My guest today is Rebecca Brooks, Founder and CEO of Alter Agents.
Founded in 2010, Alter Agents is based in Los Angeles California, and is a full-service, strategic market research consultancy reimagining research in an era of shifting decision making.
Prior to founding Alter Agents, Rebecca has held senior roles at top market research agencies including Hall & Partners, Dialogue, and Diagnostic Research. She started her career as an Analyst.
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Jamin Brazil: Hi I’m Jamin. You’re listening to the Happy Market Research podcast. My guest today is Rebecca Brooks, founder and CEO of Alter Agents. Founded in 2010, Alter Agents is based in Los Angeles, California and is a full-service strategic market research consultancy reimagining research in an era of shifting decision making. Prior to founding Alter Agents, Rebecca has held senior roles at top market research agencies including Hall and Partners, Dialogue and Diagnostic Research. She started her career as an analyst. Rebecca, welcome to the Happy Market Research podcast.
Rebecca Brooks: Thank you Jamin, happy to be here.
Jamin Brazil: Let’s start out with our marquee question. Tell us about your parents and how they inform who you are today and what you’re doing.
Rebecca Brooks: It’s an interesting question when it comes to a career. Both my parents did not go to college. They ended up getting their degrees in night school while we were small children and I think that watching them work all day, come home, study, get their degrees was a real- It really instilled in me the value of education, a testament to hard work. They were both really committed to it. My mom was a nurse who ended up running a cardiac rehabilitation program within the hospital. So after you had a heart attack you went through her program to learn how to take care of yourself and recover and all those kinds of good things. And basically every person in my small town that had heart attack knew my mom, so whenever we were out in public we were always stopped by folks who adored her and thanked her and told me how wonderful she was. And that gave me a real sense of the impact that you can have, the power that one job can have and that the power of kindness. My dad was an engineer and he got his associates degree, which was as far as he got and he never managed to get a bachelor’s. As he got older he started to get passed in the promotion track by folks that had bachelor’s degrees who were younger, many of whom he even trained. So in a different way that can of taught me the inherent unfairness of a system like that and how decisions can be made at a broad level from a corporate perspective that, yes, people in this position should have a bachelor’s degree without thinking about the human impact of that kind of decision and what that means. So they didn’t really inform my choice to go into market research but their work ethic, their experiences at work really informed a lot about how I run my business now and how I how approach work and life.
Jamin Brazil: How do you think businesses in general are prioritizing education over skill contribution today?
Rebecca Brooks: You run into it more frequently than you would think. For instance, I have a friend who works at a company, she’s on the client side and they were hiring for a position and would only consider people with graduate degrees, so advanced degrees from Ivy League schools. And she was participating in the interview process because this is going to be her boss and every one of them was not a great fit for the company, for the role, but they had the pedigree that the company wanted. And there were other candidates that were never even considered that might have been perfect. I think it can be blinding in a way where you think you’re getting best of the best but, I forget who said it, but somebody- It was a CEO once who said that their favorite people they like to hire are B+ students because B+ students really had to work for that B+. They had to apply themselves, they had to try and that kind of grit and determination was much more valuable than an A student. And I’m on that same page. I agree.
Jamin Brazil: I think there’s a lot that’s wrapped up in grades as the rubric for potential value creation inside of businesses. To your point about the B+, there’s a story behind every one of those letter grades and it’s different for every student. So it definitely plays a part but thinking about the student who had to hold down a full-time job, they’re making trade-offs with their time opposed to the student who potentially has a full-time tutor and all of the support in order to see their grades being facilitated. It’s an interesting point that you’re making about prioritization of businesses in viewing potential candidates as more or less attractive based on their GPAs. What would be a reason why a business want to prioritize somebody who had an advanced degree from a top school versus not?
Rebecca Brooks: In some cases it makes sense. If you’re looking for an advanced data scientist to be able to do things that they couldn’t have taught themselves and that they needed a structure for that, that can be beneficial. If you’re looking to really transform your business and you want a person that graduated with an MBA from a top school and you’re going to give them a lot of responsibility to do that, that can make sense. But we’ve always had a motto that we hire on attitude, not skills because we can always teach skills, we can’t teach attitude. And it’s worked for us and I think that it’s just it’s much easier to train somebody on how to do a job and to help them learn how to do the job if they’re curious, compassionate and collaborative and all of the good things that we look for. So yeah, I don’t know, I struggle with the idea there’s a specific job that requires that kind of advanced degree. There’s a lot to be said for lived experience too.
