Perhaps one of the great success stories of the past decade has been the evolution of the company formerly known as e-Rewards, then Research Now and, earlier this year after a merger with SSI, to Dynata. My history with the company goes back to 2005 when they were my preferred panel partner at Rockhopper Research and has continued through to today, finding many ways to collaborate on different fronts over the years. Not only do I consider them great partners, but over the years I’ve built strong friendships with many of the team and have been honored to have an inside view into their success.
Far from being just a sample provider, they have grown to be one of the prime examples of a “Full Stack” supplier by building an increasingly comprehensive suite of technology-driven solutions for insights and analytics coupled with a service layer to offer what is very close to an end-to-end solution for research. The model has proven to be effective since the business is now closing in on $1B in top-line revenue, and they continue to lead with rolling out more products aligned to the full-stack model.
However, a few weeks ago the industry was taken by surprise by a news article via Reuters on the next phase of their growth.
The surprise in this news wasn’t that a deal was in the offering: the current owners are approaching the horizon for an exit after a series of acquisitions to arbitrage profitability and create an attractive investment vehicle for a larger player. The surprise was that this was pretty much the only reference to a deal; the news media has been extraordinarily quiet even if the rumor mill has not been!
However, I decided that regardless of whether this uncorroborated story was true or not, it would be interesting to chat with Gary Laben, the CEO of Dynata, on their journey thus far and what the future might hold for the company. This has value for the industry as a whole; understanding how major players like Dynata see the industry and new opportunities is a good indication of where the market is going, and that understanding can help everyone in the ecosystem think about their next steps as well.
So, today I am pleased to share my interview with Gary with all of you!
In this wide-ranging interview, Gary and I do touch on the rumors of transactions briefly, but spend most of our time discussing the evolution of the business, what’s coming down the pike in terms of new products and services, and what potential challenges he sees for Dynata and for the industry as a whole.
Gary is a great interviewee and fun to chat with; I think you’ll enjoy the interview as much as I did in conducting it. You can watch the video below or read the transcript (edited for clarity) below, although I recommend watching and listening to get the nuance of the conversation.
Lenny Murphy: Hello everybody its Lenny Murphy and I am here with another one of our CEO series of interviews. Today I’m talking to Gary Laben, CEO of Dynata. Gary, how are you?
Gary Laben: I’m doing great today. Thank you for having me, Lenny.
Lenny Murphy: You know, it’s a pleasure, absolutely a pleasure.
So, let’s go ahead and just get something out of the way because I’m sure that listeners will be saying, oh he’s talking to Gary, is there an announcement pending or is there not an announcement pending? I’ll let you take it from there…
Gary Laben: Well, thanks, Lenny. We always have announcements pending on all sorts of things that we’re doing and I would hope that even over the next couple of weeks folks will learn about some of the new products and services that are part of those announcements. Having said that, I think the one to which you are specifically referring to, well I really don’t have anything to say about it because most everything that you’ve read is rumors and speculation.
We’re humbled by the fact that there’s a great deal of interest in the business in terms of what’s going on. I think it reflects the fact that we’ve grown and through that growth have done quite well and it certainly would mean that the industry, the sector and those in and alongside it, would be interested in capitalizing on that.
But everything that you say you’ve seen so far is really kind of speculation on that at this point in time.
Lenny Murphy: Fair enough and when there’s no speculation, I assume that you’ll let us know!
Gary Laben: You will be among the first that we will dial up to let know what is going on.
Lenny Murphy: All right good to know and that is a good segue.
You make a good point that obviously there’s a lot of interest and buzz around the future of the industry as a whole and particularly for a large player like Dynata. I mean, you’re no longer simply a sample company; you’re really, if we look at just a basis of revenue, in the top five or six Global players within the category, and that is a significant achievement. So why don’t we talk about that a little bit? How did you get to this point where the company is now such a significant, integral component of the entire global Market Research ecosystem, not just for sample, but for lots of other stuff?
Gary Laben: Sure, thanks for that. I think that as you referenced, I mean the proud sort of legacy of the companies that formed Dynata over the last 40 years, 20 years with the legacy of Research Now and frankly 40 years with the legacy of SSI that invented many parts of the data-driven space of market research and that really serves as sort of the foundation and the backbone for who we are and what we’re doing today and really what that is about.
When I came to the company a little over three years ago, I realized that we were sitting on this incredible first-party data asset and we needed to continue to curate and grow it to realize its value in the core market research sector. But we could amortize that data across the entire marketing Services Continuum from media, to advertising, to activation, and CRM and create wonderful products and services for our clients who are partaking of it in market research who would also be the same clients in the other areas that we are extending to because anybody who is doing market research with us is also interested in obviously using and capitalizing on those insights for their marketing growth as well.
So, I realized that we had a great opportunity to do that to provide incremental value to our clients.
We set a goal back a couple years ago to derive about 30% to 40% of our revenue beyond traditional data-driven market research sector where we established our roots, and to do that by the end of 2020. We’re about 16 months away and we’re at about 25% of that 40%, so we will eclipse the low end and hopefully, we’ll get to that ultimate goal of diversity.
