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A Conversation With Eric Salama of Kantar

Larry Friedman interviews Eric Salama, CEO of Kantar, about the reasons why Kantar has reached number one in the GRIT Top 50, and their plans for remaining number one.

Editor’s Note: One of the most newsworthy events out of this year’s GRIT report is that Kantar has now reached the top spot in the list of the 50 most innovative research companies.  This is a great achievement.  The report detailed some of the reasons behind Kantar’s rise, but to gain his perspective, I interviewed Eric Salama, Kantar’s global CEO.  We had a wide-ranging conversation, about why Kantar has risen to number one, what innovation means to a company like Kantar, and what they are planning to do to remain at the top. A transcript of that interview is below, “lightly edited” for sense and to fit the space.  Thank you, Eric, for taking the time.

Larry:  First of all, congratulations on Kantar being ranked as the most innovative research company in the GRIT Top 50.  To what do you attribute the #1 ranking?

Eric:  There are several things that have all contributed.  First of all, “Kantar” is more visible now because of the rebranding.  Now, everything is “Kantar something”, and it reinforces everything we do.  We’re doing a better job of marketing.  Before we rebranded, a lot of the things we were doing just didn’t get the visibility.  We’ve also responded to a marketplace where innovation has become the biggest driving force of success.  The Brand Z work we’ve done around the world for 20 years consistently finds that differentiation and innovation are the biggest drivers of shareholder value for brands.  If we want to be successful therefore, we have to be seen as innovative.  Clients want to work with innovative companies who they think are offering something different.  Even if they can’t use all your innovations, they want to feel they are working with companies that will bring them all the latest thinking and will help them be innovative.  I think the climate is such that if you’re not innovative and differentiated, you can’t succeed in commerce, and we’ve responded to that.

Larry:  How would you define “innovative”?

Eric:   I think it means providing what clients need in new ways.  Sometimes the client need may be the same as it’s always been, but because of marketplace changes, the things we do to meet that need have to change.  For example, in media, clients need to measure their content on all devices. That need has always existed, but now with more devices both inside and outside the home, we need to address that need in new ways. We’re using technology to help us do that. Another example is brand tracking. Clients have always wanted to understand how their brands were performing, but now we’re doing it in ways that are not backward looking but rather are predictive of the future, using shorter surveys that can be done on mobile, and combining it with social media and panel data. Another example is copy testing, which we are delivering in a day instead of in weeks.  We’re also incorporating facial coding data along with survey data, so again, we’re meeting needs in new ways.

Innovation also means delivering against new needs.  Our industry has always been about “understanding” – understanding our customers, our brands, etc., but now clients are asking how they can use the insights we deliver. How do I use that to plan my media?  How do I use that to change my e-commerce strategy? How do I change my prices in real time?  Activation is now much more important these days.

Larry:  I recently returned from  IIeX, and I heard clients repeatedly talk about how insights needed to be “faster, cheaper and better”, that two out of three was no longer good enough. And, they were talking about it not just as a goal, but something they are actually expecting right now.  How has Kantar responded to this challenge?

Eric:  I think in areas like tracking we definitively are doing that.  We are using much shorter surveys, going from a 25-minute questionnaire down to a six-minute questionnaire.  That reduces costs obviously, and it’s faster.  We’re also incorporating social media data and panel purchase data and media data so it’s better too.

One thing about the nature of our business is that our clients expect us to be able to roll things out globally.  They don’t want something once, they want it scalable, so our challenge is to make sure we exploit our scale so we make sure we can roll out tracking, for instance, on a global basis.  With our purchase panel, we are planning to increase the size of our panel in China from 40,000 to 200,000; a small company just can’t do that.  By exploiting our scale, we can do things better, faster and cheaper for our clients, whether they are a global multinational, or a local company looking to expand.  We try to do it with the spirit and the passion of a small company, but with the scale of a larger one.

Larry:  Much of the response I heard at IIeX from smaller companies centered on things like automation, AI, blockchain, and being agile.  A lot of companies talked about the importance of being agile.  I was wondering what Kantar was doing, not just to be part of those kinds of efforts, but to lead them?

