The end for insight? Why data science and humility endanger the industry
It’s difficult to know what topic to focus on when speaking to Tom Kerr: there are so many possibilities. A Fellow of the Market Research Society and Treasurer of the industry’s training and networking organisation, AURA, his is a distinguished career full of highlights and insights. What becomes clear is that whichever avenue we explore, his passion is empowering people to place market research front-and-centre in business decision making.
“The Insight function does more than simply deliver information to decision makers,” Tom says. “By understanding which customer and client needs are being met and unmet, it inspires real change to processes, products and services. Market research is about making life better. That’s what we do for a living.”
But Tom believes the industry doesn’t get the kudos it deserves. “What bothers me is that we’re so understated. We don’t drive that message through so often other people take the credit for these identified changes.”
So how can clientside market researchers take the strategic place at the table that they deserve? Tom believes the most important moment in any project is not the delivery of new insights but asking the right questions at the off.
“Speak to the Chief Exec and find out their agenda,” he advises. “Get all the leadership team together and ask what is keeping them awake at night. Identify the key and unrecognised stakeholders who can pull the rug out from under your feet. Only then carry out the information gathering. That’s how you start to define the business agenda, with small collaborative, inclusive steps.”
Insight-first vs. data-first
Having been in the industry since consumer research included asking families to collect their grocery packaging for analysis, Tom has strong views on the future of market research. “The industry is at a crossroads and it needs to step up and take a commanding position or it will be lost in the mists of time,” he believes. “The fundamental skill set of market researchers equips them to take the lead and I fear that if they don’t, data scientists will take over.”
Tom believes that’s not good for anyone. “With all the consumer information that’s now available, data scientists are being told to find answers and it’s like looking for the needle in the haystack. If you start with the Insight team and a hypothesis, then bring into play the data scientist, analyst, statistician, and innovation, product and brand teams, you can identify the best areas to focus on first. Without insight at the forefront, much work will be done for very limited output.”
“The industry is very healthy. Market research is ubiquitous but as soon as you have all the other potential players moving into the space and looking to take the commanding position there’s going to be a tussle for control. It’s time to step forward. Take ownership. See if you can own the innovation space. Place yourself in front of the leadership team.”
Leading for disruption
The Covid-19 pandemic caught us all off guard, but maybe it shouldn’t have, according to Tom. He believes market researchers are pivotal in disruptive moments but also have a role to play in ensuring their organisation is always on the front-foot.
“Nearly every decade, there’s something major that disrupts business–think of the credit crunches, BSE, salmonella. At those times, information becomes key. As a preemptive strike, the market researcher should look to history and what happened in society.”
“Bring the information to the fore and then collaborate with other organisations to look at what’s happening to consumer sentiment and business impact. Gather the evidence, construct the story and then seek to influence quickly. Lead the debate: the market researcher is better placed than anybody else in the organisation.”
Tom Kerr is Treasurer of AURA, the UK’s biggest clientside research networking and events organisation www.aura.org.uk