How did you acquire your market research power skills?

In my recent post – a response to the attack on the market research industry by Dominic Cummings – I outlined the impressive set of superpowers that market researchers bring to the party. This prompted me to reflect on some key defining moments – ups and downs – in my own personal journey to master these skills.

The Dawning of the Age of Aquarius

I came into the industry without any experience whatsoever of what business, let alone market research, was all about. All I could do when I left university was write 40 minute essays on rather esoteric topics. On graduating I took off to New York to find a job and earn some money. It was in the days of Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s attempt to tackle the Balance of Payments crisis by only allowing people to take £50 out of the country – which was ok because that’s all I had anyway. Arriving in New York I was desperate to find a job but no luck. It was a tough old aggressive city in the 60s. So I got on the train to Toronto.

The start: circle the big numbers and put a square round the small numbers!

I plodded around the city in a random way looking for a job, eventually arriving at the doorstep of Canadian Facts, which I subsequently found out was a leading market research company. I had absolutely no idea what market research entailed. Before the main interview, I was given a set of survey data tables about the Yorkdale Shopping Centre (the largest covered shopping mall in the world at that time). I was asked to analyse this data and write this thing called a report.

I had absolutely no idea of what to do, but came up with the cunning plan of putting a circle around big numbers and a square around the small numbers. It was a start! I spent untold hours writing the report, but when asked at the interview how long it had taken me, I just said ‘oh, only a couple of hours’. They must have known that this was not true, and could clearly see that the report was complete rubbish. But, I got the job. I think this was only because I had an English accent. So, that’s how I got started in the industry.

So the lesson here was to learn to take action and, like Napoleon’s Generals, be lucky!

It’s Gallup – not gallop – Poll you idiot David… I’ll leave it to you to go and tell the chart maker!

When I first started to prepare client presentations, we wrote out the content and sent it to a chart designer who, in Blue Peter mode, painted pie charts, bar charts and text onto massive A1 sized boards! These were all then sent to a photographer to create 35mm slides. So, when I cited some data from a Gallup Poll – but spelt Gallup wrong – this meant a lot of hassle for chartists and photographers. It was a far cry from today’s PPT find and replace option!

So an early lesson and defining moment: pay massive attention to detail, respect the words and numbers – facts and evidence matter.

Probably best to bin your version David and start again – this time let’s call it How Many More Cars?

I had the privilege of working for many years with Gerald Hoinville, the co-founder of Social and Community Planning Research (SCPR) – what is now the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen). We were working on a project aimed at forecasting the number of cars on GB roads by the end of the millennium.

I wrote my report and came up with what I thought was a very instructive title. From memory it was along the lines of, A forecast of the number of cars and light vans, but excluding three wheeled motorcycles, in England, Scotland and Wales (but excluding Northern Ireland), up to but not including the year 2000! Gerald looked at my report, said it was a platform upon which to build as he threw it into a nearby bin! He got out a fresh sheet of paper and said, ‘Let’s start again – go and find a photo of a traffic jam at Hyde Park Corner for the front cover – and let’s entitle it How Many More Cars?’

So the lesson here was clear – learn to engage your stakeholders, structure your material in an integrated organised way and know how to tell a story.

Nice piece of work David but too many numbers… go away and read this book now!

I shared an office for a while with Martin Collins who was a director at the legendary Andrew Ehrenberg’s consultancy. I was drowning in data and submitted my first draft to Martin – one of the greatest data analysts around – to which he responded by pointing me in the direction of Ehrenberg’s book Data Reduction – lessons on how to cut data down to just the killer evidence. Today Data Reduction is worth a read by any aspiring market researcher.

The lesson here is to enjoy clear, deep, critical, lean and clean thinking – and most of all to remember that less is more!

David, tell the trainees they get 1% for all the methodological stuff and 99% for the quality of their final presentation

Over the years I was the convener of many MRS Winter and Summer Schools. On a number of these one of the tutors was the wonderful John Samuels, one of the industry’s greatest presenters and also a brilliant after dinner speaker.

