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The CEO Series: Kristof De Wulf of InSites Consulting

As I went through the interview process with Kristof, it became readily apparent that the exceptional folks at InSites that I’ve met are just taking a cue from their leadership team, because Kristof clearly is as exceptional as his team.

Continuing my series of interviews with the companies that are shaping the course of the future of research, today we have my chat with Kristof De Wulf, CEO of InSites Consulting.

I have not had the pleasure of meeting Kristof in person, but have met many other members of the InSites team and have continuously been impressed with the caliber of people working in this organization. As I went through the interview process with Kristof it became readily apparent that the exceptional folks I’ve met are just taking a cue from their leadership team, because Kristof clearly is as exceptional as his team.

InSites is one of those companies that just has “it”; smart, creative, bold, focused, and high performing. Their growth and leadership role across the global industry is proof that they are no flash in the pan, but are a company to watch and learn from for the rest of us. They are one of the “new breed” of research firms that is reinventing the industry and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.

This is a “meaty” interview; Kristof really dug into my questions and I think you’ll be as impressed as I have been with the answers he offered up. We conducted this interview via email over the last few weeks.

LM: Hi Kristof, thanks for agreeing to chat with me! First, congratulation on the ranking of InSites in the Top 20 of most innovative research firms in the recent GRIT report. You guys have certainly been growing like crazy and garnering a lot of attention with your social media activity and presentations at conferences. Can you tell us a bit about what has been fueling that growth and what part of the InSites story do you think is really resonating with folks?

KDW: Thanks for the invitation Lenny! It’s indeed great to see we have moved up from the 18th to 11th position in the GRIT report, it indicates our investments in R&D and international presence are paying off. Though it’s not that clear cut, here is what I consider to be the major drivers behind our growth over the last years. A first and evident one is the fact that we think and act outside of our home market. Having started our business from Belgium (one of the smaller research markets in the world), obtaining fast growth automatically implied we needed to look for new markets to enter. Today, more than half of our revenues are realized through our offices based in Rotterdam, London and New York. Our online only focus enables us to serve our clients on a global scale, having run projects in more than 60 countries.

Secondly, I believe that our never ceasing focus to ‘take research forward’ has been of tremendous help to put us on the world map. Since 2005, we are structurally dedicating a significant amount of resources to method innovation, with talented people like Tom De Ruyck and Annelies Verhaeghe now leading our ForwaR&D lab, taking over from my co-founder Niels Schillewaert who is now active in our US office. By integrating solid research know-how with more experimental, creative and non-traditional methods, we are able to surprise our clients, but at the same time also reassure them. Our academic roots have been instrumental in supporting our credibility in this.

Thirdly, thinking outside of the strict marketing research box has been fueling our growth as well. As we believe the true added value of market research should lie in what we do with the insights we generate and not how we get to them, we felt we needed to invest in marketing thought leadership. Steven Van Belleghem and Joeri Van den Bergh, two of our managing partners, have been doing an excellent job in inspiring companies with the new marketing thinking comprised in their best-selling books. Steven’s first book “The Conversation Manager” has been selling over 24,000 copies and his newest one “The Conversation Company” promises to be a hit as well.

Something to be proud of as well is that Joeri’s book “How Cool Brands Stay Hot” was recently voted as Marketing Book of The Year 2011 based on feedback from 2.154 marketers spread across 85 different countries. The ideas comprised in the books definitely helped us to reach higher in our clients’ organizations, often all the way up to the CEO. Finally, our growth is very much related to our people, values and culture. We are still completely independent, with all 4 founding partners still actively involved in managing and growing the company. At the same time, we welcomed 5 new partners who significantly contributed to where we are today. When we recruitment new people, we first take a look at personality and value fit before we dive into a candidate’s technical or marketing competences. In the end, there are only people; they make up our strongest asset.