Jamin Brazil: So let’s talk a little bit about Alter Agents. Can you give us- You started the business in 2010, so congratulations on a decade of success. You recently had a post on LinkedIn, very empathetic about helping people who are recently unemployed or unemployed in general, you didn’t put a timeframe around it, looking for work in market research whether going to work for Alter Agents or any other companies that are inside of your network making introductions. First of all, tell us about Alter Agents and then I guess I’ll ask my question.
Rebecca Brooks: Sure. Alter Agents does kind of everything. We do qualitative, quantitative, we’re very custom so we don’t have any products we take off the shelf, but we build everything from the ground up for our clients. We’re really the agency that you go to when you have a tougher question, a harder problem to solve. If you want to run 30 copy tests in a very standardized format there are companies out there that do a better job than we do on that. But when it comes to the tougher questions, for instance, and this work is actually going to be published so we’ll be able to share it in a little bit but, we did some research with a client on the meaning of friendship. It was a global study, 16 different countries and how is friendship changing during COVID and what is the role of technology in friendship and maintaining friendships? So that’s the kind of stuff that we really love to sink our teeth into. We’ve had our best year in 2020, which is strange, but we ended up hiring seven people this year which is pretty exciting. And so, yeah, hiring is- Hiring and qualifications and skill sets and stuff are top of mind for me because we’ve just gone through a pretty enormous growth.
Jamin Brazil: Congratulations. And it speaks to, I think, this tension between having a top degree versus having applied skills that- I’m really curious, I’m thinking about why we want to hire a top- Why we would have that as a requirement, top school. And it would never be a detriment, of course, to a person, but one reason might be because it opens up doors for me from a marketing perspective. So I’ve got the most whatever data scientists from whatever- From Stanford or what have you. Again, that’s a great thing, but the actual value creation inside of the business, I feel like, is moving away from that messaging and more towards one of actual contribution to the business and added value into those client relationships. When you’re bringing your staff onboard, your new hires in fold, what does that process look like? How do you make sure that those values are instilled in them in the beginning phases?
Rebecca Brooks: It’s a really good question. We, two years ago really, put our values at the center of all of our decision-making. And that goes with the people we hire to how we run our bonus program to the kinds of challenges we face clients. Everything goes back to our values, does it live up to our values? And so that’s really how we interview. We’ll ask people questions about either different hypotheticals or challenges that they’ve faced in their business and get a read on their response. Is that- Is how they handled that situation in line with our values? And it’s a hard thing to measure, so the people doing the interviewing have to be really clear on what they’re looking for. But I think it’s so critical. Every single person that we hired this year is a rock star and not because- Honestly I couldn’t tell you what college they came from or even if they have a college degree. What I do know about them is that they are whip smart, creative, funny, collaborative, curious, interesting, all the good things that we want. I definitely get from sort of a burnishing the reputation that having a PhD or an Ivy League MBA on your roster, and particularly if it’s an outward facing role or a leadership role, can help for sure. And if that- But I would see that as sort of a bonus to if they’re the right person and then they have that, that’s great. But being the right person is so much more important in my mind.
Jamin Brazil: So 2020 has been the year of change. Nobody could have seen this coming and clearly, we don’t even know what- We’re at the end of October. We have two months left, I have not idea how this year is going to end. The next question is kind of tough. How do you see the market research space changing over the next three to five years?
