Immediately after each conference, a member of the P2Sample team in attendance will draft a list of things that we saw and heard that we liked, and even some that we disliked. That list is then transformed into prose by our crack content team. We are always constructive, even when we are disappointed. After all, putting on a show takes a lot of work. Planning committees are keen to have interesting topics and presenters. Presenters work hard to say something compelling and each is passionate about her/his topic. Attendees spend good money and even more valuable time to participate.

With that preface, I will confess that I left concerned about the future of market research and conferences such as ESOMAR after attending my fourth Congress in five years (I missed New Orleans). It wasn’t so much about what was said, but what wasn’t.

Disruption, but a bit premature

Four and a half years ago, I published an article suggesting that the industry was headed for a great disruption. Its central thesis was that, with data being used throughout client organizations, market researchers had lost their monopoly on both budget and methodology. The logical and inescapable consequence of these factors was that research firms would lose out to strategic or tactical agencies (e.g., digital/media agencies, specialist consultancies) because the latter would have the business experience and credibility to actually help clients solve their business problems.

In a similar article a year later, I spoke about the rise of automation as more than just a passing fad and the impact it would certainly have on our economics. I argued that automation would create unstoppable price compression and pricing parity, and that DIY platforms would become good enough to compete with manual studies and operations. Both articles were calls to action—radical, transformative action—for research firms to modernize or they wouldn’t survive.

I was wrong about one thing in my initial article: timing. While technology has moved somewhat more slowly than I expected, but I think the delay is mainly due to end clients. While some may be resistant, it occurs to me that the majority are simply trying, and perhaps struggling, to make sense of it all. In my 20-ish years in the industry, we live in the most difficult time I have ever seen to be a client-side researcher. Consider on one hand the challenges and concerns people about the quality of traditional research methods. Consider on the other the changes in process, technology, and methodology about which we have been reading, and the host of new suppliers and conference presentations that are often more product demos and sales pitches than proof points of business impact. The Latin phrase caveat emptor (“let the buyer beware”) aptly describes the current market for actionable insight services.

With that said, I now believe we’re accelerating toward the outcomes I predicted years ago.

The Clock Is Ticking

As a long-time operator and conscious observer of the trends in our industry, I left ESOMAR convinced that we have crested the hill of technology adoption as it relates to data collection for our industry. To be concrete, I am convinced that:

  • Within no more than 3 years, online/digital data collection for quantitative studies will be exclusively programmatic and automated.
  • Within no more than 3 years, the analysis and interpretation of ANY parametric study–that is, any study for which a set of knowable parameters is used to make a business decision, however advanced the analysis–will be sufficiently automated such they will tell a non-researcher exactly what to do next.

The consequences of this will be profound:

  • Market research agencies whose primary value-add is data collection will have no direct access to the end client market. The 20%/80% client vs supplier breakout of ESOMAR attendees may already be evidence of this. There are a few paths to escape this fate. One is by evolving into a tech platform, but this train has already left the station and any company attempting to build from scratch has a lot of ground to make up. The second is by selling one’s IP (intellectual property) to strategic/tactical agencies who use it to create products for automation. These agencies already have a lot of firepower in terms of talent and huge advantages in terms of data collection, budget, and end client access. The third is by adding a consultancy component that speaks to business issues, not insights.
  • Sample and panel companies face a grimmer fate. With execution becoming programmatic, any company that isn’t racing to fully embrace automation and, with it, sophisticated algorithms to manage and optimize supply and demand is already too late. The sample/panel market is currently best seen as a zero-sum game. Huge sums are still shifting, but the losers will be the tech laggards. Moreover, sample companies need to already be planning to diversify long-term revenue.
  • Researchers who specialize only in “insight” will be significantly reduced in number. There will be two career paths. Those who enjoy their roles as specialists will find places as subject matter experts on the product teams that build platforms and analytical products. The alternative will be to evolve as a strategist whose value will flow from the experience and credibility to conceptualize and deliver business-changing solutions. This role of strategist is one many of us would cherish. I do believe there will be room for researchers, mainly for big strategic questions. These people will be creative forecasters and trendspotters who are method-agnostic and weave a bit of data, creative sparks, critical observations, and sound business knowledge into a broad plan of action. Business knowledge will be table stakes. Deep methodology knowledge may useful but not critical. Experience delivering real impact will be the mark of excellence.

By this logic, the vast majority of people and companies in the room in Berlin, which was a fantastic host city and a great venue, should be worried. Apart from a few presentations, these macro trends were nowhere in sight during the conference, either on stage or in the exhibition hall. And lest anyone think this is a criticism of ESOMAR and Congress in particular, the same can be said for other research conferences I have attended this year (which is a lot).

Conclusion

Conferences, like Congress especially, are wonderful opportunities to meet people, catch up with old colleagues and current clients, and otherwise enjoy a few days away from the daily grind. But there is a massive amount of revenue at risk now across the industry that will have a big impact on people’s lives and careers. If we are not deeply engaging on these topics, equipping our attendees, promoting truly transformational presentations that reflect impact over insight (and are not just rehashed themes or sales pitches, come on people!), then our industry as a whole will never turn this corner. And the conferences we enjoy so much will be smaller and sadder because we will have decided to not dare greatly in preparing for a future that is starkly and unmistakably visible on the horizon.

JD Deitch is Chief Revenue Officer at P2Sample.