Note: this is an excerpt from the keynote presentation “It’s Not You, It’s Me” delivered at the 2019 Insights Association Corporate Researcher’s Conference in Orlando on October 23, 2019

This should be a great time to be in Insights. The consumer understanding we have now is unparalleled—neuroscience has made leaps and bounds in their discoveries over the past 10 years, we’ve got mindstates, behavioral science, System 1 and 2, and more than ever we better understand how and why consumers make decisions. And boy do we have analytics! We’re doing more cool stuff with data than ever before with so many new companies entering this field. This should be the golden age of insights.

Because of all of this understanding, in the Serengeti of the business world, Insights should have no natural predators. Marketing, Product Development, Sales, Senior Executives should all benefit from our work. We should identify the right consumer, their needs, and how to talk to them; bring to life the insights that help create the most desired products; give direction on how to action on those insights that sell those desired products; and drive up company balance sheets and value.

The problem is, I’m saying “should” instead of “is” or “do”. Even with all the advances in the Insights industry, we are still facing many of the same problems we’ve had for decades.

If you look at any company as a body, it’s pretty easy to symbolize parts of the company with parts of the body:

  • Head = CEO
  • Feet = Product development—since we stand on our products/services and they are the foundation of our companies
  • Legs = Sales—since they keep the entire company moving by selling our products/services
  • Arms/Hands = Operations—through their directing and precision in bringing those products to market

So what body part symbolizes Insights? I know Insights professionals want to say the heart or gut…but far too often, we are the appendix. With all the vast medical knowledge we have, we don’t know what the appendix does, that’s why it’s so easily removed. CEO’s know they have an insights department but they don’t know what function it serves or what it actually does, which is why is so easily removed sometimes, despite all the vast consumer knowledge we have. Why is that? Why do people look at us as an appendix when they should look at us as the heart—pumping the lifeblood throughout the entire company?

Insights is too often viewed as the appendix of a company--people don't know what function it serves so it's too easily removed

Well, I say that it’s our fault in the Insights industry, not everyone else (cue George Costanza “I invented it’s not you it’s me”.) While there are obvious exceptions, generally speaking, we have been focused on the wrong things, delivering the wrong type of information, providing the wrong value. We talk about wanting a seat at the table in most cases we haven’t earned. We don’t regularly and meaningfully contribute to sales and don’t put ourselves in the shoes of our chief executives—then we act surprised when our budgets are cut or our positions are eliminated. In the absence of no natural predators, we have become the greatest threat to our own existence. 

Even though virtually every industry has been significantly disrupted and companies are searching for anything to give them a competitive advantage, many insights departments are not only facing budget and head counts cuts but their CEO’s don’t feel their organizations are insight-driven. Because of this, many of them are now outsourcing insights to the consulting giants. So it’s not that CEO’s don’t believe in insights; they believe in outcomes and that’s what consulting companies give them.

There are many things we need to fix as an Insights industry but there are three foundational things we must do before we can move forward with all of the strategic possibilities and vision we have.

#1. We Need To Put Our Past Behind Us…

…while still being grateful for it and stay in touch with it. This industry is proudly born from academia. It’s given us our foundation while continuing to provide thought provoking answers to important issues. The only problem is, we continue to be slaves to the dogma and differing priorities of our forefathers. And it has us much too focused on methodologies. Insights for business and academia need to go down two different roads, providing different paths to different destinations. Our objectives, timelines, and deliverables are very different so we shouldn’t continue going down the same path together. 

Our academic past has conditioned our own clients to question insights that aren’t the result of large studies with lots of quantifiable or “reliable” data. It’s taken years for some of the great insights breakthroughs in qualitative, behavioral, emotional, or neuroscience to be accepted because they have “small” sample sizes.

Our deliverables need to dramatically improve. I tell my agency partners all the time: I don’t need to know everything you know, I just need to know what I need to know. And senior executives need to know even less than I know. We as an industry have been pretty bad story tellers. We’ve also been bad at actually telling senior executives what to do because historically, academic market research has been done to prove hypotheses, develop new techniques, prove a theory, or any number of reasons that don’t have anything to do with telling CEOs how to make money. We need to deliver short, concise reports with a clear story and call to action, tailored to our audience.

And we must stop talking about methodologies. Data collection methodologies are the most basic of commodities. We need to talk about answering questions, solving problems, taking action, and making money. We should be spending most of our time implementing insights and changing culture, not doing research or talking about how we do research.

#2: We Need To Recruit And Hire Different Talent 

We have tons of smart people in our industry. Intelligence isn’t our problem. We need to look beyond the typical job posting qualifications for market research positions and look for the types of talent that will elevate our industry. Teaching necessary market research skills is easy yet we over-emphasize methodological or market research experience as the number one trait in Insights professionals. If we are to grow as an industry and influence our companies and clients the way we need to, there’s a few things we need and a one thing we don’t.

First off, we need to recruit more charismatic people. We need great presenters, people who aren’t afraid to speak up and out. Gone are the days where we sit quietly in the room and only speak when spoken to. And it doesn’t mean more extroverts. I know a lot of charismatic introverts, so don’t get charisma confused with being extroverted. Charismatic people make others feel comfortable, can get along with anyone, have a presence in a room, and know how to lead a group. We must recruit more of these people into our industry.

Secondly, we need great influencers and people with the gift of persuasion. These are people who can fluidly work cross-functionally and can artfully influence others when they don’t immediately see the truth in what we’re doing. People who can build trust in others, who are patient, know how to tell a story many different ways, and illustrate how the work we do positively affects other parts of the company. These are not “soft” skills anymore—they are “hard” skills that are necessary for our industry.

Lastly, we need people who have worked in other parts of business outside of Insights. Insights has been accused of working in silos or vacuums, doing our work with minimal understanding of the overall business. We need to actively recruit people who have worked in product development, sales, or general marketing roles to bring their perspective to our work. Many of us didn’t originally consider a career in Insights and now that we’re in it, we love it! It’s time for us to show others what a great career path this can be and benefit from the influx of their experience.

The one thing we don’t need is more market research generalists. We need people who are great at one or two things, not jacks-of-all-masters-of-none. You may start out as a generalist (most of us did) but find your passion in this industry and go develop it: behavioral science, data analytics, brand building, innovation, or retail activation…it doesn’t matter. If you are great at something, people will find you and want you.

#3: We Must Help Sell More Stuff. 

With the notable exception of non-profit, the only thing that drives business insights today on the supplier and corporate side is selling more stuff. Too often we get wrapped up in “interesting” research that does nothing for our respective companies’ bottom lines. Every research project we embark on should offer a clear path to more sales.

And yes…we need to tell better stories. A major part of our jobs should be to build the brands we work with, work with marketing to tell unique and relevant brand stories that resonate with our target customer. Because that’s what influences the behavioral change we want and leads to more sales.

Then once we deliver the great insights that leads sales in one way or another, we need to own it and take credit for it. For some reason we’ve been content to let marketing and sales take the credit for our work, thereby diminishing our perceived value. Just like the roots should get credit for the fruits that are produced from the tree, and not just the trunk or branches, Insights should get credit for the grassroots work we do for our companies. We should take credit for the brand stories we help create, the winning product development we help design, and the increased sales we helped influence. That will also help move the conversation about the Insights budget being moved into “working dollars” instead of “non-working dollars” since we are actively contributing to our companies’ bottom lines.

Market Research is like an old brand that is in desperate need of a refresh. Regardless of our role, the one thing we all can agree upon is that we as an Insights industry need to be better. We need to show our value. We need to become more indispensable to our companies and clients as well as be better partners so they can’t live without us.