Ep. 143 – Fiona Blades – MESH Experience – Are Human Interaction Touch Points The Future Of Market Research?

Today, my guest is Fiona Blades, President and CEO – that’s Chief Experience Officer – at MESH Experience. MESH specializes in identifying how your brand is experienced by your customers.

Prior to founding MESH, Fiona has experience as a marketer on pet food, and planning director in a variety of agencies, such as Leo Burnett.

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[00:34]

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 major market shift. Now is the time for us to reassert ourselves as the rudder of the brands we love. Thank you for tuning in to 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 Fiona Blades, President and CEO, that is, Chief Experience Officer of MESH Experience. MESH specializes in identifying how your brand is experienced by your customers. Prior to her time at MESH, Fiona has worked at several agencies, including Leo Burnett. Fiona, thanks very much for joining us at the Happy Market Research Podcast today!

[1:32]

My pleasure! I am delighted to be on it!

[1:34]

So today you are in New York City. Your accent suggests that perhaps you came from someplace else. Could you tell us a little bit about your childhood and your journey towards market research?

[1:44]

Of course, I would be delighted! And yes, my accent is a little bit of a give-away. I started in the UK, and it is interesting that you actually asked me how I started in life because although I was working in London for my whole career before I moved to New York, I actually come from the North of England. My parents live near Manchester, in Cheshire. So that was where I grew up when I was young. It is very friendly, it is very different, and many people would not know that I actually come from the North because my accent sounds like a Southern UK person.

[2:29]

That is awesome! So what do your parents do?

[2:30]

It was interesting that you asked that question because actually when I set up MESH, I said: “How on earth could I have set up this agency? What led me? What was in my genes to get here?” And then I thought about it, and my father was an engineer, and he actually owned a business. So I thought that maybe that was part of was what led me to where I am now. And in particular, he had something called a molding graving business. So he put the textures or the designs on to plastics that might go on to cars, for example. He invented processes, and I thought back about that. And I thought “I wonder whether he was good at inventing processes and whether that led me to think about how I can come up with a new process for market research to capture people’s experiences in real time. So that was my father. And then on the other side, my mother had a nightclub. She owned an Indie nightclub in Manchester for over twenty years during the period when it was called “Madchester”. So that was the Oasis period and those kind of songs, and I think that what I really got from my mother… when I went to her club and I did only go once because obviously that was her place, it was just an experience for me because I saw the teamwork, I saw how members of the staff felt that it was their club, and they showed me around, and they worked so efficiently, and I just hoped that one day I would be able to have a company where people bonded so well together and were all doing something that they loved. So I think I got something very different out of both of my parents.

[4:19]

Was your mother particularly outgoing? I would imagine in that environment that would be helpful?

[4:22]

She was outgoing but what was funny… she never let on that it was her club. So she was on the door taking the money in. She was over 50 before she started the club so she never had her name come publicly associated with it, which was very interesting. She was more like the person who was doing the business side, making sure everything ran smoothly, making sure all the staff was there, that the licensing was in place. And then, she had other people, she had a manager who would be helping with the promoting and the marketing, making sure the right DJs were there, so obviously it was part of a team. Yes, she was outgoing, but no, she was not the public face of a Manchester nightclub during a period where there clearly a lot crime and difficulty so it was a very unusual position for a woman of her age to be an owner and there every night at a nightclub.

[5:28]

That is fascinating! The fearlessness of being at the door the person that takes the money. I mean, you are also dealing or at least being exposed to people that may not want a service, in which case they got to find another place to go, which can be a difficult conversation, I would imagine.

[5:45]

I think so but she had somebody who was a doorman for over twenty years, Theo. And I think everybody thought the club was his. And he was big because he was the bouncer but what was funny was that at the end of the evening there were literally carrier bags of cash and Theo would carry these bags out to the car with my mother, and I think that people thought that my mother was a little old woman so they did not know she had a car stashed with cash.

[6:24]

That’s hilarious! That’s hilarious! That’s a great visual, especially at 3:00 or 4:00am, I can imagine, in the morning. Anyway, the connection that is interesting for me, and you have already pointed this out, is that process-oriented mentality both of your parents had and then ultimately installed in you. Maybe you can tell us a little bit about what the impetus was for you starting MESH Experience.

