Featured Happy MR Podcast Podcast Series

Ep. 602 – Reed Cundiff, CEO at the Schlesinger Group, on 3 Trends That Will Impact the Insights Industry in 2023

Our guest today is Reed Cundiff, Chief Executive Officer at the Schlesinger Group. 

Founded in 1966, Schlesinger is a leading provider of quantitative and qualitative research solutions and has built and bought leading technology solutions providing customers with both best-in-class service and software.

Prior to joining Schlesinger, Reed served as a General Manager at Microsoft, SVP at the Yankee Group, and CEO of the Americas for Kantar.

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This Episode is Sponsored by:

HubUX is a research operation platform for private panel management, qualitative automation including video audition questions, and surveys. 

For a limited time, user seats are free. If you’d like to learn more or create your own account, visit hubux.com.


Jamin Brazil: Hey, everybody. You are listening to the Happy Market Research Podcast. We have a special guest today, Reed Cundiff. He is the chief executive officer as the Schlesinger Group. Founded in 1966, Schlesinger is a leading provider of qualitative and quantitative research solutions and has built and bought leading technology solutions which now provide companies best-in-class, both in terms of service and software. Prior to joining Schlesinger, Reed has served as a general manager at Microsoft, SVP at the Yankee Group, and CEO of the Americas for Kantar. Reed, thanks so much for making time for us and being on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.


Reed Cundiff: Thanks for having me, Jamin. It’s a pleasure to be here.


Jamin Brazil: HubUX is a research operations platform for private panel management, qualitative automation including video audition questions, and surveys. For a limited time, user seats are free. If you’d like to learn more or create your own account, visit hubux.com. I’d like to start out with this context question. Tell us a little bit about your parents, what they did and how that informs what you do today.


Reed Cundiff: I love this question, and probably my mom in particular loves this question. Both my parents worked outside the home. My dad was a mechanical engineer at DuPont for over 30 years. And I have to say, he believed in a structured approach to pretty much everything in life as engineers sometimes do, and also had a real strong belief in efficient execution, whether that was at work, whether that was mowing the lawn or whatever the case may be. And so I think that kind of structured approach and focus on efficiency certainly has showed up in my work life and home life. The interesting blend was my mom was a change management and a talent consultant with Towers Perrin and Watson Wyatt and a few other organizations. And so she honestly built a career around the belief and the power of people and teams to be able to tackle pretty much anything in the world and just the importance of human capital within a business context. So together I feel like honestly, it’s pretty logical that I ended up here. I couldn’t have told you that at 22, but bent towards a structured understanding of the world and a focus on the people side of business has I think really driven me to where I am now.


Jamin Brazil: It is a special skill set that you possess and that has thankfully been installed by your family, that both probably in terms of DNA and also obviously observational. So that’s super interesting. But it’s a special skill to be able to take the chaos of life or business and then create order around that and structure so that you can create repeatable processes. Have you seen in your career, is this a skill that’s innate with people, or is this something that you see people that maybe don’t have it can invest in and actually achieve that?


Reed Cundiff: I think it’s absolutely a skill that people can learn. And of course people are going to have a tendency coming in. But what pops to mind for me, Jamin, was my first job out of school was as a market analyst for Gartner. And this is where believe it or not, even after what I consider to be a pretty good education, thinking in a logical way and communicating in a structured way was something that I’d only taken the first couple steps in a marathon in learning how to do. And those first few years out of school, I thankfully had folks who were willing to invest time and energy in teaching me how to improve. And I definitely feel like that’s put me on a better path than I would’ve been just in a state of nature.


Jamin Brazil: Yes, for sure. One of the things that I actually very much appreciate is the opportunity to speak. And one of the things that – and that’s happened really in the last I’d say six years of my career, and really heavily in that timeframe. I’ve probably done more speaking the last six years than I did the previous 20 by 4X. And one of the interesting things about speaking is the need to be able to clearly communicate a point of view in a very structured way in a specific timeline, and as opposed to more of how I used to approach things which would be more like winging it. And I think business in a lot of ways is exactly the same thing. It’s about just rolling up your sleeves, getting down to brass tacks of how things are being done and where the opportunities are for improvement, whether that impacts time or gross margin or close rates or what have you.


