Reflections on the state of the art in media research

Bar the gala dinner this evening, the curtain has just fallen on the Media Research Group’s biennial overseas conference in Bratislava. Bringing together media agencies, media owners, and market researchers, the MRG is a tight-knit but very welcoming community, and I was honoured to deliver the keynote speech on the opening morning of the conference.

“Analytics + Storytelling = Influence: a new equation of media and marketing impact”, that was my theme. And it went down pretty well, if I say so myself, based on both social media chatter and interviews with an n of about 20 delegates I’ve spoken to since I sat down and stopped talking.

My Narrative by Numbers shtick is that corporate and brand stories that are rooted in evidence and informed by data, analytics, and statistics are more powerful and purposeful than flights of whimsy. Whatever Michael Gove might have sneered about our having had “enough of experts, with their acronyms” … however much the Trumps and Bannons might bluster about post-truth and fake news … narratives have never needed authoritative numbers more. Provided, of course, that the rational is tempered with the emotional. That those talking and presenting use that least common of dialects, that of “human”. And that we are sufficiently empathetic to put ourselves into the shoes – into the minds – of those we seek to influence and understand what it’s like to receive the message we’re giving.

As New Scientist concluded less than a week after the catastrophic act of self-harm that was the EU Referendum, “For reason to triumph, scientists need to learn to engage with emotion.” Quite so.

Over the course of the past three days, the great majority of presenters at the MRG Conference have done a great job in blending the rational with the emotional, using a judicious mix of numbers and narrative to persuade this super stats-literate audience of their case. Here are 20 of my personal favourites, in chronological order.

1. Anita Penn of Trendspot reported that 42.5% of the UK public believe a brand is damaged if it uses poor spelling and grammar.

2. Guy Holcroft of Ofcom revealed that average UK viewership of subscriber video on demand services (think Netflix) is still just 19 minutes a day, while social media usage has grown from an average of five minutes a day in 2006 to one hour 27 minutes a day today.

3. Dan Flyn of the IPA showed that 54% of the UK population are watching TV at 8.30pm on any given weekday evening. Good for advertisers. Not so good for a nation that needs to bootstrap itself through the next decade.

4. OMD’s Joe Wilson said that, in the past five years, Britons have grown tired of putting money aside for rainy days. 41% would have saved a £1,000 windfall in 2013, a figure tumbling to just 21% in 2018. Meantime, today, 61% would spend such a windfall on indulgences. I suppose we’ve got to block the world out somehow.

5. Kathryn Saxon of Wavemaker reported that human voices outscore Alexa on 17 out of 18 attributes when it comes to delivering real – human – brand values.

6. Culture of Insight’s James Smythe revealed that data bottlenecks and “too much faffing about” mean 55% of market researchers spend too little time mining for and delivering insights.

7. David Bailey (no, not that one) and Greg Morris of F1 revealed that, following the exit of “Mr E.” as the head of motorsport’s governing body, the organisation now thinks of itself as a 68-year-old start-up. Each F1 car generates 2TB of data per race, across 1,500 data points, all of which are crunched and served to fans via the F1 app.

8. Ant & Dec – aka Martin Greenbank of Channel 4 and Glenn Cowen of ITV – surprised us all by showing that seven out of ten occasions on which broadcaster video on demand services are used – think All4 or ITV Player – are on big TV screens in the living room. Just 3% are out of home, on the train or bus or tube.

9. 90% of 12-15s regularly use YouTube, reported Matthew Macaulay of MTM. As a father of a boy at the top end of that demographic, I’m surprised it’s as low as 90%.

10. The IAB’s George Hopkinson  predicted we were just five years away from the vision of a smart AI voice assistant becoming a reality. Aren’t we always “just five years away” from tantalising brave new worlds, I wondered?

11. Justin Sampson of BARB revealed that commercial radio currently accounts for fully 6% of all display advertising revenue, three times the share before RAJAR was created to properly measure radio’s impact. We learned a lot about JICs in Justin’s talk, where he was wearing many JIC hats.

12. Zoe Bowen Jones from Channel 4 showed that just 37% of characters in ads are women but that two thirds of 13-17-year-old girls agree that “ads make me feel inadequate”. She also revealed that women make or influence 85% of consumer purchases, but the same percentage don’t see or recognise themselves in ads at all. Come on, adland. Let’s make This Girl Can the rule, not the exception.

13. In a comfort-zone-shaking talk, Andrew Tenzer of Reach and Ian Murray of House 51 said that six out of ten people born in the UK still live within 20 miles of where they were born. 92% of those working in media agencies voted Remain, revealing a very strong disconnect between adland and those adland is trying to reach and influence.

14. Day 2 ended with an energetic keynote on data visualisation from Tobias Sturt, the visual yin to my verbal yang at the start of the day. This masterclass in how to present data in visually compelling ways was full of numbers, but mostly of how to read and dissect Titian’s composition of Dionysus and Ariadne. Following my early morning mention of Theseus in the context of the Golden Thread of narrative, the son of Aegeus got a second namecheck from Tobias, though not nearly as positively as mine; he revealed Theseus’ sneaking away from Ariadne on Naxos in the sail-away of shame. Surely this marks a first for the MRG: two Theseuses in a single day, let alone at the same conference.

15. Day three started with professional futurist Tracey Follows, looking 20 years into the future. She quoted Randy Dean of Sentient Technologies, who said: “Everything in the past 150 years will be reinvented using AI within the next 15 years.” She also showed nine, thought-provoking videos.

16. In explaining “The world when …” project to make The Economist gender neutral, Maria Haydn reminded us that 63% of women are in the workforce (vs 80% of men) but that there is still an average 15% gender pay gap across OECD countries. Currently, only a quarter of Economist subscribers are women, hence the ambitious project of change.

17. Nicola Barrett of Exterion revealed that the annual footfall in London is 750m people.

18. Euan Mackay of Route, a fan of Field of Dreams, gave a powerful, map-rich presentation called “If you build it, they will come”. Route now generates 50TB of data annually. As an effective, data-driven storyteller, he used the power of analogy to translate this into F1 cars (25 per race, see above), hours of Netflix streaming, and other, helpful parallels.

19. A second debate looking – reflecting – forward to 2028 also featured a brilliant cameo by the Terminator (you had to be here). The stats highlight came from GFK’s Tijen Enver, citing the US Department of Labor: 65% of today’s school age children will be doing jobs not yet invented. Including – we all hope – hover board designers, servicers, and data divas.

20. In a sobering joint presentation from Pauline Robson from Mediacom and Debbie Snewing of Toluna titled “Should social media carry a health warning?”, we were reminded that mental health issues have risen sixfold since 1995, particularly among tweens and teens.

The conference began on Wednesday afternoon with half a dozen delegates giving their reflections on the greatest lessons they’d learned over the course of their careers. Being the MRG, we voted on our phones for the winner in a real-time poll. And the very worthy winner was Sarah Gale of OMD, who made the case for the power of simplicity; simple stories well told, avoiding complexity bias. Quite so. How very Narrative by Numbers.

Thank you so much, MRG, for inviting me to give the opening keynote to your Reflections conference. Thanks for making me feel so welcome throughout. For housing, feeding, and watering me so well. And for providing me with the platform to share my ideas with such a willing and receptive audience. Here’s to this being the first of many such powerful and purposeful interactions.