I think the part of our story that is really resonating with folks is that we are changing the nature and boundaries of the marketing research industry. We are firmly convinced that research needs to rethink the way it acts and to redefine its reason of existence. The days of “one-way, one-shot” research are counted. Clients are increasingly looking for “information-based business services” instead of a series of techniques. They are in need of fluid and always-on “insights-on-demand” capabilities that are not interrupted by the set-up of one-shot ad hoc studies. But also participants are looking for something different from what the research industry is offering them today. In “The 24-Hour Customer”, we read that companies are in need of better understanding the economics of customer time and attention in order to win in today’s competitive landscape. For sure, research is more than ever in competition with a whole series of activities consuming precious time. That’s why we believe so strongly in engagement and activation of participants: making them part of something bigger, providing real value to them, and connecting with them in their natural environment. It implies giving them real power, even to the extent that they can take over tasks from professional researchers, actually often being better at executing them.

To us, the future of research lies in bringing consumers in the boardroom of companies, narrowing the gap between employees and consumers, and enabling ‘ordinary’ consumers to create extraordinary value for companies. It serves the needs of clients and participants altogether. But more importantly, it puts marketing research higher up the organizational ladder.

LM: How does InSites differ from other players in the MROC field?   

KDW: There is quite some confusion today on what a MROC is and what it is not, making it more difficult for clients to assess the nature and quality of different vendors offering MROC solutions. To us, a MROC is a moderated group of 50 to 150 consumers structurally collaborating via an online closed platform over a certain period through various engagement and activation techniques, thereby supporting one or more marketing objectives.

From this perspective, let me explain how we aim to make a difference versus other key players in the MROC field. First, we have developed a complete flow of activities boosting participant engagement in MROCs, benefiting the quantity and quality of the insights we derive from them. This relates to the way we recruit people, the challenges we provide to participants through “gamification”, “positive disruption”, or other techniques, the way in which we give back to MROC members, etc. But equally important is to deploy similar techniques for engagement at the client side as well, creating maximal organizational impact through changing the hearts, minds and actions of employees. Research communities provide an ideal vehicle to support this, being able to connect the dots, to immerse in the daily lives of consumers, to directly interact with consumers. Sometimes we even put clients and consumers in one interactive game, where both parties provide valuable input and learn from each other.

A second differentiating element of our MROC philosophy is the flexibility in community formats we apply, optimally suited to the specific needs of our clients. Our communities vary in duration from a minimum of 3 weeks to an ongoing community. This enables us to deal with all kinds of specific marketing challenges, to craft and review a complete marketing plan or to collaborate with consumers in a very structural way. But flexibility also pertains to the specific role MROCs play within a broader mix of methods. For instance, our insighting activation process makes use of a mix of methods such as mobile ethnography, individual blogs, and crowd interpretation facilitated via a game, all connected with each other in a unique way. Thirdly, we have been working very hard to establish truly local connections with consumers, embedded in local culture.  Our network of trained and certified moderators all over the world applies all of our MROC know-how, but makes it truly relevant from a local perspective, ensuring the best possible way to understand, connect and engage with consumers across the globe. Finally, I think our creative reporting formats often stand out from what competitors have to offer. We select those reporting formats that are optimally suited to the project specifications. Apart from the classic PowerPoint debrief documents and client presentations and workshops, we offer short movies, infographics, updates via social media, dashboards, blogs and news sites, and online tests and competitions as alternative and sometimes more powerful ways to activate insights within the organization.

LM: It seems that a large part of your DNA comes from Ad Agencies; you look, feel, and sound more like them than traditional research firms (which is a compliment by the way!). First, do you agree with that and second, has that been a strategic decision or simply an outgrowth of your focus on consumer engagement?

KDW: Thanks for the compliment! For us, it has been a deliberate, strategic choice. For too long, the marketing research industry was seen as a “dull” industry stuffed with number crunchers and nerds. It couldn’t be more distant from the glitter and glam of the cool and edgy advertising industry. Even more so, researchers were typically perceived only to be able to kill the great creative ideas of ad agencies through validation or to support decisions that had already been made …

About 5 years ago, we defined our BHAG or “Big Hairy Audacious Goal”: to make the market research industry “sexy” by redefining its purpose and the way it behaves. Evidently, shifting the industry in a fundamental different direction requires several industry players to play along, and we are very happy to see that several agencies are joining us in the same endeavor. Evidence of this can be found in the fact that the industry is dedicating attention to granting awards, that we are able to recruit people from outside the research / agency business, that young talent is recognized and put in the spotlight, and so on. But we might need to take it a step further, being more bold in our aspirations by not trying to mimic ad agencies, but by adding new meaning and relevance. My favorite example here is the work we do for the Belgian ad agency Famous. Their ongoing “Everybody Famous” research community connects 300 everyday consumers with all people working at the agency. They truly consider these consumers as their virtual employees, acting as co-inspirators at critical moments of campaign and creative development. To me, this example shows the great complementary power of both worlds: while ad agencies have classically taken up the role of “brand custodians” towards their clients, research agencies are in a great position to claim the role of “consumer custodians”, bringing the voice of the consumer inside organizations, all the way up to the boardroom.

