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Ep. 220 – Estrella Lopez-Brea – Why it’s the Best Time to be in Consumer Insights, According to Nestlé

My guest today is Estrella Lopez-Brea, Global Head of Consumer Connections at Cereal Partners Worldwide. Established in 1991, Cereal Partners Worldwide is a joint venture between General Mills and Nestlé to produce breakfast cereals. The company is headquartered in Switzerland and markets cereals in more than 130 countries.

Prior to joining Cereal Partners Worldwide, Estrella was the Knowledge & Insights Senior Analyst for Coca-Cola where she guided the BU’s decision making processes and development of the Coke Masterbrand strategy and their innovation pipeline.

Find Estrella Online:


Website: https://www.nestle-cereals.com/global/en

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On Episode 220, I’m interviewing Estrella Lopez Brea, Global Head of Consumer Connections of Cereal Partners Worldwide. But first, a word from our sponsor.


We’ll take just a moment and thank G3 Translate. They have been a very valuable partner for Happy Market Research podcast, and the work that we have been doing here. I greatly appreciate it. They transcribe each one of our interviews, which range from 20 to 40 minutes, for free for us. It is a humongous benefit because it improves overall accessibility of the content that we are creating jointly with the research community. They have a unique approach. They are able to turn things around within 24 hours. I am very, very grateful for G3 Translate, and I hope that you will consider them for your next translation company project. Take the time. Go ahead and go on social media. You can find them, simply Google “G3 Translate”. That’s the number “3” and you will find the website as well as on LinkedIn. It would mean literally the world to me if you take the time to do that. Thanks so much.


Hi, I’m Jamie Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research podcast. My guest today is Estrella Lopez Brea.




Yay! Global Head of Consumer Connections at Cereal Partners Worldwide. Established in 1991, Cereal Partners Worldwide is a joint venture between General Mills and Nestle to produce breakfast cereals. The company is headquartered in Switzerland and market cereals to more than 130 countries. Prior to joining Cereal Partners Worldwide, Estrella was the Knowledge and Insights Senior Analyst at Coca-Cola, where she guided the business units, decision-making process and development of Coke’s master brand strategy and their innovation pipeline. Estrella, thank you so much for being on the Happy Market Research podcast today.


Thank you for having me. It’s a pleasure.


So tell us a little bit about your parents, where you grew up and how that has impacted your career.


Okay, so I am originally from Madrid, from Spain, but I live in Lausen, in Switzerland. I have two kids, in case that is interesting. I have two kids, and they are starting to approach the dangerous zone of being a teenager. Particularly about my parents, they are now retired, but they have been very, very active all their life. My father is a lawyer, and my mom, she had passion for HR so she was a HR Director; very busy people, very focused on their carriers, but at the same time very focused on their children. I have three brothers too. Well, that has influenced my career. That’s interesting because they both taught me different values. And I think it’s coming also from what they did for a living and that influenced certainly my carrier path and my choice to do consumer insights.

My dad, because he was a lawyer, his whole focus on honesty and what is right and wrong and not compromising yourself for the wrong thing was always in my mind. But since I was little, I would say: “No, that can’t be done. That’s wrong.” And that’s interesting because, that kind of objectivity is something that I always look for. And I guess now it’s very important in the research world.

And my mom, being in HR, she was very focused on empathy. She was always talking about people, and how important it was to talk to people as people, no matter who they were and where they were from. And she was always such a strong woman. She always told me: “Never give up.” You know things that you like and what you want to do in your life. So she taught me that no one is going to give me anything for free. I have to work really hard for it. And she also taught me about the importance of empathy and getting to know people deeply. And I think that’s another piece that was attached to me, and another reason why I love consumer insights and getting to know people from around the world, and getting to know who our consumers are.

So I think they influenced a lot my career. And then, in terms of my career, I started working in the research industry when I was living in the US, in Chicago. I lived in Chicago for five years, and that’s where it all started. And then I moved back to Spain, and worked for Coca-Cola for 10 years, where I held very different roles. And then my last kind of journey has been three years ago, when I was called for a job in CPW, Cereal Partners Worldwide, here in Switzerland. So here I am today, enjoying every single day.


Yes, congratulations. So there’s a couple things that I want to touch on. One is also having two teenagers, actually, almost three now teenagers at home is a terror. It’s a terrifying process, right?


I think they are still in the safe side.


Yes, that’s good. The role of parenting has obviously maintained the same. You’ve got to create clear boundaries for kids and help them make educated decisions. You can’t obviously control the decisions; that’s the same for me when I grew up. But the world has evolved dramatically from when we were in our teens versus the youth today, and it’s interesting to me how they have so much more information at their fingertips and the opportunity that creates for them from just an ability to be able to gain knowledge. My 15 year old last night told me that he and his friend are starting a clothing brand, which is hilarious. Something that I would have never thought would be possible as a young person. And he’s just looking up online how to accomplish those objectives and working against it.


Yeah, it’s an amazing age, when you see them also how they are transforming from being kids to be semi-adults. And the transition process is interesting and rewarding too as a parent, to see them grow and become this young person that you feel so proud of.


Yeah, absolutely, it is a rewarding, and also terrifying journey at the same time, it is both. One definitely lives in a state of tension.  So your parents have clearly impacted you from a value perspective. I liked your mechanic, the three-legged stool that you articulated: honesty, don’t compromise, and empathy. And maybe the fourth piece being a work ethic, right? You’ve got it. You’ve got to make your own way or take responsibility for where you are and where you want to get to. It’s interesting to me because, especially in context of ESOMAR and Joaquin, who introduced you and I in Amsterdam at the IIEX conference. Those tend to be the core values of the industry.


That’s true. That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought about it. But now that you say that, it makes sense. Yes, they are important pillars. Because at the end of the day, our industry is about treating people right and getting to know people. And we are people. So if we’re able to see ourselves with those values, I think we’ll be able to understand our consumers. I think it’s important the knowledge of don’t treat others like you don’t want to be treated.


Yes, the Golden Rule.




So I’ve done a fair amount of ethnography. I found myself in my early career thinking of the consumer as a “they”. What I mean is I didn’t personalize their specific journey. And I found as I have been now in my late 40s –I’m just a late bloomer, so for those interested, but it really is about “we”, this connection of all of us and how that needs to be involved and how we informed the brands from the consumer’s point of view. So, really, the personalization and the connection that we make with those consumers and the application of those insights into the brands on informing them on that consumer’s point of view is, I think, the core tenant or a solid way for us to be able to bring value.


To me, it’s the only way we can create value. If we don’t know what consumers value, it’s really hard for us to create value. So we need to get to know people and their struggles and their aspirations and their intentions in order for us is to be able to provide products and services that they can use. Otherwise, we can create the best innovation in the world but no one is going to buy it.


So we have all faced challenges. What is one of the biggest challenges that you have overcome either personally or professionally?


I’ve been lucky enough to not having any big major problem in my life, like health or things like that. I think probably my biggest challenge is something that is not very original and that a lot of other people have it too, especially women, which is kind of like that element of finding harmony between my personal and my professional life. I think that is probably not the challenge because I was literally struggling for it but because it has really been a constant element that you have to deal with when you have a career that is relatively successful, and if you have a family that you care for. I have always been lucky. I have always had some kind of support net to help me cope with both aspects of my life, whether it was my parents or a trustworthy nanny or an au-pair or a friend that you can tell: “Hi, can you pick up my kid from school?”, that kind of thing.

But an interesting challenge came to me when I moved to Switzerland with my family 3.5 years ago because on top of the implications of not speaking the language and all of that, my husband left his job to support me, and to be a stay-home dad and take care of my kids, and that has been an interesting process. And it hasn’t been challenging even to accept it for us, and even just to be proud of it and to make the most out of it because it is unusual. But it has been really great because I have been able to focus on work these last few years and advancing my career and getting to do my job the best I can, knowing that my kids were in the best hands possible while they were adapting to the new environment, and getting to know the language. And my husband is loving it. Because he is having for the first time the opportunity to spend quality time with our children, which is something that he never thought, especially now, in this kind of changing times we’re talking about, when kids transition in a little bit into being teenagers. So it is not that I recommend people to follow the same path. But what I mean is that the learning for me has been that you have to do what works for your family, and without letting conventions or other people’s opinions influence you. This has worked for us in this period of time. It might not work, later on, but it has worked and it’s working well, and it’s allowing us to find this harmony. So that’s my little story of my challenge.


Yeah, that is super interesting. Women, I believe, face a tremendous amount of guilt externally and then internally. This is my understanding after conversations with other people, by the way, I’m not personalizing it. But when you have children, you’re either feeling guilty if you’re not working or there’s a guilt, if you are working, and it’s a really interesting dynamic that society, I think, has set this view of what is the right way. And if you can step out of that and operate in a more truthful or self-aware perspective, then you can shake those shackles, forgive the metaphor, of guilt and create an environment that in fact you will raise a healthy, successful family.


That’s true.


But it’s hard!


It’s hard. Yeah, it’s hard. But if you love what you do, you just can’t compromise. As I was saying, something that my mom told me when I was starting my career once when I was pregnant: “Don’t look at the money.” In Spain, it was recession time. And a lot of people stopped working because it was even more expensive to go to work for them than staying at home with their children. It was very interesting. A lot of people were saying: “it’s not worth it for the little bit of more money that I earned. I’ll just stay home with my kids.” And the one thing my mom told me is: “It’s your decision. But if you love what you do, don’t give up. And don’t look at it from a cost-effective point of you. Look at it from the point of view of you’re doing what you love.” And I always follow that, and I think we should all follow that. And if that means breaking a little bit the norm, that’s fine.


Tell me about the research project that you’re most proud of.


Oh, I think I have a very recent one here in this company where I am right now. It has been pain and a reward at the same time. It’s a really huge project, and probably the biggest product piece of foundational learning that the company has ever done. It’s a big project in across all the regions in the world, across different markets that took me probably a couple of years from beginning to end, and taking personal time because I had a small team and it faded away, and I ended up working at it on my own. But it has really helped the organization be consumer-first and understand what the consumer is about.

It’s a huge consumer segmentation about the needs of the consumer. That’s why the consumer is always at the heart of everything. Everything that I talk about. But it’s really about knowing who consumers are, what they value, what they need, and then for us to be able to develop strategies, innovation that meets the consumer needs. So, it’s been a huge one with a lot of impacting the organization. That’s a reason why I feel very proud of this because it has really helped the organization to be more consumer-centric by deeply understanding consumers. And it has really influenced the long-term plan of the company.

And it has literally touched all the innovation pieces we have in our long-term plan. It has influenced the brand’s strategy of all of our brands. It has landed across all the markets and the regions and the functions. And every time I see an image of my project or a mention of my project, from the CEO to a person in another region, a BO  somewhere or a Marketing Director in the region, I feel really proud because it was really tough, but it is really creating an impact. It’s probably the project that I’ve worked on that has been more impactful


I didn’t realize that there’s a lot of confidentiality around customer segmentation in every space. But is there a part of the project that you can share, some sort of nugget that would potentially inform a different decision being made?


You mean sharing?


Businesses, the executives that are making the decisions are looking for information, and that information has to come to them in close to a real time often because they have to make a decision. The speed of decisions just continues to increase. So as you think about a multiyear segmentation, which is a heroic effort, by the way, how are they interacting with that data, the insights that you provided them so they are able to make an informed decision?


So for multiple fronts, on one side is just a unified long width to talk about our consumers or the different segments of consumers and the same language across the whole organization to talk about those needs that consumers have for our occasion, which is breakfast. Then, opportunity identification. Where are the white spaces? Where we’re not playing, which might be very important for consumers that we don’t have a need. We don’t have a solution for them. So it has triggered innovation on that side too. And again, brand strategy also because… and portfolio assessment. We have a pretty broad set of brands, and we need to differentiate them, and understanding who are consuming those brands but also, how do we pull them apart so that they can play in a bigger space? And when we are developing innovation, we also want to be true to the positioning of those brands and who the consumer is. So there have been really different fronts. And then again, opportunity identification, which white spaces for the largest markets are at a global level and then at a regional level.


