Welcome to the MRMW NA 2019 Conference Series. Recorded live in Cincinnati, this series is bringing interviews straight to you from exhibitors and speakers at this year’s event. In this interview, host Jamin Brazil interviews Carol Shea, president of Olivetree Insights.
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Was able to intercept Carol Shea from Olivetree Insights on the floor right after her presentation at MRMW. It’s a really interesting conversation. I hope you listen to the entire thing through the end. We talk about possible KPI’s for market research; additionally, the framework for managing the next generation of researchers; as well as dealing with really big business problems and helping your customers navigate through those things while leveraging research in an effective way. Hope you enjoy it.
My guest today is Carol Shea with Olivetree Insights. You presented yesterday at MRMW. What did you talk about?
You know my passion is market research, the industry, and the people in the industry. I’ve been in it for so many years. And so, now I’m at a point in my career where… I guess all through my career I’ve always loved the big hairy challenges things like: “How do you get out of a category?” or “Should you get out of a category?” or “What’s the next big thing?” So, I started really dialoging with corporate people and recognized that they were have challenges internally in their organization. The same research person that I may work for one-year reports to the CMO, the next year reports to the Director of Strategy. Their roles are shifting. How they integrate in the organization is changing. So the speech yesterday was really focused on providing some of the ideas that I’ve heard from corporate researchers on how can they pivot their own role from being a support system for the business to being a growth engine for the business. Like today, this morning, I overheard a number of topics around activate research and how we’re supposed to be embedded in the business. But there’s this real disconnect. So that’s what my passion is right now: a different kind of a big hairy problem.
I mean it’s a big problem. I think that proving an ROI on research and like you said zero-based budgeting… You said they said yesterday that really came up a lot. I mean you really got to be cognizant of what is the actual outcome or return on a monetary basis to the organization.
That word scares people. I don’t know… Have you talked to people much about ROI?
A little, not a lot.
Not a lot. I’m hoping to switch that to KPI. Let me give you an example, OK, because I know I’ve worked with some clients that have done a brilliant job with ROI, but I also know that there’s a lot of situations where it’s just a frustrating conversation. But one of the more interesting KPI’s I saw about connecting to the business is how many times in a business plan is the voice of the customer included. So, that to me is a really powerful KPI or something that shows how the business is utilizing the research that we’re providing. So I think there’s probably some easier steps that we’re not really thinking about. When we think about ROI, we get all caught up in the financial aspects. Those are good but we cannot always do that. So not only business plan but even think about how often a business partner recommends another business partner to replicate or do a similar study. Those are all really powerful KPI’s for integrating in the business.
I love that. That’s a really useful way of thinking about it, a little less scary.
Yeah, but it also means engagement. One of the other takeaways I have from every conference I go to is how empowered we are when we engage with our consumers. But turning that around and engaging with our clients can be difficult. And it’s something that… You know I teach at the MBA level occasionally when I have some time, the market research classes. And I’ll see really junior data analysts and researchers; they are so into the methodology they don’t really know how to talk to the business. So that piece about building comfort among our junior people more quickly and strongly I think it is a big opportunity for us in the business. I heard some of the speakers yesterday talk about how they’ve started to segment out their departments. So like, “Here, these are the people that are going to be strategic,” “Here’s our data analysts,” “Here are the people that are going to be involved in secondary.” To not have everybody to some degree embedded in understanding the business, even right at the college level is a real flaw and to think that they don’t the ability to be strategic, I think is not giving them credit where credit is due.
I totally agree with that. I absolutely agree with that. Good Book says, “Don’t let anyone despise your youth.” I think there’s this framework that we feel like you can’t participate unless you’ve been at this for 20 years. There’s also humility that has to be on both sides of the table. You look at where a lot of innovation stems from. This is a trend you’re seeing in the Silicon Valley right now where you’ll have an innovation head like somebody that’s in their 20s, who’s maybe even in the early 20s, highly passionate and excited, and then they get “married” to somebody that’s old like me but also driven that, combined, they have this wealth of wisdom can recognize the patterns but also have a clear framework. Jobs that said death is the ultimate innovator. It’s really an important point because that creates a path forward for the next generation.
Tell me more about the comment that you made about when you work with younger people in this field. You’re working with younger people. Tell me how you role-model your behaviors and your thinking so that they can pick up on that.
