Chillin’ in CA: Quirk’s West Coast 2018

Thanks to e-Tabs, our partners in crime at Keen as Mustard for the Viz-Fest event each year, I was given a ticket to the Quirk’s event in Orange County last week. Given it felt like we had suffered weeks of particularly cold, grey and wet weather here in Northern Europe, needless to say I was overjoyed to take this opportunity to reacquaint myself with the sun. But that was not my only reason for attending. I was interested to experience my first Quirk’s event and scope out the differences.

There were 500 people billed as attending, although the event felt quite relaxed and a bit quieter and more ‘low key’ than other MRX events I have attended – perhaps it was the laid back, Californian vibe. The exhibition area was not big, but everyone was very friendly, and even when they found I was not a potential target, they were still happy to chat (unlike the New York event I went to last year, where in true New York business fashion they cut you off mid-sentence if you were not a client).

Quirk’s pitches itself as being particularly focused on the corporate researcher, and given that getting end clients to events is something that many MRX events struggle with, I wanted to see if there really were more clients in attendance. Dan Quirk told me that 55% of attendees were clients, and I did see a high number of client papers, and a lot of focus on client problems – such as stakeholder communications. It was hard to gauge the real number of clients attending as some had niftily hidden the company name on their badges, or asked for it to be removed, possibly to avoid being stalked. On which note, a corporate researcher I recently spoke to said he no longer attends industry conferences because of the ‘sharks’; the sales teams who smell blood and won’t leave him alone, don’t listen and don’t engage. He had been attacked by a ‘shark’ at one event, who had gone so far as to prepare a fake proposal for him – someone he had never met. This particular corporate researcher stopped going to MRX conferences after that.

So this is a big issue in our industry. Agencies won’t go to conferences because the clients are not there, suppliers only go if the agencies and clients are there. Has Quirk’s cracked it?

According to Quirk’s, 50% of their speakers were client side. The clients speaking or on panels and in evidence were Hyundai, JP Morgan, Cargill, Microsoft, Blizzard Entertainments, and Google, among others. Plus the audiences for client presentations were really big – some of the agencies and supplier presentations did not pull the crowds as well. So overall the event had a higher proportion of clients than others I have been to.

In order to get these clients, the deal that Quirk’s has is this – clients paid only $99 to attend the two-day conference. And they do not pay to speak. However, overall this was still a ‘pay to play’ conference and the fee for suppliers and agencies to take the stage was $2,000 US (to cover costs), plus the event was $799 to attend (which is still a lot cheaper than the MRS or ESOMAR for example). Is this cheaper/more accessible model one that others could, or should, emulate? The speaker pitches, both client and supplier side, were reviewed by the Quirk’s editorial team, so guarding editorial integrity. However, there is not the rigor of an independent and impartial program committee of peers, as with events run by ESOMAR and the MRS for example. And ultimately, while Quirk’s says it doesn’t make money on the event, it is a commercial publishing organisation and it’s tough to run a conference and even expect to break even…I am not sure associations could go this route without a negative impact on the quality of content, or income.

In terms of the event content, overall, I felt that there was a good level of commercialism and professionalism – application of insights, if you will. Researchers in the US do have a more commercial bent, and less of the ‘institutional’ view you get in Europe. At times the more ‘academic’ conferences can feel a bit methodologically focused. At Quirk’s there was a great session sponsored by the QRCA which showed how the insights from a very dynamic qual process were used, and I really enjoyed hearing how JPMorgan delivered high levels of internal engagement with extremely tough stakeholders. Overall, I enjoyed hearing from clients. As is so often the case at these events, I thought the client panel session (chaired by Kathryn Korostoff of Research Rockstar) was a highlight, in this case the head of insights for Cargill and Blizzard Entertainments shared their views on the researcher of the future.

But in spite of the ‘Q-mandments’ which stated clearly not to sell, as often happens with a pay-to-play event, some suppliers still see it as an opportunity to pitch. Now, in my book, that’s a waste of your dollars. Even if you have paid, you do not give a product demo. Instead you share knowledge and provide content that is engaging to your audience. If you are going to give a demo, your talk should be billed as such – which is what Survey Monkey did and their session went down well – they got 150 completes on a survey within the 20-minute presentation slot.

But overall I did not learn anything particularly new or inspiring. I did not feel gripped or driven to run off and proselytize about the fabulous insights I heard or the future for the industry. Maybe I’m getting cynical but I do want the content at these events to rock my boat. Quirk’s Brooklyn is later this month; while they may have the answer to getting clients through the door for MRX events – perhaps the ‘pay to play’ option compromises on some of the quality of content compared to the MRS or ESOMAR Congress – the jury is out.