So tell me about a market research challenge that you are facing today.


Nice. I think I might have two instead of one. I think when one is pretty obvious: it’s technology. A challenge is not something negative to me. A challenge is an opportunity, right? But I think in this changing period where technology has completely disrupted the industry over the last 3 to 5 years after a pretty quiet and stable period, I would say, I think we are being good at adapting technology to increase consumer engagement, to reduce the dropout rates, to get more accurate data. I think we have evolved there, but there’s a lot of shiny objects out there that I feel that neither companies nor research agencies know exactly how to use yet and, of course, I am talking about for virtual reality, and machine learning and things like that. So we really need to look for ways to better understand how to use technology with purpose. So I hate when a vendor calls me to say: “Hey, we’re doing a lot of things in VR.” Don’t tell me this. Ask me what’s my business challenge. And I’ll tell you what it is. And then you tell me if VR is the way to solve it, but not the other way around. What do you think?


I 100% agree with this point. So I consult for a number of start-ups, and the biggest complaint, if you want to think of it that way, that I’ve had or that I have, is that oftentimes entrepreneurs will have a great product or service that they are trying to map to a problem. So they start with the technology, and then they’re trying to figure out “Okay, good. Where does that fit? How can I monetize it?” I always say you guys got to reverse the side of it. You know you need to focus on where’s the customer’s pain point in the market. And that represents the opportunity that then you need to apply the technology or the service or however you are banking your solution, so that it adds value to the customer.




So you said two things. That was one.


Yes, the other one, which to me, more than a challenge, is an opportunity. And we talked about it before, that is, consumer empathy. There are studies out there that prove that consumer-centric organizations who put the consumer first are the ones that are performing the market. I don’t know if you’ve read this 2019 Watermark Consulting study? Have you read that?


I am going to. I have not.


So it’s very interesting. They look what happened to the cumulative stock performance of the top Tier 10 and the bottom 10 traded companies in the past 11 or 10 years. And the result was that the leader in consumer experience or consumer empathy outperformed the S&P 500, the American stock market index, by like 45%. And the bottom companies performed way worse. It was something like 70% less than the same average. So there’s proof that consumer-centric organizations do better and because they create value for the consumer, which is what we were mentioning before. So it’s a key focus for us to ensure that basically every decision-making element is based on the consumer. We want to know the consumer better than anyone else. Are there, to the field, which is something that we have forgotten. I think like being behind the mirror is kind of like past those times. So really getting to know what’s the tension?  Who is there? And put consumer-centricity at the center? I mean, right now, we’re trying to create a consumer-centric kind of activity that we are partnering with HR to make the whole company across market regions to be more consumer-centric. So it’s not the role of CI to be consumer centric. It is not their role of our function. It is everyone’s role and responsibility to know that consumer.


Oh yes, this is something that I’ve seen trend in the last relatively recently, where there’s a concerted effort to create consumer empathy across the organization. So everybody inside of the company is thinking about the consumer first in the decisions that they’re making, which of you think about it from a HR perspective is a material shift from how we used to think about things. Organizational clarity is probably the number one biggest challenges of any CEO or CHRO. How do you guys actually empower that knowledge across a large organization?


There are many different things involved. One of them, obviously the most powerful one, is that we have a CEO that is probably the most consumer-centric person of the whole organization. And that helps. He goes to visit markets. In every market he visits, every week, or every couple of weeks, he meets with the consumer. He goes, and does in-home interviews with consumers. Every market he goes. And then he posts back to the whole company what he has learned about the consumer there.

So there is this culture of the consumer must be put at the center, which starts from the top, and obviously our function is a critical piece. We bring the consumer along the process, we use research for learning purposes, not for validation. So we are more about finding agile ways to meet with a few consumers against some intuition to move to the next level or the next step of the journey more than having everything 100% finalized, and let’s just test it and do this huge research, which we also do, and we also do validation. But then we have tools. We have an empathy tool kit that has been rolled out to all the regions on the market. So whenever there’s a project for a brand in one region, they can go down and look at activities and do empathy activities like shop-alongs, or go to the store as if you were this consumer, or meet someone of these characteristics. That kind of thing. The project that I was telling you before has also helped a lot because now we have the same language and knowledge about who these consumers are, how to pull them apart, what are the values that they have, what do they care for, what is the food that they eat. We get to know them much better.

So there’s different tools, but they all walk in the same direction. And I say that, in the organization in the last few months, and especially since the new CEO joined, that our function is a trending topic. Ha! So everyone wants to go and that’s the best position you can be at right, when you have a meeting with senior leaders, and one over the other says: “Oh, I can’t believe they haven’t been seeing the consumer”. Really? They are proud of it. They say: “Really? I saw the consumer last week.” And that’s amazing because that means that they are all preaching what they believe in. Walking to talk instead of it just being words.


There definitely has been a visible, measurable shift at the C-suite with the adoption of insights from a direct connection perspective. There used to be, from the organizations I was exposed to, which I feel it was a lot, a few layers between the special key executives and consumer insights. And now I’m hearing more and more about organizations, even at the CEO level, who are making direct connections on a regular basis with consumers in order just maintain their fingers on their pulse.


Yes, this is great. I mean, what else can we ask for, right? As people who are responsible for a function like us?


Honestly, it is literally the most exciting time in my career…


Yes, I feel the same way.


…for market research and consumer insights in general. Because we quite literally have a red carpet into the boardroom and direct influence. I’m actually very thankful for the Qualtrics acquisition because I believe it created, I believe it is a fact, value association with consumer insights. So thank you SAP for that. The number of calls I’m getting from financial institutes that are looking to make investments and acquisitions in this space is every day, multiple times a day. And that’s from maybe one or two a month rather prior to that acquisition. So every organization is now having to perk up and say: “Wow, that that’s an oversized valuation.” Or is it? And if it is and then they have to understand what that thesis is, and to your earlier point about the Watermark study, who doesn’t want that, to outperform the S&P 500? And the way that you do that is just profoundly obvious, to your point


Now the question is, and that is the reason why it is also a challenge, you have to actually prove, I’m not saying proved with numbers, but there has to be actions or actionable insights in order to maintain that traction. If we as a function are given the trust to go and be the center, let’s say, of any initiative and we do not prove that what we do is actually having an impact in the organization, then the virtual circle can stop. We do have a responsibility to perform and to ensure that, and I strongly believe that, being consumer centric results in better decision-making and therefore, growth for the company. But you have to perform. You have to have a team that is focused on actions. There’s certain elements associated to make that happen.


The ROI on research… We have got to really frame what we do to that point, because it is easy to start retrenching in what I will call the “traditional methodology approach,” which is more validation to your point versus learning. Of course, you have to have both in an organization.


Right. And if the organization invests in the function because they believe that’s how we should do it… But then the company doesn’t perform as expected. Then there is a danger of saying: “Oh, you know what? I thought you were very useful, but you’re not.” So there is also an element on us to make sure that what we learn from the consumer is actionable, is transformed, and that those insights are transformed into things that are actionable and important, and differential for the company.


This gets to the heart of my earlier question, which is market research used to sit as a specific function inside of the organization. And now what I am seeing is market research is giving information and empowering insights so that when the UX designer or the product owner or whoever inside the company has a question, then they immediately have a treasure trove of data that they can then make a decision. And to your point, that is the big challenge. I believe we have to see ourselves as empowerers as opposed to gatekeepers. I think that is something that I’m just seeing over and over from a theme perspective from consumer-based organizations.


Yes, empowerers, story-tellers…






So there has been a lot of technology that is introduced outside of market research, and market research companies are always thinking about how can we apply this to our space, even though we are not on the early adopter part of the curve. How do you think the market research space is going to be different in five years?


Well, I think technology obviously will impact. We have only started. So I think the digital transformation of channels will happen. So more channels, more complex channels, more blurriness between the online and the offline world. I think that can only increase.

I think is the other element is mobile-only. We are now in transition time. But in a few years I don’t think we are going to be having anymore desktop surveys. I think we are probably already really late but it’s starting to move. Then virtual reality, I think, also as a way to engage with consumers and a way to be efficient, especially for big organizations that operate, for example, in different markets or are across different channels. I think it can be super-powerful, but with purpose again. And then artificial intelligence as well. I think it will become the mainstream data analysis tool. It will save time and be more accurate and will be more accessible. And I think the other element is an even higher need for agility and speed, because people’s expectations are faster every day. They are increasing faster every day. Information is expected to be available now immediately both, I think, from the consumer side but also on the company side. So consumers want things now so they cannot wait for a year until we have the pipeline ready. But companies also need the information of those changes to be available faster. So I do see this trend of less big, robust pieces of information as I was mentioning before, and more agile, do-it-yourself approaches that get you closer to the consumer along the process. I mean, if we look at things like the proliferation of the online communities nowadays, I think it’s a sign of people just bringing the consumer along the journey in a way that is not perfect but it’s going to give you some informed intuition to move to the next stage.


Can you elaborate a little bit on the online community’s point that you just made? I think it is really important.


Yes. I think there has been a broader use of online communities in the last few years, where you basically had the opportunity to have a group of consumers at your fingertips in an environment that is friendlier to them, where they move around in a nice way, and it gives you an agility to find answers or insights or a better understanding that we have never had before. Before, we had a question, and we asked it. You put the question, you take it, you analyze it, and now you can just have your consumers bring you there, bring some questions, read what they say, what they relate to, the comments that they make. And that already triggers something for you to continue working on what you’re having without having a month of stop. I don’t want the perfect report. I don’t need it. I don’t need a 50-page report with every single quote. I can just go in there, and see what they’re saying, and that will help me understand, me or the marketing manager or whoever. So I think that is one tool. But I think it’s a very powerful one that allows agility and consumer-centricity at the same time.


I love that. What are the three characteristics of an all-star employee?




And by the way, there’s no pressure because your mom has been in HR a long time.


True, true. Well, I’m going to tell you what I look for in my team, for example, or for myself. I don’t know if it will be an all-star but I’m sure these are the things that are important to me. I don’t know if it will be three. But they are the things I have noticed.

The first one is being action-oriented. We talked about it throughout the whole conversation. We need people that are result-driven, who are having an impact in the work that they do, that look for solutions that are efficient, not from the point of view of working a lot of hours. It’s about making sure that what they produce, that the work that they do is having an impact; it is triggering an action. That is super important to me. And that’s usually related to other skills, such as the ability to influence or having initiative. Usually, those employees who are action-oriented are people who are just nominating themselves for any project that’s coming and have these skills to persuade with the information that they have or to influence with the information that they have. They are always looking for an impact. I think that will be one.

We also talked about the need for agility, and I think that makes me think about the need of being flexible and adaptable. The world is changing every day, and what is a critical skill to me is being able to pivot, to change, to be able to adapt, to be able to navigate in uncertain waters without struggling. I face unclear situations every single day. You need to be able to cope with them, and make the most of it and don’t stress. So again it ties me back to this initiative that we were mentioning before: People who have a better ability to adapt to new environments are usually asking or nominating themselves for a new challenge. Because they want to pivot, they want a change, they look for this movement and not to stay like stiff in the same role. Because that’s also what helps us grow. They see value in it too.


I totally agree.


Also, the other one to me is just having commitment, and having passion. If you don’t have passion for what you do, just go home. Passion and commitment can overcome other skills. You don’t need to be necessarily the smartest person in the world, but if you are dedicated, and you’re passionate, you will make it happen. And to me, that’s very, very important. People need to be motivated to enjoy coming to work every day. We work a lot of hours so you have to care for what you’re doing. It’s just a mindset more than a skill. You just have to enjoy what you’re doing. If you are a passionate person, you will find the way to make whatever you do exciting. I think those would be my three. If a person has all of these three skills, I think they will have also leadership qualities because they will be confident, they will be willing to take challenges, they’ll have initiative, they will be responsible and good communicators. So it all ties together.


