Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 105 – Merrill Dubrow, CEO of MARC

Today we are joined by Merrill Dubrow, CEO and President of MARC Research. Being a CEO of a full-service marketing research firm is not the only thing you’ve got going on. You serve on University boards, you’ve served as President of the AMA Boston, you have a blog, you and Steve Schlesinger put on CEO Summit. You’re not just a CEO, you’re a leader of CEOs.


Well, Merrill Dubrow. Thank you very much sir for joining me today for the Happy Market Research podcast. You are a busy guy, a CEO as I know firsthand is time is valuable but having said that you also spend a lot of time after hours on University boards. You’ve served as the president of AMA Boston. You’ve had a blog for a decade. Additionally, you and Steve Schlesinger put on that CEO summit that’s had major lift for you guys. As a leader of CEOs, what is the number one skill that you think CEOs bring to the table?


Wow. Well first of all, before I answer that question, Jamin, I want to thank you and Alexandra for inviting me to the podcast. I’m really looking forward to being part of it and what you’re doing here is really unique and I think beneficial to the entire research community. To answer your question, I don’t know if I can give you one answer. I don’t know if I can sit there and tell you what’s the number one skill that every C level employee could or should bring to the table. I think that really depends on the CEO. But I can answer it from my standpoint, which is you’ve got to be self-aware and you’ve got to be able to allow yourself to have a self-evaluation and trust people around you. So constantly when you have – I believe I’m never going to be the smartest guy in the room. I believe I’ve made the most of my skill set and the reality is I can say, hey I need to get better at blank. So the interesting thing, you mentioned my blog for 10 years which I did three times a week and I wrote everyone except for a few guest writers. I’m not a great writer. I have good idea, but I don’t have great punctuation or grammar and I was able to, through this self-aware and self-evaluation understand that, know that and surround myself with people who could help me through that. They didn’t re-write the stuff, they just made sure it made sense. So for me the number one skill is this self-awareness. Give yourself the self-evaluation to know that, hey I might not be great at finances or I might not be great at management or I might not be great at sales or I may not be great at something else and being able to surround yourself with the right people and also try to get better at something every day. So for me it’s what I’ll call jamming 900 seconds, 15 minutes a day I try to get better at something. Whether that’s be a better marketer, be a better executive, be a better son, be a better brother. It doesn’t really matter. That’s what I would say for me for where my career is right now. I would say to have that self-evaluation and really be self-aware of what my strengths are, but more important, what my weaknesses are and do something about it.


Yes, so it sounds like you’re doing two things there. One is you’re hiring people to support the blindspots or weaknesses.




The other part is you’re leaning into those in terms of intentional training. Do you think you spend, using your rule do you think your spend more time on improving your strengths or bolstering your weaknesses?


Yes, and there’s a lot of books on that. I actually try to improve my weaknesses. So I’ll go after some things that I might have some blind spots, to try to improve and look, I remember and you’ve seen me on stage a fair amount. The first time I presented which was in Nashville, Tennessee at Opryland Hotel, I did it – this will show everybody who’s listening how old I am. I did it on index cards and I was visibly shaking and my voice cracked when I presented and that was the first time. So in my 20s, in my early 20s I did that and knew that being a good communicator and trying to get your message across to attendees and colleagues and bosses was going to be important to my career. So I really worked hard at that over the years and I think I’ve done a good job and probably I’m an above average presenter at this point. Still trying to get better, but I go after my weaknesses. I go after the stuff that I know I need to improve. I think it’s helped me so far.


Yes, I think this idea that greatness is born, not made is completely bullshit and –




It means the people that are successful and the value that we’ve built in our own lives by intentionally focusing on – I don’t know if your read the blog post that I did on the subject of procrastination, but I actually talked about one of the times that I completely failed as a speaker and for me, that was a big opportunity to just focus on anytime I can speak I take advantage of that. Even if I’m out of pocket, I’ll drive or fly if I have the opportunity to because I want to improve on that particular thing. People see me on stage and they’re like he’s OK, he’s pretty good, whatever. The point is that it’s something that I continue to work on and a craft I continue to hone. So I think that’s just such an important point. You’ve got to focus on those weaknesses and improve them if it’s something that is important to you.


Totally agree.


So what in market research is adding the most value right now to businesses?


Yes, I think – it’s a really good question. We’ve all been in sales meetings, we’ve all had client visits, capabilities, presentations and we’ve all looked over in the corner and there’s some beautiful bound research reports that are collecting dust and have never been used and have never been implemented, integrated within the enterprise. The most – where market research has really added the most value right now is a true partnership. Not a vender/client relationship. A true partnership where you can ask all the hard questions, you can deliver insight and what we try to teach our team is what are they doing with the research. How can we help integrate that within their enterprise. Are we going to get chances to talk to the brand manager, do we have C level interaction? Is the CMO going to be involved? What about the VP of marketing? Where does this report go after we deliver it to you? Who is in the room on the final presentation? So for us, whether it’s a tracking piece of business, whether it’s a quick study that we do, concept testing that’s in and out, we try to ask those other questions because we want to make sure that any research we deliver Jamin, doesn’t just collect dust. We want it to be used. They’re spending, clients are spending a lot of money on these tools and on these management reports and from our standpoint, the companies that really are adding the most – where research is adding the most value, use the research and it’s a funny bit but now clients do that. There is a lot of client turnover and a lot of stuff just gets lost in the shuffle. So I think that’s really where the most value is today, right now.


