MRMW NA 2019 Podcast Series

MRMW NA 2019 Conference Series – Courtney Akel – Georgia-Pacific

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 Courtney Akel, Associate Manager of Consumer Insight at Georgia-Pacific.

Contact Courtney Online:




Live at MRMW on the show floor, I have the honor of speaking with Courtney Akel, Georgia Pacific, a company all of us have heard from.  As an internal insights professional, she has seen a lot of transitions over the last few years in really two ways: one is the role of partnerships with her agency relationships, and then the  other is centric to just staying current on tools and systems and processes and technologies so that she’s operating with the sharpest tools or the best tools inside of her toolbox to deliver consistent insights for Georgia Pacific.  Hope you enjoy.


Courtney Akel, Georgia Pacific.  Everybody’s heard of Georgia Pacific.  How are you?


I’m good.  How are you?


Good.  MRMW is coming to a close, I think.  What do you think about the show?


It’s been a great event.  There’s been a lot talk on Big Data, which has been really interesting to me, being in the quant side of the industry.  And I’m learning a lot.


Oh, yeah.  What is your biggest takeaway so far?


My biggest takeaway is that primary research isn’t dying.  So that’s nice job security and that what I need to do to complement my skill sets currently is to do R.   


Oh, interesting.  So you’re thinking like a Python/R path for you?   


Yeah, yeah, I think I’m going to learn to start coding, to do more like visual things with my research and with the data.


Are you thinking about Code Academy?  How are you going to go through that journey?


Huh, no, I’m going to go through a data camp.         


Oh, data camp, yeah, yeah.  


Yeah, going through data camp.  They have free courses. I just downloaded the app on my phone.  Learning that R code. We’ll see how it goes. Wish me luck. [laughter]


It’s no joke.  It’s no joke. I mean I think you’ll pick it up fast.  Have you done any programming in the past?


Yeah, so I can write SPSS and Syntax.


Got it.  So you’re familiar already.


Yeah, I’m pretty familiar with like coding, but it’s just like a new language to learn.  They’re all slightly different. Like I’m familiar with Java Script. And so, they’re all like slightly different, but I found that, if you understand coding, you could just pick it up.   


Totally.  Like you said – correctly so – I mean once you learn a second language, the third is a little bit easier.


I think it’s easier for me to learn code than it is like a foreign language.  [laughter]  


I would agree with you on that point, by the way.


Because I like can’t roll my r’s.  I’ve always struggled with foreign languages.  So maybe like…


The typing part would be fine.  


Maybe typing is my way to go.  


I get it, I get it.  So, how did you wind up in market research?


So, I graduated from college and with a degree in marketing.  I did an internship at an ad agency and thought I was going to take like the traditional marketing route of working at an ad agency when I graduated.  I got there and realized that they don’t do any analysis to support the ads that they’re pushing out into the world, I guess like in 2011. Hopefully, they do that more of that now.  So I knew I wanted to get into analytics, and then I just landed an internship at Market Strategies International on the vendor side. So, I was there for four years. So, I ran like T-Mobile’s brand checker and did Starbucks attitudes and usage studies.  I got some pretty cool experiences when I was there.


So, why did you jump over to the brand side, the light side?


I was ready for a break of like client service life.  I can be really draining. You work long hours and you’re, you know, always…


Always on?


Yeah, always on.  So, the client side has been a really nice change.  And I also wanted to experience what it’s like to see how the research is being used and see it actually come to life versus just passing it over and then it going into a dark space.  


So, Georgia Pacific.  How big of a marketing research department?


So, we’re pretty small actually.  We only have like 14 researchers.


That’s pretty big.  In some contexts, that’s pretty big.


Oh, OK.  Well, I guess my context being in Cincinnati has been…


Proctor & Gamble is a little different.


Proctor & Gamble where they have like 1200.  [laughter]


Quite … anyway, yes.


Yes, yes, so.  We are 14, mostly on the categories.  And then I work with another colleague cross-category.  So we do all the float of the work, and we do like all the DIY research for us.    


So, DIY.  You use partners, of course, to do research.    




I forget which speaker was talking about that yesterday.  They were from Proctor & Gamble. There were two, and they were talking about how the partnerships are changing in terms of what you need as a brand from your vendors is changing.   


Yeah, definitely.


Would you be able to put words to that?  How has it been changing?


Yeah, for me personally, like I come to these conferences and I interact with these vendors.  And a lot of it’s like, “If I collect the data, can I send you the data set and you do the text analysis for me?”  So I’m really looking for what they can do after the data is collected for me and how we can partner in that.


Got it.  So what you’re doing is basically…  It sounds like you’re using DIY solutions to do a lot of the heavy lifting internally of the data collection.  But then when it gets down past post-processing into the analytics and implications, there’s a big opportunity for partnership.  


Yeah, totally.  I mean… ‘cause when we process the surveys in-house, it’s quicker.  We have more knowledge of our needs and our categories. And so, it just takes a lot of the back and forth out of the mix when we can just write the survey ourselves.    


So, what platform are you using on your…?  First of all, give me the landscape. What are you using tool-wise?  What’s in the toolbox?   


I’m using Qualtrics, and then we use Conjointly for conjoints.  I use Q Research for analysis and then just a variety of different sample providers that I’m using.  


Got it.  Do you have a top three sample provider list?


So, we’ve been working with ResearchNow, Dynata and then Lucid has been really great.  Then I think we’re going to potentially explore one of the social media sample providers to see how our data is different, if it is different.  


