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Influential Ellen

Resigning has meant a lot of reflecting. Best project? Best hotel stayed in? Best group ever? Best post-work drinking session? Funniest office moment? Lots of “top ten” lists have been created in my mind over the last seven days.

The one “best” lists I have been doing a lot is the people I have worked with. The best people I have worked with share some common characteristics. They have been eccentric, brilliant, creative, difficult, curious, insightful, passionate, unreasonable, pains-in-the-arse.

But who has had the most influence on my career? For that we need to go way back to 1999, where I quit my job as a surveycraft programmer at Colmar Brunton not sure about what I wanted to do and Ellen Baron said “Hey, why don’t you try out Qual? I need some help with project management. You ca do that part time while you work out what you want to do.”

In about two weeks I was bustling down Illawarra Road with a video camera filming a lady shop for food, and then back to her house in Petersham to film her cooking some Vietnamese dishes (which we got to eat!). I could not believe that people got paid to do this.  Ellen kept asking me things like “what did you notice about so-and-so”, and “How do you think this impacts the client question”.  She’d listen to what I said, encourage me to think more about an issue, and then let me get out and film more people. More people shopping and cooking for us. Teling us their stories. Introducing us to their families. Sitting down and eating with them. I used to go home and cook the dishes the ladies taught me. Then I edited the footage into a movie for the client. It was stuff I did at uni thinking I’d never be  able to get a chance to do in the “real world”. Yes – you could get paid to do ethnography. It was a revelation!

Then we analysed what we had seen. We drew diagrams, we talked, we threw ideas away. Ellen pulled everything together and we presented it to the client. They loved it. Everyone was excited about what they had seen. It is still my favourite project I have ever worked on.

Ellen left Colmar Brunton and went to The Leading Edge. I left Colmar Brunton and took a year off to try something else out and see if research was what I wanted to keep doing.  When I was thinking about getting back into research Ellen said “come and talk to them at TLE – it’s a good place to work.”

So that’s ten years ago. During that time Ellen continued to have a big influence on what I was doing. She had (and I’m sure still has) the wonderful ability to hear you trying to articulate an idea – then hand you a book to read, and say “have a look at this; there may be something in there for you.” So you went away and read the book, and had the “tah-dah!” moment. She’d let you find the answer yourself – knowing full well what it was, but not spoon feeding or telling you the way to go. Just suggesting, nudging, hinting. It made a lot of us great researchers. We picked up a lot. We began to flex our own muscles, so she’d challenge us with bigger issues, bigger roles, bigger stakes. But she’d aways be there to help; and again, not by taking over and telling you the answer, but by working with you, and giving you the spit and polish on a project to make it sing. I was really sad when she left TLE (in 2008?) but excited for her as she set up her own company, Ruby Cha Cha.

I am indebted to Ellen for a few things. The first is making research fun. Fun for researchers but also the participants of research, so we all got a lot of joy out of it. She is a huge consumer advocate – fighting their case in boardrooms all about the place. She taught us all that their stores were the centre of being successful, and if we could convey their issues and needs then we’d done a great job.

The second is being in my corner more times than I could count. I was a stubborn little shit at the start of my career. Difficult, feisty and more often than not a pain-in-the-ass. And if things were ever going a bit awry it was Ellen who would tell me to pull my head in and encourage me to keep going.

Ellen – you got me into a career that has been infinitely interesting, challenging and most of all fun. Thanks for your patience and brilliance!

Who would you say your greatest mentor or supporter is? How have they impacted your life or career?


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Big change ahead

Tomorrow is my last day at The Leading Edge; a place I have worked at for ten years. I’ve decided that I want to stay at home looking after my boy.

Ten years is a long time.  Close to one in every four days of my life has been spent there.

There has been some amazing payouts for that time. The main one for me is the travel. It can be a bitch some of the time, but I will not lie. The travelling was the best part of the job – not just a plane ride to the other side of the world, but sometimes just a cab ride to the other side of the city. You never knew what or who would be there waiting. It’s one of the best aspects of qualitative research – it gets you away from a desk and into places you’d normally not get a chance to venture.

