It’s rare to find a business leader so messianic about sustainability, and fascinating to learn that, although admittedly not an expert on market research, Paul Polman knows enough to perceive that “big data is causing industries to drown rather than understand what it means and pre-empt change”.

As we filed out into the networking break, the general view was that he was inspirational and quite unexpected in terms of content. Next stop my first — and only — workshop, this one run by Raji Bonala, founder partner at Vox Populi, and her colleagues. Our task was to identify the core values of a new Indian beer brand and suggest its marketing platform in just six or seven simple steps. By the end we were flying...who needs mega budgets and a big brand? High five for nimbleness.

Ideas over insights

Having a soft spot for creativity, storytelling and technology, I wandered into Beyond insight delivery. The first presentation swung it for me: Ideas over insights. Not only did Chris Barez-Brown, Upping Your Elvis founder, and Christina Habib, Unilever CMI VP win us over by describing how to deliver impact in half the time and half the cost, they’d even brought along an enthusiastic team member who’d rediscovered her love for Unilever post-Elvis training.

After lunch, the great election debate. The three panellists, Political’s Mike Smithson, Populus founder Andrew Cooper and Greenberg Quinland Rosner partner (not to mention Ed Milliband adviser) James Morris spoke with one voice: we can predict poll shares, but turning these into seats is much trickier. A poll does not a crystal ball make.

Next up was ‘Amplifying voices, uncovering truths’, which looked at how research can give a voice to those affected by societal and cultural issues. SPA Future Thinking’s Claire Tyrrell-Williams and Time to Change’s Jennie Abelman described a project in which champions with experience of mental illness worked as interviewers — something which one of those involved said had actually helped his recoverery.

Ali Barnes of Incite Strategic Research and Claire Pascual from Marie Stopes International then gave us an insight into the pressures and influences on young women in countries like Nigeria, Bangladesh and Pakistan with regard to contraception, unwanted sexual contact and reproductive health. Some of this talk was heart wrenching, with young married women in Pakistan wanting the best for their children, but with most decisions made by men, with mother-in-laws exerting substantial pressure.

David Bunker, BBC Audiences, and James Bryson, MTM, followed on with the BBC’s biggest survey on gender. It appears that a proliferation of channels doesn’t necessarily mean there is something for everyone, and concerns were also raised about TOWIE promotion of body issues, and The Apprentice’s search for younger and more attractive contestants.

A sparkling keynote from artist and designer Brendan Dawes closed the first day. Loved the idea of a spiral image, translated from tweets, representing a town.

General Sir Richard Shirreff kicked off day two, quoting from T.E. Lawrence to warn of the dangers of sending mixed signals to Russia. But his ‘kingfisher quote’ could also relate, he said, to industry and the need for strong, strategic leadership that was able to show clarity of thought, the ability to manage ambiguity, and take calculated risks for the long term.

Reshaping reputations in challenging times followed, featuring FutureBrand’s Tom Adams and the AQR Board’s very own Simon Patterson, from QRi Consulting. They took a fresh look at the top 100 companies ranked by market capitalisation, re-ordering them by public perception which prompted a bit of a shake-up.

Passenger Focus’s Ian Wright and Keith Bailey, meanwhile, discussed why the UK’s rail operators were viewed in such a poor light, and the steps that they needed to take to improve matters: personalisation and making customers feel valued seen as key. Good luck there!

The stars of this session, however, were Moss Bros’s Jemima Bird and Trinity McQueen’s Laura Morris. With a budget of just £3,000 they made a tired brand into one that was sexy and relevant, boosting brand perceptions and like-for-like sales (up 22%) at its concept stores. Who knew that it sold more Ted Baker than Ted Baker?

By this stage in a conference, fatigue always starts to set in. Take a walk on the wild side started brightly with The Beans Group’s James Eder cantering through his presentation about his youth media brand. He used it to try and get researchers to rethink the basics, not to take ‘no’ personally, and to imagine what would happen if they couldn’t fail.

Nick Gadsby of Lawes Gadsby Semiotics made sure we didn’t drop off with his session on whether new necessarily needed to be new and Feeling Mutual’s Tom Woodnutt offered three principles that researchers could work to that would shift clients’ perceptions of their role

My final session before the keynote was Empathy, humanity, happiness and haulage, and the star of this one was Think happy! Close runners up were Thinktank’s Andy Cooper and GoodStuff Consulting’s Jo Pabari, who changed the audience’s perception of the lives of long haul lorry drivers, and Northstar’s Noah Roychowdhury and Daniel Tralman, who provided a humanist counterpoint to big data.

Painstaking research

Sebastian Faulks and Acacia Avenue’s Martin Lee took us into the home stretch. Faulk’s use of research when planning The Fatal Englishman was meticulous — as it presumably always is — from appealing to the FBI and MI5 for documents, site visits to the trenches and veteran soldiers, before tracking down his lead figure’s actual wife in Cork. A man who leaves no stone unturned.

All of which made for one of the best MRS conferences I have been to for years. The presentations were, in the main, buzzy and made the audience think: always a good thing. Now, if only the building work can be finished before next year...