Got it.  Did you hear Tia’s talk today?




What did you think about that?  For those that don’t know, she spoke… She’s the group scientist for Proctor & Gamble, about a 30-year veteran in the space.  And her subject was the material decreasing quality in the sample space and the cost that’s happening at the brand level.


Makes me nervous.  [laughs] That’s my initial reaction but, obviously, things I’ve been aware of for a while now.  But I do think it’s a good reminder to always change your methods to catch survey bots whether it’s you know…  I really liked her approach of asking the age question at the front and then the age question at the end to see if their answers match up.  And if they don’t, then screen them out.


Yeah, yeah, that’s a really interesting point of view.  There is some error that you’re always going to get no matter who it is who takes the survey.  And you got to be just aware of that happening. And the other thing that I think is really important is… and I’ll get you an actual, tangible example.  A friend of mine does a couple of different screening questions; he rotates them out all the time in his surveys. One of them was: “What is 1 + 1 + 4?” And it was a close-ended question, 6 answer choices.  Forty percent got it right, 6 being the correct answer. And to the question, “What is your favorite color?” – open-ended question. Number 1 answer choice: “I really like that.” Number 2 is “ASDF.” So, it was interesting that…  He’s seeing this as a big… Now I’m not suggesting that that’s categorically the case in the space. I’m now like the guy that’s trying to light the fires everywhere, but from his vantage point and context, that one study with a blended sample approach, there was, from his perspective, some potentially very material issues with the data.  Anyway, I do think it’s something that we’ve talked a lot about for my career 26 years in the space, and I have a feeling that we’ll be talking about it a lot longer.


Yeah, definitely.


So, why did you decide to go in-house, use DIY tools?


I like doing it…  Well, one there was a need for the organization.  They wanted it faster and they also wanted someone writing our surveys that had knowledge of our categories.  And you know, obviously, cost plays a really big role. And just control, I love have control over the survey.  Like when I was on the supplier’s side, I used to write the survey on paper and hand it to the programmers. I way prefer just going in there myself and writing survey myself, using Qualtrics.


I feel like it’s better.  My background’s technology; so, for me, I’m very comfortable in a user interface or even a scripting environment.  I actually enjoy the creation of the survey in context of the environment versus converting it from a Word document or a paper document and then trying to get that into the system.   


Yeah, you definitely get more of a feel for what the respondent is experiencing…


You’re nailing the point right there, exactly, exactly.  ‘Cause, all of a sudden, you’re like, “You know what? An 11-point scale doesn’t make any sense for this ‘cause it’s just not going to be a fun experience from a respondent’s perspective.”


Then you can test for the mobile experience as well like if they’re going to have to flip their phones or anything that you can do to eliminate hassle.


Totally, exactly right.  That’s so interesting. I can’t believe no one brought that up before.  But yeah, you’re right. I mean that’s a big, big benefit ‘cause you design a questionnaire in Word or whatever and distribute and get buy-in and whatnot, but the problem is it’s happening without the context of the respondent.  You can’t once you set an anchor point up – “No, this is an 11-point scale” – you can’t undo that. You can’t go to a 5.


Well, you can, but you know…


You can but it’s a problem.  It’s a least a conversation.


Right, definitely.


And maybe it doesn’t end well,  a point of confrontation, right?  That’s a funny point. That’s a really good point.  I’m glad you brought that up, for sure. So, what’s your biggest need as in-house brand researcher?


I think my biggest need is navigating and understanding what other ways I can enhance our current approaches and what I mentioned about the tools after the data is collected.  How can the vendors and suppliers help us really amplify the results of our survey?


Right, like through storytelling and…  Are you incorporating a lot of external data, so like market data on the respondents or anything along those lines to supplement the reports?


No, not yet.  That’s something maybe working with the social media recruiters might be able to do, like give us their interests and their likes so that we can really profile these consumers that we’re talking to.  So, yeah, having access to Big Data is definitely of interest.


Yeah, for sure.  It’s funny Miriam has been on the podcast; she’s the Head of Insights for Microsoft.  And they’ve actually found a tremendous amount of benefit in their projects, finding purchase internally as they, they call it triangulating truth with respect to incorporating internal data into their actual self-reported data sets.  So, all of a sudden, “Oh, wow! Woo! Whee!” You know. The other part that’s interesting and you see a lot of that as you just look around the exhibit floor. Video is represented well. There’s a few different sentiment-analysis companies that are present here.  There’s a lot of, I’d say, new tech that continues to expand versus the traditional approaches that we’re going to do focus groups and just an online survey.


Yeah, definitely.  There’s a ton of new things going on.  Really nice to come to these conferences and reconnect with what’s happening in the industry.


So, if somebody wants to get in contact with you, how would they do that?


They can reach out to me on LinkedIn.  I’d love to connect to anyone who’s doing DIY on the client side to collaborate and figure out like what their needs are and what they’re missing out on as well so to see if we have similar needs.  


Yeah, for sure.  And then, would you mind spelling your name for the audience, ‘cause audio context?


Yes, my name is C-O-U-R-T-N-E-Y  A-K-E-L. My name is Courtney from a tennis court.   


There you go.  Never going to forget it.  Courtney, Georgia Pacific. Thanks so much for being on the Happy Market Research Podcast today.




Absolute honor having you.


Yes, thank you.


And I hope you enjoy the rest of the show.  


Awesome, thanks.