First the travel was local. Then you find your feet and your confidence and then it’s up to Singapore. And before you know it you are sitting in a small flat in Nizhny Novgorod talking to a factory worker about Bony M, the Petshop boys and choosing wallpaper.

Yes, there have  been times at TLE where I have had to sit back and savour the moment. That “hang-on-I-am-sitting-in-the-global-head-office-of-a-bloody-big-brand-about-to-kick-off-a-meeting” feeling. I also get it when you are travelling and you get a weekend off to explore a city. Relaxing on a bench at Central Park watching eccentric dog owners parade past, catching a bus downtown in LA and chatting with the locals, having a nice meal with a client by the canal in Copenhagen, wolfing down caviar at GUM in Red Square, staring out at frozen Lake Michigan in Chicago, having a martini at Chateau Marmont (hello Ellen!). All of these experiences and places and people. None of them would have happened without working for this company.

Those little things kept me going. Hard work, lots of long hours, tough projects. All of that really was OK because I got to do all the other fun stuff too.

And the fun stuff wasn’t limited to the glamour of the global project. It was also the local stuff – the hilarity of the focus group were everyone is on a roll, cracking jokes, coming up with suggestions, telling you about their lives, helping you get to an answer. Being cooked lovely home meals and sharing them with a family; hearing their stories, some of them amazing and moving stories about coming to this country. (I think this should be mandatory for any politician – I think policy around immigration and community would improve tenfold).

And then there has been the opportunity to work with some very sharp minds. Some VERY sharp minds. This was also a big reason for my ten year tenure. I don’t think a smarter, more creative bunch of people exist out there.

So why leave? Well, the answer is Fin. He’s growing so fast. He is laughing and walking, and he is telling us stories. He’s one already and I’m the happiest when I’m with him. In a very short time no doubt he’ll not want to spend as much time with me as he does now – so I want to take advantage if every minute I can.

It seems like the perfect reason and time to depart.


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Can you recommend…?

I am trialling some on-line qual software at work at the moment and it’s pretty good. Keen though to get any recommendations from people who are using any good stuff themselves at the moment.  I’d like it to have a lot of flexibility –

  • be able to use for  simple bulletin-board style discussions right up to more complex, longer-term research communities
  • have multi-media capabilities – people can upload images and movies
  • have mobile capabilities (either via an app, or MMS capability) / be able to use for digital ethnography
  • simple and intuitive back-end interface so researchers can get on with researching and not worry about complex set-up (easy to load up sample / easy to down load reports / set up segment groups etc)

The solution I am trialling appears to be ticking all the boxes so far (can you guess who it is?), but keen to see if I am missing out on anything else out there.

Let me know if you have any tips!

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Crap enough for you may be good enough for others

I’ve been thinking for a while about the “good enough” explosion in tech, and want to write more about this, but for the time being I will just leave you with a little memory that popped into my head.

A client of many years ago was complaining about how crap this promotion was that his activation team had set up. Without giving too much away it was a promo that aimed to drive purchase – you bought product X, got a token, and when you got enough tokens you got a prize. This guy was moaning about how crap this prize was, and how no one would value it (despite the fact redemption of this prize was HUGE.) I’d been dong some work out west that very week and a lot of teenage boys had told me how FANTASTIC the prize was, and how they had saved their tokens for weeks to get this prize.  So, this guy was looking at the prize with his “value-judgement-eyes” and not through the eyes of the target; who thought the promo was awesome and thought the brand was doing a really amazing thing by giving them this prize. The prize was a pretty basic piece of kit, but something the young guys valued. It didn’t have any bells or whistles, it just did the thing they needed it to do, and for that it they were really grateful. It was GOOD ENOUGH, and therefore it was very good.

Maybe this marketing guy’s  mates had been giving him shit at a swanky bar about how crap the prize was. Maybe he didn’t need a prize like this in his own life. But essentially what was crap-tastic for him, rocked the world of who it was supposed to.

(Sorry to be cryptic about what this prize was, but it may give away who the client was and while they aren’t a client anymore, I just don’t want to go there – you know what I mean?)