Eric:  If you take something like NeedScope, it is used as a segmentation tool around positioning and creative.  We’ve now started using AI to help position ad creative around the NeedScope map, with much greater speed and accuracy than humans could.  We can position much greater volume of creative than we ever could before.  Sometimes, human intervention is necessary, as the AI can’t always recognize some things like humor, but we couldn’t scan thousands of ads like we can now, as a regular part of our service.   Interestingly, this innovation was not developed out of the center, but rather by the team in Spain.  We’re now rolling it out worldwide, giving clients the capability to understand how consistently their ads are working everywhere.

Another example is with Healthcare.  We’re working with IBM Watson and other AI providers to incorporate classification of certain topics.  AI is going to be very big in Healthcare in general.

We need to do a lot of experimentation, and decide what to scale up to offer clients around the world.  Clients use us to sift through a lot of innovation out there.   As you know, most clients aren’t limited by the number of ideas they see, they are limited by their ability to actually roll things out.  If clients see a good idea out there from a smaller company, they will ask us to help them incorporate it into what we do, and help them roll it out, which we’re happy to do.  If clients ask us, we will act as a kind of distribution mechanism, and most importantly, help them make sure these innovations have an impact.

Larry:  So, are you partnering then with some of these smaller companies?

Eric:   Yes, we’re partnering with lots of companies and some of them aren’t small.  Lightspeed is partnering with Cint, for instance.  We’re using their technology for our platform because we think we’re better off doing that than building our own.  We’re using IRI’s technology to help us with a new platform for WorldPanel, because we decided it was better than building our own, saving costs for clients.  So, I think we’re much more open-sourced; we’re not saying that we must build everything.  We’re licensing the technology, we’re partnering with smaller companies, for instance, where they might have audio or visual recognition technology.  We’re now using facial recognition on all our copy testing, but the technology isn’t ours, we’re licensing it from Affectiva in Boston.  We’re their biggest client now.  We have a great relationship with them; we help them develop their business, and they help us develop ours.  We’re much more open now to these sorts of relationships.  We’re always asking ourselves whether we should build something ourselves, or if we should license it or buy it.

Larry:  It’s one thing to become #1, but it’s another thing to stay #1.  What are the things you are focusing on to make sure you stay #1 in next year’s rankings as well?

Eric:  We have an innovation board, which we set up a couple of years ago, which means that we have a way of sifting through ideas and deciding which ones we want to scale, wherever they might come from.  We continue to put great emphasis on preference; everyone is bonused on customer satisfaction, which is a preference measure – do clients prefer you over other suppliers?  A big part of preference is differentiation and innovation.  So we measure innovation that way, and we have targets for that everywhere.  But I think culturally, we just continue to put an emphasis on innovation.  As I said earlier, it’s not just R&D innovation, it’s how we scale good ideas.

I’m always driven by what our telecom clients would call the “last mile” – it’s one thing to have a great network, but unless you had a great “last mile” leading into the consumer’s home, you get a poor connection. So what we need to do is not just make sure that we have great innovation, but also make sure that we have a great last mile that leads to our clients, so that the great innovation we have is packaged up for clients in a way that is cheaper, faster and better, so they get the benefits of that innovation everywhere.

If you’re us, you have to think not just about the innovation process, but how you’re going to package that innovation.  We’re very focused on both of those things.

Larry:  What has been the reaction internally to the news that Kantar is #1?  What have clients said?

Eric:   People inside Kantar are incredibly proud actually.  It’s one thing for me or other people in the management team to give that kind of encouragement, but to get external recognition is very important.  GreenBook has come to be seen as an authoritative source on innovation in the industry, and people are incredibly proud.  They’ve shared it with their clients, who are also pleased, because they want to be working with innovative companies.

As you know, if you work in the advertising industry, you can go to Cannes and get recognized with awards, but we don’t have many awards in the research industry.  The ARF does some things, others like ESOMAR do things, but when it comes to innovation, this is an incredibly important award that people are proud of.

Larry:  Eric, thank you very much for taking the time for speaking with me today, and congratulations again.

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Eric Salama & Larry Friedman