Insights industry must reinvent itself after disastrous 2016

The insights industry got things very wrong in 2016. This year, it cannot simply do better - it must fundamentally change its methodologies.

It is always fitting at the start of the year to look back and ponder the past 12 months through the 20/20 lens of hindsight. At the same time, we strive to look into the crystal ball to predict the future. Marketers need surety about the effectiveness of their campaigns because big bets are being placed in increasingly difficult landscapes of engagement. So let’s take a look at what we learned last year and what will be trending in 2017.

The first learning came from a study BrainJuicer conducted jointly with the World Federation of Advertisers on the future of insights. There is a real tension between insights departments and the marketing stakeholders they serve. A majority of marketers we surveyed saw their insights colleagues as "librarians" or "caddies" in the custodial handling of consumer insights rather than trusted advisors in equal pursuit of creating effective marketing. 


The implication for the industry is clear. Without the confidence that insights teams are measuring the right things and providing clear guidance on the results of their research, marketers have zero faith in their return on marketing investment. Insights teams using traditional methods risk being seen as irrelevant and expendable in comparison with other sources of insight that might be even less reliable, such as social media analytics or neuro-measurement. 

The next learning was that 2016 was the year the insights industry got so much so dreadfully wrong. This commenced with the UK elections, was reinforced by dismal efforts to predict Brexit and culminated with the massive failure of traditional polling to even hint at the prospect of a Trump victory. 

Surely 2017 will see senior marketers at client-side companies start asking some very hard questions about the research methodologies they have been investing in for years. We already see demand for greater precision and guarantees in predictions being made about consumer behaviour from marketers and corporate insights functions. The industry will be forced to not do things better but to fundamentally change the way it measures and predicts behaviour. 

Best practices

If there was a positive trend last year, it was certainly the call for accountability and effectiveness. There is great interest in determining optimal ways to measure these two things in marketing campaigns, as well as developing "best practices" in the quest for ROI or ROMI. Organisations are championing effectiveness as the primary goal of advertising and marketing. 

This led the IPA to curate Effectiveness Week, under the tagline: "Championing marketing accountability." It has established an Effectiveness Institute, calling on marketers to drive the cultural change necessary to achieve real effectiveness. We see this ethos spreading to other organisations. The Marketing Society, for example, is launching a campaign to empower marketers to be brave across the UK and other regions it serves. 

For all of us in the insights industry, being held to account for the accuracy of our predictions may make 2017 a painful year. Many agencies and client-side departments will need to re-examine long-held assumptions about how humans make decisions and the tools and frameworks we use to predict behaviours. Yet, ultimately, those in the insights industry who are sufficiently confident in their expertise to make predictions about human behaviour can play a vital role for their marketing partners. 

Successful insights companies will need to provide guarantees of what accurately predicting human behaviour means for innovation, advertising or brand-driven growth if we want to recover from the erosion of confidence that our industry suffered in 2016.

Science and art of media buying

We are also seeing a fundamental shift in how advertising spend is evaluated and how digital is scrutinised as brands struggle to engage audiences. Facebook is backtracking from the numbers it has reported for digital campaigns. Brands such as Procter & Gamble are making dramatic statements that their targeting has been ineffective because it was too tight. The debate rages on about the effectiveness of TV to achieve broad penetration.

Ad-blockers, programmatic buying, challenge of attribution, the spectre of bots and click-through fraud… these all make the science and art of media buying fraught with uncertainty. 

The quote attributed to early 20th-century retailer John Wanamaker, "Half the money I spend on advertising is wasted; the trouble is I don’t know which half", might just as easily have been attributed to any chief marketing officer at today’s successful brands. The notion that digital was so cheap and quick that you could just put up ads and modify as you go is discomforting to those who know that much of their digital media spend isn’t reaching the people they need to reach. If you aren’t sure who is seeing your ad, you’d better be sure those who are seeing it have value. Pre-testing is more important than ever, as long as it measures the right things. 

Selling Creativity Short

Lastly, "brilliant creative" will be re-defined as marketing that truly delivers profitable growth, not just work that wins art directors’ awards. And brands that achieve successful, fame-building campaigns will recognise the benefit of spending big. Peter Field published a great piece for the IPA entitled Selling Creativity Short. In it, he hypothesises that when brands short-change spend behind great creative, they miss a trick in terms of long-term – as well as short-term – ROI. Field argues that the best campaigns feature a balance when it comes to digital versus TV and that, in the end, short-termism hurts brands seeking long-term growth. 

It is probably not the worst of times, but it is certainly challenging us all to rewrite the playbook and play to win.

Alex Batchelor is the chief operating officer at BrainJuicer

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