I am here taking a lot of notes. I have never heard anyone connect the core values to a byproduct of leadership. I think that is super insightful. It’s funny because it completely drives the type of people that you want inside of an organization, which in an ideal world are people that are moving the needle, and see themselves as empowered, as opposed to more of the Atom rubber stamp-type of a role. And when you think about consumer-centric cultures, that has to be a characteristic of it because you need everybody, from the intern to the CEO, to ask themselves the question “Is this good for the consumer?” And as soon as they feel like “Gosh, maybe it’s not”, they have the opportunity to be able to raise their hand. You can’t do any of that unless they have that sort of mentality.




So I have a couple of questions that came in on LinkedIn when I posted this morning that I was having the pleasure of interviewing you. Do you mind if I ask you some of the questions?


Of course.


So the first one is from Matthew O’Mara, and he asks: “Is it true?” And he claims his daughter believes it is, that cereal can actually be dinner.


Well, I think any food can be eaten at any moment. What do you mean… Idon’t know if I understand what it means when he says it can be dinner.


I think he’s probably in a power struggle with his daughter. I assume he doesn’t want her to eat cereal for dinner.


Oh, for dinner, okay. What I can tell you is that we operate in the breakfast occasion for a reason because we know that we have the ingredients and the nourishment that are relevant at the breakfast occasion because we are products where the category might have some bad press. But actually cereal is a very great option at breakfast. It has all the right elements to be present in this occasion. I don’t want to advocate for anyone to go ahead and all of the sudden have cereal for any meal. I don’t want to get into that discussion, but I know that at breakfast it certainly is a good option.


I think he will like hearing that. That’s probably exactly the answer he wanted. The last question that I’ll ask you, and there are a few more than I’ll follow up with later through LinkedIn, but is from Ted Waz of the Opinion Economy, and he’s asking, and it’s a longer question, but the gist of it is: Do you guys have concerns around what he’s framing as click farms, where you have basically automated respondents taking surveys?


Oh, that’s a good point. That’s a good point. I would say it’s not a strong concern right now, but it’s probably one of the biggest concerns that we’ll have in the future. When we were talking about the digital transformation and the artificial intelligence and all the machine learning coming, I think that will be a very, very big watch-out that the industry is going to have to figure out. I think that is a great question indeed.


So my last question is: What is your motto?


I don’t have a motto but if I had to make one right now, I would say it’s just “do your best”. It seems small but and it might sound probably very cliché, but to me it means just so much. It means that you’re just putting the best effort into everything that you do. And to be honest, it’s probably the only way you can live with the feeling of self-satisfaction. Because even if things don’t turn out, there’s always going to be someone that is better than you, there’s always going to be someone who did an amazing job. But if you feel that what you’ve done is the best that you could, that you have put your soul and heart into it, that is already rewarding. It’s only yours. I think that personal satisfaction is only yours, and you deserve. And that’s a personal feeling that no matter if things don’t turn out, you’ve done your best. That would probably my motto.


My guest today has been Estrella Lopez Brea, Global Head of Consumer Connections at Cereal Partners Worldwide. Thank you, Estrella, very much for joining me today on the Happy Market Research podcast.


Thank you. It was a pleasure.


And everyone, if you please take a few moments, share this episode. You can screenshot it, put it on LinkedIn, Twitter. It would mean the world to me. Also, your ratings on Apple iTunes is a huge benefit in that it creates additional visibility of this podcast to other insights professionals. I hope all of you have a fantastic rest of your day!

Just want to take a moment and thank G3 Translate. They have been a very valuable partner for Happy Market Research podcasts and the work that we’ve been doing here. I greatly appreciate it. They transcribe each one of our interviews, which range from 20 to 40 minutes, for free for us. It is a humongous benefit because it improves overall accessibility of the content that we are creating jointly with the research community.

They have a unique approach. They are able to turn things around within 24 hours. I am very, very grateful for G3 Translate, and I hope that you will consider them for your next translation company project. Take the time. Go ahead, and go on social media, you can find them. Simply Google “G3 Translate”. That’s the number “3”, and you’ll find the website as well as on LinkedIn. It would mean literally the world to me if you take the time to do that. Thanks so much.

Ep. 219 – Our Official 100th Episode: Life Lessons and Market Research Trends

Welcome to the 100th episode of the Happy Market Research Podcast! In this episode, Merrill Dubrow, CEO of M/A/R/C Research, interviews Jamin Brazil, Founder and CEO of Happy Market Research. The two take a look at the benefits of producing a podcast, market research trends, and life lessons.

Find Jamin Online:



Find Merrill Online:


Website: M/A/R/C Research 

Find Us Online:


Social Media: @happymrxp


This Episode’s Sponsor: 

This episode is brought to you by G3 Translate. The G3 Translate team offers unparalleled expertise in foreign language translations for market researchers and insight professionals across the globe. Not only do they speak hundreds of languages, they are fluent in market research. For more information, please visit them at G3Translate.com.

Ep. 217 – Amit Dhand – Online Surveys vs. New Methods

My guest today is Amit Ahand, Co-Founder and CEO of Nailbiter. Founded in 2014, Nailbiter is a unique platform that offers CPG manufacturers an opportunity to see their consumers make purchase decisions at the shelf and at home. Prior to starting Nailbiter, Amit has been a key executive at IRI, Catalina and Affinnova.

Find Amit Online:


Website: www.nail-biter.com

Find Us Online: 

Social Media: @happymrxp


This Episode’s Sponsor:

Today’s podcast is sponsored by Schlesinger Quantitative, your trusted provider of global online surveys that drive the best decisions for success in the marketplace. Schlesinger Quantitative has built an entire division of experts with extensive online research experience and an unparalleled understanding of quality drivers across panel, sample, and data.


On Episode 217, I’m interviewing Amit Dhand, founder and EVP of Client Services at Nailbiter, but first a word from our sponsor.


Today’s podcast is sponsored by Schlesinger Quantitative, your trusted provider of global online surveys that drive the best decisions for success in the marketplace.  Schlesinger Quantitative has built an entire division of experts with extensive online research experience and an unparalleled understanding of quality drivers across panel, sample, and data.


Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil.  You’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast.  My guest today is Amit Dhand, co-founder and CEO of Nailbiter.  Founded in 2014, Nailbiter’s unique platform that offers CPG manufacturers an opportunity to see their consumers, make purchase decisions at the shelf and at home.  Prior to starting Nailbiter, Amit has been a key executive at IRI, Catalina, and Affinnova. Amit, thanks very much for joining me the Happy Market Podcast today.


It’s my pleasure, Jamin, and I appreciate you doing this podcast.  I think this is very overdue in the market research business. And I look forward to the conversation; I look forward to tracking your broadcast in the future.   


Awesome, thanks very much.  So, I’d like to start with a little bit of your background.  Can you tell us where you grew up and a little bit about your parents and how that’s impacted where you are today?


That’s a great question because I ask that question in job interviews all the time.  I grew up in India and did my undergraduate degree there. I grew up in a small- business family is the best way to describe it.  My dad, many of my mother’s siblings, they were small business owners, traders. This was in India of a different era, which was much more socialistic, much more repressive, if you will, from both a society standpoint as well as business standpoint.  So, I always saw my dad struggle, make ends meet, do well, and then get pleasure out of being an entrepreneur, I think, and also the trials and tribulations that go with it. But the one advice that he gave me consistently was to never be like him. Educate myself as much as I could and get a job in a nice, big company and be comfortable.

So that’s what I did, but I did pursue my passion, which was physics.  I didn’t do the engineering track, which is common in India if you have grades that’s what you do or medicine.  I was doing my masters in physics, and that’s when professor politely pulled me aside and said I didn’t have that much of a future in physics [He laughs.] because I didn’t have the temperament to a professor or a researcher.  Strangely, now I’m a market researcher. So, that was my journey to looking for something new. And my sister was getting her masters in the U.S. at the time. So, I was looking for what’s next. For a lot of kids in India back then was the U.S.  So I came to the U.S. for my MBA.


In what year was that?


That was in ’96.


Got it, got it.


A different millennium.          


So, I just have to ask.  I’ve been to India just a few times.  Did you grow up near or around Mumbai?


I was in Mumbai, yes.  I grew up in Mumbai.


Yes, that’s been my sole sort of anchor point to India.  As you know, Neilsen is based out of that location. And then quite a few different support companies for Neilsen located there.  Anyway, it’s a really interesting… Obviously, I don’t have the… more of a recent set of experiences. But, on the other side, I don’t have the historical point of view, but it is a very different culture.  But I would say it does mirror a lot of what I have experienced in other parts of Asia.


Yeah, it’s an ancient culture.  I think India strikes a really good balance between an ancient culture that is modernizing, I believe, the right way.  A lot of people go to India and look at what doesn’t work, and a lot doesn’t work, and we’re used to complaining about that.  But if you think about how many millions of people have been lifted out of poverty in the last 30 years, it was unimaginable, right?  And with some degree of freedom or high degree of freedom and democracy while making that happen. So it hasn’t been a small feat. But next time you go to India, go attend a wedding.  That’s a whole different experience.


So, that’s actually (funny you bring that up).  That is on my bucket list of things to do is experience that.  I have had quite a few… So, at Decipher we would sponsor H1B’s.  I’ve had a lot of very good employees who I’m actually still friends with, who I was able to recruit from overseas, India, of course, being one of the main areas.  Fantastic engineering talent as you already said. But, interestingly enough, the overshadowing characteristic of the talent that we were able to procure was customer service.  There was one particular employee, Anthony, and he would get regular, unsolicited feedback from his customers directly to me, the CEO, saying, “I just love this guy. He’s so amazing.”  Just picking on him, but there’s quite a few. There’s more than a handful who have followed suit. Anyway, I want to dig in a little bit with your father’s perspective. As an entrepreneur, you’ve probably heard the Elon Musk quote:  “Being an entrepreneur is like chewing glass and staring in the abyss.” Sounds like that would have resonated with your father. Why did you decide to bunk the better life at the corporate level? I’ll call it the easy road even though we know it’s not as easy as all that and decide to branch out and start a company.              


Yeah, you know, I’ve asked myself that question many times; my dad’s asked me that question hundreds of times.  He can’t believe that’s how I ended up. Let me complete the journey real quick and then this will make sense, right?  I gave up physics, came here, got my MBA from Virginia Tech. And back then – this is pre-email and internet days – so you applied by mail.  And I had a cousin, who went there for chemical engineering, and he introduced me to a professor. I got a scholarship to go study there, which is rare for an MBA coming directly from India.  So I took it. It was an interesting exposure to the U.S. culture. And graduated MBA in marketing and got into market research. And we can talk separately about that. But, having spent some time in CPG market research more specifically, I had two sorts of burning questions.  One was the field seemed extremely rigid and archaic, right? And we used to think physics was rigid and archaic. Nothing changes in physics until it changes and then it all changes in a week. But market research has been rigid and archaic ever since and has stayed that way. So I think part of me becoming an entrepreneur has been the motivation to bring change into the business because, as someone who has exposed to other ways of doing things, other disciplines in research as well as technology, I feel like there is so much marketers could be gaining from the data that they’re spending billions of dollars that they’re just wasting, right?  So, that was one desire. The other desire was to be responsible for my own destiny.

So, I actually wasn’t an executive at IRI.  I started as an analyst, moved my way up, and then I wanted to be a sales guy, which everyone found super strange.  I was a statistician when I began there, but then I was dying to be in sales, and not just sales but commission-driven sales because I wanted this degree of destiny.  If I do well, then I do really well; otherwise, you kind of go down in flames. And I liked that; I liked that challenge. I feel like entrepreneurs are self-motivated in sort of a negative way.  What I have seen is that entrepreneurs work on great challenges, or they don’t work at all. And I’m guilt of the same: I get called out by people on my team that, if I’m working on a project that’s not strategic and not big and not interesting, then I miss all deadlines.  But, if I’m working on solving a problem that’s pretty important to the company or to our client and it kind of seems very complex and difficult, then I’ll be at it for a week without food or sleep. That I can do. So I feel like a lot of entrepreneurs are very intrinsically driven.

