On January 8, the Insights Association hosted a Town Hall featuring several of the insights industry’s most respected and sought-after thought leaders – all members of the first class of Laureates in IA’s new IPC Program. Following are excerpts from the conversation, moderated by IA CEO Melanie Courtright.  View Highlight Video View Full Session Recording | Read Session Transcript

Be sure to tune into Part 2 with the rest of the IA Laureates on Friday, January 15 at 1 p.m. ET - Register Here.


Q. What do you consider the greatest risk for Insights in 2021?

Vanella Jackson: I'm incredibly optimistic about the role that insight and data can play right now. Because with so much change going on, keeping close to consumers, to customers, to patients, to the people out there, is incredibly important. However, the ground and the pace of change that we're all standing on is shifting all the time, and that makes it quite a very dynamic and slightly scary environment, to be talking with real confidence about what we know about consumers. We only get a narrow view of what's happening out there, because we're all stuck at home, not really able to see each other. And, so, it's in that increasingly narrow view, we only get fleeting glimpses of what's really going on. So my three risks are that we lose sight of consumers, we lose sight of clients and what they really need and want right now, and we lose sight of each other and the growing, new competitors that are coming along.  

Our clients are going to be wanting us to predict how that change continues to evolve. And predicting in this highly dynamic market is really challenging as well, so getting that wrong is a risk. And, then for clients’ own environments. Their businesses have been disrupted. They're all focused on how they can rebuild, how they can get new competitive advantage, short-term wins. How can they drive growth, but how can they rebuild sustainably for the long-term. And they're trying to do this in an environment where marketing models have changed, where there are new modern marketing that they've got to embrace. And we as an insights community have got to be on top of all of that.

Merrill Dubrow: The reality is we have this struggle. Do we become a generalist or do we become specialized? The more specialized you were during the pandemic, the harder you got hit. So, if you were a qualitative company, that was painful. If you were somebody who works specifically in the travel and tourism space, you got whacked.

My eight-year-old plays soccer, so the ball goes to the right, what happens? Everybody goes to the right. And the ball goes to the left, and everybody goes to the left. The problem is, I just described the market research insights community. Biometrics, we all go there. Eye tracking, go there. Sentiment analysis, go there. Big data, go there. And I think that's problematic. I think what you need to do is think through with your leadership teams and go in the directions that you have the right staff, that you have the right clients, and, frankly, that you can make money at.

What's happened with the pandemic is going to force more companies to be more of a generalist. You've got to do it with the right products and services and the right attention.

If there was a race between the insights community and how fast all of our companies move and a turtle, my money's on the turtle. We all move really, really slow. Too slow. And we need to wake up, all of us, and move very, very quickly and meet the demand of clients and meet the speed that the pandemic has changed all of our customers. Because the reality is every single one of our customers has new clients. And insights needs to play a new role with that.

Pepper Miller: When I think about the greatest risk, one of the things that I've seen over and over again is a deficit of empathy. And I'm seeing the deficit of empathy particularly among senior business leaders. For example, the Black Lives Matter and George Floyd protest was global. And it was about a connection and people empathizing with the injust treatment of people in Black America. One of the things that I've observed over the years – I've been doing this since 1995 – is that the senior business leaders, this deficit of empathy comes from not understanding the history of different cultures and groups of people. Lots and lots of insights there, people, in understanding differences. We're taught to not talk about differences, it makes us uncomfortable. We believe it's rude. And, in this climate, we are taught that it's divisive, so that's one thing. The other thing, the reason why we see this deficit among senior business leaders is this unconscious bias. People not realizing that they're biased against other people and having lots of stereotypes about them....

It's about walking in the shoes of other people. And, importantly, it's about conducting research with individual ethnic segments only. The market research industry is notoriously not diverse, not diverse at all. So I am really, really delighted to be here. And one of the things that I often see, particularly in qualitative research, the role of the moderator is to make the respondents feel comfortable. And, with black respondents, it's really, really interesting. We not only have to make them feel comfortable, but make them feel comfortable being black and talking about their blackness in the focus group arena. That's where the insights come from.

