Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 127 – Ricardo Alvarez, Head of Insights for Mastercard

Today, my guest is Ricardo Alvarez. For the past 10 years, Ricardo has been the Director of Research & Insights at Mastercard and has recently left to pursue a career as a consultant. As a technology company, Mastercard is in the global payments business connecting consumers, financial institutions, merchants, governments and businesses in more than 210 countries and territories. Prior to Mastercard, Ricardo has worked on both the brand and agency side gaining extensive experience in the US and Latin America across food, retail, personal care products, digital and financial industries.


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Over the last decade the market research industry has been disrupted.  Our largest agencies are struggling to keep up as their customers turn to newer, faster and cheaper data sources. Now we are on the edge of yet another market shift. Now is the time for us to reassert ourselves as the rudder of the brands we love. Thank you for tuning into the Happy Market Research Podcast where we are charting the path for the future of market researchers and businesses.  Hi, I’m Jamin Brazil and you’re listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. Today my guest is Ricardo Alvarez. For the past ten years Ricardo has been the Director of Research and Insights at MasterCard and has recently left to pursue a career in consulting. As a technology company, MasterCard is in the global payments business, connecting consumers, financial institutes, merchants, governments, and businesses in more than 210 countries.  Prior to MasterCard, Ricardo has worked on both the brand and agency side, gaining extensive experience in the U.S. and Latin America across food, retail, personal care products, digital and the financial sectors. Ricardo, thank you very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.


Thank you, Jamin.  And first of all, I want to express my sincere congratulations for this great initiative of yours to make the Happy Market Research Podcast.  All of your podcasts will help a lot of market researchers from many generations. So your effort is going to have a great impact in our industry.  So, congratulations for that.


Thank you very much.  I appreciate the positive impact.  It’s been an interesting process over the last two months.  We have been gaining – I call them viewers – but listeners, I guess, an audience.  And that’s been very exciting. The best, I’d say the highlight for me, has been listening to the brands the professionals such as yourself, who have been on the brand side, identify where the market gaps are and then how the agencies are working hard to understand those opportunities so that they can create solutions that really help brands become more data-driven.  It’s been an exciting journey for me personally and for the rest of the team. So, thank you very much for taking the time to be with us today.


Thank you.  


So, let’s start way back.  Tell us a little bit about your parents and how that has affected your career.


Well, my dad was a journalist.  So, since I was a little boy, I learned how to appreciate the opinions of people with regard to social topics.  I started to learn more about the interview as a data collection method and as a genre. To me an interview reflects reality, and it is a creative process of discovery.  My mom was dedicated to the care of my dad as well as my brothers and sisters. We were six. So we were a big family, and you can imagine that she had a lot of work in the care of all of us.  So, I learned from my mom to listen to others and identify the emotional statements versus the rational ones. So, from my dad I learned the love of journalism and the genre of interviews, and from my mother the ability to make an interpretation of emotions.  So, I was born and grew up in Mexico City; I studied marketing and communications with two concentrations: one is market research and the other is journalism. When I was 18 years old, I began to write chronicles, and I started to develop a great appreciation of the interview as a journalistic genre.  Therefore, I was a journalist and, in the end, I dedicated myself to one of my passions, which is market research and consumer knowledge.


Journalists to me are one of the most fascinating professions.  And I think, as I’ve grown in my research expertise, one of the things that stands out to me is how a journalist can take disparate pieces of data and then usually incorporate some qualitative view – whether it’s just interviews and what have you – and put together a beautiful, compelling story.  Was your father helpful in helping you understand how to create a story from data?


Well, yes, we used to go together to bullfights.  And after the – every Sunday – after the bullfighting, he asked me to say, “Tell me in one phrase what was the most impactful of the event.  Or tell me how you phrase it or how you synthesize what you saw today.” So it was every week; so I had to work a lot to try to put together in one phrase the most important nuggets of what I saw.  So this was when I was growing. And in research you have a lot of data, and you have to have the capability of synthesis, analysis, and also to tell the story. But at the beginning, you have to capture the attention of what is the most important thing.  