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Hit by the auto-bot

A blocked number call came through a while back and an efficient recorded female voice asked me if I’d be willing to complete a five minute survey on behalf of H&R Block. I’d been into the new Marrickville branch to get (ahem) a few years worth of tax returns sorted out. As a researcher, I was quite curious to complete one of these surveys and see how they “felt” as a respondent. Maybe because I used to be a telephone interviewer at uni, but the idea of these surveys made me a bit nostalgic for the funny days of phone-room hijinx. It was the start of my career in market research. I started out working part time in the evenings on CATI, and just, well…stayed. It was fun – it suited my curiosity about finding out what makes people tick. And when I found qual – well, there was no looking back.

But back to the auto-bot survey!

I can see lots of pros for surveys such as this, cost being a huge one and the other being about the ease of sampling especially if they have no email address. But to be honest it left me feeling a bit cold. As an HR Block customer it felt like the survey was just part of someone’s KPI’s, not to genuinely find out about my experience. I don’t get this cold feeling from an on-line survey.

It’s also made me wonder what uni students do now for part time work (and part-time fun). And what about the “training ground” it provided for young researchers? Two or three years on the phones certainly taught me how to write a good survey. I know on-line research is slowly quickly chipping away at telephone and face to face quant studies, but for the next little while it felt there was still a role for the telephone survey.  Now the auto-bot survey may take that role away.

And I sort of feel sad.

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Embracing the grey

During the Bill Henson retrospective at the AGNSW some time ago, he and Edmond Capon had a “conversation” on stage one evening. The two things I remember from that night are…

  1. Edmond turning the conversation around and arond so that I felt like the session turned into a bit of an “all about Edmond” evening
  2. Bill Henson saying something so sensible and resonating that it stuck with me like glue. When asked why he felt his art was so successful, he spoke about how he was interested in the big themes (he said these were stuff like life, death, love, lust etc) and that he just wasn’t interested in art that referenced art – he found it dull and self-indulgent, and thought that his stuff resonated with people outside the “art world” because they could see their own passions in his work.

I am wildly paraphrasing here and probably if I looked at a transcript of that evening he likely never said anything like that. But at the time it stuck. I had been doing my own reflecting on the art world and what it meant to me. I have a degree in art history, yet have never worked in the arts. Yet when I got a bit of a glimpse inside that world, it seemed so self-serving and dismissive of what people outside that world are turned on by art-wise it made me more than a little annoyed. So I loved that a major artist was standing up for the “base” reactions of the everyman, and saying he could understand why an average punter would be so BORED by art that just stared up and into it’s own arse,  because he was bored too.

So why am I posting this you wonder – well, I’M NEARLY BACK AT WORK, and have been popping into the office and chatting with people there to see what I can get up to when I return NEXT WEEK. And this has begun to stir the old thought processes up a bit. The wheels are chugging slowly; there has been dust and cob webs blown away; the lightbulb is flickering like an annoying flouro tube, and before I knew it, I was walking along and thinking about stuff in the old way I used to. Well, to be honest, the thinking never stopped, but now the thinking needs to get a bit more focussed.

Get to the point, you are probably thinking. So I will.

This thought of Bill Henson came back to me today as I was walking home back from a meeting, and I made the connection with what I do. It’s taken me a few bloody years – but the way I see it is this. We have a terrible habit in market research to speak in absolutes. The time I have been on leave I cannot count the amount of ridiculous tweets from people saying that in the future the only qual we will be doing is on-line. Sort of like the whole quant versus qual debate that was raging when I first stared in research. Sort of like the group v depth debate that consumed us all in 2000. And don’t even get me started on the fuckwits that keep claiming the focus group is dead and we should all be about ethnography. You see, these debates all happen inside our industry. No one gives a flying fuck outside of it. We speak in absolutes; it’s black and white and never the two shall meet. Are you qual or quant? Are you “new research” or “old”. Are you with us or against us? The funny thing is the people that pay our bills don’t really care how we do it. They just need their questions answered, their problems solved – and if they are lucky, get their loins stirred by the way a lovely piece of research can get everyone in the room passionate about an idea, a customer, a company, a possibility.

