"Data, data everywhere and much too much to drink" could be the resounding verse of many a company right now. Across industries, business professionals are navigating new and different data streams, but from which is it actually safe to drink? Enter Ged Parton, Chief Executive Officer of Maru Group. With a storied career in consumer insights, serving as head of Synovate, Ipsos and now Maru, Ged is acutely aware of this challenge. "Businesses can be overwhelmed by the number of available data sources," he says. "They want to use information to inform decisions, but the data is not always packaged in a way that can be easily manipulated."
Ged is bullish on Maru's ability to lead the insights industry. Through a portfolio of market research products and services, including Maru/Matchbox, Maru Group helps synthesize those disparate data sources. While other companies have been slow to embrace new technologies, Maru has seized the opportunity to innovate.
Maru Group is headquartered in London with offices around the world including in Toronto, Los Angeles and New York. Needless to say, Ged is constantly on the go and commutes between Toronto and London. (He is especially grateful for FaceTime. "To interact visually with a friend, family member, colleague or partner, wherever I am in the world, it's the most humanizing thing," he says.)
I can't help but think Ged's transatlantic travels serve as an appropriate metaphor for how he and his team are crossing not just streams but oceans of data, and they are leading the charge come hell or high water. I recently spoke with Ged on the future of market research and the insights industry.
Charlotte Lipman: How do you think the past has helped inform the future of this industry?
Ged Parton: I think the industry has experienced paradigm shifts in the past and was slow to respond to them. To give you an example, with the emergence of online as a mechanism for conducting surveys and interviews at the turn of this century there was a huge part of the industry that was really negative – "This is not the right way to do work, this isn't going to become important to us" – and in fact, the opposite was true. Online capabilities really transformed the industry. I think, in many ways, we're in the same scenario now, and the opportunity really is for companies like ours to grab hold of the technology paradigm shift and wholeheartedly commit to it. A.I. (artificial intelligence), for instance, has been in the industry for a while and was adopted very quickly in certain areas. I think the issue for insights services is that the need to change shouldn't be a marginal need. What I mean by that is if you're sitting in our marketplace at the moment, it's not the unique change to one process, it's that every part of the organization needs to evolve.
Lipman: Looking ahead to the next several years, what percent of professional insights services do you see being driven by human intelligence vs. A.I.?
Parton: I'm of a view that 100% of our projects in four to five years' time will include artificial intelligence of some kind. But, and it's a big "but," there will still need to be some type of conductor of the orchestra -- a human, a professional advisor -- who'll be synthesizing outputs and using them to tell stories for clients. There is a reality that more often than not clients do have access to behavioral and transactional data. They just need support in being able to make their data sing. That's about answering "why" questions that are revealed through behavioral data. Answering these "why" questions is really what we do as a business and what our competitors do, too. That's really why the industry exists. Maru is committed to the notion that it's a combination of human capital supplemented by the best that new technology can bring. The future is all about the combination of the two things -- technology and advisory. It's about that fuel. It's not about one or the other.
Lipman: That's an interesting notion, because I think there is a fear over career longevity in this space. MediaVillage founder Jack Myers has an interesting take on this; he recently said to me that A.I. is really a misnomer, because it is not at all artificial, it's real intel and that a more appropriate description is machine learning or machine intelligence.
Parton: That's a great point. I'm thinking, yes, many jobs will evolve and one of the challenges for all of us is helping to create environments where people think about how they can embrace the technology and how it liberates them to do things differently. There's additive value in what they were previously doing when processing a particular task now being done by a machine. It's kind of one of the things that's at the heart of our business; we want to take those capabilities to do more sophisticated analysis and become even more knowledgeable.
Lipman: Our research of the media marketplace shows that advanced data and analytics is one of the leading contributors to business decision- making. Do you expect that to be the case across industries?
Parton: It's definitely the ambition of every industry to embrace the opportunity created by new and different data streams. There's been a huge boom in the last few years of the availability of biometric data. Obviously, there are apps [that indicate] whether you're getting a good night's sleep, that measure your stats every day, and so on and so forth. There is all kinds of behavioral information that exists now that wasn't really available 10 years ago or at least at the volumes that we currently have. In the past, we would've estimated these things by having somebody literally monitor what someone's doing, either by analyzing a detailed diary that the individual would keep or by having them follow an individual around -- a kind of ethnographic approach, if you will. The bias that exists in those old processes, one doesn't need to rely on now.
Lipman: But are business actively and always embracing all of the available data sources?
Parton: The answer to that is absolutely not. That's partly because there's so much information coming at companies and the kind of excessive data that exists isn't currently digestible for most businesses. Whether it's attitudinal work, traditional or nontraditional survey work, or behavioral or transactional data -- where people are going, what they're doing, what they're spending on -- if you can capture that data in the same environment within the same ecosystem, and help the data centers talk to one another, then you're in a much better place to present digestible insight as opposed to having disparate data sources. That's very much a notion that's at the heart of the technology infrastructure we're putting together.
Lipman: So, to succeed in the insights industry, a company must do what?
Parton: It must answer the "why" questions. For clients, how we have value, our purpose, our raison d'etre, is by helping them answer why the consumer thinks as she does, why she behaves as she does, why she spends where she does. That is very much at the heart of the client challenge, and for me it's the inspiration for our industry.
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