It's important to eliminate this deficit of empathy. It's important to bridge the gap of understanding between people who are different from us, not only in terms of skin color, but gender and how people want to identify themselves as well. So there's a lot of work to do. And, at the end of the day, we will not only have more insights for application, we will increase our cultural intelligence.

Reg Baker: Back in September, ESOMAR did a global survey of buyers with support of associations from around the globe, including IA. And we managed to get good responses from 640 people who were basically in client organizations and buyers of research. And one of the questions we asked was what portion of the insights work that they're doing is internal, as opposed to external. And globally that averages out to about 40 percent of projects (not revenue). At least half of them also report that, over the next two to five years, they expect to see that proportion to increase. And that, I think, is a really frightening thing for those on the supplier side...there's work that they think an external partner would do a better job on. But they're pressured to keep it in-house because of cost. So this is worrisome. One area specifically that people were not so satisfied with was presentations - explaining and selling to internal stakeholders so that people would take action. This is something we've been pursuing for at least the last decade. And the data suggests maybe we've not made as much progress as we need to make.

Charlotte Sibley: Integration is something that I see that we're still not doing as well. This is probably more responsibility on the client side to integrate all the data and information that they have. We keep talking about big data, well, we're not doing a great job with small data, let alone big data. And putting it all together to make one source of the truth, if you will, analytics, competitive intelligence, market research. And that takes some special skills and, probably, one person can't do it. But, certainly for teams, and I think from the research supplier side, any help that can be given will be appreciated because, quite frankly, most of the people on the client side are overwhelmed and don't have the deep expertise in market research that the agency side have on this. To bring good insights and good potential impact to be that generalist and understand the context of some of the decisions. I do think, sometimes, we're so narrowly specialized that we might miss some of the broader context.

Kathryn Korostoff: A lot of big organizations are making big commitments to diversity. They're making a lot of statements. Their boards are making statements about commitment to diversity and social justice and other things that are important. They are going to need ways to measure these things, because they're making a commitment to be transparent. How are they going to measure this? And, so, if you're a specialist in – whether it's quant or qual or an application, there's also now going to have to be people who, in our profession, who are also specialists in, how do we actually measure and make this information transparent about things related to racial justice, diversity, gender issues, all of these critically important issues these days. The difficulty and the risk, I think, is that for a lot of us coming from a traditional market research background, we've never done a lot of this kind of research. I mean, there are exceptions. But I think for most of us, in my experience, not a lot of us have a lot of experience doing research on things like racial justice and diversity and perceptions of organizations even. How do people – do consumers perceive a company? We've all done brand perception research, but how many of us have done brand perception research that measured things like perceptions around, "Is this a company that does good? Is this a company that's meeting its commitments on racial diversity?" So I feel like there's some risk here because we do need to get ahead of this and we need to make sure that, if we are a specialist, that within our areas of specialty, that we're ready to tackle the topics that are really hot.  

Q: What potential opportunity is there for Insights that's being overlooked or downplayed, and how do we seize on it?

Kathryn Korostoff: One of the things that I am concerned about is when I hear my colleagues and friends who work at market research agencies, for example, use the word DIY. To me, the word DIY, I know we don't mean it to be derogatory, but it can strike some folks as derogatory because it sounds like you're not qualified. The truth of the matter is that a lot of corporate insights teams have really up-skilled. In working with these teams I can tell you they are highly, highly skilled.

Now there's a lot more expectation about collaboration and iterative processes between the research agency and the insights team. And the people on the insights team are really frickin’ smart and highly skilled. We can't assume that they don't know research. I think that there's this outdated perception that people have that – On the insights teams, that these people are project managers who are glorified purchasing agents. That was true 20 years ago. It is not true now

Another thing that I do think gets a little bit downplayed is the importance of blended data. A lot of organizations have enormous amounts of first-party data, true first-party data these days. And, so, we have to be ready to blend data. Now, that doesn't necessarily always just mean taking your survey data set and appending it with a few variables from a loyalty program or a CRM program. Sometimes it's really about the more qualitative synthesis of working with blended data. But this is something that's a risk for us. If we are just delivering research reports based on surveys, if we are just delivering research reports based on IDIs, if we are just delivering research reports based on ethnographic research, we are increasingly making ourselves dinosaurs. We've got to get into this fact that there is a lot of behavioral data on the client side. We've got to embrace that data and figure out how to bring it into our research reports and our recommendations, otherwise, frankly, we're just out of touch.