I like this concept of one phrase. You know the world has moved more and more toward headlines, of course, Twitter being the antithesis of that environment.  The skill of reducing massive amounts of information and experience into a short, concise phrase that really captures that emotional moment is critical I think – I know.  Across the brands that we’ve interviewed on this show, all of them has said that story telling has become a much more important part of the researcher’s role, regardless of if they’re qualitative or quantitative.  With your work at MasterCard, was storytelling becoming more and more important?


Yes, absolutely, it is very, very important.  I think this is one of the challenges that we have today.  And I would say that, first of all, one of the… the researcher needs to connect the dots with solid foundations of research to tell the story, and that story must help the management team to make decisions and to help the business.  But that is very, very important, and this is something that is one of the capabilities that we have, we must possess. It’s very important to connect the dots and create the story.


So, tell us a little bit about how MasterCard uses insights to help inform their business decisions.  


I believe that the function of corporation market research is to generate a great impact on the company.  The companies pay us the salary or our money for having an impact in the business. The way to do it is not only generating insights or knowledge about something but generating insights that are actionable.  If we do studies and do not take actions, we cannot create impact. The way to make the insights actionable is by generating very specific business recommendations. If three recommendations are carried out of ten, then we can say that we are impacting the business.  In my opinion, the corporate research role is critical. And the only way to make an impact is making sure the studies are actionable. So, this is the way we help at MasterCard and the other companies I worked for before.


Are you seeing brands like MasterCard bring more research in-house over the last few years or are they using more vendors to get research done?  


It’s more using vendors to get research done.  It’s ah… Yeah, we don’t do anything in-house, almost nothing.  But we have a lot of resources of information and the role of the corporate researcher is…   By the time, by adding a lot of studies and a lot of data, you have to be able to connect and understand the data, make the analysis, and connect the dots from different sources of information and create a story.  And this is the beauty of the corporate role because one day you do concept testing, the other day or other month, you analyze the tracker or whatever. So those sources of information shouldn’t be analyzed separately; they should be connected.  And this is intellectual work that we must do to connect those things to help the brand and to help the decision-makers to make a decision on things that help the business and connect it to the business because sometimes in marketing we do things that are not really connecting to the business.  


Now I’ve done a lot of research in… across the world.  Latin America has been one of my more challenging markets to get whether it’s qualitative or quantitative research done.  What unique challenges do North American firms face when doing research in Latin America? And do you have any like tips or recommendations?


Well, yes, I would mention three challenges.  I believe most companies continue to study the past and literally nothing is done to help the business to see the opportunities of the future.  So, in my opinion, brand trackers must be transformed and be more predictive. Otherwise, they can become obsolete. I see a great opportunity in our industry to innovate more and find an objective way to measure the intel channels, for example.  That would be the second challenge I see. And the third one is that we continue to use or abuse intrusive data collection methods such as phone calls at dinner time to ask people to answer a questionnaire. I just think that doing service through artificial intelligence or chat bots are going to help improve the respondents’ experience.  But I believe that we must make faster progress also in social listening, using the existing engines. We are supposed to be the experts in consumer knowledge or behavior. So we must find a way to take advantage of what consumers are saying in social media. So I would say those are the things in a nutshell that are the biggest challenges that CPG firms and market research firms in LatAm (Latin America).  We rely a lot on the past; we keep analyzing the past with the trackers. And I think they should be abolished immediately.


I mean there’s a huge shift from moving away from longitudinal trackers towards more of an agile research approach.  And I mean that’s impacting the entire brand in positive ways and then it’s having some potentially negative, well, definitely negative side effects in the market research space because it’s disrupting, you know, the revenue models of many of the largest, in fact, all of the largest market research companies, right?  So you’ve got like a longitudinal-study, brand tracker, might be a quarter million dollars a year or more. And it’s being substituted for 50 five-thousand-dollar projects or whatever the numbers are. It’s much smaller price points.




Are you… Do you think that there’s an opportunity for agencies to partner with brands to help, like you said, turn these longitudinal studies into predictive models?