I have two tactics. And actually, it’s funny that you say that because my staff right now are between the ripe old ages of 22 and 24. So you’re talking about not highly seasoned people, but they care a lot and they’re really smart. They’ve been in the digital environment their whole life, their whole awake lives. So you got to understand that context. So it’s not like they’re brand-new. They’ve been doing Instagram as long as I’ve been doing Instagram, for example. So, the first thing that you have to apply… And it’s easy for me because I am a small company, but if I was a big company, it would apply as well. Maybe not GE big, but a $100,000,000-dollar company, I think, you’d still be fine. And that is mistakes are OK because the rest of the world isn’t paying as much as attention to you as you think. Really how many people read the press release? Not very many. And so, it’s OK if – not at scale – but if occasionally mistakes happen. So that’s the first piece that has to exist like in your psyche: you have to be OK with there being some just dumb stuff that comes out. But again, not repeating it, but being OK with the mistakes.
And then the other part of it then is autonomy/framework. So you have to have this tension between, I call it, context where, instead of it being like a 20-point checklist of check, check, check, check, check because as soon as that happens, you start checking your brain and relying on the system, and there’s always outliers. So what you need to do is really understand what the context is. That’s where I operate off of a template. So what I mean by that is… – which is different than a checklist. I will tell, A press release is a great example. I will give one of my employees, Chueyee… I’ll say, “OK, I want you to write a press release.” She’s like, “Great. I want to write a press release. I’ve done two in my whole career.” So I will say, “This is a really good press release. Model your press release off of this. Pretend it’s boilerplate.” Then she starts learning by execution. What I’m finding is that it really sucks for me for like three months because there’s a lot more issues and mistakes that are getting to me that you wouldn’t have with somebody who’s in their 30s. But like after about 12 months, you have somebody that’s basically grown five years in their career because they are modeling their stuff off of best-in-class, best in the industry. And we look outside of the industry in many cases for that kind of to model. So you’ve got to be willing to put in the work with that staff, but if you are willing to put in the hard work, then the rewards are just like… – I mean it’s hard for me to quantify a number – but it’s just massive because they’re conforming to your culture; they’re conforming to the global expertise of what is perfection; and they’re also conforming – in my case, everything is predicated on value. I will never do anything unless there’s more value given on the other side of the table. So I’m not a taker; I’m a giver. That’s just like part of the thesis. So they’re kind of modeling that sort of behavior.
So, what I take from you is this: Give them a success framework and let them experiment.
And let them experiment and make mistakes.
Do good work, do bad work, learn from the mistakes. So that framework and experimentation is kind of like what I’ve been thinking about a lot too.
And what happens in a corporate environment… In the research execution work, we have a lot of really good frameworks, right? I can borrow as a qualitative researcher, I can borrow conjoint techniques, throw out a whole bunch of dimes to people, and like borrow from those quantitative techniques, take that and use it in a qualitative setting. When it comes to engaging with my business partners, the one framework that we have as an industry has always be the market research brief. It’s the one concept that I have thoughts around how can we optimize that process so that it is a usable framework for doing the right work, but it’s not as simplistic as a checklist so that you check your brain out. It allows people to experiment and learn; it actually educates your business partners through the process. So, how do we build a framework around that frontend to get smarter on the backend? And that’s what we’ve been playing with for the last year. We got two clients using a software collaborative tool that is meant to bring up your junior staff to your senior-staff level. There is not a perfect template necessarily like you’re talking about – a perfect PR release. But there is some thinking…
There’s a lot of known facts.
Right, there is. Here’s another interesting thing that we found out over the last year, playing this out: There’s only so many business objectives. So one of the questions we ask around design when we talk about like “What’s your motivation? “Why are you doing this?” “Why are you doing this research?” “Why are you asking me for research? You want four focus groups.” And they say, “Well, you know we’re going to enter this new concept” We think, “OK, we got it; I know what you want.” And the truth of the matter is we may not. They may already have a hypothesis in their head that, “I already know this is a slam dunk. My Kroger team is already asking for this project. We’re moving forward with it.” So what winds up happening is I’m all excited because you want to launch this; you want to hear consumer feedback. We get it, comes back, and it says, “Yeah, they don’t really like this: they want chocolate macchiato flavor; they don’t want chocolate peanut butter.”