Reed Cundiff: And if I could, there’s one thing that I would add. And that’s speaking clearly and with an overall purpose in mind. And so as I think of honestly you, me, and the listeners that we have here as leaders, we might not all be people managers, but we all have the opportunity to lead. And when we’re thinking about what we’re trying to get across, even if we just think basically hey, I can provide clarity in this situation. I can generate energy in this situation. Or I can focus on delivering results, just communicating, and getting something done. Having that in mind as I start to communicate just makes things so much more straightforward.


Jamin Brazil: Yes, and it takes a lot of the emotion out of the communication. A lot of times I fall, have fallen victim to feeling like I need to be right or as opposed to having what I think the right solution is, or what is the right solution I should say, ultimately is the solution that’s pushed forward.


Reed Cundiff: This might be a bit of a tangent from where you were thinking of going today. But there was a really formative experience that I had honestly later in my career than I would care to admit. But when I had the opportunity when I was at Microsoft to be able to present to the senior leadership team of the company, and I’d say it was – it ended up being a good meeting. Not a great meeting, but a good meeting. And then coming out of it, I was debriefing with my boss who was the CMO at the time. And he said something honestly that I hope I never forget. I certainly haven’t yet. And it was hey, when you were in there, it seemed like you were trying to successfully get your point across and make it through the meeting. How would you have shown up differently if you were genuinely interested in the feedback that the people in that room were providing you? Because –


Jamin Brazil: Interesting.


Reed Cundiff: Yes. Well because first of all, it’s an expensive meeting. And there’s some really smart people in that room who might have something to offer if you were interested not just in my parlance, winning the meeting, but rather in gathering feedback and figuring out how you want to do things differently walking out of the room.


Jamin Brazil: That’s such a powerful – that’s such a – and the problem with that is as soon as you stop talking and ask for feedback, you’re going to get feedback, right? And that’s always the – I heard an interview with Bill Gates. This goes back a decade, but it stood out to me so much. An entrepreneur was pitching him on a business idea, and he asked the entrepreneur a fundamental question about TAM that was – he, Bill Gates himself knew the answer to, happened to know the answer to. And the entrepreneur off-the-cuff knew exactly what the dollar figure was and also could break it down, break down the TAM very logically. And so that was all Bill needed to – Mr. Gates, excuse me – needed to hear in order to build trust that that person understood what they were talking about. And so it is interesting. When you open yourself up there, you better have your shit dialed in.


Reed Cundiff: For sure, yes.


Jamin Brazil: [CROSSTALK] very –


Reed Cundiff: Genuinely, yes, feedback is a gift, and some days it’s Christmas.


Jamin Brazil: That’s right. Some days it’s Christmas. Love it. Well hey, Schlesinger. I’ve got to tell you, I am a huge fan of Schlesinger. Anybody that knows me knows I only tell the truth to the – so if I wasn’t, I wouldn’t necessarily say I’m not, but I wouldn’t have led with that. Schlesinger has played a material part in my career, both pre-transaction with Focus Vision and then of course later with running Focus Vision as the CEO for a short time, and then later Debbie Schlesinger, and now remarried but being on my board at HubUX. And so I’m such a big fan. And it was big news seeing Steve move into more of the board role and then bringing you on. So first of all I wanted to just offer my congratulations to you in that role, because it’s a very important role in our industry.


Reed Cundiff: Thank you very much. I am delighted to be in role and working and really trying to carry the business forward, which has been just such a fantastic part of our industry for such a long time now.


Jamin Brazil: Yes, no kidding. 1966, it’s quite literally one of the OGs. And what’s interesting about Schlesinger versus maybe some of the other – certainly most of the other, if not all. You guys are so big, I assume over a quarter billion dollars currently and growing. You guys actually weathered remarkably well COVID, whereas other traditional focus group facilities, they didn’t have that forethought to invest in technology. And you guys were completely tech-enabled, which allowed you to seamlessly move to a virtual framework, maintaining a nice growth trajectory. So just a lot of smart moves have been made on the chessboard of market research by Schlesinger and continuing to drive things like participant quality. Again I think about – this is going to sound like an infomercial. And by the way, folks, they’re not paying me for this. This is not that episode. But in truth fundamentally, Schlesinger having such a large focus group footprint globally, one of the interesting things from a sample-sourcing perspective and major points of differentiation is they’re able to tap into large-scale audiences who have already been vetted through qualitative research, whether that’s in-person or otherwise, for quantitative surveys. And so again in a day and age where you’re having 40 to 90% return rates on sample or you have a sample option that has vetted people inside of it, it’s a pretty remarkable value prop just in that piece alone. So anyway, great company. Excited to see where you wind up taking it. As you think about the future, and what do you see as the next thing for Schlesinger to lean into?