Yes, I would say that we are in the learning curve, in the beginning of the learning curve.  And I would say that there are no good tools yet to measure, for instance, the effectiveness of advertising in digital media such as Facebook and Twitter.  For example, for credit card companies you can’t completely rely on surveys conducted on Facebook because out of the people that they interview on Facebook, you don’t know what percentage of the respondents are banked or have a credit card.  For other categories like consumer packaging goods and consumer products like shampoo, soap, it will work. But I think that we’re in the process and someday we’ll be able to close that gap. But I think as researchers in our industry, we have to do more to really measure the effectiveness of advertising in media, in Facebook and Twitter, in digital media.  And I think we need to combine because for decades we’ve been using the television, but consumers, in addition to television, they are also watching our advertisement efforts on Facebook and Twitter.


I even saw a paper recently citing Purina, who is predicting over the next 3-5 years 50% of their products will be purchased on voice devices, such as Google Home or Alexa.  




Yeah.  So I think what you’re saying is exactly correct, and it becomes more and more important for brands to get in front of the consumer experience, especially in the context of an invisible purchase journey.  Losing the opportunity to intercept the customer – whether they’re at Amazon Store or Google Store or actually in their physical brick-and-mortar store – those days are moving away from us, and it’s going to be all about the emotional connection that the brands are creating with the consumer.  And, of course, we have said that for years, but, man, I tell you I’ve recently started purchasing things in my household on our smart speaker Alexa, and it is changing everything for us just from an ease of accessibility. [Alexa’s voice is heard is the background.] [speaking to Alexa] Alexa, stop.  Sorry about that. She’s nosey. [laughter] So, what steps would you take if you were looking to get a job in the market research space?


Well, first, we must demonstrate that we have a great analytical ability.  Second, we should prove that we know how to listen and that we know how to observe.  The third one is that we must know how to connect the dots as I said before. From the great amount of information that is obtained, we must know how to put it in context.  The fourth step is very important and consists in knowing how to tell the story. We must know how to tell stories as we just explained here. This story should be short, based on data or facts and must be actionable because we can create stories but if they are not connected to the business, that doesn’t make sense.  So, it should be short, bold, and based on data.


I really like that, that rubric of short, based on data and actionable.  If you can check those three boxes, then you can say, you know, my research has been successful.  And, if you’re not, then it’s the opposite actually. You’re wasting resources in both time and money.  So, across your years of experience, thinking about the people who have stood out that you’ve liked to work with, what are some of the characteristics of an all-star employee?  


The first one is that the researcher can be able or should connect the dots with solid foundations and that he or she knows how to tell a story that helps the management team make decisions for a healthy business.  The second one has to do with identifying the audience. For example, we must understand the audience to increase our influence. We must know how to adapt to different leadership styles. The corporate researcher, in my opinion, must know how to deal with people.  For example, we must know how to be effective in communicating good or bad news to a diverse audience. Sometimes we need to report to executives with very big egos or to people with little emotional intelligence. So, the point is that your internet client must feel comfortable working with you and you have to know how to communicate with them.  I have said that sometimes the researcher’s profession is very ungrateful. When you have good news, you’re a hero, but when you don’t have good news, then you need to be ready and prepared to have difficult conversations. The third one is I would say to build credibility and respect. Credibility in our profession means everything. The credibility is with every day and in every action.  Only with credibility we can build the influence to others. And you notice that you have influence when executives come to you looking for your advice or for your opinion as an expert. At the same time, you notice that executives want to work with you because they respect you and believe in you. I would say that those are the three key characteristics that our all-star employee must possess.    


We recently did an interview with a young man named Jake Pryszlak, and he’s out of the U.K.  He talked about the importance of developing a personal brand and how he has personally used that to stand out in a, you know, world that’s flooded with whether it’s data or people competing for jobs, or attention or what have you.  And a core takeaway for me from his interview was this need to be credible and trustworthy because that ultimately is the currency that you will build your entire career on. And I liked how you phrased that. And then being able to cultivate these relationships, being emotionally intelligent so that you’re… you know how to deal with the jerks or [laughter from Mr. Alvarez] or, right?  I have other words but, you know, the people that maybe don’t prioritize the… aren’t nice. I don’t know how else to say it. You got to align with them; you got to make sure that there’s a relationship there.