Rebecca Brooks: I’ll give my standard response which is, if I knew that I’d be a millionaire. I don’t know that anybody knows but I do have a few thoughts on- I’m not exactly sure how it’ll play out, but these are the things that I know, I feel confident in. I think that there is going to be a depression, I don’t think there’s going to be a recession. I don’t think that we can contain the financial damage that’s been done. It’s across too many categories, too many folks and industries have been affected. I think it’s going to take- And we’ve done nothing to address that. So, I think that there’s going to be a lot of upheaval and I think that there’s going to be, in a way, a lot of opportunities for market research because industries will be changing the way we shop, the way we interact, the way we behave is all changing. And clients that are really smart are going to want to find out what those changes are and stay on top of them and they’re starting to do that research now. But it is, I think there’s going to be some real upheaval. There are going to be market research companies that have relied on a few specific industries that if those industries really suffer in the next six to 12 months could be in trouble. I think we’re going to go back into the period of acquisition. A lot of larger companies taking advantage of a buyers’ market and being able to snatch up some smaller companies and add to their client portfolio and add to their talent roster change. Change, Jamin, is my horrible answer for what I think the future is going to hold. We’ve always had a lot of change in terms of technology and ways that we can do our job. I started when we were still doing punch cards. That I think is something that the industry is very used to and able to adapt to and move with. But I think that the things that we’re going to see coming are actually going to really hit at the business models of the way companies are run. We’ve seen it with some layoffs already, although I think those have been more about protecting some bottom line as opposed to reimagining the way they do their work. But, yeah, I suspect that a lot of the bigger companies in particular are going to have to have a sit down and think about the way they’re currently running their business and what do they need to change to adapt.
Jamin Brazil: You think, it sounds like, terms of trade, meaning the actual how we structure doing business with the market?
Rebecca Brooks: I think I mean in terms of the role of syndicated. What’s the value that you’re getting out of syndicated product? And companies that have built around that, is that something that’s sustainable in this time of great upheaval and change? Maybe more so, maybe syndicated becomes even more necessary. I’m not sure. Quick turn projects, these fast and dirty things that- I don’t mean dirty in a negative way. Fast and, you give me a problem. I got a product that can solve for that. I’m going to turn that around for you quickly. Those kinds of things, I think, require the world to kind of be operating as is and it’s not going to be operating as is. So I wonder about those types of products and their longevity. And then I think that this is going to require a lot of flexibility and the ability to look ahead in the next year. I don’t think you can look much farther than that, to be honest, there’s can be so much change, but to look ahead in the next year and think about how do we need to change as a company and if your organization has any rigidity or is slow to make that change or resistant to make that change I think that’s trouble.
Jamin Brazil: That’s super interesting on both points. The economic perspective on a global basis and then I hadn’t actually considered that. I’ve been framing it a little bit more in terms of clients bringing more of the research operations internally and then from an external perspective or a customer or, sorry, a vendor perspective, seeing those vendors as really value partners or trusted advisors. And leveraging the expertise that they just can’t build out internally. What do you think about that? Am I totally wrong?
Rebecca Brooks: No, I think that’s true too. I think that everything is kind of on the table. There are going to be companies that pull market research closer to them either with their internal function are relying more on partners to help them because they understand the value of that and they’re prioritizing it in their organization. So I do think that that’s true. But, I think there also companies that are just going to be slashing budgets and not really thinking about the impact of those budget slashes. They’re just going to be looking for ways to save money and reduce staff, reduce expenses. In a way, I think it’s kind of like the same way that you- We were talking earlier about finding the right people, you really kind of have to find the right clients in terms of how you look at like, OK, this client that I’m pitching, are they going to be around in a year, first of all. How is their industry doing? How are they approaching this challenge? What are they expecting out of us? Nobody, including us, is in a position to turn away work at the moment, you want to get the work. But in terms of who you’re pursuing when you look at your lead list and the ideal clients and who you want to go after. I do think that we need to be thinking about are they the right fit for what you have to offer and for the health of their industry and their business.
Jamin Brazil: So our topic today is really around how to manage successful career. So let’s- You and I can talk, it would be super fun to talk at length about the future outlook of the space. What do you see as three keys to managing a successful career?
Rebecca Brooks: I think that the three keys are first, is know exactly who you are. People tend to get into jobs or positions that they think might be a good fit or that they thought would be interesting but they’re not. It is very challenging to navigate a successful career when the decisions you’re making about where to go and how to move yourself forward aren’t in line with you really are as a person, what your strengths are. The second is that, and this isn’t a revelation for me, but that you should be interviewing the company just as much as they’re interviewing you, in particular, their work culture. I’ve seen a lot of excellent people take jobs at companies because they were really interesting or, I don’t know, a thousand different reasons, but there were red flags in the interview process that there was something off about the culture that wasn’t going to be a good fit for them. And then they spend the next two to three years struggling at a company that can really damage a career. So definitely pay attention to the work culture. Ask questions about it. Make sure that you’re going to be a good fit. Make sure that your skills are going to be valued and rewarded. And then the third thing I think is, don’t be afraid to make changes. I’ve taken some pretty big moves in my career, from leaving a senior position at a company to start my own business and other things that I’ve done along the way and I think that those risks have always paid off. There have been some things I’ve done that haven’t paid off, but in the grand scheme of things, I think that taking risks and pushing yourself brings dividends.
