On January 15, the Insights Association hosted a Town Hall featuring several of the insights industry’s most respected and sought-after thought leaders – all members of the first class of Laureates in IA’s new IPC Program. Following are excerpts from the conversation, moderated by IA CEO Melanie Courtright. View Full Session Recording | Read Session Transcript.

For a recap of Part 1, featuring other IA Laureates, please visit this page.

View Video Highlights from both Laureate Town Halls

Q. What do you consider the greatest risk for Insights in 2021?

Lynnette Cooke: We've changed drastically how we're gathering data. So, we have to make sure that we're contextualizing the insights. That's one of the biggest risks. We need to be sure that our recommendations are based on contextualized insights. We have to interrogate the data through a new lens because consumers have drastically been affected in the way they communicate and commerce and every aspect of that term. We've never analyzed consumers through a global pandemic. It's our responsibility to make sure that we push ourselves and maybe even try to poke holes in the research that we're conducting, and say, "In today's world, after 2020, after all the unprecedented changes that we've implemented into our business, are these insights – Are we looking at them through the right lens? Are they contextualized insights?" Otherwise, we run the risk of providing ill-informed advice when we're launching and promoting brands.

Simon Chadwick: I'm following on from Lynnette. I think there is a danger that I see, or a risk that contextualization of insights may actually be lost in some organizations, particularly those who are of the opinion or have been convinced that behavioral data is everything, the transactional data is everything. We have all the data in house, let's just interrogate the data without actually trying to look, not only at the why behind it, but also the narrative context that exists behind consumer behavior and consumer choices and social behavior and social choices. We do have a seat at the table, at least in many organizations now. And I think we've got to avoid losing that strategic relevance as we go forward. We can't slide back to being a line cost item. So I think there is a need for a considerable amount of planning and measurement of the impact that we're having, so that we can actually market and improve that to the organizations for which we work.

Dyna Boen: There's going to be recovery this year. But I don't see us getting all the way back to 2019. And so a lot of my concern is what does the recovery look like? How much do we bounce back? What areas of the market are recovering and how? And how do we help our clients through disruption?

Ari Zelmanow: We have to do a better job articulating our value. We are, as an industry, still pretty fragmented. So, if you think about the different functions, we always talk about market researchers and consumer insights. And then we think about this dichotomy of qual and quant. But the reality is with technological advancements, we have UX research, CX research, consumer analytics, all of these different functions. And each of them are trying to bite from the same pie, when we all should be working together to generate valuable insights for the business. We can't thrive in a world where we generate some insight and don't look at the other parts of the system. None of this happens in a vacuum. They happen as part of an interrelated system.

Steve Schlesinger: I actually am a bigger believer of taking more risks during this time, really taking advantage of this situation. You know the old consulting statement: never let a good crisis go to waste. And it's really true. I think we have an opportunity for those who have the appetite and potentially the strategy to really take advantage of this and look at it as a place where we can really look to move forward faster. And this is not just a good thing for us individually or for our businesses, but frankly it's a really good opportunity for our industry as well. You talk about a seat at the table. You talk about marrying different data sources and how people are going to work over time, and I think we're at that point now where, hopefully, things will accelerate and we'll have a bigger seat at the table, and we'll be more relevant with our clients.

Jamin Brazil: I think the biggest issue or fear that I have for our industry is that, as things open up, we go back to the easy mode or the way that we have historically been gathering insights because it's what we know and it's familiar. And we'll stop flexing this muscle of digital, because I believe that only through leveraging both qualitative – in-person and digital, then that offers us a complete view of the consumer.  

Lisa Wilding-Brown: I've seen a lot of flexibility, a lot of creativity. Traditional qualitative transitioning online literally overnight. Loads of new partnerships and collaborations that, quite honestly, probably wouldn't have happened if there hadn't been a pandemic. That's something we can celebrate. I'm also observing a lot of clients moving more into the DIY area of the business. Overall, there's a collective tolerance for creativity and change like I've never observed before, but I still have some worries. I am incredibly worried about the quality of our insights....It's about participant experience. It's not just about sourcing samples, it's about the survey instruments that we're developing, and how are those designed to think about the participant experience. Because participants are like the polar ice caps. Once they're gone, they're gone. As an industry we need to do a better job thinking about quality and contextualizing quality, not just when it comes to cyber fraud, but how we're engaging participants... The last risk that has me kind of up at night is the lack of federal regulation around privacy and incentivization...I really, really hope that Washington is able to work at the federal level and pass balanced laws so that we don't have to go chasing and operationalizing state-by-state laws because that's going to be really, really difficult for our industry and pose a risk for the quality of our data.

Dan Coates: We are going to have an exploding industry economy moving forward. The Roaring Twenties was a direct result of the Spanish Flu in 1918. We're not going to be able to keep up with what happens next. And so, I would ask all of us, have we made the most of this opportunity to sharpen our blades, reformat our businesses? And the good news is, is that if the answer's no, there's still a little bit of time. We were all sure that it'd be back to normal by the end of 2020. Turns out that just having a vaccine isn't enough. Turns out you've got to administer it, which takes time. All macro economic sort of analysis is telling us, by June we're going to be back to normal. So you've got a little bit of time. You've got the next few months to make sure that you've prepared yourself as well as you possibly can for what happens next. And buckle up and hold on, it's going to be a wild ride.

Q: What potential opportunity is there for Insights that's being overlooked or downplayed, and how do we seize on it?

Dan Coates: The opportunity for us all is to up skill, to take what we're doing and learn a little bit more. We've got an abundance of opportunity. And just like market researchers, conservative lot that we are, we sit and stare at our navels and wonder why we're not more valued. I've got to tell you, power is all around us. Just pick it up off the ground and run with it, it's there for the taking. I think the real opportunity for our industry is to go ahead and bring ourselves up another notch, take ourselves to a new level, and ride the tide that's about to lift all of our boats.