I was intrinsically driven; I think my dad was because if you look at compensation, which a lot of people look at.  When you’re successful, it’s very easy to see the house and the car and all those things and a lot of people look at that.  But most entrepreneurs, myself included, these are by-products that we enjoy today that we didn’t seek, right? So the idea was to do something different, to be recognized for doing something different.  So I would not think that entrepreneurs and Elon’s the biggest example of someone who’s not shy, who craves the recognition; so, I can’t say I don’t. But, fundamentally, drive change and not rest on your laurels; you’re always looking for the next problem to solve.  So it is an interesting sort of mindset. What’s happened today is entrepreneurship has become easy. It is not my father’s world where… By the way, all his business was in cash because they had a 90% income tax rate, 90%. Imagine that.


I can’t.   


….which meant you really couldn’t do official business.  Everything was done in cash. And on payday, he used to go to the office with two huge suitcases of cash, and one time he got mugged.  And he lost one suitcase; he had to go borrow another suitcase for the cash.




So it was an extremely difficult environment:  you had to bribe your way through everything; he was in manufacturing; so, it was also a physically dirty environment to be in.  None of that is true for the entrepreneurship that I practice. I think the one fundamental difference between him and me is that he never trusted anyone.  He was quite successful; so, I’m not knocking anything he did. But his whole thing was trust no one and, you know, you’re an island as an entrepreneur. And I don’t buy that.  Thankfully, I got some genes from my mother also, who trusts everyone, and I trust everyone. And my operating principle – and I think that’s easier to do in the U.S. than some other markets – is trust people ‘til they give a reason not to trust them and you surround yourself with people who generally are trustworthy, loyal, smart, intelligent, better than you in most things.  And, surprisingly, you will do well.


I think this overriding principle of karma, if you want to call it that, is exactly right.  Framed, as you’ve already said, in our modern society, which is (in North America anyway) certainly easier than it was 20, 30, 40, 50 years ago.  We have the luxury of being able to trust or maybe we’re just more willing to take those risks because we have less… We’re not worried about food anymore, which is something that my father was worried about, growing up.  And so, this freedom, if you want to call it that, that we have as entrepreneurs to be able to step out and solve the big problems, as you said, is exactly the point. It isn’t about the monetary outcome although clearly that’s great when it happens, but the motivator is 100% centric to working with people, solving this big problem, and then bringing about an effective change inside of an industry.  And I want to just rewind just a little bit. Market research from your vantage point, using your words, rigid, archaic – why did you feel that was the fertile soil. How did you get introduced effectively into it as “This is where I’m going to make my bed”? for Nailbiter.


So, market research is a space I learned really well from the inside out and, more specifically, CPG market research.  And Affinnova was a company that had been in business for many years that then CEO was my mentor had pretty much taken over, acquired, invested in and decided to make it more of a data company than kind of a design optimization engine that it was.  And he brought me on board in 2006 and together we made some strategic decisions. And one of them was to be in market research because it was an entirely new tool; it was evolutionary algorithms applied towards market research. And it flourished; it did really well.   Now, it was extremely hard to convince big CPG clients to start using us. It took us many, many years (eight, nine years) eventually to make the company what it became. It was a top 20 MR firm when Neilsen purchased it in 2014. So, I was one of the handful of people who worked day and night to make it happen, to take it from a couple of million in revenue to 40+ million global operations.  So I really saw what entrepreneurship means in this space from the inside out so that when the Neilsen acquisition went through, a few of us had a couple of bucks to spare. Now, the rational decision would be to invest your money and… It wasn’t enough money for us to retire, but it certainly was enough money that we could take it easy. But I decided to go for broke, and we invested (when I say “we,” it’s several of us, myself being the principal investor) in doing something new, and I wanted to stay in a space that I know well.  So market research is data; data is the pursuit of something empirical, which I really like. I like that answers are finite; they’re definite. So, there’s a lot of aspects to this business I like. I’ve always enjoyed the people in market research. No matter where you go: you could be in China; you could be in India; you could be in France; you could be in Latam (Brazil, Argentina). I’ve been everywhere and always found like some degrees of uniformity: They’re slightly nerdy but more marketing-driven than maybe people who are in the pure sciences.  A really nice combination of intelligent, intellectual people who are pursuing answers. Broadly, that’s the space I wanted to stay in. Another thing that I learned over the decades is that CPG is a recession-proof business; so, if you’re going to do something risky you might as well pick clients that are more stable although this is probably the least stable time to be in CPG. But I enjoyed that I had built a reputation along with my co-founder and some of the other people in CPG. So that is the place that we decided to pursue. And then we tried a lot of different things before we landed on video.  So, I’ll pause there ‘cause I was going off on a tangent anyway.


That’s fine, perfect.  So, CPG is recession-proof.  I love that framing. I feel like the space has been proven to be ripe, right, for disruption when you think about the Amazon effect inside of CPG’s.  I’ve talked about this on a few different podcasts and I’ll probably talk about it on a few more: and that is the impact of voice is going to make, is making rather, on the user purchase journey, especially in the CPG space.  Purina’s stat something like in the next three years, they’re projecting 50% of their product will be purchased in a voice environment through Google Home, Alexa, etc. I personally and my wife are starting to acquire products through, you know household goods, through Alexa.  And in that purchase journey, what’s really interesting is just going through the exercise, you wind up buying things differently. The only intercept is what Alexa decides to put in front of me. Are you seeing that as part of the instability in the CPG space or is it other factors that are driving it?      


So, we come at it from two ways:  One is the consumer dynamic that you referenced is very true.  I do think that voice is a little bit more further away than a lot of people think.  I think VR was considered something that’s around the corner five years ago. A lot of interesting companies in context; a few others sprout up but VR didn’t quite happen largely because of some hardware issues.  I think similar problems are going to exist with voice, but eventually these technologies will take over. Now, what’s interesting with voice though and video and VR is they are perfectly placed and already available as great market research tools.  So, they may not be good enough to conduct all sorts of marketing transactions or sales transactions on; they’re very, very robust for market research. And one of the things that we keep educating the industry, and I was just invited to speak at ESOMAR…  We’re kind of begging the industry to take video quant, which we are doing. We do very little qual. Everything we do is very, very robust sample sizes. We’re not doing very ethnography. Our whole idea is capture a transaction; don’t worry so much about getting into the head of the consumer.  Make an effort towards behavioral but let it be robust; let it be truly projectable; let it be something that CPG can make multi-billion-dollar decisions on. And that’s that data we are driving to create and are successfully creating all through voice and video. Five years from now, it could be that all your social interaction with friends and the internet at large is audio-video.  And that happens to me: Our main office is in Virginia. I drive down for four hours once or twice a month, and the whole drive down there, I don’t have to touch my phone. Voice activation, even with my accent, works nearly perfectly. I can type emails; I can text; I can use all sorts of things in that type of interaction. Why would someone want to type? And, if they can’t type, how can they do online surveys?  So, the survey companies, everybody has to make sort of these giant leaps forwards into an entirely new interaction with the consumer in the shop or… And that’s where I feel audio and voice and video and all of these will move faster than they will as sort of a broader e-commerce platform. The problem with voice is the margins: it’s very expensive and going to remain very expensive for that case of Diet Coke to be shipped to my house.  So, it might work for some pet foods or the premium end but, if you think about 70% to 80% of pet food being more towards the middle or lower end, the price point of going to Walmart and picking up those 50-pound bags at a really good coupon, that value is not going to be beat for a very long time to come. So you will see the very high end and we’re seeing the top 1%, 2%, 3% people disproportionately move their dollars because convenience is more important to them but, for middle America, CPG’s sort of bread-and-butter, we think that these other systems are like about a decade away.            


So AR, VR, there’s obvious hardware issues.  Nobody is going to walk around with those crazy headsets and whatnot.  Even snap glasses are highly iffy according to my children. I personally like them, but they tell me, “They’re not cool, Dad.”  The voice, though, as a platform… Consumer preference, as we both know, always wins. So then the question becomes, as you’ve already articulated, when.  My theory, which is completely based on no data, is that it’s going to be half the time of e-commerce, right? So, when you think about like 1996, I love your framing of “We did mail back then.”  I did mail back then. In fact, all my surveys were CATI and in-mall intercepts. That’s basically telephone interviews for those of you who don’t know. And so, then moving that online officially with Decipher in April 2000, that was a big transition.  It’s taken a long time for commerce to move online, and still the majority of commerce isn’t there. So, still got a long tail associated with that transition. Obviously, it’s picking up steam with Walmart’s investment in home delivery, etc. Kind of the Uber of, just pick whatever category is taking over…  I think you’re right from a practical perspective; this is not something that’s going to happen in a short period of time. So, if it was 20 years for the internet or 15 years for the internet, it seems to make sense to me. But, conversely, on the other side of it, when you think about with voice, you’ve got (what is it?) 40 million Alexa units in North America last year.  


That’s amazing.


Yeah, it’s crazy the adoption that’s happened on that front.  Now that we’ve got the, as they call it in the retail, the 13th month coming up this weekend (Black Friday and Cyber Monday) in a few days, we’ll see what those sales pop out at that point, but anyway.  It’s going to be interesting to watch. So, I want to talk a little bit more, dig in a little bit more on your company Nailbiter. The first question I have (Man, I have done tons of market research; in fact, right now I’m doing market research for a couple different companies) but Nailbiter – that is every project it feels like, right?  And I can’t believe I never made the connection to business. I’m a little bit jealous. How did you guys come up with the name Nailbiter?


So, I would love to take credit for it, but it actually came up in one of our early meetings.  We sold one of our early projects to Ricola. We went in for the results meeting, and I think it was the General Manager or the senior person in the meeting that said, “Alright, let’s get going.  I’ve been biting my nails to see what’s going on.” And they had a very specific Costco issue that they had tried a lot of different ways to do research and they couldn’t figure out because the issue was very subtle.  I mean it was a big issue for them, but it was very subtle for the consumer, too subtle to survey anybody to ask them about it. It was about the size of the bag and the location and how things get dragged out and things like that.  Up until then, we were called Motions Research, which was a typically boring market research name. So, coming out of that meeting, I was with my colleague; I said, “You know what? Nailbiter is a lot better than Motions Research.” And it stuck from day 1.  And you’ve been in market research long enough to know that the people you have to be most memorable to are the ad men, right?


100%.  That is exactly, exactly, exactly right.  Insights Nation, this is the key point. This is going to be the title of this episode for sure.  


And it stuck.  Every meeting I used to go to, the ad men would say, “I’ve been waiting to meet you.  I wanted to see who you are and what this is about.” And then they would remember me; they would remember us.  We would call them the next time; it would make the whole process of getting in the door a lot easier.


Totally, man, totally.  So, tell us who is the ideal customer for Nailbiter.  


Heavily focused on consumer goods, consumer packaged goods, FMCG for the rest of the world for a couple of specific reasons.  So, I’m not someone who is going to badmouth online surveys. Online surveys played a very important role. In fact, in 1998, when I was first starting in market research, I really liked the idea of online surveys.  You guys came up in 2000; you were the pioneers then because a lot of people still didn’t believe that this thing would be a thing. But online surveys have become like a crutch for everything. You have a question: let’s go ask 1000 consumers ‘cause it’s so cheap.  And we’ve noticed that more and more the industry has been doing that. The industry that suffers the most in using online surveys in these ways is CPG because CPG has some unique problems. One of them is recall. I don’t know what toothbrush I use and I’m in the business of toothbrushes, Colgate’s customer.  And suddenly, I wouldn’t know what I paid for it even though I do most of the grocery shopping in my household. So, for me to do a 20-minute survey on toothbrushes when I don’t know so many things about my decision – no matter how good the model at the back end is that crunching the data – the inputs may not be as good.  So, we felt that if we had a more behavioral way of capturing the actual transaction, let’s apply it to CPG and that thesis has really paid off. So ideal clients are any industry that wants to hear from the consumer, wants to see the consumer, wants more global quantitative behavioral information but is not being well served by surveys because while we are quant, no one can touch the scale of surveys today for the price that surveys are.  So that’s where we feel we have the greatest bang for our buck and, indeed, we’re able to side by side show data that just coming out of our system is a lot more actionable because you don’t have to ask any questions. The system just records the transaction and then decodes it; so, it’s open-ended yet much more insightful, if you will.


