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CEO Series: Interview with Frederic-Charles Petit, CEO of Toluna

An in-depth interview covering the future of mrx, advice for future industry leaders, and what trends to keep an eye out for.

Q: The industry is changing fast; between emerging technologies and start-ups and consolidation among the top companies there is a lot of disruption occurring to the whole category. How is Toluna reacting to that, and what does it mean for the future?

A: 2019 had more twists and turns than a Netflix blockbuster. New players invested in the industry: private investment firm Bain Capital acquiring a 60 percent share of Kantar and SAP buying Qualtrics for $8 billion. There was also a changing of the old guard: GfK sold a chunk of its business to Ipsos and some former rivals joined forces with the merger and integration of Research Now and SSI. Toluna celebrates its 20th anniversary next year and we’ve learned a few things. Toluna didn’t have to react to the market. We doubled down on technology more than two years ago. We saw that the real vet of companies that succeed would be those who claim to be and those who truly are technology-based. The way forward for market research is speed, quality, and agility combined with automation, for maximum efficiency, enabling users to focus on interpreting results and the business implications.

Q: What do you see as the most exciting trend happening in the industry right now?

A: The market research industry is late to adopt Artificial Intelligence, but it is now a staple. Retail has benefitted from its capabilities for customer FAQs and reviews for years as peer appraisals of product color, fit and quality drive a majority of buying decisions. The technology that empowers personalization, identifying positive or negative customer experiences; text analysis, the words that frequently appear online in connection with products; and trend identification, price fluctuation based on popularity, will soon be embedded in research near you. AI and machine learning will also provide opportunities to mine data more effectively from both primary and secondary sources.

Q: What is scariest, or what trend do you think we as an industry need to be very cautious about?

A: Market research industry consolidation means customers may have less choice – with fewer, bigger research platforms. By default, consumer package goods, financial, telecommunications and media & entertainment corporations may soon do all their testing —from ideation to business analysis to commercialization—with a single research partner, leading to bigger brand and firm partnerships. Industry consolidation offers well-known challenges. Consolidated industry sectors can have relatively high barriers to entry, lack of differentiated products, and potentially few, well-established brands with high-profit margins.

It can also mean that larger firms end up with more business, potentially stunting creativity and competition. In the market research sector, single partner testing without the checks and balances of diverse inputs could result in worse and not better decision making.

Q: What are you investing in to future-proof the business and maintain the leadership position of the company?

A: People and partnerships. People. Toluna always looks to hire the best and the brightest. And then we encourage them to stay. We always want fresh energy from people with non-traditional backgrounds. Our value of meritocracy gives them the chance to build real careers. Partnerships. We are always open to non-traditional partnerships. For example, first- and third-party data are on a collision course. Privacy and compliance regulations could encourage third-party data aggregators to seek new alliances. First-party data companies will benefit from the hundreds of extra data points that third-party data brings to research results. The consolidation of both data types could power companies to make even better and more nuanced business decisions.

Q: Thinking five years ahead, what do you envision Toluna looking like as a company?

A: Technology will continue to advance. Industry basics are not going to change: Speed remains constant. What was fast last year will not be in 2025 but research has also to offer the flexibility to fit with iterative innovation processes. Agility means using tools and techniques which factor speed and rigor into the process, at the same time, so work of high quality can be delivered at a faster pace. As technology continues to evolve and standardize, a benefit of industry consolidation should be that the end data will be more actionable, faster and better quality.

Q: You have a long and distinguished career growing and leading companies. Any advice you can offer to the next generation of business leaders?

A: Be a person who makes bold moves. People who take calculated risks will do better than those who are too safe. Be with your clients with laser focus discipline on their needs. Know what they are thinking and what they need just as they realize it themselves. When you are with clients in the action, you can never lose. That’s how today’s entrepreneur will also one day celebrate their 20th anniversaries in this industry.

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