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What Career Paths Can Market Researchers Aspire To?

What can Market Research do to attract top talent coming out of top universities - that to me is one cogent question that we need to discuss more. Part of that is providing attractive career paths.


By Edward Appleton

A recent Linked-In post by Saul Dobney ( raised the question of what implications the potential adoption of the position “Chief Customer Officer” or “Chief Experience Officer” would have for Market Research, referring to articles in the Economist and Marketing Week.

The Economist article ( describes the conflicting forces at work in many companies – struggling to respond better to the ever-more internet-empowered and demanding customer on the one hand, whilst on the other needing to look to cost-effective ways of actually interacting with customers.

The Marketing Week article (  takes a look at  how customer experience is taking centre stage as a criteria for digital marketing success, and posed the question of internal ownership – should a CMO also be the CXO (Customer Experience Officer)?

Neither mentioned Market Research at all.

Which in itself got me thinking: how peripheral are we as a discipline if we’re not even on the organisational radar screen when it comes to taking ownership of the Voice of the Customer?

Who knows more – ideally – than the Research or Insights Department about Customer needs and wants?

Moving it on a bit – what gives us Market Researchers the right to play in the stakes for owership of the Customer’s needs and wants internally? And more critically – what if we don’t even raise our claim to this role? Will IT or Marketing departments take on the responsibility, overshadowing us?

Organisational structures are an important and in my view insufficiently discussed issue: what’s the right corporate organisational model for Market Research? Where do we fit best? Similarly: what is the ideal career path that an ambitious Researcher might aspire to?

Whether you’re Agency or Client side, these are key issues: the higher up an organisation our voice is heard regularly, the more influence overall Research is likely to have.

1. Influence is tightly linked to Data Synthesis

Insights are often gained by looking at various data streams on the same topic – CRM data, sales data, customer data, survey data, panel or tracking data, Trend data, internet marketing metrics, feedback from Customer Service….the list goes on.  Research is the only corporate discipline in my view that potentially has the remit and the neutrality to pull all the above together and make sense of it.

It’s a huge, not to say overwhelming task if you consider how many categories many companies operate in, how much data is available constantly. Taking on this challenge is something that MR needs to look at seriously, and has implications for both Suppliers and Client-side researchers.

2. After “Insights” Comes Strategy

Imagine we become so familiar with all the data points suggested above on a category. Internally, the Researcher becomes the go-to person for many departments when it comes to intelligence issues.

The opportunity we have then is to put the “What Next” into practice: move from a description of a status quo to the strategic path of looking at options that present themselves as alternative course of actions, evaluating them in a structured manner. This is essentially about Strategy Planning. Researchers could easily aspire to this role in an organisation.

3. MR Needs to Influence General Management

To get to the level of strategic influence, it’s necessary to be close to where strategic decisions are made – in the Board room. Currently, research as a function invariably supports Marketing, which is fine. However, we need to have a voice at board level as well.

Ideally, we should aspire to having a dotted reporting line into General Management – providing an unbiassed view alongside Finance.

4. Chief Insight Officer

Why not have Chief Insight Officers? The concept fo CMOs is familiar, so why not a CIO, with a seat on the Board. Surely this is where the voice of the end-user belongs. I’d be curious if people reading this know of similar roles.

5. Marketing for Researchers? 

One career path that ambitious researchers can take is to step into Marketing – or Planning in Advertising, maybe even Management Consulting. The logic of this is sound in my view: broaden one’s commercial awareness, experience hands-on the contingencies and trade-offs of day-to-day marketing and product management.

And: if there isn’t an established “route to the top” within Research, then Marketing is a more well-trodden path. It isn’t of course for everybody – the skill sets you need to be a great Marketer are arguably very different from those needed to be a great Researcher. Which brings me back to the need for a Board Level Insight Position, as a logical career path for a discipline that is core to the business.

Why do I think all of the above is important? My perception is that many of our industry’s “hot topics” focus on new methodologies, disruptive technologies, tools – this week it’s Nielsen and Twitter, a few months ago it was Google surveys, no doubt there’s more to come. Which is fantastic. We live in exciting times.

However: the real focus needs to be on impact and value, which are driven by many aspects that are arguably more important than a new technology. These include skill set levels, talent identifcation and fostering, and motivating career paths. What can MR do to attract top talent coming out of top universities – that to me is one cogent question that we need to discuss more. Part of that is providing attractive career paths.

So – fancy becoming a CIO of a Fortune 500 Company? Sounds more attractive potentially than becoming a Market Researcher, perhaps, to a different type of aspiring graduate. Certainly just as attractive as the CXO 😉

Curious, as ever, as to others’ views.

Please share...

10 responses to “What Career Paths Can Market Researchers Aspire To?

  1. As corporations rely ever more on the thousands of opinions expressed by people in internet surveys, and as internet-based companies pump out dozens of “surveys” with thousands of responses, traditional Market Research does not stand a chance because objectivity is not the key criterion. Rather what is impressive is that “n” is measured in thousands.