And then my business partner says, “Thank you. That’s awesome,” and goes off and does what he wants to do in the first place. So the way we connect upfront, I think, has a lot of power and meaning, but it’s also identifying a process and a tool that teams can use collaboratively again to not check out because I’ve got a template. There’s only so many business objectives: “I’m trying to grow.” “I’m trying to save money.” I mean, you know, there’s only so much to kind of get deeper into that to really understand the root drivers of research, where it’s going to play. And then secondly, we’re more on that frontend. We start really thinking about where should our companies go. So, this is the other part of the presentation. We’re stuck in the next six months. So, I can’t tell you how many projects I get, you really talk about root causes, it’s like “We’re stuck on this; we’re stuck on that.” “OK, that’s great. We need to spend time fixing that. What’s going to happen in two years? What’s going to happen in five years? Where are we going to be?” As researchers, we can help with that. We’re not being asked to. So we need to step up to the plate and say, “We’re going to help you. We’re going to start doing scenario planning. We’re going to help you start forecasting 10, 15 years out.” And get people thinking and excited about the future. That’s up to us, and so far, I don’t see a lot of that.
Well, I think part of the reason is there’s this natural evolution of data. As soon as you say data has impact, then… I’ve been sort of playing with this concept that actual market research is the most important asset for an organization because it’s the rudder of action. So, it’s a small, little thing that maybe consists of 10% of a corporate budget as it relates at a product level, buy it has significant impact. When you move data out of a vacuum context, which was 90s and 2000s, it was all about just reports, physical…
It was dashboards. It was dashboards, right?
…And then you move it to more agile in time, moving the data or moving the insights, the point of inception of the insight from a sage on the hill to somebody in the field, in the battle, right? It’s a really important difference because it’s empowerment in time. Now, all of a sudden, you’re talking about moving out of isolation and up the value chain. So, I had this wonderful interview, and I’ll include it in the show notes by the way, people. So, I do apologize. And she was talking about this being the most exciting (This is almost a 30-year veteran), the most exciting point in her career by a mile because we’re literally getting red carpet to the board room.
We are, yeah.
I mean I’ve heard bitching and moaning my whole career about “They never pay attention, mree, mree, mree, mree.” You know what I mean? And now it’s like, “Hey, listen, market research is really important. That’s why I’m very thankful for what Qualtrics did in SAP’s acquisition of Qualtrics. $400-million-dollar company, which is big, billion-dollar valuation, insane 20X, because, all of a sudden, the whole world woke up literally that day and they said, “This is really important. This space is really important. And I think that we’re at the beginning of the J-curve. But what happens is now market research has to take its voice, the action part, it has to move upstream and it has to move downstream in context of where the value is. So it’s much more of a distributed model versus a consolidated model.
It is, it is. And it’s not going back to consolidated model, which is good. It shouldn’t go back to that. On the other hand, what’s happening is leadership is inundated with data. And it’s the truth, and to some degree, it’s the fault of all of us as an industry. Dashboards are wonderful tools, but they’re individual data points, and if there’s not someone or not a team organizing “What does this all mean for us?” on a regular basis and on a consistent basis, then what you wind up doing is you wind up repeating the same studies over and over. This moving up the stream, I think, is really important and helping leadership understand that. So, Walmart had… (I showed a video for Walmart yesterday) and the team calls themselves the headlights of the organization.
Oh, that’s so clever.
Isn’t that really, like you’re looking out into the future, but I think there’s a missing piece there. Again, we’re still in an informative role, and you just hit on this around actionability, and that really we’re an asset. Perhaps, we should be more like “We’re your competitive intelligence, er, competitive advantage. (Sorry, that’s what I meant.) We’re your competitive advantage. You can count on this many dollars from us, again back to the ROI. You’re going to grow because leaders want insights-driven growth whereas ten years ago, it was operational and financial. I mean that’s the trick. But it is getting that upstream story versus playing at the service provider, data waitress, I like to call it.
I love that term too. You know it’s interesting, and I like how you’re framing the historical journey of data. And I think we’re entering into a stage now where Wall Street is going to believe that it takes a while to build successful brands as opposed to measure them on a daily basis.
You think? I don’t know. So, tell me what makes you think that? ‘Cause that’s very provocative to me.
Well, I’ll tell you why. If you look at the actual cost of developing a software platform, it’s very material. This is going to be a little bit of the weak side; so, I apologize about the accounting part of it. But Wall Street, they strip out the cost basis, the R&D side of things because they’re just looking at what’s called gross margin. So, what’s the profit on that dollar of software, which is insanely profitable. But it’s this massive machine that has to be assembled on the backend in the same way that a manufacturer creates a big machine. You have this cap-ex expense, and then it generates revenue. Well, I think what needs to start happening is – and this is to your point about us moving from a cost-basis to an asset-basis, I think what has to happen is that market research as a data source, data needs to be moved into the cap-ex asset class.
