What do you want from media research?
A view from Sue Unerman

What do you want from media research?

I've been invited to give the keynote speech at this year's Media Research Group conference in December. If you're going, I look forward to seeing you there. I'm flattered to be asked, and the organisers have given me an open brief – what an opportunity!

The theme of the conference is "celebrating the best media research of 2013", which has left me contemplating what it takes to be the best in media research. I don't think the MRG needs me to announce that we're in times of great change or that the expectations of media research from the planning and buying community have risen exponentially in these days of "real time", neuroscience and big data.

Is "best" the simplest, most proximate explanation, or is "best" the most truthful? The industry wants the former often for pragmatic reasons. If it's simple and scaleable, it's useful for planning and trading. This simplistic approach, based on a need for trading standards, has delivered solid growth for the advertising industry.

If it’s simple, it may be less truthful. For a very good reason – the truth about how people make decisions is complicated.

The drive for truth (which I think we all know I favour) leads inevitably to more complexity. Understanding what truly motivates people can help with predicting future behaviour, which is a basic requirement of media research. After all, planners and buyers don't just want to understand what has happened. They want to predict what will happen in order to create better outcomes for future campaigns.

In the excellent collection This Explains Everything, edited by John Brockman, two of the contributors provide an explanation for why this is easier said than done. David M Eagleman, a neuroscientist at Baylor College of Medicine, writes of "overlapping solutions", where the brain is not made up of separate parts that deal with different activities – ie. one area for language, another for face recognition etc. Instead, he says: "The deep and beautiful trick of the brain is more interesting. It provides multiple, overlapping ways of dealing with the world."

This is echoed by the psychology researcher Judith Rich Harris, who explains that this is the root reason for a good deal of the drama in our lives and our literature, movies, plays and soap operas. It is what leads one part of us to do something that another part of us knows is wrong.

The affair, the cream cake, the hangover and the speeding ticket all come about because, if a bit of our brain is arguing against rash behaviour, another part of our brain is all for it. We do have an angel and a devil on either shoulder arguing about what we should do.

In Romeo And Juliet, the Capulets and the Montagues had a long-standing family feud. So the "belonging" instinct or human drive in our hero and heroine would have dictated more hatred. Yet the "young love" – or should I just call it the "sex" drive – in the same characters drove Shakespeare's plotline.

This sheds a different light on our hopes from media research. We can't expect to explain everything, whatever the developments in techniques in neuroscience or big data – not unless or until we can predict the outcomes of those internal "neural" battles that Eagleman describes.

Current best-practice media research might be good enough. Good enough for trading and good enough for broad predictions. I want the truth, however, and new developments are challenging the heritage businesses, as they should.

If you'd like to tell me your current view of media research for my keynote, please comment below.

Sue Unerman is the chief strategy officer at MediaCom