I am not saying that the navel gazing the industry does though is a waste of time. It’s healthy to think about where we are heading; how technlogy is impacting on what we do (and our relevance) everyday; how some of the things that we do aren’t helping our clients in the long run. But what I do find a waste of time is the polemicists that demand you have to sit on one side of the fence. Maybe it’s because we are researchers and we are taught to give a tight story – that we can’t have any grey areas; that we need to remove the chaos. It certainly makes for a catchy soundbite when you broadcast to your twitter followers some pithy idea you have – but in the long run it just sounds vapid and lazy.

So what am I saying? (It’s clear at the moment that I have a lot of trouble with the tight story…)

  1. Our clients don’t care really about the “old research” v “new research” debate, or whether we feel the death of the focus group is nigh
  2. Our clients care about outcomes and the stories we come back with from the field (wherever that field may be)
  3. What gets them passionate about what we do is to do with the “big stuff” – painting them an evocative picture about what their customers really care about is the key to us doing a good job

What I am not saying is that methodology doesn’t count. I am DEFINITELY not saying that. Methodology is the bedrock as Katie Harris so righlty posts over at Zebra Bites. But chucking arrows out of your quiver beacuse it doesn’t suit your “crazy-bag-lady-man-screeching-on-a-corner-about-the-death-of-old-research” etc ideology seems a bit nuts.

So on my return to work I promise to embrace the old and the new, the digital and the analogue, the qual and the quant (and the other stuff we do) and play in the grey areas…as long as they are the right tools to help to unlock cracking insights.

And what happened with Insights since I’ve been away. It’s like a dirty word in some circles…I dunno – you go away and have a baby…

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I believe the children are our future…

An interesting tweet from Tom Ewing (@tomewing) has been rolling about in my mind.

It has made me think about a few experiences  have had with “young people” over the past ten years of working in the same firm. I started there in my late 20s, but now I am clearly the old guard; pushing 40, senior role, blah blah blah. Here are some observations.

  1. I’m not sure if this is just the type of young researchers we have been hiring, but there is a desire by about 90% of them to have a 9 to 5 career. Good on them. Market research is a means to an end. A job they hold down to pay bills. The future of the industry for them is about as exciting as the future of the Wedgwood factory. This is not a “bag Gen Y” observation – for a start, I loathe the whole Gen Y labeling system, but rather that the majority of young researchers treat their job, well – as a job. The future of the industry they work in is of vague interest, but not a conversation they want to help shape. And it should be noted there are a bunch of researchers in their 30s and 40s who are like this too.
  2. A young-researcher-future-leader we did have who worked for us perhaps wasn’t supported as well as he should have been, as no one really knew what to do with his skills. He was digital when everyone else was analogue. He was turning left when the whole place was hardwired right. Everyone loved him and appreciated his passion and enthusiasm, but no one knew what to do with him. I’d like to think we would now (this was about 7 or 8 years ago), but back then the best thing was for him to head to a place that could harness his passions (and at the time that was outside the MR industry). I see on LinkedIn he is now “Head of Projects, Europe” for a new media company. He is still working outside of consumer research, but he is the type of guy who I’d love to have back in our organisation. (Simon – if by some random chance you are reading this – we fucked up. But looks like it worked out the best for you anyhow!)
  3. So back to the 10% or so who give a shit. Where is their platform to tell and talk to us about how they see things? Internally organisations tend to be quite poor at setting forums for researchers to “navel gaze” at where we are heading, and the noise about the industry tends to be generated by the same old voices those who need to be heard and seen to have a view via conferences, PR etc. The big risk is that bright and passionate people are needed everywhere. And I’ve seen a lot of these bright and passionate young researchers move in other directions as what they have is a valuable and desirable commodity – passion, curiosity, commitment, intelligence, and drive. Working with them is a pleasure, sometimes a pain in the arse (the little upstarts) but never dull. How do we get these “kids” more involved in shaping the future of research?
  4. The cynic in me though has always seen a lot of talk about the changes and challenges in the industry, but there is still nothing like just getting on with it.  Making it up as you go along, perfecting the theory by working on a real project, delivering good work by creating something that worked for your client and their problem. The real bright stars out there should be engaged as much in this sort of work as talking about where we are headed.

This post is a little foggy with no conclusion or answer, as I shift thoughts about in my “sickness head” but that little tweet has got me thinking…

(Tom Ewing has done a post about this as well which can be found here)

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