Speaking of which, if you think about that from a personal investor standpoint, there’s always talk about diversification and so being able to amortize our assets and diversify where those assets can be used is very valuable to the organization in and of itself and then, finally, to our employees being able to participate in new areas of growth both professionally in terms of the things that our employees are able to do across all of the marketing, not only in market research, is really sort of what that journey is about.
Like I said, I think we’re well on our way and showing the results that are on track to show we’ve established that goal.
Lenny Murphy: When I think about the marketing lifecycle it falls into three buckets: engage, understand and activate. Those are the big, high-level pieces and research is traditionally obviously worked within the understand component. But what I hear from you in using terms like Marketing Services is that the vision for Dynata is actually to be a data-driven component of that entire lifecycle to engage understand and activate. Is that a pretty fair summation?
Gary Laben: Absolutely and, going back to that a little bit, my perspective on that is if we can use the underlying data that drives each of those activities, the cycle of engagement, understanding, and activation can be sort of held constant.
We can use the same data to drive in some way, shape or form each of those activities.
Then you’ve got to assume that the output will be better because we’ve held constant a lot of things that heretofore have been very much variable using different data for each of those activities.
And if that’s the most important, or one of the most important, components to any of those areas then to be able to use the same components and to move them across each of those areas I think is super valuable to the output of each of those areas, and frankly to the unification of those areas as marketers, you know, go forward and competing in their own competitive marketplaces.
Lenny Murphy: So we’ve had a lot of conversations over the past year, you and I, about the idea of integrated data and how that data can be used, and what that means for the future and how the world is changing, regarding personal data. You made some really interesting moves over the past year where you patented a model around the data graph of linking first-party data and individual-level data across multiple data sources and your marketplace functionality that you’ve launched to be able to access that integrated data graph.
Tell me a little more about what the plans are in building off of that, not just in this Marketing Services universe, but also specifically in powering new research capabilities that traditionally a company like Dynata didn’t necessarily do, but now with the Critical Mix acquisition, you have more assets to leverage.
Gary Laben: Thanks for that segue! The acquisition earlier this year of Reimagine and its associated companies which include Critical Mix and several others really was a way for us to take our business which is I’d say historically Services based and to productize many of those components so that our clients can accomplish a number of things. Not the least of which is speed and simplification and automation, so we’re on a journey to take each and every one of our services and sort of address it in those ways and either increase the access to it and simplify how you can get access to it so that our clients can benefit from that even quicker than they have in the past.
One of those areas is using AI to streamline product delivery. You referenced some of the things and some of the ways potentially in which we are doing that; for example, using AI to help drive the outcome of projects. Imagine, for example, the things that we are working on now around Alexa based interviews, and that’s sort of a start but even that goes further by, you know, having someone do something like that and translate transferring that interview in real-time through our voice services division so that in the midst of that you can get a phone call and finish up the rest of that interview later if you are a member and one of our panels. We think that those kinds of experiences will produce even better results for our clients.
Going forward one of the things that we’re working on that you referenced as part of our Marketplace, which is the programmatic platform to access all of our data. That’s the only place to access programmatically all of the Dynata data alongside the rest of the industry’s data.
That Marketplace is really part of an even larger launch later this quarter, which is our insights platform. Our Data Insights platform is really about connecting all of our products and services in an end-to-end single sign-on fashion so that our clients can get access to each and every part of our service offering in one place and connects the output of one feed to the input of the next. So, for us, we think that’s the next generation of what we want to go do for our clients.
Lenny Murphy: Very cool! Well, you’re in good company: the industry is moving in that direction, with companies like Zappi leading the charge.
However, back in the day (this may be before your time), GMI tried that many years ago and they couldn’t pull it off, so I bring that up just to be careful, so we don’t duplicate the past.
Let’s recognize that the model you are describing takes a culture shift from a buyer standpoint; the ecosystem is set up where you get your sample from here, you collect your data here, your analysis is done here. So, do you see resistance to that vision you being the Google or the Apple? The one single sign-on or one ecosystem to rule them all model in research?
Gary Laben: So, you’re right and I think historically, as I’ve been here over the last few years, the resistance I’ve actually seen hasn’t been from our clients, but from our competitors sort of talking about the resistance that we might face when we bring these opportunities.
In front of our clients, I think they’re very eager to take advantage of them. In fact, many of our clients are informing the very nature of the products and services that I’ve described in terms of how they’re built and how we’re delivered.
At the end of the day, our clients really wanted faster. They want it simplified so that they can take advantage of it. We have had a long-standing relationship with clients across all channels of distribution; not only market research agencies, but resellers of our data and especially the Brand’s directly themselves.
This isn’t anything new, but it’s something that is very fast-growing for us because I think clients of all types are seeing the availability of some of these products and services and saying this can make my life easier. So, we don’t see much resistance at all around
uptake in this from any of our client channels. Some of our clients might redistribute: they might want a white label version of whatever I might be describing here, and others want maybe a little bit more of a service layer applied to it.
