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The CEO Series: Interview with Andrew Needham of Face

It’s been awhile since we did one of the CEO series interviews so I’m excited to get us back on track with today’s installment: a conversation with Andrew Needham, CEO of Face. Face is one of the new breed of agencies that has emerged in the UK that is much more focused on the “why”, rather than the “how” of traditional market research. Andrew and his team have continuously put forth a stream of thought leading content and challenging new ideas on the role and impact of research on marketing organizations, and based on their rapid growth these ideas are resonating with clients.

As we follow the evolution of our space, it’s apparent to me that firms like Face will play a major role in pioneering the new paradigm, and leaders like Andrew are on the forefront of redefining who we are as an industry and the tools we bring to bear to help meet client needs.

This is a meaty interview filled with big ideas (Andrew is a Big Idea kind of guy) and I think it will help stimulate a lot of thinking on the future of research, especially more  qualitative approaches. Enjoy it!

LFM: Thanks for making the time to chat Andrew. For those who aren’t familiar with Face, can you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

AFN: Thanks for inviting me Lenny! I think if you’d asked a Facer this question they would say that we are a new breed of research agency or part of a small increasingly well-defined group of Next Generation Market Research Agencies.

The reason for this lies in how we entered the research arena. We were the pioneer of co-creation as a methodology back in 2007 but we very quickly realized there was a much bigger thought behind co-creation, uniting people around the world across all aspects of society and that was the philosophy of doing things with people not at them.

This meant we challenged the industry in two important ways. The first was we elevated the role of the consumer from passive “respondent” to active participant in the research and marketing process by being one of the first research companies to launch collaborative research communities; our first one for youth called Headdbox is still a good example. We also brought the consumer through techniques such as crowd sourcing and co-creation into the innovation process in a way that had not been done before. It was about giving consumers more responsibility much earlier in the research, innovation and marketing process and keeping them involved throughout. We believed that their ideas, opinions and creativity could transform a brand, a product or a piece of communication as much as we, as experts, could particularly if we worked together in the right way. Research oddly didn’t believe in the power, energy and creativity of consumers at a time when they were becoming more empowered through platforms such as Facebook. This made research seem out of step with the world around it. We wanted to change that. We wanted research to become the strategic champion of the consumer, bring organizations much closer to them and make sure they were at the heart of a company’s decision making.

Secondly a big part of our DNA is that change is the only constant so a part of our higher purpose is making the industry better by solving  problems that clients and practitioners are becoming complacent about. Being disruptive and challenging the industry to be better, faster, smarter and more intelligent is what gets us up in the morning. Our love of social technology is a key part of helping us to achieve this whether that’s investing time and money in our own proprietary community platform, our own proprietary social media insights dashboard or the first mobile app that combines qualitative and quantitative data using mobiles as sensors called “reality mining” research.

This philosophy has obviously helped shape our product proposition by focusing on delivering online and offline qualitative and quantitative research through communities,  social media and mobile data. It ensured we developed a co-creation lead innovation process that inverted the traditional qual/quant research model by starting very wide with thousands of consumer conversations in social media before honing things in a more intimate way with leading edge consumers using a combination of netnography, crowd sourcing and co-creation. All of this means we are equally at home with big data as we are with creating big brand ideas – we think this makes us unique in the industry. Hopefully this is seen clearly by the type of people we attract to the agency who are an eclectic mix of researchers, planners and creative technologists as well as thousands of networked consumers and experts who join our co-creation communities.

LFM: Ah, you are singing my tune Andrew! I certainly agree with much of what you are saying regarding what the DNA of the “New MR” agency should be comprised of and it sounds like you have made great strides in crafting an organization that can leverage those traits. Now the real question: how are clients responding? And as a follow-up, do you find your clients to be aligned more with the insight function or the marketing/business line function?

AFN: So far so good. A major boost for the U.S  has been our recent annual seven figure sum win with a major global brand and it’s a three year deal. This along with 10 other major U.S client wins from a variety of sectors means our offering has been well received so far in helping clients to answer insight, innovation, brand strategy/positioning and social media challenges. What is interesting is we are establishing relationships with clients from a wide range of disciplines. The amount of data and insight that can be generated from the social web about consumers in real time is now enabling companies for the first time to deliver properly against the mantra of putting the customer at the heart of everything they do. We’re seeing some of our clients beginning to re-structure around a central intelligence hub so that every team whether it is insight, brand, innovation, marketing or CRM are all plugged in to it, like spokes in a bicycle wheel.  This is explaining why with our social intelligence offering we are starting to work with a range of different client stakeholders whether they are Marketing Directors, Brand Directors or CMI Directors.

LFM: It seems to me that there is a ton of innovative thinking about the future of insight innovation and what the model of the agency of the future should be coming from the UK vs. any other market. First, do you agree and second, why do you think that is?

