Through the looking glass: an agency researcher goes to the ESOMAR client conference

DZNXl4XWAAEFJQqLast week I had the pleasure of seeing what life is on the other side of the research fence when I attended the ESOMAR World Inspiration Network conference in Amsterdam where the only presenters were clients.

After attending 40+ industry conferences where agencies mostly speak to other agencies about their work, I was really looking forward to hearing exclusively client-side perspectives into our industry. As a cherry on top, the conference was held at the top of Heineken Experience – a quick 10min bike ride from my home in Amsterdam!

Overall it was a highly insightful experience and I felt like I learned more than I do in an average conference so hats off to the programme committee and ESOMAR for putting together a great programme! The two days were packed with great talks and I’ll share some highlights from the conference through my tweets at the time.

The day was kicked off by Programme Committee Chair Silke Muenster from Philip Morris International who reminded us, the handful of clients in the room, of our differing perspectives – of course, as agencies, we focus on research, but it was a good wakeup call first thing in the morning that we must spend more time stepping into the shoes of the clients we work with.

Sanita Pinchback’s keynote explored the different challenges Unilever has from a HR perspective. One particular slide on cultural differences in expressing emotion caught my attention – I completely agree with that, but one thing that market research is currently missing (somewhat) is valid and up to date theoretical understanding of how cultural context influences emotional expression. I realise that that discussion will be quite technical and academic, but without a solid theoretical understanding of the phenomenon you want to measure, increasingly sophisticated technology will be just shiny new things – not necessarily better.

Sanita also talked about the amount of internal training and upskilling they do at Unilever – the number of sessions and learning topics was incredible! Although we already invest heavily in learning internally, this really hammered home just how important it is for us to stay on top of the latest developments in our industry – after all, research is our business so if clients are upskilling, we need to do it too.

Another talk that really made me think about our work on agency side was by Tony Costella on how the insights function is changing from “farmers to fishers” – in other words, in addition to “farming” commissioned custom research to also “fishing” around in readily available behavioural data.

As a part of that change, he talked about the changing needs for the skills profile required of an insights professional: while it was perfectly acceptable to have a T-shaped profile with deep knowledge in a specific area and an ability to work across a broad area outside that, these days that’s no longer enough. Instead, we need people with an M-shaped skills/knowledge profile: multiple deep skills combined with an ability to apply across situations and domains.

That resonated particularly strongly because I feel like we need even more than that on the agency side: not only is it enough for a small specialist agency to have deep knowledge on our specialism (behavioural science), we also need to understand clients’ industries so that we can more easily apply our expertise across different areas. Adding to that, we also need to stay top of technical innovations such as AI, chatbots, machine learning etc. Finally, even the deep specialist knowledge in behavioural science isn’t just one “prong”: solving client problems requires a broad knowledge of a wide range of theories and concepts across different fields of behavioural science. As the saying goes, if you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.

One great practical idea I took from the conference was from the presentation of Olga Kornilova from Ferring Pharmaceuticals. Insights Vernissage as an alternative to expressing themes from research was really engaging, and Olga did a great job of bringing this method to life.

The best quote of the day was definitely the above: the best way to have a good idea is to have a lot of ideas – and I certainly got a lot of ideas from ESOMAR WIN and am already looking forward to next year!


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