A lot of our products are DIY, but we have a defined “do it for me” layer, if not forever then just to get started, with many of our clients who aren’t quite ready yet to shoulder the responsibility all on their own.
Lenny Murphy: I think it’s a mandatory requirement to have that service layer. I’ve been using the term “Managed Services” a lot lately with to describe that model of the service organization that must exist because sometimes clients just want somebody to push the button.
Gary Laben: We have a number of clients as you’ve referenced and I don’t even see in their future anything but a managed service layer between our products and their receipt of them because that’s the way that their organization is set up to do that and we’ll continue to support that model forever, or as long as there is uptake and client demand for that.
Lenny Murphy: I want to be cautious of time, so three last questions! First, what are you most excited about over the course of the next year?
Gary Laben: Well, I referenced it earlier, so maybe I already gave the big reveal! Our Insights Platform, for me, is really the beginning of that culmination where we are able to place the access to each of our discrete service offerings in one layer where our clients can really take advantage of them. It’s not just about automation; it’s also about taking advantage of products that have been optimized for market research and passing the results of that down to activation activities within our platform.
That’s something that at the end of the third quarter or beginning of the fourth quarter will roll out and we will continue to iterate on that platform.
I would say in a more macro sense the thing that gets me excited all the time is that there isn’t a decision that I can think of in the business today that isn’t driven by or required to ingest data to make it, and you know sitting at the center of all of this data and of this rich legacy of being used for all of these data-driven decisions is sort of the sweet spot and I couldn’t be more excited about all the things that we are doing and what we can do with that. It’s really just incredible to be able to do that and to harness that across this in the entire Marketing Services spectrum.
From a micro standpoint, if you will, I’m just thrilled about what we’ve been able to do with the business. As you referenced, a few years ago there were a whole lot of separate companies much different in size or scale focused on individual things and we’ve really
Been able to create a different organization today. I tip my hat to the 5,000 Associates around the world who have been able to come together not only integrate this business, but to create a wonderful unified culture that makes it just incredibly fun to come to work because we’re driving for, and continuing to build, something that not only is bigger, but more importantly is broader and better for our clients.
Lenny Murphy: So, what keeps you up at night?
Gary Laben: I think what I worry about, or at least think about particularly when I’m going to bed, is sort of the changing landscape around security and privacy.
So just before we got on this phone call, you may have seen the release from Google about updating your Chrome browser because there are some apparent security problems with it. So, if two billion people around the world over the weekend are going to have to go do that, it’s certainly a reminder to all of us about the obligation that we have as stewards of our members’ data. There are really three pieces to that:
There’s trust there for our members, there’s their experience, and there’s a value that we try to provide for our members. Without our members we have nothing.
It’s not just a three-legged stool of customers and employees and shareholders; we have a four-legged stool in this business, of course, which includes our members; the folks who provide their data and their insights to help drive our business. So, in terms of the trust, I stay up at night worrying about making sure that we’re doing exactly what we say we’re going to do. Some of our members only want to be involved with us for certain types of activities like market research, others want to do everything including marketing and everything in between and making sure that that we ingest and protect and make their data available only for the purposes for which they’ve agreed.
It’s huge so making sure that there’s an efficient process in place so that the user experience has to be one where it’s not only respectful but it’s also quick. Not asking the same questions of members time after time after time, remunerating them in a timely fashion for their insights and for their time and ultimately, you know, the piece that I also stay awake about at night in part of this equation is value. Creating that value exchange and making sure that consumers feel rewarded and valued for the time and ultimately for the value of their insights that were providing ultimately to Brands who are trying to make decisions and making sure if you will, that the scale is balanced at all times.
I’ve seen in the industry over the last year some incredibly low pricing which isn’t doesn’t strike me first as a competitive issue. It really comes at the heart of making sure we’re doing the right thing for the member. Being respectful of the value that any given member is providing.
And so those are the areas, and as you’ve seen through legislation both in Europe and upcoming next year in California and likely throughout the rest of the U.S. there’s a lot of call to action to ensure that this is done and we need a healthy combination of legislation and self-regulation.
Lenny Murphy: I think it is important; you’re preaching to the choir! And as you know, I know some guys that are working on the same challenges!
All right, so last question: it’s a holiday weekend, what are you doing this weekend?
Gary Laben: Not much! I travel to our offices and to our clients; my wife thinks it’s about a hundred percent of the time. I’ll say I live in Dallas and she’d dispute that since she doesn’t see me all that much! So, I like to be home for the weekend for my wife and my son, although sometimes she greets me at the door with a bag packed, ready to go, because she loves to travel too! But this weekend is just fun with the family and a couple other families who are coming over to enjoy the Texas heat.
Lenny Murphy: That’s great; enjoy!
Thank you for your time; this was great, it’s always a pleasure to chat with you and I look forward to speaking to you again soon.
Gary Laben: Thanks, Lenny! Look forward to seeing and speaking with you soon too. Thanks again for your time!