Market research has a great future if it is brave enough to change – Jane Frost

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Jane Frost

Posted by Jane Frost, CEO of MRS, The Market Research Society, UK.

Market research has a great future if it is brave enough to change. This was the challenge laid down by MRS Patron and Dunn Humby co-founder Clive Humby to a packed committee room at the House of Commons last week. The occasion was the MRS sponsored debate which asked whether big data was the death knell for market research.

The challenge is valid. Last year MRS commissioned PWC to produce a report on the size of the market for research in this country. It was deliberately called “the Business of Evidence”, because I believe that only collectively and only by defining ourselves by our client value can we build on what has been historically, and remains as we speak, a world leading sector.

We need to adopt the language of the people who pay us. We should not be asking our clients to do our work for us in promoting the value of what we do. You rarely hear the finance director defining himself by his accountancy qualification. I have rarely heard a marketing director do so either. So how come we as sector manage to promote so many labels which are of relevance only internally?

We are a service industry which develops the intellectual capital that businesses and policymakers need to take decisions. The customer understanding supplied by us can transform businesses, increase revenues and cut costs. That customer understanding can come from any source. So-called big data, for example, is just one supply stream. As a sector we should embrace it, use it and shape it by our standards. To our clients “big data” is a shiny new toy: one they know will be fun, but they don’t quite know how to use. By running scared or by ignoring its glitter and promise we do start to render ourselves out of touch. Big data is not even new, I can certainly make a case for it going back to the Magna Carta and many of you may argue that the census was its real genus.

As I write this, the label “big data” is showing some signs of going out of fashion. However data analytics teams are growing, and if we can’t prove the value of professionalism and creating an integrated customer view using all the knowledge streams at our disposal , current research and insight teams may be renamed customer data teams.

We have some key messages to deliver, and we are more than capable of doing so. We can own the use of data as a research methodology rather than an independent idea. My own experience in speaking to clients shows that they welcome an authoritative contribution to the data debate. Collectively we need to speak with one voice on four key messages:

1) Quality: reinforcing the value of having trained and qualified professionals working for you. MRS recent successes in, for example, gaining government recognition for the importance of accreditation in research procurement shows that this can be done.

2) Managing data risk: the use of personal data, and big data in general are potentially a significant risk to clients. There are the legal and ethical risks, the increasing threat of legislation, and the increasing potential cost of large datasets without a defined value or use. Many people do not recognise how much effort needs to go into creating reliable data. Misuse of personal data, and general decline in trust is starting to create new “hard to reach consumers”, increasingly high value groups, who work at avoiding identification. I believe that personal data is potentially a material risk that should be on the radar of every company’s audit committee.

3) Corporate social responsibility: the management of personal data needs to have the same value as the management of ingredient sourcing and environmental impact. Unilever’s Polman believed that procurement would be an important part of Brand in future lets ensure this includes procurement of data.

4) Controlling the question and the costs: the benefit of helping understand the questions that data should be answering will clearly have a cost benefit to clients and help the utility of their data investments. This is a key role for qualitative research for example, but it needs explaining.

We have first mover advantage in the Fairdata Mark. Use it. We know that it is a good way into clients when used to address these issues. In the UK we are world leaders in research training and accreditation, and MRS will shortly launch a CPD scheme. If we collectively support this it will become more important to clients.

We believe the UK market for evidence is £3 billion big. Statistics show it is back on the road to growth .To meet the opportunity and the challenge we need collectively to adopt data sciences as our own, addressing misconceptions about the status of data, and the best way to exploit it.

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