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ESOMAR Congress Review: The Right Balance

September 27 2017

DRNO's Nick Thomas wraps up his review of the 70th Congress with a general verdict - and as you may have guessed after the first three reviews, it's a good one. Not by any means unqualified however - whisper it low, he'll even have a go at the clients. Part 4 of 4.

Halls of Fame (and Shame)

Great trade show, if rather close to the stage.No doubt about it, the Beurs van Berlage is a great venue - as rival event IIeX Europe has discovered - and the atmosphere at the 70th Congress was very good. One thing ESOMAR has to get right if it returns (or finds similar arrangements at its next venue) - and this is In My Humble Opinion although supported by most of those I talked to - is the juxtaposition of trade show and secondary / tertiary speaker platforms. How different for the speakers in the dedicated Blue Hall, with 500 or so seats set out before them (and sometimes fairly full) and nothing to compete for the attention of their audience; and for those speaking on and at times struggling with the Green and Pink stages, sharing their halls with much larger trade fair space and having to command admittedly much smaller audiences with stirring content and/or novel formats, to avoid being lost. If I'm ever asked to do a paper (however unlikely that may seem) my first question will be 'Which Room?'

To be fair, I watched examples of successful Green and Pink stage sessions such as the automation debate (see yesterday's part 3) - but I also saw at least one session that I couldn't hear, due to the buzz of trade show around me, and to which only half the audience of 20 or so were paying any attention at all, the remainder looking at mobiles or in one shameless case (never any names here) apparently asleep. It is a tiring few days, like any conference, but the secret if one feels one might doze off in a minute is obviously to repair to the Blue Hall, where one can do so in the anonymous dark at the back of a substantial crowd and where an impressive bank of Dutch audio technicians will no doubt find the resonant frequency of one's snoring and lift it, Flevoland-like, from the soundtrack.

The upside of this is that the trade shows were great - big enough and busy enough to feel like real hubs of activity, with business no doubt being done and meaningful contacts made (yours truly no exception - look out for some new advertisers on DRNO soon). One thing we can't fight, it seems, is the disappearance of traditional or full service research firms from these shows - ten years ago a Nielsen or a TNS might have shown its face, and a good number of smaller firms would take a punt on any such event. Now, with a couple of honourable exceptions such as Kadence, the halls were given over to suppliers to the industry - panel companies; sample companies; translation specialists (tho fewer at this one than at IIeX, interestingly); video, mobile and big data specialists.

The food was very good too - that never hurts. I actually (for reasons you don't want to hear) arrived at this one with a bad stomach, and left with a very contented one - an extraordinary reversal of my usual culinary conference experience. Except for one bizarre networking break where the only thing to be had anywhere was coconut fingers - maybe it's a Dutch national dish on a par with chocolate sprinkles?

Hurried Visions

With the programmes for the Green and Pink Stages finished by coffee time on Wednesday, all eyes could now focus on the Blue Stage and all bums perch on the sea of seats in that dedicated room. This seemed to indicate a feeling that the following session, Research Visions from the Client Side, was an important one, and indeed it seems logical that anyone should be interested in what our clients have to say, and most of all researchers (cf plumbers' own sinks, shoemakers' own children's shoes, etc..). However the fact that only forty minutes had been allotted for it served a bit of a warning, that we might skate over the surface of the issues a little, and so it proved.

A pity, for there was some original research to examine - a survey of a couple of dozen large client firms, mostly in Europe and South America, present by Fabian Buder of the Future and University Programs at GfK Verein - and then a stellar panel of clients, comprising BV Pradeep, Global Vice President - Consumer & Market Insight, Unilever, UK; Noriko Nakano, Head of Product Performance Evaluation, Nihon L'Oreal Research & Innovation Center, Japan; Reed Cundiff, General Manager of Microsoft, USA; and Silke Muenster, VP Market Research & Innovation, Philip Morris International, Switzerland.

Buder had 10 minutes, and the others 25 between them, to tell us What Clients Want, without any specific indication as to areas of particular interest. The GfK survey found that clients felt everything had to happen quicker and quicker, and that the marketing environment was 'way more complex' these days. Processes are more integrated, clients are making 'microdecisions' along the way, changing direction and fine-tuning their products, promotional activity etc.. Market research has lots of new competitors, and needs to prove its ROI more than ever before. It may be more appropriate where a client wants a longer-term decision (remember those? Not all clients do, it seems), but that may not be enough work to keep us all happy.