[6:46]

Well, the impetus in many ways was because I was working as a Planning Director at Claydon Heeley, and I had account planning people reporting into me, coming up with creative ideas that propositioned that they then worked the creatives and also the data team that were analyzing the data. And one of our clients was Mercedes-Benz, and I knew it was not just the TV ad that made somebody buy a Mercedes-Benz, it was looking online, it was seeing your neighbor’s car and thinking: ”Wow, I think I want to know a bit more about that car”. It could have been seeing top gear, and seeing a car that was featured on that. And I just thought that we needed a way to understand every different experience that someone was having with the brand in order so that we could know which experiences we needed more of and which we needed to get rid of. And there wasn’t anything. I think you mentioned fearless in relation to my mother, and I think that is partly true for me. If I had known about market research, I would have known that you cannot do on a mobile phone using text messaging but I did not know that in 2005. I just thought: “Well, you can use a mobile phone to collect data, and I had data people reporting in. And why can’t you use SMS?” And so from that I developed an approach, which we called “real time experience tracking” in order to actually find out those experiences people were having with brands. In many ways it was a little bit like a CRM program. So coming from a direct marketing and agency background, I knew that first of all, you sent one letter, then an email, then you had a phone call, all these different things you had to keep people engaged. And in a way I suppose that influenced the process because I wanted people to tell us about what it was like when they saw the TV ad but then they saw a poster, then they might have had a conversation, then they looked online, so I wanted them to tell us all these experiences as they were having them and to keep them engaged in the process. So I think there were some parts of what I have done in my previous role that really helped develop that process

[9:10]

Yeah, the real life application or need. There is this amazing brilliance with being blind to the barriers. This has come up with a few others entrepreneurs that I have had on the show, the not knowing that you could not do it or the industry had said that you could not do it, and they wind up actually executing it particularly well and creating a point of differentiation in the market. The point about measuring the impact on every step of the user journey, I’ll put “every” in quotation marks because that’s tricky but at least on the point of exposure, that is something Amazon, of course, has capitalized on particularly well and continues to exploit –and I do not mean that in… you know what I mean, to continue the leverage for the benefit. Are you seeing your work starting to move more and more in that positioning? In other words, evening the playing field against the digital giants.

[10:03]

I think things have changed so much since we set up the agency in 2006, and it’s absolutely fascinating, and I love the direction that things are going in. If you think about it, in 2006, when we first set up in January, there was no Twitter, for example. We were not really talking as an industry about social media and social media listening. Now there is just a wealth of digital data that we can mine, that is in real time, that gives us information about people’s behavior. And for me, that’s all about real time data. And that is where I came from when I was thinking about MESH and real time experience tracking.

I supposed what we have done over the twelve years is we really understand our data set and from that we have been able to create models, so we have an experience model, we have a manifesto for experience-driven marketing. So we created that as well. And we find that looking through the customers’ eyes in the way we do, and the data is self-reported, so it is not the same as some of the passive data collection, and I really like passive data collection but it is not quite the same. But it does pick up every touch point, and maybe some of the digital touch points we are not getting, some of the real time, in-person touch points it might be missing on, but this almost provides the glue through which you can at least look at all of these different data resources and make sense of them. So one question we often ask Marketing Directors is: “Can you draw a pie chart of where you are spending money for your brand?” And of course, they can draw that pie chart. That is really easy. But then we say: “Now draw pie chart of how people are experiencing your brand.” And that is much more difficult because what percentage of those experiences are seeing a TV ad? What percentage are drinking the product? What percentage are seeing somebody else drink the product? Or seen it on a shelf in the supermarket or at home? And that is much more difficult but that is the pie chart that our data can draw for Marketing Directors.

