Five take-outs from the MRS Conference

Another year, another MRS conference. Here’s five takeaways from the sessions I attended on the second day.

1) Imagining multiple futures

If the past 12 months have taught us anything it is that making predictions is difficult – or even foolish. In his session Memories of the Future Mark Earls focused on the role of research in helping clients navigate strategic decisions. There is a natural human tendency to ‘impose linearity’ when thinking about cause and effect – A leads to B. Reality is more complex. In his view our role is not to predict one future but several. We shouldn’t be making one precise ‘pass/fail’ prediction but mapping a range of possible alternatives, and using these to prompt open discussions with our clients. He used ‘the futures cone’ (the rather wonderful diagram below) to bring this thinking to life:

2) Ogilvy Labs was run on a shoestring

In the same session Nicole Yershon described her experiences setting up and running Ogilvy Labs (the R&D unit of Ogilvy group). Yershon radiates entrepreneurial zeal and had lots of tips about creating a new culture of innovation within a corporation of 1800 people. She had to be creative in generating revenue to fund the non fee-earning venture when it started in 2007. Hard to imagine now, but this was what kick-started Rory Sutherland’s paid public speaking engagements. It was also the genesis of his book The Wiki Man (a collection of his Campaign and Spectator columns) – conferences pay more if the speaker has a book. She also described the lab’s KPIs – which focussed on more than revenue:

  • Revenue (developing fee earning work over time)
  • Reputation
  • Retention (engaging work for colleagues)
  • Recruitment of new diverse talent (not the usual Oxbridge route in)
  • Relationships
  • Responsibility (giving back/paying forward)

3) Video selfies are a thing (but watch out for half naked participants)

The session on behaviour change Nudge or hint? Is behaviour change going far enough? had a couple of great new methods. Kindling Partner John Cohen devised an ingenious method of capturing split-second recycling decisions. Evidence showed young people in London recycle less than other age groups, partly because of the hassle, partly because of the confusion over what goes in what bin. In the week leading up to a paired in-home depth participants recorded daily video selfies at the moment of recycling/not recycling. The associated video showed moments of real honesty (and a couple of half-naked participants). The takeout: the method eased the path to telling the truth and allowed participants a way to map their own behaviour in a non-judgemental manner. This unlocked the insight which was the bedrock of the behaviour change campaign.

4) Using dashcams for ethnography and confronting undesirable behaviour

  Another behaviour change brief – this time on using mobiles whilst driving – another ingenious method. BAMM and the Department for Transport used dashcams to record driving behaviour. Participants were recruited on the basis of a project looking at driving habits; this passive observation for 2 weeks exposed all sorts of shall we say… sub-optimal habits. The really brave bit was bringing the drivers together, showing them their behaviour in a group workshop, before getting them to co-create an intervention which addressed both unconscious behaviours (touching my phone without thinking) as well as undermining conscious justifications (I have to pick up, it’s my son’s nursery).

5) Quick framework: lapsed, dominant and emergent trends

Nick Gadsby’s whilstlestop tour of semiotics was too rich to summarise, but included an off-the-shelf analysis tool: classifying the lapsed, dominant and emergent trends relevant to a topic. His example related to luxury: contemporary visions of luxury living used to be all about excess and bling. These have now shifted and the aspirational living space is now sparse, open, with few things or people in it. A useful prompt for analysis, whatever the category.