AFN: Yes I do agree and the reason for this I think is that there is a new marketing ecosystem developing driven by the networked consumer, one that is more adaptive, continuous, real time and data rich. Brands, businesses and organizations are having to move much faster without compromising on quality whether that is generating insights or getting the right products to market before consumers have moved on or competitors have filled the gap. There is less time to make mistakes and learn from them yet more room to launch in beta. There is now also huge amounts of free qualitative data for us to mine, generated by consumers across the social web. My view is that in time every brand, business and organization will become a social brand, a social business and a social organization and that means the way they operate will change (what is a social brand/social business is a whole other question). Telefonica, one of our clients is a good example of where this change is already starting to happen. So if the marketing and brand model (and Coca-Cola’s Liquid Linked is another good example), which research and innovation serves is changing then the way we conduct research will need to change in order to keep up. That’s why at Face our focus is evolving to delivering what we call “social intelligence for brands” a move that we see as a continuation of our “with not at” philosophy in the world of the networked consumer. We want to help companies, organizations and brands become more socially intelligent by helping them to be continuously collaborative in the way they engage with and understand their audiences. It’s why as I mentioned earlier we have been pioneering new techniques and research frame works where we use social media insight to help drive our innovation approach, combine crowd sourcing with co-creation and are starting to use mobiles as sensors. We have to find new ways of delivering quality outputs, faster and the answer doesn’t lie with doing more focus groups more quickly!

Where are skills going?

For me this question falls naturally out of my answer to the last one. The first point to underline is that the qualitative research industry should not be scared of change. In my view there is going to be even more need for human analysis not less. We are perfectly placed to be the true custodians of insight in the world of Big Data. What is going to have to change is the mix of skills qualitative research companies are going to need to bring together to help deliver quality insight and innovation quickly. Having researchers who are also technologists will be key; having researchers who understand qualitative and quantitative research while also get the social web will be essential. We are already starting to see this eclectic mix of skills at Face. It means research agencies will need to look beyond their normal boundaries to find ways of attracting people from outside the industry. It will be necessary for one researcher to augment a number of different skills to deliver qualitative insight effectively and quickly in 2020.

LFM: The message of bringing the hearts and minds of consumers front and center to the brand certainly has resonance, although as the barriers between marketing and research blur or go away it challenges many of the tenets of research. Looking forward 2-3 years do you think that companies like Face will be the norm, or will you still be more of the exception to the rule?

AFN: That’s difficult to say. With any period of change there are going to be winners and losers. Those research agencies who embrace change will continue to grow and ultimately be at the forefront of the industry. I think Face has been in the leading pack of this category and I want us to stay there. There are going to be some losers – companies that have fallen behind because they’re offering out of date solutions and are not able to move fast enough. This issue came up again today with a major CPG client meeting I had in Singapore as part of my trip to set up Face offices here and also in Hong Kong.

LFM: Let’s explore the new offices for a minute. Are you finding having a global presence to be a necessity in order to meet client needs, especially with capabilities in Asia Pac?

AFN: Absolutely this has now become a necessity. As the value emerging markets contribute to the overall growth and success of a company so the focus on demonstrating cultural know how and consumer understanding of these markets has grown in importance. It is no longer good enough to deliver a global project driven out of an office in London or New York. You need to have teams on the ground with proven local experience in working with brands and consumers. This has been a major driver to our decision to open offices in Hong Kong and Singapore. What is also reassuring is that having just spent two weeks in Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta talking to clients, agencies and potential Face employees our “New MR” offering is clearly arriving at a good time and is going to differentiate us from the more traditional propositions that are already out there.

LFM: As research shifts more towards focusing on the “why” and other players emerge that deliver “what, where, when, & how” it seems as if that is a natural progression to more of a qualitative consultancy model for most insights firms. If that is the case, how do we as an industry reconcile our DNA around rigor to a more flexible and adaptive style? 

AFN: What a great question. Reconciling speed with rigor should be a big area of focus for the industry as it is not a question of doing either or – we have to be able to do both well. I think the skills of qualitative research are well suited to making the transition from an ad hoc model to a more continuous, “always on” consultative one. What is really exciting is that it is going to be easier with the move to “real time” analysis to demonstrate how a particular event/phenomena in social data has led to an insight that a week later resulted in the business taking an action that is measurable. We will have the ability to see much more quickly whether success has been derived directly from the work we do. The problem with a lot of research and innovation is that it doesn’t happen quickly enough so by the time a product lands in the market and the sales data starts coming through it could be as much as two years after the research project was delivered. This has resulted in research creating lots of tests and gateways to pass through  before a product is even live in the market. The best form of rigor is when an insight can be directly attributable to growth or more sales and to see this in a matter of weeks means there will be nowhere to hide.

LFM: Ok Andrew, final question: looking forward a few years what really excites you about the possible future of Face and the insights industry as a whole?

AFN: This is a really exciting time to be a qualitative researcher as with all the change abound we’re still well placed to be the custodians of insight. One frustration or concern is that we’re not moving quickly enough to keep up with the speed of change so that other categories of business are being afforded the opportunity to muscle into our patch. With the huge amounts of qualitative data available there is going to be even more need for human analysis not less. The demand for this will increasingly mean that qualitative research is no longer delivered purely on an ad hoc project by project basis (as it has largely been done to date with a focus group based model) but on a more continuous, real time basis. For the first time in the history of research we can help clients deliver in a meaningful way on the mantra of putting consumers at the heart of their business to give them competitive advantage. This will require different skill sets where we are able to combine qualitative skills with quantitative and social media ones. We are going to see new roles and titles emerge in the coming years (it’s starting to happen already) so that a recruitment advertisement for a qualitative researcher will read and look very different to what we are seeing now.  What excites me about Face is that in the next few years we can play a leading role in making this happen around the world.

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