Karen Foster

“Whatever it is you’re seeking, it won’t come in the form you’re expecting”
Haruki Murakami 

How did I come to pursue a position in market research?

With a generalist master degree in ‘Business, Language and Culture’ I finished my studies with a broad understanding of, and interest in questions of marketing and product branding. However throughout my studies I was never explicitly encouraged to pursue a career path in market research – in fact, the option of a career in consumer research was not mentioned at all.  Instead, the general career options presented to me were (some form of) consultant, marketing/sales roles or further academic research. Instead, I “stumbled” into the world of MR  in the automotive industry through a series of own discoveries, made in a part-time position I had during and directly after my studies.

I had a role in the sales and marketing department of an innovative tech start-up operating globally to revolutionise the automotive industry with a complex infrastructure system for recharging electric vehicles and optimising the use of renewable energy in transportation. My role was directly customer facing: answering any questions about electric vehicles, charging technology, infrastructure availability and addressing the concerns that inevitably surround new and expensive technologies. In my interactions with potential EV owners and the product itself, I quickly came to understand – on both a practical and conceptual level – the major obstacles in the market as well as the main trigger points for pioneering first movers. These learnings were fed back internally in the company, however (much to my frustration) I never knew if they were used to inform an integrated communications approach. With limited EV sales at the time, the company was ultimately pushed into bankruptcy, teaching me the lesson that seeking, understanding and responding to customer dialogue is of paramount importance to successful businesses and in this way my interest in the field of market/consumer research was sparked.

What was I seeking?
This experience inspired me to seek out a job in market research. But I was unsure what a career in market research exactly entailed and what to expect. Understanding which career paths were available to me within the MR field was a daunting task as no guidance was on offer.  It seemed to be down to me to find my own way. I was spurred on by a long-term goal of turning real world observations into business strategy and consultancy, and an important criterion was that the position would offer international work experience.

In order to achieve these long-term goals, I purposefully sought to join an overseas and international agency with the expectation that this would provide me with broad exposure/introduction to all aspects of market research projects: fieldwork, analysis, reporting, and client relations, thus ensuring a steep learning curve and a robust fundamental understanding of market research practice.

Now I’ve relocated from Denmark to the UK to start this new graduate role, what have I encountered in my 5 months on the job and what form did those learnings take? And What can other market researchers and the industry take away from these encounters and my career path thus far?

My first challenge was to work on a key document known internally as A5A16.  The alphanumeric code name was frightening enough.  As it turned out, A5A16 was the development of an automated management system for a large and complex multi-market tracking study, designed to ensure that work in progress can be monitored daily and that overall quality is maintained across all markets at all times. This was process – not consultancy!  Having a slight allergy to spread sheets, databases and data systems, I quickly came to realise that market researchers speak a multitude of languages and I started to worry that I didn’t have the skill sets to navigate all that is required in large scale quantitative work.  Somewhat naively, I had not expected to be so close to the ‘numbers and systems’ side of things when I had signed up to my first job.  But the experience taught me several lessons:  Firstly, not to be afraid of the numbers, as ‘numbers’ and ‘words’ inform one another; secondly, the importance of the invariably unseen and unsung ‘back room’ heroes of process, systems and quality control.  Results are worth little if they are not reliable.  Thirdly, a career in market research demands both wordsmiths and number-whizzes and those who can fluently accommodate and work with both specialisms.

Why are they called ‘Car Clinics’?
One month into my new role, I encountered the term ‘car clinic’ as I was asked to accompany our ad-hoc project team on a trip to Warsaw for a car clinic research project. The word ‘clinic’ is an apt term for this type of event. It is kept as ‘sterile’ as possible leaving nothing to coincidence. Which is best illustrated by the arrival and reveal of the vehicle prototype which brings the building to a complete security lock-down.

This was something else completely.  An army of clients, researchers, support staff and unsuspecting research participants all coming together for a few hectic days of fieldwork in an unreal environment.  Us researchers had to organise and worry about everything from 24-hour security, the creation of offices for ourselves and our clients over the period, feeding and watering of everyone on site through to the recruitment of a highly defined segment of the market, managing our respondents through a lengthy and controlled tablet questioning process, focus groups and the filming of a sub-set of all proceedings in order to ultimately create a short edited film representing key findings.