But more is needed to turn our industry around and to make it sexier. In order to enhance the conversational impact of what we are doing and to create real impact within organizations, the medium is equally important as the message. For example, we have a designer in our team boosting the conversational impact of the content we are spreading every day. What was really cool to see is that our slideshare presentation of “Social Media Around The World” was viewed more than 750,000 times, making it the 7th most popular presentation on slideshare this year. From an InSites Consulting perspective, we don’t really have another option. We need to walk our own talk and apply the principles included in our books.

LM: One of the most impressive things about InSites is how many incredibly smart young people you have on your team. At most any event you see them taking center stage rather than your senior team, which has fostered a real sense of connection and equality with their industry peers. Another double question: First, what is your recruitment strategy to identify these great folks and second, what is it within your corporate culture that has allowed you to give them room to shine on a wider industry stage?   

KDW: Great question! Let me first start with the why followed by the how, answering your questions in reverse order. One of the key success factors behind our historical growth has always been attracting young and talented people, providing them with a lot of challenging opportunities, and putting them in the spotlight. We recently started realizing that – by becoming larger – we were losing a bit of this through defining more strict processes, roles & responsibilities. We also believe in building a broad and balanced base of talented people who can take the floor and act as a ‘spokesperson’ for our brand. This approach has really paid off, with Annelies and Tom as great examples, both having received prestigious awards such as the ESOMAR Young Research of the Year and the 4 under 40 awards. It also has to do with our corporate culture: we want our organization to feel and behave like a start-up every day, growing a culture of hard work, where people can act as entrepreneurs seizing new opportunities within the framework of our corporate strategy and goals. Our partnership structure reflects this: anyone can grow into a shareholder, fully identifying with what we are trying to achieve.

In terms of recruitment strategy, we are fortunate to have strong links with the academic world (in particular the Vlerick Management School), having enabled us to recruit the very best people out there. As we are taking up teaching assignments at various universities and business schools, we are in a good position to detect talent and make people excited about research in general and InSites Consulting in particular.  Next to that, our social presence has helped to boost the inflow of great people. Important to notice here is that we pay a lot of attention to the values and mindset of people, striving for a strong fit between the personality of our organization and the individual candidate.

LM: With the rise of the MROC, Mobile ethnography, social media analysis, gamification models, advances in behavioral economics theory, etc.. it often feels like we’re entering into a new “Golden Age” of truly context driven insights. What do you think?

KDW: These are exciting and energizing times indeed. A whole new world of revolutionary possibilities is opening up, enabling us to break barriers of time and space. Think about the context in which consumers are interviewed most of the time: we force people to do things that they would naturally not do, we rely on their cognitive capabilities all too often, and we assume people are dedicating full attention to the tasks we present them with. For too long, researchers have put themselves at the center of attention, while we clearly need to put consumers at the heart of what we do. Otherwise, the relevance and validity of what we are doing as an industry will suffer.

The great thing about contextual research is that it enables us to do exactly that: using methods that directly tap into the natural environment of consumers, resulting in more reliable and relevant answers to the questions we have. At InSites Consulting, we are working hard to make this happen: our mobile application allows consumers to easily upload pictures or videos to their personal blog embedded in a research community; we use the same app as a convenient second screen allowing participants to take the community with them everywhere they go; we can fully integrate communities into the most dominant natural context for most consumers today, Facebook; our contextual surveys allow consumers to embed their own personal context into a survey.

