Fear and Loathing at IIEX

By Adam Warner on RWConnect

So, here I was after two days of trawling the seedy underbelly of the European city of sin, breaching into the clean air of the Beurs van Berlage; Amsterdam’s ornate monument to business and commodities. I was here to track down the market research dream, to explore the intersection of technology and research.

Amsterdam canal at beautiful cumulus clouds and lightning

IIEX is a unique event in the market research calendar. The audience is mixed; it attracts the crazy ones, the weirdos, the research entrepreneurs that saw the tech trends and bet it all on the black. The rest of the crowd is made up of us tourists; cheerleaders, and hangers-on cooing from the side-lines as we catch a glimpse into a future already promised to us by the tech industries. In this sense many of the companies presenting at IIEX are the 1%, but as Zappistore’s Babita Earle said, “these are the most important 1%”.

Last year the unofficial theme of IIEX was ‘agile’ research and automation. Automation was still crown prince of IIEX this year, whereas ‘agile’ has been replaced by ‘artificial intelligence’ and ‘machine learning’. As I weaved my way through exhibition hall from zaal to zaal, I saw glimpses of ‘agile’ here and there but this concept had been toned down from its peacocking last year and was simply described as the hygiene factor ‘speed’.

Both automation and AI are victims of tech industry success. Buzzwords by their very definition are used and abused to make products sound more impressive to a certain breed of client that slavers over and fetishizes new technology. It’s a tough break for those companies that are genuinely breaking new ground in research with technology. Luckily, IIEX at its best, allows you to bath in those rays of authentic innovation that are present in research. The presentation from Zappistore’s Paul Albert and Reckitt Benkiser’s Tony Costella succinctly demonstrated the impact that the speed and cost benefits of automation can have on claims and ad testing. Whereas Andrew Konya of Remesh showed the huge potential of AI in revolutionising quant surveys; by replacing human inputs with artificial intelligence and integrating data from multiple sources, Andrew showed us a future of research that provides a message of hope and warning to the industry.

Research will be torn from our cold, dead, luddite hands if we continue to embrace new technologies at the slow pace we are currently moving at. Companies like Remesh, working outside of the industry and creating insight platforms almost by accident, will be the new normal; siphoning research spend away from traditional agencies.

And it’s not just me, (a marketing guy writing a quasi Hunter S Thompson hack job), that thinks that way. Dave Carruthers of VoxPopme said in his presentation (an unapologetic sales pitch that shows that if you have a good product and brand story even a sales pitch can make a good presentation) that tech advances in the industry are “taking years when they should take months” and the “industry needs to get more comfortable with the entrepreneurial spirit.” These sentiments were echoed in the future facing client panel, where Sander Bosch of Unilever said “there are lots of great developments in the industry, but it’s not moving fast enough”.

But of course there were many other aspects to IIEX. Last year I railed against seeing the same old faces at every event in the calendar. This year, however, IIEX introduced the New Speakers Series. These first timers, all shaking nerves and sweating brows, were a welcome addition to the conference, even if the content was a bit hit and miss. I did see the worst conference presentation I have ever seen, but I also had the pleasure of seeing some stand out presentations from Saida Isamova of Infotools looking at AI and machine learning, and Gabrielle Finn of Qriously on mobile river sampling.

IIEX is a vital conference in a crowded calendar; open to change, whether that’s through technology or conference formats. As an industry we may not be innovating through technology fast enough, but the signs from IIEX are encouraging. To paraphrase Thompson – it’s an affirmation of everything right and true in market research. It’s a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of technology in this industry – but only for those with true grit. And we’re chock full of that.

By Adam Warner, Keen As Mustard Marketing