    The times when objectivity does matter and people really do want to know the truth are becoming reduced. Strangely, political polling remains one of those areas where parties do want to know whether they are on the nose or not, despite their protestations that they take no notice of polls between elections!

    Every corporation should still use feedback mechanisms, especially to identify emerging problems in product performance and customer service. If you are getting consistently negative feedback, then you had better fix the problem and not waste time on surveys.

    But the challenge for Market Researchers is to identify those occasions, and mount the appropriate arguments, when corporations really need to know the truth.

  2. This might sound not very optimistic, but the truth is market researchers tend to stuck in market research area. Some of the “lucky” ones in agencies (usually with great connections) can only pass to client sides, and if they are again lucky they get into brand management or again stuck in consumer insight department. Expectations are really high from the client side, you should have known these these tools, and these these type of things. And unfortunately in agencies account managers & account directors are incapable of training young researchers or they don’t educate them on purpose, so that the young researcher won’t take his job from his hand. So a young market researcher after a few years tend to quit the job and has to start from the scratch for his career, because nobody in business world interested in their market research skills. There are lot of young researchers I know who think the same way. And this will go on until account directors learn to respect their co-workers and teach them what market research & insights are all about, not only charting and dumping the errands.

  3. I LOVE #4, it’s what most of us want, however it has no teeth. I’ve seen more and more VP of Market Insights & Strategy, and I think that makes sense. Insights alone is limited to some degree…adding insights to strategy seems to give an organization a role that learns the who/what/how and just as importantly starts to fomulate the path to do something with those insights.

  4. @geoff – I’d beg to disagree with your statement that “objectivity is not a key criteria”. I’d say that Corporations constantly need to evaluate the feedback that “data” could tell them – if unlocked through intelligent and focussed analysis. Big Data doesn’t mean more intelligence, just more data.

    @researcher – whoever you are, thank you for your honesty. Could you help me understand your response better – large Agency, small? Geography?
    I’d also look to the virtual audience here – opinions? Does this view chime? Feel free to answer without any reference to a company name.

    @barry – tend to agree. Insights needs to have teeth to be valued – and linked it to either strategy of operational issues is a great way of doing it.

  5. Love the topic! You are right on!

    Research / insights groups by their functional name implies “input” to decisions or ideas – forever a “support” group – most often supporting marketing. Which means marketing can choose to hear or not hear us – it’s why they debate methodology when they don’t like answers. Or spin data to “sell” their ideas. I once heard a marketer say ” insights exists to help marketing look good” .

    Frankly – it’s a leadership issue.

    Insights leaders have 3 imperatives:
    1) drive credibility with sr. management and cross functional leaders – which means our work must be relevant (beyond marketing) to their world, objective – and move beyond the soft marketing metics (like equity) to financial metrics (like ROI) …

    2) develop capabilities that impact strategy and business decisions – be more like management consultants and less like scientist/researchers. Why don’t we have conferences or training options in this area like we do the latest segmentation techniques?

    3) develop, attract and retain talent to be students of pop culture, emerging new behaviors – participate in the latest technology and social media. The field is full on GenXers who reject getting involved – who are viewed by marketers as “old curmudgeons” who like to navel gaze and are completely out of touch – not only with culture – but with the business. We are our own enemy.

    Our companies won’t create a Chief Insights Officer (that is filled by an insights person anyway) until WE start behaving in ways that deserve it. If we spent as much time debating and developing talent and leadership as we do methodologies – we just might get there.

  6. @pam – thanks so much for your comments. I concur with pretty much everything you say. If – to pick up your point 2 – we need new skill sets, and need to talk less about methodology, more about talent/leadership development, why is so much of the public debate about methodology still? So much of the online debate talks about disruption, but essentially refers to shifts in suppliers toolkits. Isn’t this a red herring? Curious as to yours and others’ views

    1. Suppliers make up the majority of the industry population and those engaged in various forms of public discourse. Most Suppliers sell tools and methods which constitutes the majority of their revenue. A focus on impact is much more of a consulting function which most suppliers don’t do well at. That is why the discourse tends to focus on the mechanics of research vs. The results.

  7. Lenny – so you are for or against continuing the status quo, whereby most of the online debate is about methodology? The value of a good or service is driven by what clients wish, and how they match up against changing competing offerings. Your argument – if it is one – to me sounds like the following the law of diminishing returns, whereby suppliers “talk” about what they are good at, but actually clients needs are often elsewhere.

    1. Not at all Edward, I was simply explaining my view of the current dynamic. I think it’s vital that clients engage more in the dialogue and communicate to suppliers what their true needs and business objectives are: my view is that methods are only important in the context of how they help clients meet those objectives. That said, I am an advocate for new approaches because I believe they can help accomplish that goal and we should always be looking for more ways to be effective.

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