It was the research what did it – Rupert Murdoch in consumer research shocker

Recently I went to see Ink, James Graham’s play about Rupert Murdoch’s takeover of the Sun Newspaper in 1969.  The play charts Murdoch and his editor Larry Lamb’s struggle to turn the paper into a market leader. It is a gripping and entertaining story.

For me there were two surprises in the play. The first was that market research played a central role in The Sun’s reinvention. Murdoch and Lamb discuss research and its implications in the play. It was a central part of their approach to strategy.

The second is how powerful the insights the team identify feel. The play made me think about how we work as researchers. And how we tell our insight stories.  Insights are context dependent and slippery. They are insightful for a group of people at a specific time. Often they can feel clunky and post-rationalised when explained to people outside. They can feel awkward, synthetic and the opposite of human and insightful.

Ink dramatises the insight story. The play makes you appreciate Larry Lamb’s situation as he struggles to mould The Sun into a Mirror beater. You feel how much of a struggle it is to come up with breakthrough ideas in a tradition bound industry. You feel the excitement when the team realises they have the freedom to give readers what they want. And you appreciate the power of the insight that ‘TV is a friend not an enemy’ in a visceral way.

The drama highlights how pivotal human insights can be for businesses teams. The Sun transformed the UK newspaper landscape (for better or worse). Qualitative research combined with gut instinct inspired the team to make significant leaps.

The play also made me think about how we share our insight stories. As researchers we often focus too much on the outer facing part of the story. We like to talk about the research we did and the insights we found. This misses a significant piece in the story. When we tell our stories we need to pay as much attention to the business situation as we do to the research. The pivotal human insights flow from the intersection. Insights happen in business teams not to them.