[12:28]

There are two things there that stand out to me. But one is, before 2006, or 2007 really, which is the whole mobile phenomenon, brand and social phenomenon, brands used to be who they said they were and now they really are who the customers say they are given the socialization of that and influence of those comments. In fact, we are going through a remodel on our house right now, and my wife is literally looking at Yelp reviews as the number one way to identify who are going to source different projects with. And it is quite a bit of different vendors that we are going through right now just through that process. And a few of the vendors that we winded up saying no to had really high reviews. However, the referral was to somebody else, who just simply did not manage against that. They do not care about social, and they are just stuck with two people that said something negative about that experience. The impetus now is on the brands to actually measure that experience. Because as soon as the person this really connects, positive or negative, then they have the means by which to influence everybody else’s view of that brand.

[13:44]

Even when we started, I had got a vision of what I called brand dialogue at the time. And very early on in 2007, we were very lucky to work with Unilever for Axe, the male body spray. And I remembered there, we were picking up a campaign that they were running called “Boom, chicka wah-wah”, which was a great campaign. They wanted to see how quickly that catchphrase could catch on. And what we could see in the feedback that people were giving to us was that they were playing with it. I remember one photograph on Facebook where someone put their status as feeling very “boom, chicka wah-wah today”. And those kinds of things really made me think… I love to be able to be in a situation where a brand can be responding quickly and picking up on the consumer conversation and taking that along. And in twelve years, we are now much closer that.

[14:46]

100%! The other thing that starts standing out to me is how the user’s journey has evolved. Prior to online, which I am old enough to know really, really well, there was a set architecture where brands could spend ad dollars (TV, radio, billboards, etc.) and then as we know, the Internet added another channel, social adding another channel. As you look forward to voice, how are you seeing that play out from a user journey perspective and that ultimately rolling up to your brands?

[15:21]

I think voice is fascinating, and I mustn’t mention the “A” word or we’ll get stuck happening here like blinds closing and lights going on. As far as we are concerned with our particular methodology, so the core one we use and we do have a number of other that we work with as well, we ask people to tell us whenever they see, hear or experience anything, so we pick up any touch points whether that is voice or not. Sometimes, for example, we know… we have a big retail banking study in the UK. There you can see an experience could have been that somebody has been chatting online about their bank account. Whether or not they are chatting to a chat box or a real person, sometimes that is difficult to know but I suspect that they do not know either. But certainly I think voice is just a whole new exciting dimension of data.

[16:21]

I read a statistic recently from Purina, which does lot of things one of them being dog food or pet food. The statistics was that their projects are that about 50% of their revenue will be purchased through digital assistance like the A word or Google Home or whatever over the next five years. That statistic for me really speaks volumes in the importance of nailing the consumer connection over that period of time because once people move to “Alexa, order paper towels” from a purchase perspective… Oh sorry, “Alexa, stop!” I think I just ordered a bunch of paper towels. So you wind up in this tough situation where purchase choice is being controlled obviously at the user level but the user is not processing the connection of the name of that brand with the product in the way that we do with Kleenex, right. If I was a major brand right now, I would be thinking: “What does that user journey look like?” “What is the experience look like?” And then “How is it going to map once 50% of my revenue moves to a voiced-based purchase journey?”

[17:43]

Again, I think that you are absolutely right with that. In fact, I started my career on pet food. I was a Marketing Manager on dog food on brands called Winalot and Bonio and Shapes and Winalot Prime in the UK many years ago, and it was such a different world then. We created a 60 second ad. It was the first 60 second award winning IPA support winning ad for dog food at the time, and now, look at how things have changed. Obviously, particularly with something like pet food is heavy, so you do not want to be lugging it around, you want it delivered. The whole user journey is going to be different. With something like dog food as well, of course, you’ve got the purchaser and you have got the dog. So you got a whole load of other dynamics going on, which I think is very interesting. And a lot around the emotional relationship so there may be something to do with the purchase experience and the choice of dog food that relates to that relationship so you will need to find moments where you can change behavior because quite often things are habitual and they happen over and over again. But let’s say the dog is ill, that is a good opportunity to change. What is going to happen then? Where is somebody going to go? What are they going to look at online, and how can your brand influence? So I think that there are going to be lots of different purchase journeys that we are going to see.