Alright, so then, describe to us what the actual product is from Nailbiter.  Let’s pick on Purina. I’m an executive of Purina. What is the delivery?


Sure.  So, actually, Purina has been a client, but everything I’m about to say is not from any of their projects, but think that you are launching a new product.  And you have invested millions of dollars in concept testing, developing it, R&D. You really believe in the concept. You’ve spent a lot money optimizing the packaging, and then you have 20, 30 million dollars invested in TV after the product hits the shelves.  So, this major, major investment is about to hit the market and, by the way, at a smaller level, you’re doing this every month. At a big level, you’re doing it a few times a year. So, CPG company’s job is to innovate and stay ahead of competition and private label; so, they constantly have to come up with things that are new:  new marketing, new products. Now, that product goes on shelf; a lot of in-store marketing is happening. What you’re getting in the early days is some distribution data; you are getting sales data. None of that data has any insight. So the insight has to wait til maybe the Catalina or Neilsen, IRI tracking systems that are more household level take off.  Or you could do some mystery shopping and shop-alongs and things like that. In our system, because again we are watching people make shopping decisions, we can see what percentage of stores are carrying the product; we can see what percentage of shoppers have seen the product, have touched the product, have picked it up, have carted, or put it back. And then, people also speak sometimes; sometimes they don’t, but if they say something like, “Well, I don’t get it” or “That’s too expensive.”  Whatever it is, their few words per shopper, across 500 shoppers, you can come back to that executive (and we’ve done this at most of our clients in days and weeks) and say, “Your product is having a real challenge because the packaging is black; the pack on the left of it is black; the pack on the right of it is black. So, when we did our pack testing online, it popped because everything was white, but the shelf has changed or the retailer has planogrammed it differently from what they promised you.  No one is even seeing it. Or they’re seeing it but they don’t get it that this is a premium, organic product because you have the simple packaging and all the claims are on the back. And a 20-pound bag of dog food is not something that one lifts to see the back or maybe they do. So, all of that gets captured; it gets turned into very tangible data and measures that they can make effective decisions on very, very quickly. So that’s sort of the power of bringing something new to the table but then having it be actionable so that output of it is not just, “Hey, that’s cool insight.  So let’s do another project with this video company next year” versus like this is an always-on-system that you’re making decision on every week.


Are you leveraging AI or some other math to do the insights at scale or is it just human beings just crunching?   


So, it goes in three levels:  The first is automation. There is a small degree of AI in the way the video is processed, but I don’t want to overplay the AI piece either.  


You’re the only one, by the way.  Everybody else overplays the hell out of AI.  I’m sorry. It’s just a max-diff. Anyway, go ahead.


Correct.  Hey, I’m drowning in AI, VR and all the acronyms, but our original thesis was that 100% of the video could be processed programmatically.  And it was true when the video quality was very pure. So, we had also thought that we would create some sort of Google Glass kind of a panel:  high-res images coming and high-res video coming in, but none of that could scale. Thankfully, Google Glass we didn’t use because they stopped making it.  But we wanted scale, and scale comes through people’s mobile phones, and that’s what we use. So, we have two technology platforms: One can recruit people just-in-time and convince them to make a quick video of their transaction for a little bit of a reward.  (Don’t want to give too much reward to change behavior either.) The second and more important can take video in any format and process it three ways: The first way is automatic, programmatic AI, if you will. There we can slice up the video into images, enhance the images, look for brands, and make correlations through that.  That gets us to about 30% or 40% in English. If you’re talking about Chinese, that gets you to 10%. Then the second layer is a crowd. So, we need to process extremely high quantity of videos. And we need to know what’s inside this video. So once the machine has done its job, we have our platform – just like it can recruit real shoppers – it can recruit in the same market people who will see the short video or even like a five-second snippet of the video and say, “In this video, is this brand, this brand, this brand and this is the price.  They can decode the video very, very quickly on a crowd platform. And then finally, once the data is 70%, 80% baked, then our people take over. So, we do have analysts who watch videos. There’s no way to get around it. I watch videos from time to time. What they’re looking for is to see what degree of accuracy we’re getting in that platform. Whatever manual stuff needs to be done, they do it. My joke is that HI is still a tenth of the cost of AI. Human Intelligence, you can have people…


100%, by the way.  This is such a great point that you’re making.


Yeah, and they don’t need a lot of training because CPG market research, above everything else, is about common sense.  If you’re someone smart and educated, I can give you a little bit of training. And, again, remember that we’re not processing these videos ethnographically.  We’re looking for specific markers. And then audio is a lot easier to do, to transcribe and use programmatically. So that’s kind of the platform we’ve had to build because AI is just not that good.  And if you talking about native video, AI is not going to get good. Where you can actually use technology is if you can use crowds to capture. It’s a very interesting thing. I had a lot of companies (I think Google tried it) when you translate capture from visual to text, enough people do the same thing.  They know that this is real text. They can translate a book. And that’s very interesting. We use something very, very similar to translate, transcribe these videos. And we really think that the gig economy offers market research companies this tremendous benefit of becoming tech-enabled but not through AI but through HI.  It’s just that you don’t have to hire hundreds of employees. You have this just-in-time workforce that you can leverage.


Yeah, just from a community component, I really like the idea of the power of HI. When you’re talking about the gig economy, just being able to have more of a distributed wealth because you have an open work opportunity.  It has a tremendous amount of community value or human value, I should say, assuming it’s the right shoe for the right foot, right? To your earlier point, there are obviously clear applications and winning applications of AI over HI.  I want to circle back for just a moment about this point that you made early on, which is on surveys. And I think this is a really important point for the other executives. Do you see surveys as the budget that you’re competing for?   


That’s an interesting question because most of the business we win, we never find out what they cut because it’s very rare that we even do business in an RFP setting.  In fact, most of the RFP’S that we get inbound, right? We know we’re not going to win; we often don’t even bid, the reason being it’s a mind shift. And if they think of it purely as a replacement for something that they would do in a survey form, then they’re going to be disappointed because in surveys, one of the big benefits, it’s closed-ended again for a very small amount of money, relatively speaking.  You get a lot of quantity of answers, right? And what we are saying is that the game is about the quality of the data and the actionability of the data; so, we don’t get put up against surveys. But in a different context, we think of ourselves as a video survey. So, better educate the marketplaces. We’re not a tech company. We wanted to be a market research and data company. We had to build a lot of technology to facilitate the type of data we wanted to extract.  Now we have built that extraction engine based on video. We’re very open, and we’re talking to a lot of other market research companies outside CPG to license it. In a way, we think of it as a platform, and you can think of it as a video-survey platform. So, we actually don’t think of our technology as being different from online surveys. We think that this is a big part of the future of online surveys, right, the audio-visual component because we also have a survey engine.  So, if I want to know if you’re male or female, what’s your age, income (all of these standard questions), I don’t need to make a video out of that and increase all my costs to get that information. You can give me that information very clearly. So I want to use video truly for observational, if you will. So, that’s how a kind of see the evolution and that’s where I think most of the platforms today that are online survey platforms, I think will be adding audio-video to their platform within the next few years.  So I just see that, all of that kind of just coming together. I don’t think that for the next decade, we’re moving away from online surveys, but I do think CPG tends to be leader in market research. So I think it will lead the way in video and audio. I don’t know if that answers your question.


Yeah, I mean it’s really interesting point for me.  As an entrepreneur, I always think about what is the…  Actually, the person that this idea came from is a man named Doug Gallypso.  I have a tremendous amount of respect for him; he’s on my previous board of FocusVision.  Anyway, he actually asked me a question one time: “Jamin, are you competing for an existing dollar or a new dollar”?  And it was this Ah-ha moment for me. And it’s one of the reasons like, if you think about like Uber, Uber was so successful because it wasn’t trying to create new budget, right?  I was already going to pay for a taxi ride; it’s just a better taxi. You know what I mean? And so, like there was no argument in my mind of, “Oh, I’m going to pay for an auxiliary service that’s going to create a better experience.”  One of the things that I’ve seen and actually been part of in entrepreneurship is I’ll come up with new thing (We’ll call it an online survey, which sounds ridiculous right now, but it wasn’t in 1996) and say, “OK, now, I’ve got this new mechanism by which I’m able to gather consumer insights, and, Oh, by the way, it’s great.”  So, the corporations in those days, they really struggled with it, but it did have parity with a budget line item. In other words, it’s still a survey, right? It’s just a third category or whatever number categories there are. That’s where I’m seeing what technology has brought forth in the last, I’ll call it, three years, like a plethora of video, audio, and text-based hybrid qual/quant tools that’s basically qualitative at scale.  And everything is pointing (and I’m also done with my rant) everything is pointing to one thing, which is a better conversation with the consumer. When you think about what surveys did a hundred years ago the way it started when this whole industry started, it was I needed to have a conversation at scale with my constituents. In order to facilitate that, I needed to be able to do a standardized set of questions across people. And so, then those have to get analyzed, obviously.  And the way that was done was data tables, and then from that we now know that there are 2.3 children in every household. But the reality is nobody has 2.3 kids or whatever the average is. And so, what these qualitative at scale products are bringing to market is actually, to your point, a different… So it’s not the same thing; you can’t compare them. It’s not a survey, and it’s not a focus group. It’s something that’s like right in between those two things. But where I’m seeing corporate budgets having a hard time tracking is how do I pay for it.  In other words, “Am I not going to do the survey?” “Well, no, maybe I still need to do that.” “Or am I not going to… Well, no, I still want to see the face or whatever it is. I want that human interaction piece.”


That’s why I think today is a very good time for us.  There are two reasons for it: One is marketing requires data to make decisions.  No marketer today is going to do the 1950s, “Well, I’m smart; so, I can just guess it.”  Every decision they make requires data. And our pitch to these big companies today is very frontal where we say, “Look, you’ve been buying billions of dollars of data, yet you keep losing market share.  And e-commerce, your market share is down ten points over your traditional commerce. Why? Because you’re playing with yesterday’s tools. So, if the data you’re buying today is so perfect, then why are almost every big manufacturer, especially the food manufacturers, in trouble?”  So, clearly, there’s a need for better data; there is a need for better decision making. Not every meeting goes that way, but some meetings you can have that discussion, and you can kind of do that broaden-the-horizon thing. But the second piece quickly has to be actionability. So, I gave you the example of new products.  Same thing applies for marketing. We can literally tell our clients that their new product is going to succeed or fail in two weeks. Before the product reaches 20% distribution, we’ll make a prediction. And in the right situation, if it doesn’t sound too sale-sy, I’ll tell the client, “I’ll give you double your money back for whatever you pay for my data, if my prediction is wrong.”  But, more importantly, if my prediction is right and 80% of new products fails, I’m not going to come back and say, “Oh, look, your product failed, and I predicted it, and screw you.” “But I’m going to come back and give you three ways that you can fix the problem before the retailer even realizes it. Get your product out of this part of the shelf, put in that part of the shelf. That is also your shelf; so, that it’s an easier transition.  Get the price down by 30 cents. Put a coupon on it. I will give you very, very actionable answers that will change the metrics and will change the future of the product.” So, that type of conversation – again it has to be much more subtle than the way I’m presenting it to you – that works. And the last thing I’ll say about this is that market research has to… We, as researchers, open our minds grudgingly, if you will, when we are pushed by people like you to think about online.  It took us a long time, but then everyone loves online today. But we’re going through the same problem again with the internet of things, VR. All of these other communication tools, and experience tools (voice, Alexa, right?) are going, scaling up, but we’re ignoring it where we have our head in the sand, going, “Well, online survey is the way to go because I can get a sample of 1000.” So it is our job, I think. to expand our clients’ minds, but we have to do the R & D at our cost so that the information that we bring to them is actionable.  And that’s been a big problem with neuro and behavioral and those techniques where you go and say, “Look, I hooked up 100 people to an ECG and look what I found.” “OK, how do I sell more Coca-Cola based on this data?” “Well, you can’t.” So that’s where the disconnect is, I think, and I think it’s going to change.