I asked John about how we should allocate the marks to a training assignment on which attendees were working.  It involved testing their skills in: writing a research proposal; coming up with a research design; sorting out the sampling plan; preparing the qual guidelines; writing a questionnaire; analysing the data and then giving the presentation. John’s reply was instant and concise, ‘We give 99% for the presentation and 1% for everything else!’ I tried to explain that this wasn’t quite in the spirit of encouraging best practice across the rich canvas that is the research process – 99% is probably a bit over the top but I got the point. You have to shine in your golden moment – be there and show presence when it counts.

So, the lesson here is to Always show up with your A Game – think showtime and enjoy being an influencer.

Note to self: David, there’s more than one way to skin a cat

I undertook a study on behalf of a global FMCG client in the days when there were budgets for methodological research. This study sought to determine what produced the richest customer insights – depth interviews or group discussions. The investigation involved me studying – in the early days of video – some of the top UK quallies at work in depth interview and group discussion modes. (And the study also involved the same videos being analysed by a leading psychoanalyst.)

What I learnt from this project was that there is no single magic methodological and analytical way of working. The highly experienced researchers I watched were all equally as effective and brilliant, but they went about their task in completely different ways. Some approached the research challenge through their deep appreciation of psychological and sociological models and frameworks – whilst others operated primarily through intelligent questioning, coupled with high business acumen and great levels of empathy and creativity.

So, from this I learnt to be eclectic, holistic and flexible. At that time the agile word was reserved mainly for Olympic gymnasts!

David, put away your projector and presentation slides, just answer my questions and tell me if you would do this if it was your own money

I turned up in The Netherlands to give a presentation to a high energy, restless, attention-deficient CEO who wouldn’t even let me even set up my PC and projector. This CEO simply said to me, ‘Here’s a chequebook, if it was your own money would you write a cheque for £50 million to get this venture off the ground, or not?’

So, the lesson here is to always know your stuff, be on top of the evidence, but be able to cut to the chase and deliver incisive actionable substance when it’s called for. Don’t hide behind the data – show some courage and be brave. Help bridge the gap between the data and the decision. Remember you are admissible evidence – put something of yourself into everything you do.

David, so these are our quota of metal bashers?

I remember running a focus group with extremely dedicated, earnest and professional owners of small Birmingham-based engineering companies working in the metal trade. They were very proud of their craft. Behind the mirror was the CEO of a major financial organisation (who will remain nameless) who came in at the end of the group and said something like, ‘So you’re all in our metal basher quota are you?’ After two hours of these business owners referring to themselves as engineers and craftsmen, you could hear a pin drop.

I think eventually this client company came to understood that being customer centric also included showing their customers respect. And it was a reminder to me to always value the contribution made by our research participants and showing them respect.

Trust matters

And finally, on a poignant note, way back in the early days of phone technology, I undertook a project for a major telecommunications company seeking to develop and test a voice machine. This played pre-recorded messages that explained different scenarios thereby allowing people with speech challenges to communicate over the phone. 

Our participants included those who were terminally ill but who were determined to take part in the research because they felt their feedback would help others with similar challenges. This was quite a humbling project to work on.

The lesson here was to always show appreciation of the feedback we receive by doing our best to make a difference. This is the way we will sustain trust in the industry.

Let’s hear your defining moments

So forgive this rather self-indulgent, Brit-centric walk down memory lane. But I thought it was helpful to share some of my own learning experiences in the spirit of encouraging others to reflect on their own defining moments, learn from them and help cultivate our market research power skills. 

David VL Smith

For those who are interested in our training and coaching programmes, please contact me at [email protected]

My latest book The High Performance Customer Insight Professional: How to make sense of the evidence, build the story and turn insights into action is available on Amazon UK and Amazon US

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