And the implication there is, all of a sudden, it isn’t treated as a negative on the gross margin for a project; it’s considered to be part of the value that is the machine that is driving good decisions. I think this is an interesting point because just like basic accounting isn’t kind of treating it that way right now. But I really think that as companies start becoming overweight, maybe not overweight, but right-sided in terms of the amount of money they’re spending on research, they’re going to start being incentivized to look at “How should this asset class really be treated?” or “How should this cost base really be treated?” And I think that’s going to wind up whether in the R&D or the machine, more in the cap-ex side of the business.
I don’t know. It seems like the investments in the last three to five years have been in-house data people. I don’t know if they’re looking at…
A developer, for example, is going to fit in a business, like my business, is going to fit in the R&D, which is not impacting my gross margin. I think a data scientist could fit in that same spot; I think a market researcher could fit in that same spot. Now, all of a sudden, you say, “OK, if data is an asset that I can average over time, then now my ad hoc market research projects, to your point, if they start informing my data set, then maybe I can move to the asset part of the thing. So then, my thesis on this, which is weak but I really think it’s the truth, I think the accounting reflects the realities of the business. So, look at Amazon; Amazon wins because they know everything. Target wins ‘cause they know everything. There’s just no question about it. So, is it the case that they have the best systems? Yes. And they’ve invested in those, but they also have all of the data. And the data is why they win. So to not put it in that…
So, Wall Street is going to see that and start to reward that, continue to reward that. Well, that would be, right.
The same way they reward growth. Again, going back to Survey Monkey is a good example whatever: $200 million business, which was basically break even when they IPOed but still got a good valuation. I think a company that’s not employing research long-term, from Wall Street’s lens, is going to be viewed in the same way that a company stops growing. It really turns into more of the cash-cow sort of view point, which like conversely… So, we have Qualtrics, which is a $400-million company trading at $8 billion; you have Ipsos, which is a $2 billion company trading at $1 billion.
How interesting. Wow, I did not realize that.
20x.5 It’s crazy, the delta there. And the cash that is spinning off of Ipsos is huge. So, you’ve got this… But why? Because Wall Street doesn’t see the growth there. So, anyway, I’ve been talking too much.
That’s fascinating. No, I’m so happy to hear that because it is the big gap for me, is connecting back to leadership and having them understand that we are an asset. And then it’s how do you build frameworks and processes around that to build collaborations because it’s a new model of working. I know some organizations are going to matrix-type frameworks because they want to embed researchers within the teams, and that way it kind of embeds that thinking. Great, great. But you still have silos; you still have some elements that break through because it is about the connectivity of all of it. Technology can help us; we need the humans. My exploration is from that sort of aspect. I’m just going to say I don’t know a lot about all this. So I’m just asking the questions, trying to find the right paths and like what might be next for our fields because I love it. I love the people in it. I want them all to succeed and I think it’s important for this to succeed.
Totally. It’s so important.
Thank you for asking these really key questions.
So, Olivetree Research. Tell me what in the world you guys do exactly.
So, I’m pivoting my business. So, I’ve been a consultant for some major brands for the last 12 years, mostly in the CPG space, almost always in big, hairy problems. I don’t know why anybody doesn’t ever ask me to do a brand tracker ‘cause I know how to do it?
[laughter] Think of all of the money you would make if you just did that.
Think about that! But no, it’s always hard problems. But my passion right now is to build the coaching side of the business; so, we do workshops on things like how to build the team charter all the way up to how to do scenario planning and knowledge harvest, and then this third tier that I’m building is this how do we bring technology into the design side. We’ve got a beta tool out there right now with two great clients and a big team is using the insights template but how do we build a better collaborative tool. So I encourage anyone that’s got an interest in engaging better with the business to chat with me about what your challenges are so that we can build tools for that specifically.
So it’s a combination of… You’re bringing some brute force high-level thinking, and then also technology.
That’s where the future has to be. It’s bringing these processes in so that they can be democratized. It’s not all in little Carol’s head: it’s out there so everyone can access it. And Jamin’s head, all the wonderful people, Merrill Dubrow, all the wonderful people. It’s getting that out there so that the new generation of researchers and analysts collaboratively can elevate their paths towards being more strategic and connecting to the business.
So, Carol, if someone wants to get in contact with you, how would they do that?
Carol@Olivetreeinsights.com is the easiest.
Got it. Perfect. Of course, we’ll include that in the show notes. Carol, thanks for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast.
Thank you so much, Jamin.
It’s an absolute honor.