Reed Cundiff: It is a great and fair question. I feel like Steve and our management team had a just really sharp vision for the future. And we’ve been successful in transforming and growing the business through some of the acquisitions that you talked about. So we were able to expand into quantitative and digital qual in 2020, perfect timing. And now those two areas are collectively a huge part of our portfolio. We still certainly love and embrace our heritage of the in-person facilities and qual recruiting globally. And we know and thankfully a lot of our customers are seeing especially throughout this year the importance of in-person. And that’s always going to be a huge part of the portfolio of the business and what we offer to customers. But also we have been making some strategic bets on tech. And so coming where I’m coming from, especially you can imagine that was one of the most compelling things about the business. In 2021, you saw us purchase Methodify and Telmy. And we see the industry evolving to be more self-service, and also these types of tools and tech expand our audiences to broader marketing and CX roles that weren’t always thinking of more traditional firms like Schlesinger. Now in just this past year, we also made some investments that we want to continue evolving in our assets like opinion capital, and getting more resources for the audiences that we want to bring to market which are going to power all of our relationship with customers. So it’s continuing along the lines that strategy that Steve and the management team have really laid out. I think we’ve got honestly a pretty bright future ahead, which is why I’m here.


Jamin Brazil: Yes, no, I completely agree. I think the best years for consumer insights are quite literally right in front of us, and I think that I’ve been through a couple of different cycles now. This is my third cycle where I started in the pre-dotcom phase, saw a lot of company – learned a lot about company behavior as they became – companies became really fat from a cash perspective, bringing a lot of internal resources and insights, so making a lot of investments in growing the full gamut of market research and hiring people, et cetera. And then the dotcom bust happened, and all of a sudden there was tremendous amount of layoff. So most of those happened at first in the market research space, and then boutique companies coming out. Then you fast-forward to the housing crisis of 2007 and ’08. And again as everything was like market going up and up and up, again brands were doubling down on internal research divisions. And again they cut the staff, and now fast-forward again. Here we are seeing the exact same behavior really on both sides, which kind of leads me into my next question. What do you see as – and I’ll leverage my MBA and pull the number three here. What are three trends that you believe will carry us into 2023 and into 2024?


Reed Cundiff: Sure thing. First thing I’d say dovetails right along with your really good and succinct history lesson, is leaner and meaner would be the first trend that I would think about, is like a lot of folks at – the economic outlook certainly from a macro perspective is not going to be fantastic for H1. And my belief is that that’s going to accentuate the push to eliminate some of the inefficiencies that we have in our industry. And that’s – I’ve had the good fortune to be able to look at and participate in our industry from a few different views at this point. And honestly, I see opportunities for greater efficiency from all of them, from the way brands engage with suppliers and agencies to how we operate internally. We need to eliminate some of the friction that’s embedded in bidding for and launching projects today so that we can really start to move at the speed of decision-making. So leaner and meaner is number one. Two, something I’ve been talking about for a while which I think will only continue is the digital transformation of insights. I’ve been talking about this for six or seven years, and honestly I imagine I’ll be talking about it for the next six or seven years. The integration of a variety of different data types, perception, behavior, financial, social, location enables our industry and our insights to break out of one-dimensional views of humans, and kind of look at a more well-rounded view of our customers, our markets, even our competitors. And so we need to leverage the “and” opportunities versus simply advocating for the benefits of our unique data silos. So that ongoing digital transformation would be the second. And then the third for me is a talent revolution. I think it’s related to both of the first two trends, but I feel like we have a chance to meet the moment as an industry and foster a revolution in the nature of the work we do and the people who do it. I’ve been passionate about this for a long time. The first time I talked about this publicly was at an SMR World Congress probably ten or 12 years ago. I talked about the challenges in cross-pollinating research and data science capabilities within a team. I talked about it as farmers versus miners. And with the digital transformation that’s already permeating the industry, we have an opportunity to rethink the way we train and grow our young talent in particular and embrace a wider variety of data types, be flexible in our analytic approaches, and deliver insights in a dynamic way that goes beyond the one-hour PowerPoint presentation.