Lisa Wilding-Brown: What's been really interesting with all these different virtual events and webinars is this democratization. And so people that typically wouldn't have those opportunities now are getting the opportunities to really upgrade their skills, get exposure. I'm really loving that. And I really hope that we continue to take that strategy and that path forward. One area that I'm really focused on, in addition to what I talked about around quality, is multicultural insights. The events of last spring really heightened awareness and put a spotlight on the lack of diversity in our industry and in our samples. And I think there needs to be more work and more attention put on multicultural insights, because right now a lot of research is not given an active, pronounced voice. So I would encourage the research community, look at the way you're designing your studies, the quotas that you're implementing, making sure that you're oversampling for diverse cohorts, so that they do have a voice in the data and you're not relying on having to weight an entire population's perspective. Because that in my mind is completely irresponsible.

Jamin Brazil: There's so much excitement and enthusiasm by executives to leverage data insights. And now is the time. It is now, and it will be tomorrow, and it will be for the near future, because they want data-driven decisions. But when I started my career, we were looking at a 95 percent significance in order to say, "This was meaningful." And now executives are saying, "We just need 60 percent. I just want to be able to beat the odds on a consistent basis with my data-driven decisions." So this to me is our opportunity to insert ourselves into the decision-making process of organizations, and also into the lives of each other. And that's the other thing that I think digital is enabling us, is an opportunity to connect like we just couldn't before.

Steve Schlesinger: How we think about respondents and collecting data and information – we have to get that right. We've been talking about it for decades, and I still don't think we do it right. We don't put enough thought and respect into it. And that engagement is critical for us to continue to have the information that we're providing to our clients. I think we don't spend enough time opening up our eyes and our perspective to other industries, to how other things are being disrupted. And with that narrow focus we start believing our own BS. I think there's a lot of risk in that.

Ari Zelmanow: If I could sum up the biggest opportunity, it's positioning. In terms of how we're perceived as an industry. We think in terms of we're insights providers, and so everybody believes it. But that's not the way positioning works. Positioning lives in the mind of the consumer. Just because we say we're insights providers, that doesn't mean that the people that we're offering service or insights to know what that means. We have to do some work to understand their perceptions, so we can help mold their perceptions to get a seat at the table. It's the opportunity to convert from service provider to valued business advisor or partner. When you have a legal problem, you think, "I'm going to go to a lawyer." When you have a medical problem, you think, "I'm going to go to a doctor." When you have a data problem or a understanding customers problem, who do you go to? We need to be thought of as that person.

Dyna Boen: There's going to be a lot of demand for data because companies are going to want to inform the evolution of how consumers were behaving in 2020 and how they're going to be changing their behaviors as we come out of this. It's constantly evolving. The role of the insights leader and the brands is changing. At one time, it's very much, you're an insights leader, you're an influencer. You use the data to influence marketing decision making. But today, it's much more about being a driver of marketing decision making. Digital advertising is taking off, for example. So we need to bring that in. Understand beyond consumer insights. How are you making that PowerPoint come to life and activating it in your digital insights? People on the brand side are telling me that they need to be bilingual now. They're making that transition from just consumer insights specialists to having their marketing counterparts depend on them to give them the insights to help them with the digital piece... Innovation comes out of times like this, new thoughts, because we're solving new problems. And so you see new companies emerge...What I think has been really cool is the retooling of people. We've seen so much movement in our industry this year. Some of it was forced movement because a bunch of companies did layoffs. They did budget cuts. And so people were forced to change and retool themselves. And we also see people that chose to change.

Simon Chadwick: We are becoming drivers of business decisions. And hopefully better business decisions and better decisions for society as well. And what I would like to see – and I'm very hopeful because I'm seeing a lot of it right now, is that we do indeed measure that impact. I'm seeing a lot of major companies now committing to impact measurement. And, not only to impact measurement, but to communicating effectively that impact throughout their organizations and throughout their businesses, because it's only then that the CFO of a company will realize that this is one of the greatest investments that they could possibly make. The return on the research investment is phenomenal. And so we've got to really shout that from the roof tops and become less shy about doing so....We have done a huge disservice to marginalized populations, in this country and elsewhere, by not including them in research because we're too lazy or it costs too much. Now is the time to include them in the sample and include them very much in the talent that we hire....The amount of new money coming into the industry has been remarkable. Since 2011, there's been about $25 billion that's come into this industry, which was unprecedented. I went into the analysis of 2020 data on this expecting to see a slow down. What I saw instead was a doubling, not only of the amount of money, but also of the number of deals that were done. So, we are seeing those people from outside the industry coming in. There's a huge new crop of companies that are being founded, out of them, one in ten will become viable competitors, viable providers, and they'll be bringing yet new technologies into the industry. So, if that's one indicator, it shows that we're very, very much alive and we're still very sexy.

Lynnette Cooke: We do have the opportunity to change the world and make it better. I'm particularly proud of what we're doing at Kantar Health when we use our data to inform programs aimed at social determinants of health. And that's where we're trying to reduce that gap in affordability and access to healthcare. Maybe it's not directly the studies that we're doing, there is a long journey, as we know as researchers, between the data we collect and whether it becomes an insight, in my world, whether it actually ever influences the development of a product or something with public policy. But knowing that we're providing insights somewhere in the complicated healthcare ecosystem where we live in our business, is still incredibly gratifying. And what I would want for everybody on this call to hear is a reminder that we are not influencers. We are drivers. So figure out what is the thing that you're most passionate about, and find a way to position the work that you do, either overtly or somehow re-purposing it to continue to figure out, what can we do to change, drive that change?