In 1987 I jumped ship from my job as an account supervisor in advertising to become a qualitative researcher. It was much more a case of escaping from a problem than running to a solution. But qual turned out to be much more than a refuge, rapidly becoming a happy home. I found my place, and 30 years on, I still love this job.
The very nature of qualitative research is to ask ‘why?’, so I’ve been thinking about why I like this job so much. I think it can be distilled down to six reasons.
1. You get paid to think
In how many jobs is this true? The value-add in qualitative research lies in your analysis, interpretation and, ultimately, your opinion; which, if you do a good job, is listened to, respected, and acted upon. In the world of work, this is a rare and rather remarkable privilege.
Of course, this is no God-given right. If you are going to pursue a successful career in qual, your clients have to trust your thinking – trust that your interpretation is accurate and that your judgment is sound.
To misquote Oscar Wilde, “I have nothing to declare but my interpretation”. In qual there are no facts. Instead, there is a huge volume of soft and malleable raw material that you have to carefully analyse to find the links and the patterns in order to derive meaning and extrapolate the implications. This is all down to interpretation. As it happens, quantitativedata is not objective fact either and is still open to interpretation, but there can be no question that qual ‘data’ is intrinsically more amorphous and fluid than quant. So, while a client always has to place their trust in the interpretation of any researcher, quallies operate with much less visible, tangible support than quanties. This means qualitative researchers have to work even harder to ensure they weave their understanding into a clear, compelling narrative that creates credible meaning for clients.
Ultimately, not even this is enough to sustain a career in this business, because the recommendations you make based upon your thinking and interpretation come to be tested in the market. You can only sustain a career in this business if the actions you recommend deliver results. This puts huge pressure on your ability to combine analytical and creative thinking to define the best route forward.
Bring it on.
2. You keep learning
You get paid to think but you also get paid to learn. Fast. And in-depth. If you have a genuinely curious mind (an absolute pre-requisite for a quallie), this is a great job.
With every project, you have to gain a deep understanding of what drives behaviour and attitudes in relation to the market and the brands within it, and you rarely have more than two or three weeks in which to do it. Last week: malt whisky; this week: mortgages; next week: condoms. It’s an intense, immersive experience and, by the end of the project, you will likely know more about consumer motivation in relation to a brand than do most of the brand team.
Having spent intense periods exploring and thinking about consumer behaviour in specific markets, in great depth, many times, experienced researchers become an extraordinary repository of knowledge and insights just waiting to be tapped. Very often, a qual researcher will have worked longer on a brand than anyone in Marketing. Coca-Cola was my client for 20 years and I never worked with anyone there who had been at the company for this long. No-one had the depth of understanding that comes from 20 years of talking to consumers about Coca-Cola and Diet Coke, which is why I was eventually asked to distil two decades of learning into definitive reference manuals for the brand and insight teams.
In 30 years, there’s scarcely a category in which I haven’t worked, from HIV infection in the 80s to social media in the Teenies. All of that knowledge accumulates and builds over the years to give you a massive head start when it comes to tackling any project.
Of course, in every job you (hopefully) continue to learn the skills of your trade. But it’s not easy to think of another in which you learn so much about so many different things in such a short space of time.
3. Every project is different
I calculate I must have worked on over 600 qual projects, and I honestly do not recall having found a single one boring. Even the most apparently mundane categories or brands have their own points of interest when you start to delve into consumers’ perception and motivations, be it custard or lawn seed.
Even the projects that are superficially similar are unique: this comms idea will be different in some way to any other you have ever looked at, even for the same brand; the relationship this given set of consumers has with this category will differ from the relationship they had with the other category you explored with them last year. Plus, it’s not just the market, brands, consumers and marketing ideas that differ; so too do the clients and their challenges. The brief might resemble others you have received but, when you start to dig into the brand and market context, the marketing objectives and, indeed, the broader business issues and company culture, no two briefs are ever the same.
Rather wonderfully, this equips you with an incredibly rich experience base. While no two projects are the same, you have a fantastic reserve of experience that can inform your approach to any challenge.
Additionally, working across so many categories and brands inevitably means frequent exposure to the inner workings of a diverse range of companies. Being able to gain this level of business insight is also an unusual privilege, giving you wonderful sense of the breadth of corporate cultures. That said, there are some clear common themes, many of which are none too positive. But that’s a subject for another post!