The panel said many of the same things: big client companies get a lot of basic metrics, 'telemetry data' and so on but need help in interpreting it. BV Pradeep said it really didn't matter where insight came from, which indicated clients' readiness to investigate alternative sources, and Cundiff illustrated nicely with a reference to a Pepsi insight client he had heard use the phrase 'the agency that we hired was Google'. 'That stuck with me', he said, and we all knew why. By way of consolation, he also said that the 'trusted partners Microsoft has developed in certain countries are human beings, and we'd love to see them travel along with us' - I may paraphrase slightly - indicating a kind of loyalty to known individuals who can contribute genuine insights, and a desire to see them move with the times so the relationships can continue. Muenster, on the other hand, said that an agency relationship is with more than an individual, there being 'no one person' in an agency who has all the skills required, and co-ordination is important.

All valid points, as one would expect from such experienced clientsiders - however, I found the session not just slightly but deeply frustrating. To my mind, 'Visions' was exactly what it didn't provide. It was as if ESOMAR had got to the end of the programme, decided there wasn't enough 'client side stuff' in it and stuck in an extra session with some big names. They bottled it a bit - the programme was great already, and the usual suspect generalisations about our industry had been mercifully thin on the ground, but here they were all concentrated into half an hour at the end. On Monty Python's Contractual Obligation Album the first track starts with 'Warning: this record contains 2 f***s, 3 b******* [long list of swear words] But since they only occur in this opening section, you're past them now'. This was similar but with the cliches unnecessarily at the end. There was no time to say anything new about possible solutions to the challenges discussed by the clients, and all or most were challenges I have heard many times before and expect to hear many times more.

Vainly did a couple of questioners from the floor attempt to open up the issues a little in the five or ten minutes allotted, for example suggesting that all the talk of going faster faster faster ignores the need for strategic research rather than tactical, and surely it's folly to neglect strategy and obsess over short-term considerations. Read a random ten stories in the marketing press, and you're sure to find one bemoaning the same phenomenon there.

It's sacrilege to criticise clients, I know, although it's easier for me to do so as an industry journo than many of you as suppliers. But in a way I'm not criticising them: with this format and in the time available, the four luminaries probably delivered as much meaningful feedback as could be expected. My two penn'orth - and I guess I've had a couple of Euros-worth at least already - is just to ask that if we manage to compile such a great line-up of clients for a future session, can we give them more specific topics to discuss, over a longer period, and try and be a bit more controversial. Maybe that 'robots' session on the Pink Stage would provide some inspiration - can we force the clients to argue more with each other?

A Sprightly SeventyParking, Amsterdam-style.

If the session was too short for much meaningful analysis, however, it was also too short to dim my very favourable view of the preceding content. My overall verdict - and I speak as one who feels the MR conference space is a trifle crowded these days - is that ESOMAR feels different from the other conferences I've been to, and in a good way. It helps to have the head start of being the long-established global MR association, but it's also because it's always taken Congress very seriously, kept its speakers' quality, laid on good social outings and generally not allowed the momentum to slacken. I particularly liked the proportion of uplifting and inspiring papers, as opposed to the navel-gazing of some other MR industry shindigs. All right, it has to remain an MR conference, but we can look outward more at the wider picture in which we play a part - as Merry says to Treebeard 'You're part of this world!' [I've been to a couple of MR ent-moots in my time too.]

Without going on about how to 'remain relevant' (a pet hate of mine as you can see), the Congress leaves you feeling that you / we are relevant, and brings in a good attendance from round the world to celebrate it. There's space for more tech-focused conferences like IIeX, and for specialist and cliquey events for interest groups - but there's definitely a need for a Big One, and I think probably this is it.

This concludes our coverage of ESOMAR 70 - we hope you enjoyed it, and that despite some of today's moans we'll be able to wangle a ticket to another one.

I'm sure our Dutch hosts say that word all the time without batting an eyelid.

Nick Thomas

All articles 2006-21 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas unless otherwise stated.

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