Absolutely.  You have all types of characters; you have to deal with all of them.  Sometimes people who never believe in research, once they see some data that you have that they can use to their advantage, they use it in disproportionate ways.  And you have to be honest, and you have to also know how to deal with that. And I admire and respect our colleagues that stay in the corporation right now more than five years or more than seven or eight years because it is a tough job.  It is. In corporate America, you have to have short-term scores, goals accomplished, and research is not separate from that pressure. And you have to deal with all the stress caused and the emotion caused by that pressure.


And then what you’ve given our audience is so powerful, and that is a way to track your overall success.  Thinking back about every research project needs to be concise, based on data, story, and actionable – if you check those boxes and when you’re meeting with your supervisor or other key executives, you’re going to be known as the woman or the man who gets the data in the context of the business.  That’s a very powerful seat to occupy inside of corporate America cause you start building a real strength that will protect you when, you know… We know that corporations do well and then we know there’s layoffs. We know that sometimes people like the data and what it’s saying and sometimes they don’t.  And that’s when you can see personal attacks happen, etc. So, being armed in the way that you’ve articulated, it is really powerful from enabling you to stay that course. Is a lot of this coming out of your tenure at MasterCard and other brands that you’ve served?


Yes, yes, absolutely.  And you never deliver the results of one single study:  you have to craft also with other studies that will complement, that would tell the story or to help complement the story.  Sometimes, I mean very rarely, we just deliver the results of the study whether it’s a concept test. Most of the tests that we’ve done… in ten years, for instance, I tested more than 500 concepts or ideas.  And in order to have above-the-norm concepts or ideas, you have to nurture those ideas with a different set of data. And you just don’t communicate, “Oh, you know your idea or the concept failed.” No. It’s okay; it’s not compelling; it’s not working because of this, this, and that based on that data.  You have the data and create and try to just connect the things is more helpful than just deliver, “Oh, this is the score” without any context. I don’t think that would be a good thing or good work from our side. We need to put things in context; we need to help the decision-maker to understand why this, in this example, this concept didn’t test as we expected, no?  




And you have to be armed for that.


Yeah, yeah.  Living inside of the…  I have seen this throughout my career where you’ll have internal stakeholders, and they’re really just focused on whatever they see as their deliverable to help inform the organization.  But that’s just not it! We’ve got to pick our heads up; we’ve got to get our hands dirty; we got to understand what’s important to the executives so that we can then create that story that connects and moves the organization forward.  I really enjoy your solid… I could talk about this rubric you’ve created, honestly, all day long. That should be… [Mr. Alvarez laughs.] How did you come up this? Did somebody teach this to you? Or is it just years of….?


Mostly it’s experience and experience over time.  Because you know people that… your constituents or your internet client like product people, let’s say, a product manager…  Probably they spend or take six months or a year in building a product. When this product is going to be out before they go out, they ask you to test the target audience.  And there’s a lot of work, and of course, emotion. Because we are all human beings, there’s a lot of emotion. It’s like your baby, and you think that this is the best idea in the world.  And when you test it and it’s not testing good, then you have to be ready to have that difficult conversation. What I do is, normally I don’t wait until I have the result of the study. So, in an early stage, I talk to the team involved, saying “You know according to the data, the results are not looking good.  You need to be prepared to have a Plan B.” And Plan B I would say would be this, this, and that. So that way, you alleviate the tension and you are upfront about all of that. You just expose the problem and face it and together try to resolve it. It is tough, but it is good for the business. And I think that way the researcher is not just a judgmental person but is a part of the team.  And I think that is the way we should work in the corporate world right now.


Yeah, Kristi Zuhlke had a similar take.  She’s the founder and CEO of a company called KnowledgeHound.  They have a search-based insights platform for large organizations.  Anyway, she worked at Proctor & Gamble for years. She said that it was mandatory that you have, literally, an ROI on your research for it to be viewed as successful.  And it fits – maybe more broadly – but, you know, it’s getting to the same thing that you’ve crafted here. So, I want to move on a little bit to talk about the agency world and the brand world.  What is one of the big gaps that brands have in their insights or in marketing research that they wish agencies would fulfill.