Jamin Brazil: And in a lot of cases, the taking risks is very much connected to your second point, which is understand the cultural fit between you and the potential company that you’re going to work for, current company that you work for. Just be really honest because there’s a lot of- There can be a lot of fear around not- Around taking or not taking a job that’s a bad fit because of the red flags like you’ve articulated. The challenge though, of course, is you’ve got to- We all have mortgages and Starbucks and everything else.
Rebecca Brooks: I’m just thinking, it’s kind of an obnoxious piece of advice at this time because there are a lot of people out of work and there aren’t a lot of jobs out there. So we don’t have the luxury of being picky. And I know people that have been laid off in the last few months that the clock is ticking on them. They’ve got a little bit of time to get back in there and there aren’t a lot of jobs. So it’s, I guess I should have couched it as, that’s my advice in normal situations. In these days, with how tough the market is out there, maybe you do have to take a leap into a company that does have red flags for you because you need to pay the mortgage and you need to get a job. If that’s the case though, make your plan for what you need to accomplish there and when you’re going to get out so that you have an exit strategy. You can add value to your resume and your skill set and get what you need out of the company and then, when the market is better, find an exit.
Jamin Brazil: My son, he’s 18 years old, my oldest, and in college this year, which is a weird first year college experience. He’s been driving for Uber Eats, but he’s really wanted a regular job, a college job. So he spent a ton of time refining his resume and submitted it out to a bunch of different companies locally. And never even made it into the interview process. And then he just got hired for his first real job, I’ll call it that, as a bus boy at a restaurant. And we were talking about it a couple nights ago over dinner. And he was super excited about it so finally I asked him, I said, what did they think about your resume? And he goes, they didn’t ask me about my resume. And so what wound up happening is a good friend of his who’s an employee at this restaurant, the manager said, I need to hire somebody and I really like you. So do you know anybody in your network? And the kid said, yeah, I got this buddy who I think would be a great fit. And so my son went, interviewed and got hire all because of this connection that he had inside. And I think that’s- If I’m employed right now I’m thinking to myself, how do I improve my network so that I can get to the potential companies that are hiring and doing it in an authentic way. I think that is absolutely so important. And I’ll tell you this too observationally, we have a very supportive industry. The people that are hiring, such as yourself, are more than happy to invest in people, obviously not full-time. And I think that a lot of times when you’re in that negative cycling of I just lost my job and oh my gosh, what am I going to do? Is there anything out there for me? And really, our brains work so against us for whatever reason, especially in those situations when we need to turn them on positively. It’s like, figure out how you can connect with people like yourself who can be positive influences and cheerleaders and also add some value with their potential network.
Rebecca Brooks: Gosh, I am such a fan of organizations like WIRE, IA, places where you can connect with folks. It’s a shame that the conference circuit is kind of shuttered at the moment because I think those connections actually do much more for your career than your resume. It’s the people you know and it’s who introduces you. Every hire that we made this summer, we hired five people this summer, came to us through connection. We posted on LinkedIn but, and there were a lot of great resumes, much more than we’d ever seen before. I think that’s a sign of the economy. But we never even got to interview any of those folks because the people we knew through people we knew where the ones that got the jobs. So it is really important.
Jamin Brazil: It’s that like produces like and birds of a feather and all that sort of stuff, right? You are the five average- You are the average of the five people you hang out with the most. So we need it and as an employer we take on inherent risk when we bring somebody in. And so if you were to hire me, let’s say, then you know that my network is going to be comprised of people that are kind of like me, good or bad. It’s probably more bad than good. So you think about, WIRE I think is a really important opportunity, especially if you’re a woman. Insights Association, as you articulated, GreenBook, of course, Quirks. I’ve been doing this virtual lunch on, and it’s totally free, on Tuesdays and Fridays at 11 to 11:30 and that’s actually been a great connector for people that are looking for jobs with potential hires. So if people are ever interested in that you can just look me up on LinkedIn, you’ll find the Zoom information there. There’s just so much, I think, wrapped up in if you are looking for a job in the need to build human, real human connection and figure out how those can get facilitated. Do you have any recommendations? If you were in that situation, how you would go about building out your network?