[19:29]

Yeah, I would love to spend… I know you have a call in an hour so I am not going to spend three hours talking about this subject but the way you just said it is super interesting to me. The reason why is because the consumer journey is exponentially changing, year over year over year, as technology is disrupting or redefining that journey. You can see the rise and I am not going to say “fall” but the “move away” from Snapchat, as an example. The “all in” and then “all out”. And that environment and the context of the platform changes how the brand needs to position itself in order to be relevant and interesting to that population. And to your point, there are only few inflection points that impact behavioral change in a consumer purchase pattern, and you have got to be relevant there, so then you have to think about “Alright, how am I influencing that journey and a big part of that is where are they finding the information that informs, that pulls the value or puts the value forward to them and you need to be that as a brand, you need to be that single source or as much as you certainly can be. Anyway, I think a very interesting subject to talk about.

[20:48]

Absolutely, and another thing, actually that almost the flip side of what we have been discussing, is retail bricks and mortar and the move from being transactional to experiential. There is going to be loads more, of course, that will be done online but from all that we have done over the years we know that human interaction touchpoints are the ones that have the most impact. And when people are living the brand and experiencing it so if we think of pop-ups, like the Magnum Pleasure Store, those have such a big impact on the people that go and on the news that spreads! And I think we will find more creative experiential retail environments in order to attract people into them and then the convenience shopping will obviously be more digital focused.

[21:58]

So you are a successful entrepreneur. I am an entrepreneur. I have been for the last almost two decades. We both know… Anybody who has been doing this for any period of time knows that there are highs and lows. Would you tell us a little bit about one of the largest challenges that you experience starting and building your company and then how you addressed it?

[22:07]

There was a moment during the recession, 2008-2009, that was particularly challenging. We started in 2006. Let’s remember that I had that blissful ignorance and thought that I could set this up. And all of the sudden the economy changed. We had only just set up an office in Singapore and privately funded business that we had, many clients that we had, particularly in China, and we were able to service Europe and the States out of our London office but we could not really service Asia out of London. So we thought “We’ll go to Singapore”. As soon as we set up the Singapore office, I remember that we had been at the Market Research Society Annual Awards event in 2008, and we won more awards than any other agency. We were only 2 years old. This was so exciting for us. We were looking into the new year, and all these clients had said that they were going to be working for us, and we got these campaigns and literally January came and every single client got back to us and said: “I am so sorry, our budgets have been cut, our campaign is moving, we are not going to be doing anything.” We literally had nothing coming in in January, nothing coming in in February, a time of not coming in in March. And I had to get hold of our Managing Director in Singapore and say “We cannot send any more money out to you. Can you just get back to me and let me know what to do?”  And the next day he phoned, and he said “Right. Okay. I have looked at this, and I can half our costs.” And I nearly feel off my chair. I did not know how, what they were going to do to half their costs. And I said “I am all ears. Tell me, tell me what you could do.” He said: “We are going to move to Thailand.” And I said “Right. Okay.” He said “Not forever but we are going to move now to Thailand.” And that is what they did. So I suppose that I have learned from others. I would have not come up with that idea myself but I am delighted to say that although that particular person left MESH afterwards, today we are still working with him as a Consultant in that region. I think it is really about being tenacious and listening to other people. Because other people have got great ideas and expertise to bring.

[25:01]

And the point you made about that you still have a relationship with that individual, who helped you navigate that very difficult point in time, that’s key, right? Because that is exactly your DNA, even expressed in how your customer’s customers or the customers of the brands need to and want to interact. Is it Casper? I might be mistaken on the brand but there is a digital mattress brand that is opening stores, obviously Warby-Parker, which we all have heard about, moving from exclusively online to opening up brick and mortar. So you definitely have a success at a digital level not being enough and needing to then enable the customer to have this full immersive experience in order to maintain that relationship.

[25:48]

We believe that experiences needs to go into everything that we do. So obviously we are understanding clients, the brand experiences that the customers are having. But most of us have experience in our titles and that is because we want to ensure that our clients have great experiences working with us. That our participants in our studies are – we never call them respondents because we want them to have a good experience – we want our partners to have a good experience. This is an ecosystem, and we really believe that it is important to walk the walk and talk the talk as well. We need to be thinking about the touchpoints we have with our partners and try to make great experiences rather than negative ones.

[26:43]

So what do you see as the characteristics of an all-star employee? What do you look for, and what do you seek to install in your team?

