How did you get there? John Bizzell

Great to hear from John Bizzell, who will be a familiar name to anyone who has entered the MRS Awards over the years and a familiar face to those who have attended MRS events. As well as managing these activities for the world’s largest research association, he is also heavily involved with the MRS Diversity, Inclusion & Equality Council and helped to create the MRSpride network for LGBTQ+ researchers and allies.

Great to catch up John, lets crack right on shall we? So, how did you get into the industry, and take us through how you got to this point?

I should start by saying that I am not a researcher, though after nearly sixteen years of being around researchers and listening to them present at events, I reckon I could get away with pretending to be one at a dinner party. “It’s not about the research,” I’d say, admiring myself in my jeans and blazer combo, “it’s about the insights.”

I joined MRS in 2006 as an assistant to both the Networking Manager and the Standards & Policy Manager, but I think it became clear pretty early on that I was more interested in events and awards than I was in the Code of Conduct – which is a VERY important thing, but you definitely want my colleague Julie advising you on its intricacies rather than me!

Within a month of starting we had the MRS Awards Dinner, then in its ninth year. I loved it. It was the first time in my working life where I felt like I was doing exactly what I should be doing – being organised, being sociable and, let’s face it, being quite bossy. When I talk to young people now about pursuing a career in events, I always say: “If you like spreadsheets and wine, this is the job for you.”

It’s not like that for everyone of course, but I wish I’d known it was an option at school. Then I might have done an Event Management degree instead of History of Design, which has not proved terribly useful if I’m honest – apart from the time I answered a question about bungaroosh walls in a quiz.

My other job when I started at MRS was taking charge of R-Net, which was the young researchers’ network then. There was a small steering group, but I basically had free reign to pick the content and venues. One of my favourite things about having worked here for this long is seeing so many of the REs and SREs I met in those first R-Net years go from success to success in the sector – some now running their own agencies. And it’s always useful to remind people when discussing sponsorship opportunities or asking them to travel around the country to give presentations that you remember them mine-sweeping drinks at the Annual Conference closing party when they started out, and that there might still be pictures of that on a hard drive somewhere. Hash tag Evidence Matters.

When the Networking Manager retired in 2009, I took the lead on the awards and they continued to grow. We now have three events: the Excellence Awards lunch, at which we present our Fellowships; the always outrageous Operations Awards party, or Oppies; and the MRS Awards Dinner, still the biggest and, in my opinion, best event in the UK research calendar. Well over a thousand people a year were attending these events before the pandemic and, even when we couldn’t get together in person, hundreds tuned in to watch the winners announced online. The value the sector sees in the MRS Awards is a huge source of professional pride for me and I hope I can continue to keep them relevant and respected.

R-Net morphed into &more, and my brilliant colleague Mel manages that now, but I still look after any regional events we have and I worked with Michael Brown to found MRSpride, the world’s first professional network for LGBTQ+ researchers and their allies.

MRSpride launched in 2019 and since then hundreds of people have attended our in-person and virtual events. We held the world’s first Trans Insight Summit and, most recently, produced a short film ‘Brown people can’t be gay’ with Colour of Research (CORe), focussing on the experiences of those at the intersection of LGBTQ+ and ethnic minority communities. Being part of MRSpride’s creation is one of my proudest achievements, professionally and personally, and I’m so grateful for everyone who has supported us.

Three things you love about the market research and insights sector?

I love that researchers tend to be people who are interested in people. Outside of MRS I’m a volunteer usher at Southwark Playhouse, which is a lot of fun, but it has certainly highlighted for me that the old joke about actors never asking a question unless it’s in the script is quite true – whereas researchers are always asking questions! I also love that this tends to make them people who like getting together, because that gives me a job, and that they like to share – their knowledge, their experience, their time. It’s a very caring sector, I think.

How do we increase diversity and inclusion in our sector?

The MRS Diversity, Inclusion & Equality Council, alongside Colour of Research, MRSpride, Women in Research and MRS Unlimited are doing a huge amount of work to guide employers to a better future for those already working in the sector. I’m impressed by the number of organisations open to conversations about what they ought to be doing – though there’s still a big jump between those conversations and us seeing a real impact on decision-making.

I appreciate some of the changes we’re advocating are going to take time and are as much about people’s perceptions of difference as anything, but there are practical changes that all organisations need to consider now – particularly making work places fully accessible, supporting flexible working and recruiting more innovatively.

I’d encourage all employers to investigate the new Market Research Executive Apprenticeship, which my determined colleagues in the quals team have been championing over obstacles for years and I was so proud to see launched at BAFTA in February. There’s exciting new talent out there – people who don’t want or can’t go to university – open your doors to them! 

Check out the 10,000 Black Interns scheme too.

How do we ensure that students and those leaving school aspire to join our sector?

The biggest problem we have is that people still don’t really understand what market researchers do. When I started at MRS my friends said: “Oh, people with clipboards?” And I think that’s still the general perception, as that’s the part of the sector most people see in operation, even if they are doing online surveys on a regular basis!

The MRS/AQR University Roadshows endeavour to get practitioners from all parts of the sector in front of students to tell them what a varied and interesting career it can be – that grows year-on-year and we even had our first international stop in Dubai last year. It would be great if we had the resources to do something similar for schools too.

And do you have anyone who has helped your career so far that you’d like to acknowledge and say thanks or give a shout out to?

When people talk about their nightmare bosses I try not to look smug, but I’ve been so lucky. Nobody stays in a job for as long as I’ve been at MRS if they don’t feel valued, nurtured and trusted – and I’m far from the longest serving member of the team. Jane Frost and Debrah Harding are great leaders – they’re fair, they  listen, they allow the small but very experienced team at MRS to make decisions and steer product areas.

I also have to give a shout out to our Ops Director, and one of my dearest friends, Nikki Bower – you couldn’t ask for a better wing woman, whether it’s at a fancy menu tasting or scaring parrots out of a tree.

Finally, I know lots of companies proclaim to be ‘like a family,’ but so many of the team at MRS have been here since before me and we’ve seen each other through all our major life events. Special thanks go to Sam, Michelle and Hayley, who’ve seen me at my best and worst. I can’t imagine working without them, never mind working through this pandemic. We survived!