Reflections of an MRS Fellow

Industry observations and predictions from Illuminas UK Managing Director, Jonathan Fletcher, upon receiving the MRS Fellowship award.

JonathanFletcherOn June 11th Jonathan Fletcher, Group Managing Director at Illuminas, was awarded the prestigious MRS Fellowship at the Excellence Awards in London. The Fellowship, MRS’ highest reward, is given in recognition of dedication to the research profession and excellence in market and social research. Since joining Illuminas 18 years ago, Jonathan has won multiple awards and accolades for his work in the market research industry, including four ‘Best Paper’ awards and the AURA Commercial Context Award in 2012.

The Market Research Society has been a mainstay in the market research industry for over 65 years and has been awarding Fellowships to Members in recognition of an exceptional contribution to market research since 1996. In addition to having numerous papers published, Jonathan also has years of work sitting on awards panels and running workshops. Jonathan was also amongst the first researchers to highlight the significance for market research of findings in cognitive psychology and neuropsychology and showing how these insights could be applied to brand and advertising research.  On receiving his fellowship, Jonathan said “I’m delighted to be honoured in this way by the MRS. Market research has always been receptive to new ideas from different disciplines and this openness has, if anything, increased in recent years. I consider myself extremely lucky to be involved in the industry during such an exciting time of change.”

Screen-shot-2013-07-17-at-2.50.51-PM-300x220Market research is going through major changes, due to client expectations, technology and wider social changes. One of the main trends in the industry is the growing emphasis on visual design and production values in the communication of research findings. Infographics and data visualization are having a significant impact on the way we work. Clients are now expecting presentations that communicate the research findings in a highly visual manner. “It is no longer tenable,” says Jonathan, “to have a single PowerPoint deck serving as both a detailed document of record and a prop for a face-to-face presentation”.

Another challenge is the tension between, on the one hand, clients’ need for more transparency in research methods and, on the other, the growing influence of technical, specialist methodologies such as Behavioural Economics (BE) and neuropsychology.  With the decline of psychoanalysis over the last couple of decades, qualitative research increasingly lacked an explicit grounding for its ability to produce insights into consumers’ unconscious processes. This led to a democratisation of qualitative research, but at the risk of a certain dumbing down.  As qualitative research’s technical mystique fell away, end clients felt more able to get involved in the qualitative research dialogue, which has been a very good thing. But it also led to reluctance on the part of practitioners to reach beyond what respondents said to their underlying thought processes. BE, cognitive psychology and neuropsychology offer a fresh methodological grounding for qualitative research when exploring unconscious processes and motivations.

worldofnumbers-150x150Another trend to keep an eye on is Big Data, the analysis of very large datasets either online or held on systems within a business. Proponents of Big Data argue that the vast amounts of data available online can compensate for the inevitable imprecision of analyzing data not collected for the specific purposes of the analysis. This approach may start to replace a few types of research, such as topline brand warmth measurement for well-known consumer brands, quite soon, Fletcher speculates.  But to make significant in-roads into research territory, Big Data analytics would need to solve the issue of context: they will have to replace the controlled testing approach of survey research – asking specific questions of specific people as part of a dialogue about a specific subject – with a method based on sheer weight of data and interpretative filters/ algorithms. “Whether this is possible for Big Data is hard to say for certain” says Fletcher. “Very often the things we ask in surveys are things that have never been asked before and even a questionnaire design expert is tested to the limit to shape the question in the right way to avoid ambiguities and misunderstanding.” Fletcher doubts it will ever be possible to replace this art with the science of very large numbers.

“It is rare in the social sciences that a new method completely replaces an existing method. Instead new methods tend to augment existing approaches, by offering a different, though still incomplete, perspective on complexities of human behavior and motivation” concludes Fletcher. But the new perspective provided by Big Data, like those afforded by BE and neuropsychology, will prove very valuable for Market Researchers in achieving their overall objective of understanding and predicting consumer and buyer behavior. Market researchers should be seeking a place in the big data workflow, working with developers and guiding the process for corporate data generation and collection. Such an approach requires market researchers to develop skills in using unstructured data.  The market research specialist can bring new kinds of value to organizations seeking to leverage big data, and will be very exciting to see how the two fields interact in the future.

We’re entering a very exciting time of change in our industry, and are honored to have a seat at the table with other like-minded researchers at the MRS. You can read more about the MRS by visiting their website, or view recent interviews with Fletcher and the other fellows here.