Well, I think that, number 1, they need to understand the business client and the nuances. If they plan to pitch, for instance, companies in credit cards, it’s no longer just Visa, MasterCard; it is also PayPal and Google Wallet.  So try to understand the ecosystem of the industry in which the target company is involved. That’s number 1. Number 2 is stop selling their solutions and first try to understand what are the corporate needs, what the brand needs, because the solution is not…  I mean they try to accommodate their solutions to the needs, and it should be vice versa. And the third one which is very important is what I mentioned before is the ability to do a better job in social listening. I’m an advocate of social listening because it is a non-intrusive way to understand what people are saying.  And we have discovered a lot of very good data by analyzing the pictures and observing the pictures of what people are posting on Facebook or Twitter. So you can have a very good sense, very good insights, of course, qualitative, but those are the things that you can do with very little money and that you can have good results in terms of quality of that.   


Are you seeing companies enter the market research space that are technology-based, that are doing a good job of this and helping process massive amounts of what is traditionally qualitative data so that you can then analyze, synthesize and build a story?


Well, yes, I’m sorry.  I would say I’m a fan of communities.  I like communities to

co-create and to generate new ideas.  When people have spare time and they have in their hands their mobile device and actually we are kind of incentivizing to post things.  We ask a task like, for instance, on Tuesdays, please go to the bank or do this and take, when you make these transactions, take a picture or take a video, and participate in that kind of WhatsApp environment so that we can share in a closed group of people what we learned.  I think that those are the things that are also helping us or helped us a lot. And it’s very efficient in terms of time and cost.


Social listening is a reservoir of data, and I’ve still not seen a great solution that is easily digestible for the organization, but I think that the way that you’re tackling it with managed communities for co-creation and doing in-depth interviews is very effective for grabbing the pulse of the consumer so that you understand what those constituents are thinking and where they’re seeing the needs.  I want to piggyback a little bit on the second point you had made about “agencies stop forcing your products down our throat and instead give us the products that have the biggest benefit to the organization,” right? So, in every way, we on the agency side, which is where I’ve spent my career… you know I have a shoe and I want to sell you a shoe, and, if it’s a size 9 and you have a size 10 foot, I’m going to force your foot into that shoe, right?     




Are there specific agencies that have done that particularly well?      


Well, the global ones are the ones that are not doing the job right or correctly because they have their shoes already manufactured, following your example.  The medium and the local ones are very easy to adapt and to really get into what is needed. So the global ones are I think are big elephants, and they are slow.  And you have a lot of people with good talent and not-so-good talent like anywhere. But medium and small, then you have a very good caliber dedicated to you, people with good experience, and they care about your brand.  So, I think – to answer your question – yes, the solutions are made for the big ones, global ones. They don’t care if there’s not a match with your shoe… because they have other clients. [Jamin laughs.]


Yeah, there’s that.  So, let’s shift gears a little bit.  What type of companies are you consulting for and what services are you offering?


Well, I’m more consulting the fintech companies because there is a hunger in Latin America, there is a big entrepreneurial spirit.  And these fintechs are taking a lot of advantage because they take risks the banks are not willing to take. And they need a lot of information, so I support more of the fintech industry in new companies in Latin America and also the ones that are more relevant to customer experience and loyalty programs.  Those are the three areas on which I focus more.


My guest today has been Ricardo Alvarez, industry vet, expert and sage.  Ricardo, thank you very much for being on our podcast today.


Thank you very much, Jamin.  Great talking to you. Great conversation.  I enjoyed it very much.


Jessica Richards, Michigan State University, very exciting interview with her.  They have an 85% placement of their student body before graduation and a 100% placement within 30 days of graduation.  I don’t know of very many universities that have that sort of outcome for their student body. She talks about how they achieve that, how her students are adding value to market research, and trends that they are seeing in education.