I mean there’s a couple things there.  Rogier Verhulst from LinkedIn had this great quote that I keep coming back to:  “Every research project needs to have the ‘now what’ and ‘so what’,” as the follow point.  Sexy technology is just not the answer. It’s the better insights, to your point. And in the second part, Kristi Zuhlke from KnowledgeHound had this framework of what’s the ROI on each project.  And it’s incumbent on the research company, the provider, as well as the internal research to make damn sure that they know what the financial outcome is of that research. It isn’t just, “Oh, well, now we know there’s 2.3 kids.”  There needs to be a “Why,” that “Now, OK, oh so that means I can sell more stuff to this particular demographic” or whatever it is. That’s the other piece. And I think as long as market research can cement those anchor points in their deliverables, then it makes it a lot easier for the brands, the CPG companies, to know ‘cause it’s a zero sum game for them,  “OK, I’ve got $50,000, whatever it is, to do my research. So, what’s the optimal allocation of those dollars across my suppliers or knowledge partner or whatever in order to answer those questions so that the executive is able to make a decision with confidence?” And that’s kind of the broad point that you’re making and I just couldn’t be more excited about is that us, as an industry, for us to continue to grow and really I think assume our position of dominance inside of the corporate org chart, we’ve – like you said – we’ve got to bear the burden and then not be afraid to talk about this shift in consumer insights.  Four years into your startup, you’ve probably seen a wide variety of people enter your work force some successfully, others not. What do you see as characteristics of an All-Star Employee in context of a startup?


You know this is something that I think about a lot because all startups live and die by getting a good team of people together, but market research and data-driven startups even more. Because we’re really not pitching an algorithm or a technology, there needs to be these human translators that can take the data and talk to customers about it but really from a perspective of both empathy and consultation.  So, a quick sidebar is that we have a very strong principle and we’re extremely technology-driven as a company but we don’t give any of the technology to the client because our clients pay top dollar for the data (we’re very premium priced) and, in return, they want to talk to a human being. Why? Because they work on 50 projects at a time these days. They just want to be sure that that person at the other end is not going to leave them hanging with a dashboard, which a lot of companies do.  So that’s built into our pricing and our business model. So, when we look to bring people on board, anyone who’s going to touch a client must know market research and must know market research really well and pretty much all aspects of market research that the client deals with because we don’t live in a vacuum and our data doesn’t sit in a vacuum. You have to have context. So that’s like a given. Of course, the people who work on the product and technology have technology background, but today I would say a lot of them have become market researchers.  So that’s very, very important. But beyond that, it’s really people who are smart. That you can literally look at the high school or college GPA and tell if someone’s smart. Not all smart people have high GPA’s, and I’m proof of that, I think so. But anyone who got a good GPA early on in their career probably is smart. It’s not easy to get good GPA’s. So, if you have those two things, then the third thing is motivation. That’s it. If the person sitting across from me is motivated to work in a startup, to be a part of something new, different, growing rapid pace…  First of all, it’s infectious, you can tell. You can see it in their face. You can see it in the way they speak. You can see it in the interest in the product and how much research they’ve come before coming here. You can see it in the follow-up that they do. And certainly, you can see it perhaps in their resume as well.

Then you have another type of person who is kind of becoming insecure about their job at a big research company and starting to look around.  And that person is going to fail in a startup environment. Another type of person that I look for which is a little rarer is all the stuff I described before with enthusiasm, etc., but more goal-oriented.  One of the hottest new hires we’ve made, Graham (I’ll call him out). He said in the interview that he wants to be doing his own startup in five years or be CEO of startup in five years. He’s a young kid. And I like that because if you have a goal, and I can help you in your journey towards your goal, then you are much more likely to do what it takes to be successful at Nailbiter.  And your success will be the company’s success. When I joined Affinnova, I was very young, probably naïve and stupid. Those characteristics also help a little bit, but I was extremely determined for Affinnova to succeed not because I liked the CEO and he was a mentor and all this stuff and the company was great but I wanted to succeed. And I felt like here’s a vehicle that’ll help me get around the trap of manager, VP, SVP at Neilsen, that traditional path.  I’ll make money; I’ll be independent; I’ll travel, which I love to do; I’ll travel the world. And I made the job what I wanted to be. And that’s what people do when they join a startup and become successful; they start kind of asking for things: “Can I do this?” “Can I do that?” And, within reason, you have to let them because then they will do things they’re good at because they want to succeed. And again, if it’s aligned with company’s goals, the company will do well.  So, these things sound difficult; they’re actually not. But the flip side is “Don’t pretend to be a startup.” And I’ve seen that a lot at bigger companies: “We’re a startup within a startup.” “No, you’re not.” A lot of CPG companies are doing that these days: they’ll create like a startup room in the basement, and this is a startup within a startup, but at 5:30 everyone is gone. And rightly so, because if that startup within a startup becomes a billion-dollar enterprise, those people who worked on it, they get nothing.  They get a decent bonus check. But, if you really did a startup and you worked 24/7 to make it successful, you’d be a billionaire, probably the wrong word to use in market research. I tell everyone a billion dollars doesn’t exist.


Unless you’re Ryan Smith.  I think he did OK on the Qualtrics exit.  


That’s true, that’s true.


Congratulations to them, by the way.


They are exceptions.  That’s my answer to people. And even the market research piece at Affinnova I would teach because we had more resources.  Here we do hire people who have the experience but that experience and skill set is very secondary to intelligence and motivation, I think.  Those are things, you can’t learn them; you can’t just put them on.


So, we’ve talked a lot about Nailbiter today.  Do you have any parting words or ways that people can get in contact with you if they’re interested in finding out more?  


Yeah, contact me on LinkedIn.  I love talking. You are very easy to talk to.  I hope to continue the dialogue with you. I’m not very good at communicating through email and other things, but I actually have someone who checks LinkedIn and a lot of interesting people I find reach out through LinkedIn.  And I enjoy having conversations. Anyone who’s listening to this who has no interest in buying data from us but wants an education, I’ll be happy to teach, especially people who want to copy what we’re doing and steal from us.  We love that too. We’d rather have 50% market share of a big pie than 100% market share of a small pie.


Love that.


So we are going to be reaching out a lot more through conferences and through forums to educate the marketplace because I think we’ve hit upon something, but we’ll find out.


My guest today has been Amit Dhand, co-founder and CEO of Nailbiter.  Thank you very much, Amit, for joining me today on Happy Market Research.


My pleasure, Jamin.  Thanks for inviting me and thank you for this podcast that you’re doing.  I hope that more and more people will listen. And I think you’re somebody with interesting ways of interviewing people.  So I wish you continued success.


Well, thank you very much for that.  And thank you, everyone, for your time and attention today.  I hope you have a wonderful day. As always, please, please provide us reviews whether it’s on Apple iTunes or GooglePlay.  Your reviews are how other people like you are able to find our podcast and it is our oxygen. Have a wonderful rest of your day.


Schlesinger Quantitative is proud to have sponsored of this podcast.  Schlesinger delivers comprehensive online survey solutions, including survey programming, world class project management, intelligent recruitment, survey hosting, and data delivery services.  An uncompromising commitment to your success sets them apart.

Ep. 214 – Phil Ahad – How Toluna is Elevating Product in Market Research

Founded in 2000, Toluna produces online surveys and manages a consumer community of over 24 million active members in 68 countries.

Prior to joining Toluna, Phil Ahad has lead marketing and product strategy teams across many different industries and has held senior level positions at CoStar, AOL and comScore.

Find Phil Online:


Website: www.toluna-group.com

Find Us Online: 

Social Media: @happymrxp


This Episode’s Sponsor:

Today’s podcast is sponsored by Schlesinger Quantitative, your trusted provider of global online surveys that drive the best decisions for success in the marketplace. Schlesinger Quantitative has built an entire division of experts with extensive online research experience and an unparalleled understanding of quality drivers across panel, sample, and data.


On Episode 214, I’m interviewing Phil Ahad, EVP of Toluna, but first a word from our sponsor.


Today’s podcast is sponsored by Schlesinger Quantitative, your trusted provider of global online surveys that drive the best decisions for success in the marketplace.  Schlesinger Quantitative has built an entire division of experts with extensive online research experience and an unparalleled understanding of quality drivers across panel, sample, and data.


Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil, and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast.  My guest today is Phil Ahad, EVP – Head of Products and Strategy at Toluna. Founded in 2000, Toluna produces online surveys and manages a consumer community of over 24 million active members in 68 countries.  Prior to joining Toluna, Phil has led marketing and product strategy teams across many different industries and has held senior level positions at CoStar, AOL, and Comscore. Thanks very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.


Yep, thanks for having me.  I’m honored.


So, tell me a little bit about your upbringing:  What you parents did, and how that’s informed your career?


So, my parents are immigrants.  I’m a first generation American, I’d say here.  And it’s funny ‘cause like you always hear about these immigrant stories of them coming to the United States with like $18 in their pocket and then them being like these massive successes.  Actually, my family was quite opposite: My dad and his brothers came with a ton of money, and they just blew it on really bad investments or risks, whatever you want to call it, and they had to start all over.  So my family is very entrepreneurial in nature. They hustle; they grind; they’re very educated. And my upbringing was kind of that. I was working with my dad and my mom at their businesses, going to school. It’s kind of lead me to where I am today here at Toluna and leading products and strategy for the group. And I like it because, although we’re a pretty decent size organization, we’re a corporate culture.  We still have the entrepreneurial mindset in everything we do. And that’s why I’m here, and I’m enjoying the work I’m doing.


The starting-over part is really interesting to me especially because, having exited FocusVision, all of a sudden, I’m kind of in a spot now where I’m quite literally starting over, right?  But my parents had a similar situation where they had invested in a small farm. Then, all of a sudden, the value of the produce dropped by, roughly speaking, three-quarters. And after about three years of that, they had, ultimately, they just couldn’t make the payments anymore.  And so, it was a complete reset from a financial perspective which, for me as a kid, you know they helped protect us but family-owned businesses are… The whole family feels it, right? You’re invested in that business along with your family from a work perspective. What kind of core values or lessons learned did you get when they went through that restart process?


Yeah, I mean I was super young, but my parents have always kind of looked…  I call them gamblers, actually; they’re not risk-adverse. They’re always looking for opportunities to either gain an advantage or gain something out of it.  And what I’ve always learned is there is, obviously, risk involved in trying different things. But, if it’s calculated risk and you’ve done the math and you’ve done the work and you work hard at it, it usually does become successful at some point.  So, while they had struggles early on and while they failed in business at start, the value is they learned from those mistakes and then they applied them into other opportunities, which, as a rule, turned into success. I think that’s what I’ve learned.  I’ve never been afraid of diving in, but I’ve always done the legwork upfront to identify the opportunity and see if there’s value in doing it and to see if it fits what I want to do within what I’m passionate about or within what my vision of success looks like and then making that calculated risk and doing that.      


You know you guys were early to the app store, right, at Toluna and in terms of driving mobile innovation.  Can you think of a specific example of how you’ve applied that in the product development side of things within your company?


Yeah, for sure.  That’s one of the things I like about the group that I’m at and the people that I work with.  We’re again… we’re willing to take bets, especially within the industry and especially within R&D, but they’re calculated bets like we’re constantly pulling in specialty experts into the group to give us insights, to give us recommendations on what works.  We’re in tune with our clients and potential clients in terms of their ongoing needs. And when we see maybe a change in behavior or a change in expertise within the market that requires more development, we’re willing to be first in that space. Our behavioral tracking and insights technology is a great example of that.  We saw an opportunity to acquire a company, which was a Nielsen-incubated company, called Crossense, three people who just had a unique technology built at the time and see the value of integrating that technology not just into our app but into our entire end-to-end insights platform to kind of close that gap from just question-and-answer data to be able to provide behavioral track information.  


What is the biggest challenge that you’ve overcome, either personally or professionally?