While we are true believers in context driven insights, there are some important things to consider though. First, we need to increase our understanding of the fit between particular methods and contexts. For example, we don’t really believe that using mobile technology to fill out lengthy online surveys is a good idea. Moving from a 15 inch PC screen to a 3,5 inch mobile screen makes a whole difference, limiting the capabilities of mobile for this purpose. Efforts to solve this problem via text-to-speech technology have proven to be unsuccessful. Second, talking to people in their own natural environment can also have disadvantages. Sometimes, it makes sense to explicitly create an artificial context for consumers to get to refreshing insights: by activating or deprivating consumers from their normal activities, we create a positive disruption in people’s lives, enabling consumers to learn new things about themselves and generate new insights.

Using crowds to get a better sense of a particular context is also very useful. Especially in markets where we as researchers are less familiar with, using consumers as “co-researchers” can be very beneficial. We recently conducted a project for Philips in China, generating insights related to people having sleeping problems. Next to the research participants involved in the project, we used an additional pool of 10 consumers acting as co-researchers, assisting us in connecting the dots and challenging the work of our qualitative researchers. Finally, contextual research implies that we are getting really close to consumers, accessing their very personal and private space. This requires more trust from participants, calling for stronger engagement and connections with them.

LM: Of all the changes happening in the marketplace right now (new competitors, new client needs, changing technologies, etc..) which one excites you the most and why do you feel that way? 

KDW: The one I am most excited about is the general trend that, accelerated by technology and social media, consumers are truly taking the lead in shaping brands and organizations. This is not only disrupting the research industry, but any marketing service industry such as advertising, consulting, innovation, etc. This marketing revolution is causing boundaries between industries to blur, making it harder for customers to understand when research starts and when it stops. Different players in the marketing services domain are vertically integrating, with new value chains arising. The marketing research industry is perfectly positioned to be the spider in this web. With consumers being more empowered than ever, our aim at InSites Consulting is to facilitate ordinary consumers to create extraordinary value for companies. Consumers are more than just buyers or respondents. We empower them to take up different roles, acting as peers, colleagues, advocates, or judges. It drives our ForwaR&D lab agenda, where we try to understand how far we can stretch “outsourcing” research activities to consumers, thereby improving them throughout the methods we deploy.

LM: Play amateur futurist with me for a minute. Thinking ahead five years, where do you see the research industry positioned and what is your vision for InSites?

KDW: Not that easy to know how the world will look like in five years’ time, but here’s my calculated guess. First of all, I think (and hope) that ad hoc research will be more the exception than the rule, fishing the river much more than we do today by making use of behavioral data, having ongoing consumer connections via research communities, tapping into natural communities, listening in through netnography, and so on. A direct consequence of being closer to consumers all the time is that the industry can move up on the ‘research-based consultancy’ ladder, representing the voice of the customer at the client side in a more continuous fashion. This will enable researchers to understand the business of their clients better and to immerse in their day-to-day environment. The industry has been saying this a long time (“we are consultants”), but has never really succeeded in achieving this goal. In five years, I think we actually might be in a better position to claim a consulting positioning, reserving a seat for research (“Chief Consumer Officer”) in the boardroom.

Second, I think there will be a stronger focus on efficiency, integration and impact. Regarding the latter, I am curious to see whether or not we will see new business models arising, e.g. making fees for our work dependent on the impact we generate for clients. Impact also means that research will play a bigger role in terms of influencing the hearts, minds and actions of our clients’ employees. There used to be a time when research agencies only used to talk to insight and research managers. This already has changed quite a lot and I expect the role of research agencies in touching different functions and departments inside organizations to further extend. Third, if there is one thing that will remain constant, it is the people factor. While speed and value for money are still important drivers for our industry, “old school” requirements such as dynamism, responsiveness, attentiveness, solid judgment and personal service are still long-term growth drivers. What we will see though is a much broader mix of people having different backgrounds being involved in the market research industry. This is an essential condition in order to be able to tap into the extended method toolbox offered by the “Golden Age” we are living in.

From an InSites Consulting perspective, I hope that we have been able to significantly contribute to the shift we feel the industry should be making. By 2017, our company should be recognized on a global level as a partner helping out clients to maximize the value they can derive from consumers. And foremost, I hope we will still be having lots of fun and energy along the way, as I believe the journey we are in is more rewarding than the end result.

LFM: This has been great Kristof! Thanks for your candor and thoughtful responses; they are much appreciated.

KDW: Thank you Lenny, this has been fun.

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