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IIeX NA 2015: Three Courses of Comaraderie (Insights Included)

The Chincoteague oysters w cucumber mignonettes were sublime. The roasted cauliflower w Thai vin & macadamia nuts inspired me to vegetarianism. But the most delicious ingredient of our recent dinner with 16 current and potential future clients at this year’s Insight Innovation Exchange North America (IIeX NA) conference was the conversation. Like the food at Atlanta’s The Spence restaurant, it was eclectic, stimulating, and free-flowing.

My C Space colleagues and I were determined not to make this dinner a transactional affair. We didn’t want our guests to have to talk shop for two hours after a long, if stimulating day. Just as research shouldn’t be “Answer our questions and we’ll give you $10,” the process of building professional relationships shouldn’t be “Listen to our pitch and we’ll stuff your face.”

But fortunately, we didn’t have to try to make it personal. What binds so many of us in this industry together is our innate curiosity, is the happy fact that we derive real, visceral pleasure from getting to know other people, not just from getting to know about them.

Through simple, getting-to-know you conversation, by the end of the evening, we had actually achieved some professionally relevant insights without asking for them. For instance, I was amused and relieved to learn that Cerita shares my completely irrational tendencies. We both worry about our adult daughters’ whereabouts late at night when they visit us, but not when they’re in their own homes. We discovered that we’re both willing to skip concerts for which we bought tickets months ago, but not if those same tickets were only recently purchased. In Cerita’s and my shared idiosyncrasies, we could see behavioral economics in action.

Tim was surprised to learn that Manila chooses to pay premium, drug store prices for small quantities of toilet paper and paper towels because she lives in a small urban apartment and can’t keep the 12-packs sold in grocery stores anywhere but in her car. And in exchange, Manila was intrigued by Tim’s account of why and how he cures his own prosciutto. From Manila, Tim got an insight from an n of 1 about the willingness to pay more to buy small, while in return, she got a deeper, more personal understanding of the maker economy.

Sarah and Jessica were wowed by the rippling clouds of steam created by the desert chef’s liquid nitrogen (like a chemistry class at Hogwarts), whereas Gregg, the pragmatic guy at my table, astutely noted after a spoonful of the resulting Nutella confection that “I don’t care how she made it – it still tastes like ice cream.”  In our varying responses to the liquid nitrogen-fueled ice cream is an embedded lesson about marketing process vs. product.

In these and other respects, our dinner together mirrored the most important theme from the conference itself (which was not how to design a better survey or even how to better visualize social media data).  “I was impressed with how interested each person was in the challenges of others,” my colleague Ryan said, “…what they were working on and if their assumptions about each other’s brands were true.”

Curiosity and an eagerness to test our assumptions – that’s what characterized the best of the IIeX NA presentations (such as J. Walker Smith’s challenge to futurists to look not just at what’s emerging but at what’s disappearing, or Warren Berger’s exhortation to pose a more beautiful question). And it’s what should characterize our work in general.

We’d never met each other before dinner. But if we could bond over good food, simulating conversation, and a sense of shared purpose, then surely we can do the same with the consumers who we represent and ultimately serve.

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