Why the media industry is out of step with the modern mainstream, why this matters, and what to do about it
Last week, I was honoured to make the opening keynote address at the Media Research Group’s biennial overseas conference in beautiful, optimistic Bratislava. This relatively new nation state was apparently happy with itself, ushering in Christmas with a classic mitteleuropäische markt, content in its Slovakian AND European identity. That’s what it felt like as a Brit outsider looking in, perhaps on my last trip to the continent as a citizen of the UK and the EU. Perhaps.
Senior figures from the three closely-connected components of the media industry – media agencies, media owners, and research consultancies – had come together for three days to share and showcase the state of our art. Given that the hotel venue was on the banks of the wine-dark Danube, the theme of the conference was – suitably enough – “Reflections”. Janus-like, delegates looked back on lessons leaned from the distant and recent past, as well as looking forward to 2028.
The MRG is an impressive organisation. Impressive because of the way competitors put aside parochial commercial imperatives for the greater good of industry insight and innovation. Impressive because of the close-knit, extended family nature of the media research industry, going strong despite being well into its sixth decade. And impressive because of its willingness to be open and welcoming to outsiders from adjacent domains of expertise from which it can learn. Curiosity is arguably the most important attribute of insight professionals, and MRG members have it in spades.
This constant itch to ask “Why?” revealed an interesting and – to me at least – unexpected leitmotif during #MRGConf2018. And the leitmotif was difference. Despite very clever people doing innovative research into how and why different types of people consume media, the media industry is not much like many of those people whose attention it wants to attract. It’s not like those whose motivations it seeks to understand. And it’s not like those whose attitudes it seeks to influence.
On one level, this doesn’t matter very much. Actors aren’t like theatre goers. Doctors and nurses aren’t like patients. And teachers aren’t like children. Empathy and understanding – the ability to put ourselves into other people’s shoes, minds, and lives – are uniquely human qualities. Mods didn’t need to become rockers to know how sworn enemies would respond to their bank holiday appearance on Vespas on the Brighton seafront in the 1960s. It was the anticipation of a tribal stand-off and a fight that drew them, magnet-like, to the Sussex seaside.
On another level, too, it isn’t terribly surprising. Much of the media and media research industry is located in the metropolitan bubble that is London. The same could be said of the legal or financial or indeed any other professional services business of national import. Lawyers and bankers aren’t much like Jo(e) Public. Nor are marketers and researchers. All earn several times the median wage, live – and can afford to live – in an incredibly diverse metropolis. They’re probably more likely to welcome and blend with outgroups, and construct a decent slug of their personal identity from their commitment to look outwards for stimulus rather than be satisfied by what’s around them.
To anyone working in media, marketing, or research, it comes as no shock that 92% of those working in media agencies voted Remain in the 2016 EU Referendum. A frequent rejoinder is, “So, who are the 8%?, then” There’s no reason to assume that media agency folk are more or less pro-EU than the rest of the media research community. This suggests that, collectively, we were almost twice as likely to vote Remain than the general population; 1.89 times more likely, for the stats curious. Marketers aren’t twice as likely to support Liverpool or prefer carrots to tomatoes. But they’re almost twice as likely to have expressed their preference to stay in the EU.
Several strands of research presented from diverse sources at #MRGConf18 pointed to an industry out of step with the rest of the nation. This was kick-started by a particularly compelling paper from Andrew Tenzer, Head of Group Insight at Reach of and Ian Murray of house51. Reach used to be known as Trinity Mirror, and it owns more regional newspapers than any other media company. More than 90 in total, from the Accrington Observer to The Wharf, via the Ormskirk Advertiser.
Buying a regional newspaper is not something many in the media industry do regularly, particularly not in London, where freesheets dominate. Metro on the morning commute, Evening Standard on the muted journey home. News coverage in both these titles is much more national and global than it is regional. Plus, like some Londoners, they consider London news to be of national importance.
But outside of London, buying a regional is still A Thing. So, knowing what the modern mainstream outside the media bubble thinks, feels, and believes is critical to Reach. And the paper presented by AI (that’s Andrew and Ian) showed quite clearly that most Britons are not much “like us” in media, meaning that we don’t truly know what makes people who aren’t like us tick.
The media community and the modern mainstream are characterised on an analytical vs an holistic world view.
Analytical folks see the world as a line. They’re (we’re) individualistic and believe that people are predictable. Once you understand them, they can be influenced by the right messages. And analytical folk like and believe in the power of emotional storytelling.
By contrast, holistic people see the world as a circle and relationships as fundamentally interdependent. They believe more in the importance of community – including the local community – they’re collectivist, and believe the world (and people) is (are) complex and not predictable.
So, not the same then.
Both before and after Andrew and Ian presented their paper, evidence kept emerging that showed media behaviours across the country as a whole are not quite what media commentators or the media industry would have us believe.