4. You find out what real people are like!
You don’t have to work in an agency to live in an ivory tower. Frankly, all of us who are fortunate enough to have an interesting job with prospects, own a property, go on skiing holidays, be a member of a gym or eat at independent restaurants are living in a different world from most people in this country. Our social groups overwhelmingly consist of people from the same very narrow horizontal slice of society, a segment of people with similar incomes and perspectives.
One of the great joys of this job is getting out and talking to ‘consumers’ all over the country and learning first-hand what ‘real people’ are like. When you talk to them about how they relate to a market or a brand, or when they respond to a brand positioning or a communications concept, they do so against the background of their upbringing, lifestyle and values. So, despite the fact that the subject matter is some aspect of marketing, you incidentally absorb a sense of the nature of people far beyond the topic at hand. In so doing, one becomes armed against the lazy generalisations about ‘ordinary’ people one encounters in the media, and sensitised to the implicit elitism that can be found amongst one’s peers.
I genuinely think it’s a huge privilege to be able to talk to 'ordinary' people, day in and day out. It keeps you grounded. When I worked in advertising, I was always fascinated to find out what the people our work was ‘targeted’ at actually did with it, how it fared in the real world. This was a key part of what attracted me to qualitative research when I was looking to escape from being an account man. Little did I know that the experience of talking to ‘respondents’ would help me understand people and society in a much broader context.
It also acts as a sanity check against the BS of modern marketing that would have us believe different consumer segments, corralled together on the basis of marginal data differences, possess significantly distinct characteristics, be they ‘Millennials’, ‘Generation Z’ or ‘Affluent Anythings’ (yes, really), failing to represent the inconvenient truth that people are both simpler and more complex than these misleading groupings would have you believe.
Fortunately, the marketing world seems slowly and reluctantly to be waking up to the reality that Big Data only tells us so much; if we want the kind of real understanding that can inform marketing activity, we have to look at the kind of Small Data that only in depth qual can provide.
5. You can say ‘I did this’
My 6 years in advertising were spent as an account man. I learnt a huge amount and acquired a range of skills and a depth of understanding of creative communications that I put into practice constantly in what I do now. However, one of the the reasons I jumped ship was that I could never point to anything and say “I did that”. There was never any tangible product of my labours – something that would not have existed had it not been for me. Don’t get me wrong; I think account management is a great job for the right person and it takes a very particular set of talents to do it well. But it’s mainly about oiling the wheels, making it possible for other people to achieve things.
Every single project I handle has an end product that is a unique result of my experience, understanding and vision. The ‘same’ project, exploring the same issues amongst the same target for the same client would look different if someone else had done it. That might be a bit scary for clients, but it’s wonderfully empowering for the researcher. If I get recommissioned, it’s because I did a good job and my client trusts me to do another. There’s nowhere to hide, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling.
6. You get to work with bright people
Having said that I would keep my perspectives on corporate culture for another post, one overall observation I will make here is that many (if not most) companies do a great job of compromising the ability of bright people do a great job.
Nonetheless, whatever the constraints, and however handicapped they may be by corporate culture, they remain bright people. I have found my clients almost invariably a pleasure to work with. Almost by definition, good people who work with brands and in agencies are interested in the world around them, in human behaviour and in ideas, and how to bring them together. As we well know, one of the main qualities of interestingpeople is that they are interested.
I have sensed sometimes that insight managers feel they are the only sane people in a business gone mad! They feel they work in companies that have lost track of the realities of their markets and behave in a way that betrays a lack of understanding of the people that ultimately pay their wages: customers. Sometimes there is an almost palpable sense of relief when the findings from research support a perspective that they had been unable previously to get the business to listen to.
I am fortunate enough to work a lot with agencies too, where I have encountered some of the brightest and most creative people it has been my good fortune to meet. The relationships I have built here have probably been helped by working in advertising at the start of my career, giving me an understanding of creative ideas and a very clear sense of the struggles involved in trying to get good work out of the door.
30 years in, I’m happy to say I like my clients more than ever! If it is true that you get the clients you deserve, then I am a doubly happy man.
As I reviewed this article, I noticed how many times I had described aspects of what I do as a ‘privilege’. I may not have become the Formula 1 driver or architect my 12 year old self had in mind, but if I still regard so many elements of my work as a privilege, I guess I would have to conclude that things haven’t worked out too badly.