Rebecca Brooks: Well, in today’s world where you can’t just go to an event and start chatting up people, I think you have to be a bit more overt about it. There have been some folks that have reached out to me on LinkedIn that have asked for 20 minutes my time to talk about their career or to offer advice or something. I accept all of those. I think that reaching out, connecting, LinkedIn is the tool at the moment. But then also I think going back and looking at past colleagues. Who have you gelled with in the past that they may be client-side, they may be in a totally different industry but reaching back out to them and talking about your situation and what you’re looking for. And the more of those kinds of feelers you can put out there the better. It’s funny, I’m an introvert and I don’t like small talk or mingling, but when I look at my career there’s only been one job that I got through a traditional, like submitted my resume, did an interview, got the job. Everything else has been through connections that I’ve had with people which is pretty startling, actually, to think about. But that is 100% the truth. It is the people that you know.
Jamin Brazil: And wrapping back to education, I think the big benefit that you get, it’s no accident that Harvard has more billionaires that have come out of it than any other MBA school or business school. Because like attracts like and there is this natural, this ability to be able to- If in ten years after graduating, you have the CEO of Sony who’s one of your- In your cohort, it easy to get a senior-level job at Sony if you have a good relationship with that person.
Rebecca Brooks: I’ve always thought that the difference between an Ivy League education and a public college education really came down to the people that you met in that environment. It’s not so much the education, you’ve got amazing professors at a community college, but the people that you meet, the friends you hang out with, the connections that you’re building are really critical. But that doesn’t mean that you can’t achieve the same thing if you’ve not gone to an Ivy League school. You just need to get to places where those people are and meet them and introduce yourself and have a little chutzpah.
Jamin Brazil: What advice would you give your ten year younger self?
Rebecca Brooks: I thought about that question when you posed it and I’m going to have to steal from Oprah. At the Qualtrics event in 2019 she spoke on the main stage. And somebody asked her that question and she said, I would tell myself to listen to the whispers. And that just really hit me. What she meant by that was, there’s always a little nagging, like, that doesn’t feel right thing that goes on in your head. And you push through it because you don’t want to cause waves or you just want to get through this thing or no, they’re not like that. You come up with a lot of reasons why you shouldn’t listen to the whisper. And most of the times, almost- Well, 100% of time for me, that whisper was right. And so I think that now I really try to, when I’m in a situation and I have that moment of like- To stop and think about it. What’s going on here? Why do I want to push forward with this despite the whisper? Is that the right thing to do? Intuition is another way to call it. It’s just, it’s paying attention to those red flags and not letting other circumstances kind of push you to ignore them because they will most likely come back and be a much bigger problem at some point.
Jamin Brazil: What is your personal motto?
Rebecca Brooks: I thought about this one a lot too and I think that for me- And this is going to sound so cheesy, but it is the golden rule. That’s how I run my company. Every decision I’ve made as a boss has been from the perspective of, when I was an employee I wasn’t treated the way I wish I’d been treated. I wasn’t given ownership or visibility into how things were done. There were politics, there were all these things that I wish didn’t exist when I was an employee. And now that I’m in a position to create an environment I try to create the environment that I wanted when I was an employee. I want to treat my employees the way I wish I had been treated, I guess is the way to say it, it’s the golden rule. And so, as simple as it is, as cliché as it is, I think it has been- It’s worked for me, especially in these last like, let’s say, five years as I’ve gotten more clarity on what I want out of my career and how I want to live my work life. That has become a real clear principle for me. Would I have appreciated it if somebody did this to me when I was an employee. If the answer is yes then I do it, if it’s no, then I don’t.
Jamin Brazil: My guest today has been Rebecca Brooks, founder and CEO of Alter Agents. Thank you, Rebecca. Thank you Rebecca for joining me on the Happy Market Research podcast today.
Rebecca Brooks: Thank you so much Jamin. It was fun.
Jamin Brazil: Everyone else, I hope you found value in this episode. I learned a few things, and of course, always enjoy my time with Rebecca as few as it’s been lately. I hope that you will take time to screen capture and share this on social media. If you tag me on LinkedIn or Twitter, when you do that I will send you a T-shirt free of charge. How’s that for a two-sided relationship? Have a great rest of your day.