Writing a review of a conference a few months after the dust has settled is an interesting exercise, if only to see what rises to the surface. In this instance, I’m talking about the MRS Conference — Impact 2018 — where we were promised ‘innovation, inspiration and integration’. Fortunately I took notes.

Inspiration was definitely provided by a highly memorable session on the first day, titled ‘Breaking boundaries, overcoming taboo and driving meaningful change’. It featured presentations on such diverse topics as deterring viewing of indecent images of children, age neutrality and perceptions of racial discrimination, and proved a crowd puller. Indeed, the speakers and content were so riveting that I persuaded Versiti’s Dr Marie-Claude Gervais to write a piece on the latter for this issue (page 7).

Dazzling keynotes

The keynotes were the other standouts. Virgin Money CEO Jayne-Anne Gadhia proved the least CEO-like executive I’ve ever heard speak, and was surprisingly approachable and commonsensical. Virgin Money is, she says, out to expose unhealthy practices so as to be able to make changes and ‘inspire’ trust. And it’s definitely not a ‘challenger’ bank.

The lunchtime keynote on day one was Julia Hobsbawm, discussing social health in an Age of Overload. She reminded us that social media is not as intimate as speaking to one another and, instead of pressing ‘reply all’, why not pick up the phone to say, “fancy a coffee”?

She drew laughter when she described how, in her household, she had instituted a ‘TechnoShabbat’ which effectively curtailed digital communication until Saturday night and prompted more family interaction and ‘integration’ — MRS living up to its promise again here.

The closing keynote of the day was Ian Hislop, always good value for money, on obfuscation, his relationship with Piers Morgan, reminding us that Donald Trump was the only man who lost money running a casino and to look at where he is now. Not entirely sure there was that much of relevance to market research, but at that stage in the day, who cared?

Day two

Day two, post-Jane Frost’s welcome, came Maggie Aderin-Pocock, a doctor and scientist who had us on the edge of our seats talking astronomy and science. Her rapid-fire delivery and ability to answer the most complicated of questions with equanimity and charm must endear her to audiences of all ages (she frequently tours schools to champion science as a career choice). She was also able to offer personal memories about Stephen Hawking — who passed away that day — which made us feel privileged in a way.

And now for the meaty stuff between keynotes. My notes reveal a fascination with the ‘Great expectations: how technology is driving trust’ session on day one, chaired by journalist Tim Philips. His panel — Ron Tolido of CapGemini, Sara Bennison, Nationwide, Rufus Radcliffe, ITV, Phil Sutcliffe, Kantar TNS, and Jo Osborne, SkinNinja — made for a lively session which touched on the origin of ‘brand’ (it comes from branding cows, with a secure provenance encouraging trust in the product), Amazon’s status as most trusted brand, to the thorny topic of GDPR.

Ron was keen to promote the fact that GDPR was created to make new ways of doing business. It is not, he says, a passion killer but an enabler. If it works, it is a concept that is badly needed given that technology is often reported in the media in the context of data breaches, biased algorithms, devaluation of the workforce and the dehumanisation of society. Indeed, one of the comments that came from the panel was that they were still struggling with how the interplay between digital and the real environment works.

I also enjoyed ‘Keeping it real: conscious marketing and the role of brands in setting people free’, chaired by Impact’s own Jane Bainbridge, and a panel consisting of UM’s Michael Brown, Lloyds Banking Group’s Ros King, the DMA’s Mark Runacus, Credos’s Karen Fraser and MRS president Jan Gooding.

Agencies running scared

The programme blurb talked of shutting out marginalised voices making no sense for business or society, and the panel set out to discover how insight, ad agencies and brands could drive forward ‘conscious marketing’ that is effective, authentic and representative of all parts of the world we live in. What came out in discussions between panellists, though, was the realisation of just how far away we are from making ads more representative, with ad agencies scared they will get the blame.

“Clients should show they are inclusive, and be firmer about saying: ‘we want this’,” says Jan. “There should be less recrimination. We have to create a positive atmosphere of discourse and forgiveness.”

My final pick is the ‘New realities: insight through virtual reality, simulation and observation’ on day two. Here we were treated to real-life examples of the difference that virtual reality can make to research and the consumer experience. The work that Ipsos MORI’s Pippa Bailey, the RSC’s Becky Loftus and Gorilla in the Room’s Dr Alastair Goode had done on the emotional impact of Titus Andronicus, live compared with virtual reality, and a filmed version was fascinating. If West End prices continue to rise, we could soon all be sat experiencing plays through VR. What a shame