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Conference Review: MRS 2013 'Shock of the New'

March 26 2013

It's not quite real-time blogging, is it, but there's something to be said for taking time to reflect... Nick Thomas kicks off a series of carefully considered reports from the MRS Conference in London last week, and finds it not very 'shocking' or 'new', but not at all bad either.

Shock of the New?In the Grange Tower Bridge Hotel, London, the MRS has found a cosier venue than the Barbican, and an easier-to-get-to venue than Brighton, although there will always be those who pine for the latter. On the whole, despite being rather hot and dry by the end of the day - it's below ground and the fresh air seems to struggle to get in there - it proved a good location, and there was no need at all to be so ashamed of it that it was not mentioned by name anywhere on the Conference programme. I hope not too many people jumped on the tube expecting to work out their exact route while in transit (who'd be so silly as to do that? Cough cough).

The Conference title was 'Shock of the New' - an expression I haven't heard in a while, but apt perhaps for the many innovative and 'disruptive' technologies and methods currently shaking up the industry, or at least threatening to do so. The programme of speakers and sessions looked good - better perhaps than two of the last three conferences where it has suffered from something of an obsession with social media research. Now social media has at least two big challengers for buzzword or buzz phrase of the moment - big data and mobile research are the key contenders - and the conference promised to give due attention to all three, while also dipping into the many other interesting areas, new and traditional, available to it.

We'll be looking at individual topics, and/or individual sessions in articles over the next few days - we're trying to do something new, if not all that shocking, by publishing the overview first here.

If there was a consensus of opinion, at least among the regular Conference goers - who were much more in evidence on Day 2, interestingly - it was that the speakers and session ideas were generally well chosen, many of the presentation materials an improvement on the PowerPoint era, and that while nothing we saw (or very little) was very shocking or overly new, the whole thing managed to be both thought-provoking and sociable. What more can you ask of a conference?

Well, that's not entirely a rhetorical question. There were quite a few negatives, some small like the rather average buffet lunches with long queues, or the over-running of certain sessions leaving very little time for a break.

...and some major. There remains the problem of how to make the average speaker session truly interesting and enlivening. If anything, the fact that we have largely moved away from PowerPoint slides has only exposed this all the more. It turns out that presenting standard-looking graphs and tables of figures was not what caused us to nod off over many a paper - or not the only thing anyhow. Nor was/is the fact that the great majority of the big ideas voiced by speakers are things we've heard at most conferences over twenty years: getting into the boardroom; delivering real insight and not just figures; doing more with the data; working more closely in partnership with clients; tailoring solutions rather than shoe-horning to fit our specialist areas, and so on and so on. At one point a client side person actually claimed with a straight face that getting agencies to come in and discuss business issues with him rather than responding to briefs was 'a new idea', causing my neighbour at that moment, the CEO of a medium-large UK agency grouping, to slump forward with his head in his hands, emitting a heavy, heavy sigh. I'm not sure from his comments afterwards that I can include him in that relatively positive 'consensus' I mentioned above.

This underlying problem (with all conferences, not just this one or those within our industry) persists, 'though the MRS has perhaps observed and reacted to it. There seemed to be more debates and fewer presentations this time - tick that box; there are now workshops aplenty running alongside the main halls, so attendees can slip into something more interactive if they want - another tick; there is slightly more acceptance that some speakers not only won't be researchers but won't really talk about anything remotely connected with it - funny fine artist David Shrigley being a fine example this time round; and there is more acceptance that it's OK to take a break and sit out a session or two doing some 'networking' in the lobby or coffee area. In fact perhaps it's those of us 'covering' the Conference who feel least able to do so and therefore notice the session fatigue more than the typical delegate.

I went to a London cinema's 'Alien All-Nighter' once where all four of the sci-fi classics (or rather the two sci-fi classics and the two other films) were shown back-to-back, starting at 9pm and finishing at 7 in the morning - there were breaks to down large quantities of all-inclusive Red Bull and where necessary to ring The Samaritans for a quick chat (John Hurt at the tea table may be all good fun but those two later movies are pretty grim) - but otherwise it was pretty much bums on seats and eyes front for ten hours. (You could buy 'I survived' T-shirts afterwards but I'm happy to say I declined). Anyway I'm not exactly comparing the experience with a typical conference, it's just hard to think of another time you're expected to spend most of the day or night sitting still and concentrating on the stage/screen. As above, the MRS has had a good go at introducing interactive and social elements, but this remains mostly screen-based, social media saddo stuff. How about mixing the inevitable sit-down conference sessions with some sport, games, or a section where everyone gets to lie down? Or having speakers wandering *through* the audience giving their views, with clusters of listeners forming around them? Or a talk given in a field - or a swimming pool?

Would that be shocking? Or New? Probably not - researchers, as I may have said elsewhere, are a cynical bunch and if they turned up at all, the younger delegates would probably say 'this is a bit fruity' and the more seasoned campaigners 'this is just like ESOMAR'.

We can but try - and all things considered, hats off to the MRS for doing just that and hosting one of the better MR Conferences of recent years.

Nick Thomas

Articles about the individual sessions will appear throughout this week - the first is on big data and is published today.

All articles 2006-22 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas unless otherwise stated.

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