Charlotte Sibley: The what, so what, and now what? Asking that to help us understand, what are we going to do with this information? How are we going to use it? Let's make sure we're asking the right question – actually addressing the right issue. Usually, I found the question that was asked was not really the issue to be addressed. And we had to probe a little bit. I’ve worked with our HR departments in several companies to make sure that market research was involved in a lot of the employee research because we had a lot of the expertise. And, also, in terms of collaboration, working with consulting companies. When McKinsey, when Bain are brought in, usually, the first place they come are market research departments. And we can be collaborators, we can be hostile. It doesn't help to be hostile. Be collaborators. And that's a greater opportunity to make an impact and make sure that a lot of the data and information involved in companies and from all the research that we've done is appropriately addressed. So I do think it's all about making the impact. If we don't make an impact, we probably will not continue to exist.

Reg Baker: What are the challenges clients are facing, and then the obvious answer to your question to rise from that is, what can we do about it from the supplier side? And it really falls into two categories. One is data ethics, confidentiality, all that sort of thing. Second is big data and the tools that you need to use in order to use it effectively. Help them to understand it better. It's interesting, I'm not sure that suppliers really grasp this and really figured out how it is they can participate with clients in helping them to leverage the first-party data which they already have. And so I think that's a real challenge. But the other thing is, clients aren't really interested in the shiny tools. In our survey, chat bots, advances in qual, voice-assisted research, things like that were way down the list from these other things that are important to them. And so I think what they're really looking for, I'll call it conventional research, well done, timely, cost effective, with really compelling deliverables on the back end.

Pepper Miller: When I think about the potential insight opportunities that are overlooked, I think about – and I talk about this man all the time, Neil Golden. Neil Golden was the former Chief Marketing Officer at McDonald's. And in 2009, he spoke at the ANA Masters Conference. And his presentation was leading with ethnic insights. And it was wonderful. For a few years, Neil would bring his team in and ask them, "What are the ethnic insights that we know? And how do we apply those insights to mainstream?" We have learned that when you get it right with ethnic consumers, and in my case, my area's Black Americans, you get it right with mainstream. And that's something that has fallen off the grid. I think Procter & Gamble picked it up a little bit. McDonald's was going forward with it, but when we entered into the age of total market, and in 2009, Barack Obama was the first black president, so there was a perception that the country was post-racial. And so there was no need to then look at ethnic consumers anymore and how they're different but not deficient. And it's still a huge opportunity.

Merrill Dubrow: Everybody is pushing their loyalty programs now even more. Why? Because their customers are changing. The reality is that should lead to additional online communities where clients are and we're talking to having much more interest in online communities than ever before. The other thing I want to talk about, an article I read about a month ago, Forrester Research predicted that marketing this year through text activities or emails, we're going to get 42 percent more than we did in 2020. Well, think about what that means. Finally, we're going to have an opportunity to have geo-targeting and geo-fencing into the insights community, where I don't think that's taken off yet. And I would like to see that the insights community somehow owns that part of it. Because, if not, we'll lose that to other people.

Vanella Jackson: Clients want one connected customer view. And they recognize that there's a changing agenda for their business and brands, which is about being conscious brands that really deliver social impact. So we've got to connect to all of those things. And that means that we have to become architects of the connected technology. And we have to get into connected data. We can't have all this insight in competition with behavioral data. We've got to connect it. I think we should be enabling DIY. Why is that wrong? That's what clients need. We need to be partners in that, and then we need to help them with their strategies to rebuild their businesses and show them the future. So all of those things, we have to embrace the client agenda. The other thing is that we have to become more collaborative, not only with our clients, I think we're working well at doing that, but also with each other. And I think that's the real point of opportunity for us.