For instance, linear TV still takes more than three hours viewing time of the average Brit, while cool and funky subscription video on demand (S-VoD; Netflix, Amazon Prime) accounts for just 19 minutes a day. What’s more, broadcaster video on demand – B-VoD; platforms such as All4 and ITV Hub – isn’t dominated by solo commuters catching up on the latest from Love Island or Killing Eve on the bus, train, or tube (caveat London bias!). More than 70% of all B-VoD is viewing on at home, on the main TV in the house, with others watching too. 1.6, on average. 22% is in the bedroom. And just 3% is watched out of home, either on the move or in Howard Schultz’s Third Place, the coffee shop.
Six out of ten people in the UK, Andrew and Ian told us, live and work within 20 miles of where they were born. How many media folk have sneered at the data showing that half of all Americans never leave their own state, and only 8% have a passport. I know I have, suggesting that we (media) Brits are so well-travelled and broadminded. Well, matey, given that the UK is smaller than 11 US states from Alaska to Michigan , perhaps the habitual US retort that their country (and often state) has quite enough to offer is shared by most Britons, too. As a nation, we’re not so outward-looking and adventurous as the metropolitan elite has had us believe, fresh from another city break. Truth should temper adland’s Brexit shock and dismay.
Post-Brexit Britain, last seen hovering over Texas and Oklahoma – with thanks to Lost in the Pond
There are important differences in gender, too, particularly in our post-#MeToo, post-#TimesUp world. Despite the strides being made by Unilever and others with its #unstereotype campaign – an initiative designed to eliminate stereotypical portrayals of both men and women in advertising – Zoe Bowen Jones from Channel 4 showed #MRGConf18 that just 37% of characters in ads are women. She reported that two-thirds of 13-17-year-old girls agree that “ads make me feel inadequate”. And she revealed that, while women make or influence 85% of consumer purchases, the same percentage don’t recognise themselves in ads at all.
The fact that the people of adland have a fundamentally different world view from the modern mainstream only matters if it affects the work that we do. If it makes us create media and marketing properties that we think will have one effect when effectively we’re trying to influence people with messages – and particularly emotions – that don’t stand a chance of succeeding. Recognising difference and acknowledging there’s a problem is a critical first step. As with other cognitive biases – those pesky heuristic shortcuts much loved by behavioural economists – if they’re pointed out to us and we understand how they lead us to make predictable mistakes, we can start to counter them.
As well as learning a huge amount about all sorts of different issues, #MRGConf18 opened my eyes to the very real differences between adland and the modern mainstream. It did this by quantifying and qualifying what some of these differences are and how they can lead decision-making astray. For that – and so much more – I’m so glad I took up the MRG’s generous offer not only to give the keynote on Thursday morning, but also to attend the whole conference. If I’d just flown in, talked, and flown out, there’s no way my perspective would have been shifted so purposely and permanently.
Thanks, MRG. To Frances and Stef, to Andrew and Ian, to all of you. And also to Chris who – during a particularly rambunctious Brexit conversation late into the night on Thursday in Bratislava castle – made me realise that one very real benefit of Britain leaving the EU, if we ever do, would be edam becoming an endangered species on our shores. The palindrome of “made” and anagram of “dame” could be a very small by tangible silver lining. Not that the modern mainstream would care.
 For chapter and verse, see Lost in the Pond, for whom thanks for the picture. Ordered by landmass, Alaska is equal to 7.05 UKs, Texas 2.86, California 1.74, Montana 1.56, New Mexico 1.29, Arizona 1.21, Nevada1.17, Colorado 1.11, Oregon 1.04, Wyoming 1.03, and Michigan 1.03. On a family road trip round California last summer, we experienced 42C in the desert of Palm Springs, needed jackets in the Alpine zone in the mountains above that city, had a snowball fight in Mammoth Lakes, skirted forest fires in the Napa and Sonoma Valleys wine country around Calistoga, and hit 50C at 200m below sea level in Death Valley. Perhaps the stay-at-home-state Americans have a point after all.
Sam Knowles is a master data storyteller and the Founder & MD of the consultancy Insight Agents. His purpose is to help organisations make smarter use of data, talk Human, and sound like people. An established and sought-after trainer, keynote speaker, and podcaster, he is the founder and host of Data Malarkey podcast and chair of I-COM’s Data Storytelling Council. He’s a Fellow of the Market Reserach Society, the RSA, and the Professional Speaking Association.
Sam is the author of the ‘Using Data Better’ trilogy of books, all published by Routledge. These include the 2018 best-seller Narrative by Numbers, 2020’s critically-acclaimed sequel, How To Be Insightful , and 2022’s eagerly-anticipated Asking Smarter Questions. In 2023, Insight Agents launched Using Data Smarter, a comprehensive, online training course based on all three books.
Find out more about Sam’s approach to data storytelling in this 15-minute video.