[27:00]

The first thing is a “can do” spirit. If you are coming into the smaller, more entrepreneurial business, you need somebody that loves that, that they want to do things, and they got that “can do spirit”. They also need to be creative problem solvers as well because you just don’t know what is going to happen. We talked about the radical transformation that has gone on over the last twelve years so you need someone who can think about problems creatively. And I think the third thing is an empathetic team-player. I see the difference between when a team is working well and when it is functioning less well. And it is always about the team work. You can have the greatest people but how can you make them gel? So having somebody who is the good team-player, who is empathetic and understands other people and can work out how they excel with everybody else, I think is really important.

[28:05]

Do you have a specific example of someone on your team that may have exhibited that and if so, a time when they did?

[28:15]

Yes, our Regional Lead in Sao Paolo, Marcello Garritano. He is a great example, I think, of this. He started working at MESH in the UK. He then set up the office in Brazil. There were tough times in Brazil as well, and we had to shut down the office. We then won a major pitch, and we reopened it again very, very quickly. And all the time he was resilient, he was able to build a fantastic team. And he has some of the most diverse pieces of business going through his office. I was there last week, and there are many, many different types of things, not just our real time experience tracking but for some clients is purely working as consultants, using their data, coming up with new tools for them, and he often is given a global project because of his ability to manage a great team.

[29:30]

So as a successful entrepreneur who has weathered more than a few storms, what do you see as one of your keys to success?

[29:40]

I think that if we are talking about it attitudingly, I would say is energy, optimism and resilience. In a way, I almost think that if you knew what it was going to be like having a business you probably would have not set one up. So you have got to really love it. And I think you need your own purpose. So for MESH we have set something, which is about “helping to create and measure experiences that grow brands, people, and society”. And that bit of society is important to me. There has to be a reason why you are doing something. I think that having a sense of what you are really trying to achieve is important, and keeps you going and keeps you motivated.

[30:36]

One of my favorite tweets of all time actually says: “If a company does not have a vision, they are just wandering around.” And you are exactly right.  You got to have a reason why. So operating at sort of that, ten or thirty thousand feet, maybe higher, what are your views of seeing as a trend in the marketing and marketing research space?

[31:08]

Well, we talked about some of those trends but one that I am really pleased about is that experience is coming of age. So again maybe ten to twelve years ago I don’t remember being talked about as much but now it feels as though everybody is talking about it. And I was really delighted to see in an article a little while ago in Harvard Business Review, where the authors that included Keith Weed from Unilever were talking about how share of voice and share of all would not be key metrics of the future, it would be share of experience. I feel delighted that we are here at this time, because I think that there is a time and a place, and now it does feel as though people are really valuing experience.

[32:01]

I mean, it is so far beyond anything else really, right? One technology company, I cannot divulge who they are, they have not been on the podcast just fyi –although I am going to fix that, they have 5 internal full-time market researchers and they have over 40 and growing UX researchers. So that user experience is driving, driving, driving a lot of the decisions that are being made throughout the organization, honestly.   

[32:37]

I agree. Yes.

[33:43]

So what is MESH offering right now that is being adopted and finding a lot of traction inside the market place?

[32:48]

Well, I think it is the ability to be able to measure these experiences. I think that is where we are really finding traction with. The data is collected as we talked about before but that is something that when clients see it because it includes quantitative metrics –so you can draw that lovely pie chart and you can see exactly how people are experiencing the brand, but then you can really dig down and you can see which are the positive experiences. And we now that a positive experience has three times the impact of a neutral one or a brand consideration. So that is really important to look at that. And you can see that for yourself and for your competitors. So you can immediately start to see where there is white space, what you can do, if there are some negative experiences, how you can fix then. That is what we have been finding. That the data itself, once the clients try it, that they get hooked on it because they really want to see what people’s experiences are and they are qualitative comments and photos as well. So if you know that for example, posts are performing very strongly, you can see exactly why people are saying that.

[34:09]

My guest today has been Fiona Blades, CEO of MESH Experience. Fiona, thank you very much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast with me.

[34:14]

Thank you so much. It has been an absolute pleasure discussing this with you.