Good, tough question.  I don’t have one specific biggest challenge.  I think right now in my professional career, being in a global role and managing people across the world within the specific team is kind of like getting in tune to everyone’s different personalities and working styles and then putting people in a situation that can best succeed by doing that.  A person in Chicago is going to work and be a lot different than someone in our R&D office in Haifa, Israel. And how do we mesh this group together so that we’re all working in an effective way and it’s actually all positive environment for everyone involved from start to finish.


Company culture, that’s what you’re talking about, is really driving that innovation mindset?


Yes, absolutely, it’s interesting ‘cause within Toluna and within our group, we’ve got people in finance, people in panel management, scripting teams programming things.  We’ve got in our innovation group – engineering and strategy and product marketing and product development. These are all very different types of people. And when you’re trying to be an innovative company and when you’re trying to drive innovation through an industry, everyone has to kind of buy into this – not just the R&D or the product team but your scripting team and your programming team and your panel management team because that’s the company culture we’re trying to drive from start to finish.  If we were just innovating on one side of the business and forgetting about our 600+ people in operations, who are working in the traditional sense and not leveraging this technology and these agile thoughts, then we wouldn’t really be an innovative company.


So, it sounds like one of the things you’re doing is you’re – I think the term is- “eating your own dog food,” which is still think is a weird way of framing it.  But sounds like you guys are, in some ways, your biggest users, certainly your early adopters of innovation.


Yeah, I mean, it would be tough to go into a major CPG company or even a Nielsen, for example, and say, “Hey, use this platform.  It’s great, but we don’t use it ourselves.” That would make no sense, right? So, we learn a lot from our internal teams ‘cause we’re doing so much research and project work for our clients from a service base.  We use that data to see what can we automate or what can we empower the clients to use themselves one – to reduce the workflow on our specific teams and to automate our internal teams but also to now empower our clients to do it themselves.


I do think that there’s a lot of companies that…  One of the ways of framing it is this founder-market fit.  So, it’s kind of like you experience the pain as the point of innovation and then you solve that pain point, right?  I think a lot of companies, they don’t start at that spot. Instead of thinking about, “Oh, look this is really fancy.  I’m going to go develop this technology and then figure out the problem, where it’s going to fit in the problem set from the customer’s point of view.  Obviously, I’m 100% behind the founder-market fit mentality, where it’s like, “OK, let’s really focus in on where the customer or us specifically are finding that particular pain point and then iterate around that so that we can get the right product to market.”


It’s interesting.   I think if you asked the scripting team, “What feature would have to have in this specific platform?”  They’re going to give you like a 100 different types of scripting features. And you probably would be developing scripting features for the end of time if you were just listening…, right?   ‘Cause one feature that’s used in 1% of all the projects. They may have just used it or it’s just one thing they’d love using but it’s only used really 1% of the time in actual, real-world work.  Like do we really have to automate that? Is that worth investment? Is that worth development? So I think that feedback is important ‘cause it’s kind of like your baseline, right? But the teams that are doing the work today you kind of need to look outside of the market in terms of what are we trying to innovate and solve for.  Today, we’re trying to solve for the time it takes from data collection to action from the user’s standpoint: like insights on-demand. Your scripting team or even your reporting team, they’re not going to give you those answers to figure that out. It needs to be a combination of those two things, and you need to think outside of the day-to-day work to solve that specific problem.        


The feature management side of it, that’s from a product perspective.  That’s so hard to sometimes figure out where do we prioritize our R&D’s so that we’re getting the best business outcome, creating the best user-experience improvements.  How do you guys figure that out? Do you have like a process or is it gut or…?


You asked about my biggest challenges.  Now that you mention… Prioritizing our road maps is one of my biggest ongoing challenges in the group ‘cause we’ve got a pretty large R&D and budget, but we don’t work with unlimited resources and we own technology that encompasses every single aspect of research and data collection from programming the survey itself to identifying the sample to reporting.  We cover it all. So we definitely don’t have a team as big as we need it to be to do everything in the world. So it’s all about use cases, and it’s all about having an in-tune feedback with your clients, and not just what they specifically want to work on but what they want to solve for in terms of their day-to-day work, in terms of insights collection. And we prioritize probably 9just like anyone else prioritizes based on ROI level.  What feature or what solution that we can develop is going to give us the big bang for our buck in terms of an increase in lift usage and then also, obviously, revenue usage.


When we think about different MR careers, these different milestones…  like I have a couple of them. For me, it was when we created the exporting native charts and graphs into PowerPoint directly from the tool.  That was like my big thing. Do you have a favorite project or tool or customer story that you want to highlight?


I got a favorite project specific to Toluna.  And you’d look at it from a revenue and a usage metric, it’d probably be considered to be a really big failure.  We were kind of deep into quick service at that time and were trying, we’re playing catch-up actually in the stage of quick service from a script to a feature functionality.  We’re just loading up the team to close this gap between QuickSurveys and Qualtrics, which we did very quickly. But at the time, “What else can we do?” because even if you’re going to use a DIY tool whether it be QuickSurveys or SurveyMonkey or Qualtrics, that’s still a big effort for the user to build that study.  And we know from just the type of work that we do, 50% + of the market work out there is related in some way to concept testing. And we thought, “How can we automate this from end-to-end?” so that the technology can do most of the heavy lifting and now the user is going to get the data in real time and be able to act a lot faster and sooner.  The first test project we did, ‘cause we weren’t quite ready for concept testing at this time, (it’s like almost seven years ago now), was we just did it on positioning (positioning and A&U) because it was just an easy questionnaire. And we set it up in the quick service platform where you’re just telling it what you want to test: “I want to do a position test on X, Y, and Z and I want millennials to get the response.”  And then the system from then on will take it, build the survey automatically, and launch it to the appropriate audience in less than 24 hours, give you final dashboards, and insights, not data, but insights on what one NY with statistical significance on a variety of demographics and groups. Like to me, that was super cool and was, actually, one of the coolest things we could demo at the time. We didn’t sell a lot of this specific module ‘cause position testing wasn’t that big within our client set.  We sold a ton of QuickSurveys work off of the back of it, and it led to us being able to eventually launch a full end-to-end concept testing module. For me, that was just like a really cool testing initiative. The kind of bet that we made if we can automate this, would it lead to the foundation of a really good concept-testing platform? And would that be successful in the market? And both of those have been proven true.


Yeah, that’s great.   And QuickSurveys is a separate brand that is underneath the umbrella brand of Toluna, I think.  Is that right?


Yeah, so QuickSurveys is our survey engine platform.  So it integrates the Toluna panel. It’s a survey tool; it’s also a reporting platform.       


Like there’s been a rise…  Research automation – oh my gosh – if I had a nickel every time I heard that, we’d be doing fine, right?  We’ve been doing research automation since the inception of our careers at the end of the day. In a lot of ways, that’s exactly what online research is; it’s a much better way ‘cause you can automate the steps of pencil and paper and mall intercepts.  When you think about the marketplace, it’s become really crowded lately, it seems like lately, with research automation tools and, of course, I’ll pick on Zappi ‘cause they kind of sit right in that sweet spot. Is QuickSurveys, would you view them as a competitor or would you see it more as a SurveyMonkey?  


So, I think within our automated modules like the one I just explained, it’s a direct competitor to what Zappi has.  I don’t consider QuickSurveys as survey tool like a SurveyMonkey because, to be honest, you mentioned this space getting crowded, there is probably two dozen survey tools out there, and really they’re all really good, right?  I mean there’s no shortage of good survey tools out there, right? What I think makes us unique in this space today is the integrated, seamless access to panel. Although with SurveyMonkey, you can access the network of panel, but that still takes time, right?  QuickSurveys allows us the way that the product platform is positioned, the technology was been integrated into it. It allows up to kind of push real-time insights. There are very few products and platforms out there that you can from a DIY standpoint go on there and build and within one hour have a completed project with insights into it.  And that’s really the mission that we’re putting forth into it. And also, it’s a global product. It’s available on 68 different markets from a panel access point of view. So, I don’t really think that SurveyMonkey is direct competition because it plays in kind of a little bit of everything. You can also procure just sample and panel through the platform.  And then you can do either full-service, custom research or pick one of these automated modules.


We’ve seen a lot of transitions, you know, speaking of change, research automation, of course, being the fairly recent buzz.  You had AI, block chain last year was insanely popular and literally maybe there are two or three companies in the space that have persisted in the last 12 months.  But what do you see as the role of insights in a modern brand and how has that changed over the last five years?


In a modern brand, I think it’s changed significantly.  The reliance five years ago was heavy on the market research consulting space.  Now these companies have built out research companies within them, within their consumer insights groups.  You take some of the larger CPG firms out there; they’re employing 200+ researchers in that team. That’s a huge research company right now, right?  So I think it’s moving into these companies as a function and a core function of their corporate strategy. And I think it’s on us as an industry to empower them in multiple ways.  Empower them (1) with the ability to DIY if they want to get access to the platform, to get access to panel, and access to data in the easiest and fastest way possible. But I think it’s really important even if these companies are trying to be as self-sufficient as possible, they’re still going to need some help in some cases.  They’re still going to need some help on research methodology; they’re going send some resource help on programming and analysis. And the companies that can offer both are the companies that are going to survive in the space, and they’re going to grow. Our biggest growth area right now is what we call this ADIY model where it’s a hybrid.  When the client wants the fully DIY, great, they can take the full cost benefit of that and DIY. But when they need help, they can tap into our global operations team, and we can support that business too.


Yeah, that’s actually something…  I was at MRMW in Cincinnati, really good but small trade show or event, and I interviewed an insights professional at Georgia Pacific.  She was talking about how the role of partnership has really been evolving in the last year really. She sees partners… You know it used to be the case that they would just outsource everything, project wholesale, and now they’re pulling more and more of the actual function into a DIY.  But then they’ll still be spending a lot with a partner; it’s just more on the analytics, activation of the insights, that sort of thing. Are you seeing that trend inside of your business?


Yeah, absolutely.  I think if you ask…  Let’s try to frame this in a way…  If you take a large CPG and you ask their C-level team, they’re going to tell you, “We want to take on as much as possible because they see an absolute cost benefit to doing that.” There’s no surprise, right?  But when you start to dig down into the specific groups and the projects they’re specifically working on, in some cases, it actually makes a lot of sense to outsource it. And not just from a cost standpoint too but just from a, “I want to get an external opinion on this,” as opposed to maybe a potentially a biased opinion within my own internal team.  And so, we see a combination of both at work.


That is a really good point.  I think that the utilization of kind of the unbiased point of view is a great reason why you’d want to use a partner to soup-to-nuts the research.  You know the other thing that I’ve seen at a macro-level as we go through these contractions and growth stages at a global economic level… As the growth stage that we’ve largely been in; it might be arguable but we’ve been in a consistent up stage since 2009, you see the brands invest more and more in internal operations and then during the contracting times, it’s unfortunate but that’s when the cost-cutting measures come into play and research, of course, is early in that priority set, in which case now, all of a sudden, a lot more work winds up getting outsourced.  So, with respect to Toluna, are you guys seeing that kind of behavior because you guys have such a… So, 2000, you guys started; so, it’s the same kind of point of view that I have. Are you guys seeing that same kind of economic trend or brand trend inside of inside of the economic climate?


Maybe not exactly.  The trends that we’re seeing is, it’s not like a one model fits all, especially for projects not just for specific companies. Even within a group, one specific model doesn’t necessarily fit all the work that they’re trying to do.  So it’s really tough. We’re seeing good traction from a DIY standpoint, and we’re still seeing really healthy traction from a fully serviced standpoint. But the most attractive offering within our stack is this hybrid approach where the client, if they can DIY, then great, they will.  But when they need to tap into our resources, they do, and we’re more than willing to help. We’re doing the same work on the same platform too. So the deliverables are all the same; it’s all seamless; all your data is in one single source too. So it doesn’t matter if we’re going to do it for you or you’re going to do it yourself. You’re still access the data the same way.  So I think that also helps within the process.


Are the brands investing more these days in data accessibility and visibility?  
Are they putting dollars there from your point of view?  Almost like I’m seeing surgence whether it’s KnowledgeHound or mTAB or whatever.  It feels like there’s more than a couple of companies that have been entering and growing in this space that are really centric to that…  At the corporate level, I want to do, let’s say, a NPS study. Then I can use these tools to access that, see if that’s already being done inside of our ecosystem.  Is that something you guys are seeing as a growth space?