I remember, I had a – this is a true story. I did a qualitative study for a client who will be unnamed and delivered the report and it was just this really tight two page executive summary. Took me three months of flying around the world doing the qualitative and I handed it to him, he looked at me and said – and dropped it on the table and said, it’s too light.




True story. So I had to then pull an inch worth of content. By inch I mean in terms of the number of pages and then it was adequate. So it was a completely different measurement than today.


Yes, no that’s funny.


Hey listen you do a lot of work with young professionals. What do you look for when you’re going to hire someone who is starting out and what skills do you think they should be focusing on developing?


Yes. So it’s funny because everybody has this lunch test now. Do I want to have lunch with the person across from me and if I do then maybe I’ll hire them and if I don’t, get them out of here quick. For me, one of the things I look for is a thirst for knowledge and if you have a thirst for knowledge, you will ask questions and you’ll listen to the answers and hopefully you’ll be able to process that and hopefully you’ll be able to really think about it, what it means to you in your job. I like to surround myself once we’ve hired people. I don’t want people to do their job. That’s what everybody wants. I want people to think about doing their job. So I want those extra two words at the beginning of the sentence to really apply because let’s think about it for a second Jamin, if you think about doing your job, what happens? Chances are you do a better job, you gain efficiencies. Chances are you’ll have a little bit more fun. Chances are you’ll deliver a better product. Chances are you’ll make everybody around you look a little bit better and everything is a win-win. But too many people don’t. The other question I have to answer and mine isn’t about can I have lunch with this person, although I love to have lunch, is are they trainable. Because no matter who comes into your enterprise you have to train them. You may want to tell me you only have to train them for three weeks as opposed to three months or two years. But you have to train them and if they think they know everything and they’re not trainable then it’s a no-go for me and recently in the last 90 days or so, we’ve really – when you make a bad hire it costs you a lot. If you hire somebody for $100,000 and you hire them for upwards of 6 months, well now you waste $50,000 plus benefits. So 20% and now it’s $60,000 plus expenses, etc. but it’s also the cost of doing business and the opportunity cost. So the reality we use something called the AcuMax Index, which tests – which is a quick survey. It takes about three minutes to do it and basically it’s a tool that tells you how people are wired in the environment that they work well within. How they communicate and how they like to be integrated within a company and it’s been a lifesaver. Everybody in the company has taken it, everybody we’ve interviewed has taken it, anybody we’ve hired in the last 3 to 4 months has taken it. We use it with clients of ours to pick teams based on communication styles because as know, all clients are a little bit different and it’s been an unbelievable tool. Now there’s about 250 of these tools in the country, this is one of the few that has wiring as part of the metric and the algorithm and it’s really worked well for us and it’s unbelievable. It’s already saved us a lot of money.


When you guys are hiring you think about the – hiring is a lot like a sales funnel, right? So you’ve got a vast number of people hopefully that are applying for a job and that kind of whittles down to those that have great resumes, etc.




How – what would you recommend – what are the key tools or what do you look for in that top of the funnel to help somebody get from an expressed interest into the job to actually get that interview?


Yes. I think – look for me, it’s a little bit about networking. I’m a big proponent as you know about LinkedIn. To me it’s the number one management tool out there that, oh by the way it’s free pretty much. In the world I don’t know how people – most people are doing their jobs without using all of that, utilizing LinkedIn. Now just level set, I do use it a time. I have almost 26,000 connections. So I think that for me and the people that we’ve hired, they’ve wrote a compelling quick email or they’ve referenced something in our business or they’ve referenced somebody in my inner circle or they come highly recommended. That will get my attention. That doesn’t mean it’s the sole purpose and the sole way you get my attention but you’re right. If I have 100 resumes that are coming in blind, it may only get five that get – but if I get ten resumes from Jaime or Steve Schlesinger, all ten will be reviewed, all ten will be talked about and all ten will be interviewed. Because I know that if you’re calling me or sending me an email or suggestion through a text that I need to interview Freddie or Sally, I know you’re thinking about the best interest of my company and I’m going to do that. That means you’ve seen something and that means a great deal to me. So that really is the number one thing.


Got it, networking critical.


Yes, it’s people plus having access to people like you and Kim Monston and Kathy Allen from Decision – Steve Schlesinger. All these executives who run companies who are all in different parts of the United States who come from different backgrounds who come across different resumes and different potential candidates. It really is another set or two or five of ten of eyes that really can help you move your business forward.


Right. Yes, that’s a good point. So when you started your career of course you were not a CEO of a major market research company. You entered the front door just like everybody else and now as you reflect back over that time, what is the biggest lesson that you learned?


