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Ellen Hammett 

Data artists and dead polymaths: the future of media research

Data artists and dead polymaths: the future of media research

At the Future of Media Research conference experts discussed the challenges they face in an era of big data, digital disruption and changing consumer behaviours. Here we present the trends, innovations and creative thinking set to shake up the sector.

A mirror of the tech world

From the rise of Uber - now the world's largest taxi company despite not owning any taxis - to international hotel giant Airbnb - that owns no hotels - business models are fundamentally changing and an influx of tech-driven businesses are disrupting markets the world over.

In turn, the media research sector could be seen as mirroring the disruption and changing how it operates.

"Issues driving innovation in media research are very much dictated by markets which are in disruptive flow right now," says independent consultant Adele Gritten.

"Transformative business models like Uber, Airbnb and Netflix mean that our industry has got to keep pace and technology is a fundamental part of being able to do that."

With ever-increasing access to knowing what people are consuming, doing and absorbing, Gritten says media research has entered the 'post-innovation marketing paradigm' - or what she calls, with a smirk, the 'pimp economy'.

"As a researcher, it means that I need to think differently about the way that I help my clients evaluate outcomes," she says.

For Gritten, the industry needs to start thinking "bigger macro-context" when it comes to innovation and not just "our little insular media world."

No more time lags

How important is having access to real-time data? For Primesight's Lisa West, this is a big area of interest for the out-of-home industry.

Like the consumer in search of instant gratification - "they want to buy now, have now, pay now, everything is about now" - West thinks, to a degree, this will also be true of the media research world.

"Gone are the days where people were happy to wait a month to understand whether their campaign has been effective," she says.

"We live in a world where we have the flexibility to adapt and change our campaigns more than ever before...and we can now act on it and move forward - to make sure we maximise on where we are doing well to ensure we deliver the most effective campaigns."

This thinking has led to the development of 'Primemobie Live', which gives advertisers access to campaign research in the moment.

Crucially, it means a digital OOH campaign can be fine tuned whilst it's still live and clients love it.

However, not everyone is convinced that the industry needs more real-time data. The IPA's research director, Lynne Robinson, wonders if people will soon need their data measured before it has happened.

"You're often better to wait," she said - "and get a far more accurate picture."

Making better observations

Realising that what consumers say they do, and what they actually do, are often completely different things has always been a problem for researchers - but tech might be able to overcome the problem, says ZenithOptimedia's head of insight, Richard Shotton.

"Tiny changes in context can have considerable influence on consumer behaviour," he says.

"This means that if the context in which you undertake research is markedly different from the context in which consumers normally make decisions then the findings may be inaccurate."

For example, learnings from fMRI scanners need to be treated with caution as the experience is so alien.

"Therefore, it's most valuable to see how consumers behave in realistic situations when they think no-one is watching. This is why field tests and search analysis are so valuable."

That consumers are spending increasing amounts of time online, Shotton says, is a "great opportunity" for researchers, as digital behaviour can be tracked "without them necessarily knowing it."

"There's been a lot of talk about how programmatic can open up insights," he says, "but in the digital space I think the most interesting area is the interpretation of search results."

The end of the polymath?

Gone are the days that a lone media researcher, skilled in all areas of the discipline, sat in the basement and was master of all areas of the job. These days media research sits at the forefront of business decisions and teams are comprised, largely, of many different specialists.

"And we need more of them," says Jim Kite, strategic development director at Starcom MediaVest Group.

"We need data experts coming in to be curious about our business. There is a gulf at present and we're all trying to close that, but there aren't many people who have come into the industry to do a data and analytics role who really understand how audience is measured."

Meanwhile, for Adele Gritten, there is a push at present for the more commercial and academic end of qualitative research.

"Ethnography is definitely making a bit of a resurgence, spending time in people's natural environments to really observe the whys of what they're doing in relation to the vast amounts of quantitative data we have about what they did. Disentangling why they do what they do is more important than ever before."

On the one hand, she says, we have a "polarising of talent" in what very specialist qualitative niche ethnographers do, and on the other hand you've got the data scientist.

A new breed

Over the 18 months there has also been a new starring role: the so-called "data artist".

"They are a rare breed of people," says Gritten. "They are equally adept at left and right brain thinking and can synthesise vast amounts of data, whether it's qual or quant, whether it's structured or unstructured.

"They can absorb so much information and make sense of it in digestible formats - that's the kind of talent you want to hire."

With more specialists - and specialisms - than ever before, does this signal the end for the polymath?

Not so, argues Richard Shotton.

"Relying on a single technique to solve all problems is inappropriate as it can mean researchers try and force fit their approach to the problem regardless of its suitability. As Mark Twain said: 'To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail'.

"Far better to use polymaths when solving a brand problem as they can select whatever methodology is best suited to the individual nature of the problem.

"We don't just need people with the right skills, we need people with the right mind-set. They need to be curious enough about Big Data to stay knowledgeable about new opportunities, but sceptical enough to note pitfalls."

Rise of the boutique agencies

Where does the mid-sized media agency fit in the media world? Where do they find their niche? How do they find their clients, and what is their role?

Adele Gritten argues there is a real problem for mid-sized agencies at present.

In fact, Gritten says it was one of the reasons she left her role as European managing director of a large global company to be a consultant.

"The industry, from a practitioner perspective, is really polarising between the big industry behemoths who are simply there to execute on big contracts...and independent small companies who are there to make sense of a hell of a lot of data," she says.

"You've also got the self-server and the tech players coming in, meaning anyone via Survey Monkey can do their own research."

As a result, Gritten thinks the industry is going to polarise even further.

Richard Shotton, however, thinks the gulf between larger agencies and smaller boutique agencies is going to shrink as they enter a "level playing field".

"Automation of research brings many benefits; by removing laborious, manual work from sampling, data collection and tabulation it makes the research process quicker and cheaper. This frees up more time for interpretation of the data.

"However, it also has the potential to hugely disrupt the industry. The range of automated, self-service opportunities available reduce the barriers to entry and pave the way for a blossoming of smaller agencies and consultancies."

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