Absolutely.  I think it’s one of the critical things that’s in this space today.  Just think about how much data a company like P & G going to have on soup or packaging of soup, right?  Or anything, right? So the ability not only to just mine through the data and get specific data points that you need in as fast a way as possible, but also you can compile all these specific data sources to tell a story from it too.  Your KnowledgeHound is a great example. We’ve worked with it quite a bit too. Something as simple as a search function for all the data that you run through your simple is a very usable function. To look back in time for trended information or to frame out the next study that you want to push off because of that.  So I think the way we organize our data and we allow people to consume that data in the fastest way possible is going to be a critical function, or is a critical function today just because how much data people have.


You guys have built, obviously, best-in-class technology, but then all at the same time, you’ve also acquired technology to do things.  So how do you make those trade-offs as to “Should we build it?” or “Should we buy it”?


I think it’s pretty simple, honestly.  It depends on, obviously, when you’re going to acquire the company, what stage that company is in.  If it’s a unique asset and if it’s pre-revenue because we are an R&D group ourselves, that’s a very nice acquisition for us ‘cause then we can integrate it into our technology just get it to market, right?  Not a lot of companies can have the ability to have the groups to be able to do that. So for me, it’s a cost model. How much would it cost us to develop and actually how long will it take? Then within the length of time it takes you to develop, you’ve got to add in lost revenue.  So combining that value together versus the acquisition of the asset is just simple math then. The tough part from us, not tough, but the part you really have to dig into is how much of what this company claims they can do is real, especially if it’s pre-market.


Is there a technology stack that you like better than others?  


Not necessarily.  I think in the game today from a research and consumer standpoint, there’s not a lot of end-to-end platforms.  There are a lot of very niche products and solutions that target automation of sampling or target reporting. You mentioned KnowledgeHound, which is a really good one too or Vox Pop from a video standpoint.  I think the space today for us within research is exciting because there is so many new niche players and products out there. But if you really compare consumer insights and market research technology, we’re probably really behind the rest of the world in a lot of different things, which is why you’re seeing this acceleration over the last few years.  I forecast it to significantly increase over the next few years. There’s going to be a lot more entrance in this space, and the acquisition of Qualtrics only makes it more obvious ‘cause now there’s real significant money behind some of these technology companies.


Yeah, it’s so funny.  So the number of companies that are moving to market research is way higher than it was even a year ago.  So, I’m seeing companies in ad and martech spaces saying, “Yeah, that’s fine but we really want to focus on market research”, which is really funny like a year ago ‘cause nobody would have made that transition.


I think though the technology players in this space have done a really good job actually in making research methodology easier for the DIY user to do ‘cause back in time, your IP was your methodology, like how you frame that concept testing was the technology at the time.  And today, anyone can use it because we’ve integrated the methodology into the technology. Now you’re just saying, ‘”I want to do this concept test. Here are my concepts. Tell me what one.” Now that the methodology is not the barrier to entry or making it so expensive to conduct research, there’s going to be a lot more entrance from a technology standpoint.  I think it’s going to accelerate significantly.


That’s going to be really fun to watch.  IIEX definitely had more exhibitors this time than they have in the past.  There was maybe five or ten that I just never heard of before, which a fairly large number.  The qualitative seems like it’s becoming a little bit more visible in the space. Is that something you guys are seeing?   


Yeah, absolutely.  I think if you’re just doing survey work or just pulling quant data, you just getting one picture of either that consumer process or the journey or whatever it is.  Multiple different sources of data – quant, or qual, or behavioral tracking – you need it now to paint a full picture of that consumer journey or that consumer process.  So, again, to me, it’s kind of like a simple story within research. It used to be really, really expensive to do any type of qualitative study or focus group, and now with the leverage of technology and be able to do this stuff online, it’s not, and it’s much easier.  We’ve launched a… we call it like a pop-up community technology within QuickSurvey called QuickCommunities. It literally just allows you to have an online qual chat focus group in real time on the back-end of a survey or to recruit from a survey. And you’re recruiting directly from Toluna.  This is one of our fastest growing products we’ve ever launched. We launched last year, and it’s been great because there’s a real need for some more qualitative research.


Who’s your buyer?  It is on the agency side?  Is it on the brand side? Obviously, you’re doing business in both realms.  And then where do they sit inside of the org chart?


Obviously, market research and agencies are a big part of the work that we do whether we’re selling them sample or services or even licensing technology.  We work direct with the brands, of course, too. Most of those people sit either in the consumer insights group, some in the marketing group, and some in the pod teams.


So, AI was something we’ve talked a lot about and we’ve all been seeing it grow.  We haven’t talked a lot about virtual reality, augmented reality, and voice as a kind of forward tech.  Now 5G, I think, has recently launched, and that has a lot of potential, every potential to impact us from an accessibility to real AI…sorry augmented reality (I’m getting my acronyms now completely screwed up) but anyway.  So, do you see those technologies impacting research? What’s going to be different in our space in five years?


Five years is tough to predict.  It’s no surprise to anyone in this space, but it’s getting harder and harder to get people to take long surveys or answer questions, in general.  So I think as an industry, we need to become really more creative in how we’re going to collect insights from the consumers or from anyone who’s willing to provide them.  But we’ve got to make it more engaging, and it’s got to be less of an effort for that person. And that’s why testing things within smart devices in the home so that you’re able to do question/answer instead of a desktop or a phone device but you’re able to do it verbally through that device.  That’s another option too. Be able to behavioral track a lot of the profiling information so that you’re not asking screener questions or a ton of like… I’ve seen some surveys that got 20 profiling questions just to lead up to the information they want to get. That’s a terrible experience for the panelist; it’s also a waste of time and money for the people conducting the work.  So, I mean, for us in this space, we’re always looking at ways to get people to engage… to get the panelist to engage better with us but also for a longer period of time. And I think finding ways to change that panel engagement behavior is going to be critical to it.


So, you guys are sitting in this interesting spot inside of the industry because you’ve, obviously, been around a long time; you’re one of the top brands in market research from an insights perspective, highly respected; and you have a broad swatch of customers.  What are you seeing as the biggest issue that’s facing market researchers?


I really think that we’re getting to a point where making sense of just the large amount of data we have is becoming more of a challenge. ‘Cause you’re getting it from so many different sources too.  And being able to quickly aggregate that information and making a story out of it is one of our biggest challenges, putting aside just getting people to give you high quality information. But once you do get all of this behavioral track information, quantitative information, qualitative information…  Then you got DMP data, segmentation data, social information. Painting a story and a picture without getting drowned in data is one of our biggest challenges, I feel, and how we can create technologies and tools and solutions to be able to cut through data and give you at least a summary point to start with and then allows you easily through technology to drill down to specific pockets of the data so you can build your business or change your model, or change your marketing program off of that.  


In my interview with Marian, VP of Insights at Microsoft, she was talking about how they used to… in the old days, they would present (I hate saying “old days.”  I always feel so old.), they would present data that was like, “OK, here’s my survey results.” But now it’s like you have to have at least three other data sources to create the context of the insights so that it can be understood against the business problem that they’re trying to address.         


Yeah, I mean researchers today and anyone in the insights profession today, they’re a storyteller.  They’ve got to tell you a “What,” “Why,” and now “What’s going to happen” type of scenario so that that can be digested and acted upon.  I think the days of delivering data is really over, right? You can say data is a commodity. Data is everywhere; there’s no lack of data in the space.  But how you take that data and build actual insights and results out of it is critical.


When you think about the bets that you’re going to play (I don’t know how much you can divulge), where do you see Toluna placing bets over the next couple of years?  Is it on…? And it’s OK if you don’t want to answer the question. Is it on insight aggregation or…?


Right now, I’m so focused on 2019 and if I can recall the things I’m doing right now.  I still think that consumers are just moving so… consumer sentiment just moves so fast today.  You’ll get a notion on how your brand or product is performing through social media faster than anything these days.  So if we’re not able to provide insights as fast as possible, not just from like while the project is in the field and collecting responses from people but like from the idea where the question or issue has come up to insights that’s really what we’re focused on right now is providing insights as fast as possible, faster than the market can move so that our client can react quickly and react effectively.  How that evolves… I mean we’re in the thick of this right now; the whole market is actually in the thick of this right now. How this evolves in the future with all the new data sources that are coming up and all the focus on automation and the evolution of mobile and how you engage with consumers in the future – there’s so much that we’re working on. I’m not really keen to…


So, a subset of our audience is… are people that are moving into the market research space. So, that kind of like gets to one of my questions, standard question.  What do you see as the three characteristics of an All-Star employee?


I mean for us I look for really three things, three specific things.  One is how agile are you to changing, let’s call it, goals or methodology or targets within the space because technology is changing very quickly and, as a result, methodology is changing very quickly.  Just because you’ve done something a certain way over the past x-amount of years, doesn’t make it relevant moving forward. So we’re looking for agile people. I’m always looking for really creative people ‘cause as the market changes, our clients’ needs change.  How you’re creative in getting the work done is going to be critical because, you know… The one answer I really get annoyed with hearing is, especially when we’re trying to automate or innovate, is “because we’ve always done it this way.” That means absolutely nothing to me, and that means absolutely nothing in the future.  And then I think in the world that we live in today, it’s really important to find honest and genuine people. So that’s a critical culture thing for me and the group just to have people that are on the same mindsets in terms of what their goals are, how driven they are in terms of getting there, and what they’re willing to do to get there.


Yeah, I think this honesty thing is…  We’ve all said it for our whole lives, right?  Being honest is really important, but I’ve been seeing just a fundamental ownership around this issue of trust, and how we need, as handlers of data and really the importance of making sure that we’re doing a perfect job.  And you seeing that right now. I mean getting institutionalized with GDRP or whatever. Now California has their own variant of that. Data handling and privacy and that kind of thing. So if you can address that at a core value perspective inside of the organization, it’ll go a long ways in installing best practices throughout the company and in deliverable to the customers.       


In research, inequalities – that’s a consistent thing that’s questioned.  So, I mean I totally agree with you too. Especially in the world we are today, if you can’t trust the data that you’re not just paying for but you’re using to make business decisions on, that’s the first thing of research is how can we make this data (1) more reliable but of the highest quality.  


Yeah, that could be a big problem at that level.  And you guys sit in this interesting spot owning all those assets, kind of the full ecosystem point of view.  And then the bets you’re making on the qualitative side, I think, is actually pretty interesting also. I’m really hung up on qualitative as a growth engine.  I really think there’s going to be a lot more. Does Toluna do a lot in the way of managed communities?


Yeah, that’s where we started.  So, we started with our own panel community.  We’ve built a technology specifically for ourselves.  Then we ended up packaging it to clients. And that’s kind of grew into, you know, you need a survey engine; you need a reporting engine; and then now you need behavioral data into it.  That’s kind of where we started.


Are there technology platforms that you look at and you’re like, “That’s a good…”  You mentioned KnowledgeHound, and you also mentioned Voxpopme. Are there others like that you like say,  “That’s an interesting company that I’d like to partner with”? I guess that’s the question. I have a follow-up.        


Yeah, I mean I’m constantly looking at new and emerging technology and products.  I think those two are pretty well known especially within our space. Kristy and Dave do a good job of getting around too.  But there’s nothing yet that I’ve seen that’s surprising or blowing us away specifically. I think the ones that, especially the ones that are pre-market, are the ones that are most interesting and that’s tough to comment on right now.  


Yeah, I hear you.  Tell me what is your personal motto.


I don’t know.   I don’t think I really have one.  I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.  But I’m just like, “Let’s just figure out a way and get it done, right?”


Love it.  My guest today has been Phil, the EVP – Head of Products and Strategy at Toluna.  Thank you, sir, very much for joining me today on the Happy Market Research Podcast.


Thank you.  I appreciate it.  


And if somebody wants to get in contact with either Phil or Toluna, that information will be included in the show notes.  

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