Well I’ve got to tell you something. Being as old as me and being in the industry for 33, 34 years, there’s a lot of lessons. But I would say the biggest one is profits cover up problems and not too many years ago, we were flying high, couldn’t do anything wrong, it was unbelievable hitting. Every month was a new record. Whether it was revenue or profit, didn’t matter and I could sense that there were some things that were a little bit awry but when everything is going great, I didn’t react to a few things that I should have because they were covered up by profits and that’s been the biggest learning for me that will never happen again and it’s something that I think has been extremely valuable. So when things are going great, continue to make those strategy moves. When things are going great, continue to look at all your metrics. When things are going great, continue to improve on every single on them and continue to look for those efficiencies and don’t get complacent at all. So that’s what I would say.


There’s a lot of narrative around what is the role of market research in today’s world. Seems like it’s been evolving, maybe even displaced by some of the integration of what would be marketing research technologies inside of WordPress websites or what have you. What do you see as the biggest miss in the market research industry over the last five years?


Jamin, have you ever seen a – have your kids ever played or your niece or nephew ever played soccer? Right, as a –


Of course.


Seven or eight, nine year old? So the ball goes to the left and what happens?


Everybody goes to the left.


Right and then the ball kicks across the field and it goes to the right. Then what happens


Same thing, everybody follows the ball.


So I just described to you the market research industry and the problem is that sentiment analysis, everybody go. Biometrics, go. itracking, go. Bid data, go. What’s next, artificial intelligence? Yes and the problem is that everybody gravitates, every single company out there gravitates to the next biggest thing and I think that’s a huge miss for a lot of companies and what I mean by that is you’ve got to have the right technology for your company, for your staff and for your clients and oh by the way, you’ve got to make money at it and if you can’t, do go after that piece of technology. I’m not saying don’t take technology and integrate it in your enterprise. I’m saying take the right technology that makes the most sense for your company. Don’t chase everything because if you chase everything, it’s going to be costly, you’re not going to understand what the deliverable is, you’re not going to be a guru in thing and it’s going to cost you money I guarantee it.


The lack of focus, big problem.


Yes. Well I think so.


Yes. Good. So looking forward now, what are you seeing as the major change and continuing your analogy of the grammar school soccer team, where is the – to Wayne Gretzky now, which is his famous quote I think is, I don’t go to where the puck is, I go to where it’s going.




Where is the puck going?


I think the companies that are going to have the most success are the companies that build products and services that are very quick, that are – probably have some type of automated or do it yourself platform that clients can react to quickly. What we as researcher probably all don’t understand or want to understand is that our clients are getting asked from the CMO or VP of marketing of brands, I need an answer to this problem now and now means yesterday. We don’t have the luxury anymore of 6 months or 8 months or 9 months. It’s now and the products and services that can meet those challenges, and I think there’s a lot out there but not as many as there could or should be, are really where the future is going to be and I think that my sense is that corporate departments are going to continue. I don’t see them growing a ton. I think some will but I think a lot of them are going to continue to streamline as they work through these product mix that’s going to be quicker delivery and be able to allow them to really move their business forward. So I think that’s what’s going to happen as well.


So kind of piggybacking on that, is there – are there specific products that M/A/R/C is pushing to help meet that demand?


Yes, I think – yes. We introduced a new product on the Zappi platform about 17 months ago. Actually Monday was our 17th month anniversary.




Thank you, thank you and we had our first client on day five, after we established a product and went live with the service. So we had our first client day five. I think we had three clients in the first three weeks. We had almost – we had a little shy of $100,000 revenue in the first month. So – and we’ve been on our way since. So I think for us it’s continuing to build some additional do it yourself, automated platforms that clients can really benefit from quickly, that are priced reasonably. Then that allow clients to get the insight that they need in their enterprise to move it forward right away. So we’ve got a couple more coming out in the next couple of months. So be on the lookout for them and I think that back in the day Jamin, we would all build products and not have a revenue stream for what, maybe 8 months, a year. You can’t do that anymore. I don’t have time, you don’t have time. We need to have revenue streams pretty quickly.


So are you building out technology internally or are you leveraging other providers that build out the tech?


Most of it is externally. We’ve done some – with Zappi we had a very successful hackathon that we were able to figure out a way which was very, very interesting because we did about 7 or 8 months of work in 6 days. We’re into the middle of nowhere in Texas and 21 people, 14 from them and 7 from us from I think – I don’t know, 12 different countries got together really in 9 miles past the middle of nowhere in Texas where internet didn’t really work and the phones didn’t work half the time and we built a product and were able to do that. So some is internal, a lot of it is external and it’s making sure that we’re picking the right partners to move our business forward.


Awesome. That’s all my questions, Merrill. Is there anything else you wanted to cover?


No. Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. This has been great, hopefully the answers will help some folks and I appreciate you having me as a guest today and we’ll talk to you soon.


All right, Merrill. Thank you very much and thank you everyone who is listening, hope you have a fantastic day. Bye-bye.