, skills zones, etc – and the chat-box during the sessions kept the audience entertained, but in my eyes it was still a challenge to replicate an in-person event ambiance. As an industry-newbie, who has only attended these types of events virtually, I am very much looking forward to experiencing MRS Impact in person next year – meeting the speakers and asking questions in real-life.