Emma Davies, Brand Strategist at Big Green Door, reflects on three key sessions at this year's MRS Annual Conference - Impact 2017.

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After a highly thought-provoking Impact 2017, my mind feels saturated with new insights, themes and stories.

I attended three sessions from this year’s MRS Annual Conference showcasing best practice in the industry from some of the world’s most recognisable brands including PepsiCo, Unilever and the BBC.

As well as keynote talks from inspirational figures such as Nicola Mendelsohn (vice president EMEA, Facebook), Oliver James (psychologist) and Caitlin Moran (columnist and author).

I attended 3 very different sessions exploring:

  • Future proofing business and brand
  • Creating and defining value
  • The use of storytelling for insight and change

1. Humanise data

Nicola Mendelsohn (vice president EMEA, Facebook) summed up the opening keynote session with one of Facebook’s mantras: “people not pixels.” In an age where we have access to an unprecedented amount of big data, understanding the people behind the data is arguably more important now than ever.

It’s not enough to rely on numbers – real people and real thinking is needed to distil the data, drill deeper and identify the ‘why’ behind behavioural trends. As both the BBC and PepsiCo evidenced in the first session of the day (future proofing business and brands) it was the team of researchers, strategists and semioticians in both exemplar case studies that not only gathered content but interpreted it, searched for patterns and actually made sense of the sheer number of inputs to get to actionable future proofing guidelines.

And let’s not forget about the people on the receiving end. As creative director of Kantar, Emma Whitehead, explained in the third session (storytelling for insight and change), when presenting data it’s important to “humanise your audience…think of your clients as human beings, not job titles.” Emma gave the example of using hand drawn charts to show data instead of the conventional digital diagrams and graphs. In humanising the presentation of data, the documents can appear less mechanised and more personally intuitive.

Human truth does not come from more data.

2. Leverage diversity

It was interesting that diversity played out as such a critical and resonate theme across the day, albeit for different reasons. In one example, finding commonality through diversity gave validation and confidence to the data. Sarah Palmer from Big Green Door, (working with PepsiCo to futureproof their business) emphasised the importance of colliding different brains to find consilience across the data, “this gave credibility and confidence that what was being said was valid because no matter which way the information was cut, the same patterns emerged.”

In a different example, diversity was seen as crucial for creative stimulation.

Billie Ing (Ipsos) working with Unilever to spur innovation in the household category stressed the importance of celebrating diversity in all its form to allow for the best possible workshop output. Whether this included people from a wide range of backgrounds or in terms of the type of workshop stimuli used, in this case it was purposely developed to be multi-sensorial.

Diversity brings greater richness to research world.

3. Context is critical

I gauged another pertinent theme from the day – the importance of understanding the wider context. In the second session (unpicking the complex world of value) speakers from Acacia Avenue and Fine Art asked us to guess the value of three works of art. Interestingly, when the narrative and context of the art was revealed it became easier to judge how valuable the art was. When you see something out of context it becomes harder to assess its worth.

Applying this logic to the insights world; if a topic is researched without fully understanding the wider context, it is more difficult to identify and assert valid insights. In many case studies I heard throughout the day, the importance of the wider context proved consistently to be a pre-requisite of enquiry success. 

Sonia Whitehead from BBC Media Action explained how critical understanding the wider Bangladeshi societal context was in developing scripts for a TV drama seeking to bring about positive change in the country. Likewise when PepsiCo set about futureproofing the Fruit and Vegetable category, they explained how necessary it was to keep the frame of reference as wide as possible, beyond juice into health and nutrition.

Research alone is no longer an adequate prism to look at the world – context is important.

While the challenge has never been greater for those who have a stake in better understanding consumers and citizens, keeping the human element, diversity and context as your guiding lights will ensure you stay on course (at least for now!). 

You can watch some of the best keynotes and sessions from Impact 2017 here.

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