So, what did I learn from this?  First of all, the large investment made by car companies to bring the best possible cars to market.  Also, the critical importance of all of the project logistics.  I now know the cost of running such an exercise and how many people are needed to ensure it runs efficiently – let alone clients and agency staff flying in from afar.  Screwing up is not an option.  I also learned that any good researcher needs stamina.  These were long working days on site, let alone the preparation and analysis days spent by all back at the office. Not to mention the ability to multi-task.  Skipping from cleaner to coffee provider to client liaison manager to moderator to film director is all in a day’s work.  And then, finally time management and the analysis.  There are two sides to this:  the immediate and ‘thinking on your feet’ feedback to the clients on site as well as the full analysis, qual and quant, utilising a whole array of techniques.  And how do you extrapolate data from this clinical setting to best represent that of the real world scenarios?  So much for any thoughts that I may have had about the luxury of thinking time that I enjoyed whilst studying for my degrees!

Learning by Interviewing
My next experience was back to basics and probably more within my comfort zone.  I was given the opportunity to conduct my first in-depth telephone and face-to-face interviews, which also had a bit of an ethnographic feel to them. I travelled near and far in the vicinity of London and beyond to speak with pick-up truck owners – first accompanying experienced researchers and observing, before I was let loose on my own. This was an eye-opening moment for a number of reasons: learning to put the respondent at ease and making them comfortable, then asking the right questions at the right moment, striking the correct balance in covering the discussion guide but also exploring unexpected responses as they arise. And finally and probably most importantly, I learned the importance of understanding the cultural references embedded in each response.  Being from Denmark and having only spent a few months in the UK, my role as a researcher also meant being particularly aware of placing the answers I hear in a meaningful cultural context while refraining from interpreting them against the backdrop of my own.  Which is something to remember when analysing research data from anywhere in the world.

Observing Online Respondents
Later I became involved in an online research project carried out in Germany, UK and South Africa where participants were asked to respond to questions posted daily and then finally to participate in an online group ‘chat’ discussion where we observed their discussion in real time. This was my first encounter with online qualitative research and it was an interesting learning for me to see amongst other things how people uploaded pictures of the products we were researching. It also seemed to me that the quality of responses were very high – perhaps because participants were in the comfort of their own homes and in the context of the products being researched with time to reflect on their responses. And the ability to be able to control the order of the questions, deciding when to ask them one to one and when as a group was really helpful as this negates the ‘group leader’ effect that may hinder the traditional group discussion. I guess that for my generation, online communications are the norm.  So, it is ‘horses for courses’ and learning when and why the various methodological options should be recommended.

Clients and Crossing Cultures
On a project conducted for an Asian-based client, I learned that a career in international market research does not only command cultural sensitivity to participants and data from around the globe but also towards our clients.  In this instance it was apparent that our client was not comfortable with our relatively open and unstructured European approach to qualitative research. Their need was for a great amount of detail obtained in a highly structured manner.  In part this made the communication process via simultaneous translation easier and more robust.  But most importantly it reassured them that they were asking and hearing multiple market responses in a systematic and controlled manner.  And after all, what is the use of consumer research if it is not understood and assimilated by the end user?  At the same time it became clear to me that it is close to impossible to expect that one can implement identical research approaches from market to market, and how both giving and listening to market-specific feedback can make all the difference in collecting quality data when operating across borders. Communicating openly and efficiently with clients and placing stakeholders at the centre of this process becomes paramount in achieving a successful business relationship and useable research results that reflect the nuances of each market as well as the important commonalities.

So, what have I learnt? And what might it mean for the industry?
Some researchers reading this may (hopefully) find themselves nodding in recognition of some of the situations and learnings I have described here. I have without a doubt already gained diverse experiences with market research practice as I was hoping to – but I have also been surprised to learn things I wasn’t expecting, and to find myself in situations I wasn’t anticipating. But when thinking back, it is difficult to say that I had any hard-set expectations as I was venturing into a territory largely unknown to me.

Considering the journey I took to ‘end up’ here and the first introductory months on the job, there is an important lesson learned I would like to highlight – market research is a very niche industry. For us working in the industry this may be easy to forget, but the fact of the matter is that I (and many other candidates, I suspect) didn’t purposefully seek out market research. I found and pursued it entirely coincidentally. In a world where graduates are actively seeking international job opportunities and are often willing to relocate and travel, it makes sense for market researchers to collaborate with universities, business schools and recruitment agencies around the world to ensure that graduates are made aware of the possibility of a career in market research and are inspired to pursue it.

The experiences, challenges and required skill sets are varied and fascinating.  Graduates need to be offered a market research career as a first line option, alongside any other business development or sales/marketing opportunities. The ‘art’, ‘science’ and ‘sweat’ required to deliver consumer insights encompass so much:  logic, an enquiring mind, intellect, physical and mental stamina, team work, travel, cultural sensitivity, languages, multitasking, clear thinking, psychology, adaptability, technology know-how as well as communication and public speaking skills, to name but a few.

Surely there is enough scope within this list to excite and inspire many more high calibre post graduates into the industry, if only they knew?

Karen Foster is a Market Research Executive at MM-Eye