Jamin Brazil: Yes, 100%.


Reed Cundiff: And lastly at the same time, what other industry, one that’s centered around human understanding, could be more prime to evolve its representation and inclusion? I believe we can dramatically improve from a relatively vanilla starting point to a group of leaders and professionals who come much closer to mirroring the folks we work hard to understand, and mirroring society at large. So I do want to give a small shout-out to the Insights Association’s IDEAtors program, which offers internships to diverse junior researchers. Schlesinger is a proud participant, and there’s a lot more that we all can do.


Jamin Brazil: 100%. And it’s all around intentionality that we’re able to drive those changes. And to your point, how you started, I really like – it’s interesting how the conversation has kind of gone full-circle for me. When you think about process in a lot of ways, process – well, in every way, process is a function of getting things done. And a core way of getting things done or a component of it is the tools that we have access to and the subsequent skill that we bring to leveraging those tools. And if you look at Gen Z versus millennials or even Gen X, there’s a whole different set of requirements around the actual software components of things and how they think about getting things done and their tolerances for bad tech. And that’s where I think thinking about this new digital revolution that I believe we’re stepping into where companies and individuals are accustomed to leveraging things like OpenAI to get answers very quickly, there’s a whole new set of things that are going to be coming to market that we just quite literally – most of us haven’t even conceived of. So it’s going to change everything from the tools that we use to ultimately how we wind up getting our stuff done, and the companies that are going to win are the ones that are adaptable from a process perspective.


Reed Cundiff: For sure. For sure. And we even see that day-to-day in how we’re approaching things like remote qual and in-home user testing, where things that required a pen and paper and weeks to be able to complete, we can use tech to be able to solve in hours and days.


Jamin Brazil: We’ve got the forward view. What do you see as some barriers or challenges that we will face as consumer insights professionals?


Reed Cundiff: Well, so this is where this will not be a new answer. But to me I feel like it’s the same as it was ten years ago, and that’s quality is the first thing that comes up. It’s not particularly sexy or dynamic, but without quality input, insights are sunk. When you have that one objector in a senior meeting poking legitimate holes in the makeup of a respondent pool or the analytic technique used or the way a question was phrased, then the impact of the project dies a quick, but painful death. So yes, we want to provide insights at the speed of decision-making, and yes, we want to find ways to deliver insights at lower cost. But we always want to do so with a foundation of data quality. And it’s honestly just not always there, and it starts with the respondent.


Jamin Brazil: It’s not always there categorically. There’s – the majority of sample is just so catastrophically bad. Speaking of process, I’ve talked to 100 at least agencies. And the biggest problem that they’re facing is data quality. Participant fraud and bad actors are a real and growing concern. And when you look at the increase in utilization of brands for research, just the number, the volume of research is going up. The number of surveys are going up. But meanwhile the world population is about the same, so you got to ask, where are all these people coming from and why are they willing to spend 20 minutes of their time for 25 cents?


Reed Cundiff: For sure.


Jamin Brazil: So yes, at some point, yes, anyway, there’s a whole ‘another episode. My last question for you. What is your personal motto?


Reed Cundiff: I love the opening and close, and the middle’s been pretty great too by the way. But I’ve actually spent a lot of time working on my personal philosophy. So I won’t go into intense detail or cry on your podcast, but it does come from a core part of me and I try to have it influence how I show up wherever I go. And there are four aspects to my personal philosophy. Be genuine, be precise, prioritize action, and speak truth to power.


Jamin Brazil: I love it. Our guest today has been Reed Cundiff, chief executive officer at Schlesinger Group. Reed, thank you very much for joining me on the Happy Market Research Podcast.


Reed Cundiff: Thank you, Jamin.


Jamin Brazil: Everyone else, I hope you enjoyed the episode as much as I did. Have a great rest of your day.