Gary de Ocampo is the President of Kantar Philippines, and the Managing Director of its Insights Division. He is retiring today to explore other ventures, including entrepreneurship, after almost three decades in market research. In this interview, he reflects on his experience as a research practitioner, from starting as a statistician, to being a junior research executive (which was when I met him), and to rising from the ranks to become CEO of a major research group.
Q1: Looking back on your career, what are some of the most significant changes or developments you’ve seen in the field of market research?
A1: When I started in this industry, survey data collection mostly used pen and paper – voluminous questionnaires with show cards as aid to both interviewers and interviewees. Some surveys were done via telephone interviewing. Project briefings were always a big event run by researchers and attended by clients. The upside was that there was always a big group of people testing the “fieldability” of the questionnaires, and revisions to improve the instrument were done real-time with clients as they heard first-hand possible responses, whose relevance to their business they could immediately assess.
However, despite the scrutiny, interviews would still normally run from as short as one hour to as long as three. The training of field interviewers was of utmost importance because what happened in the field was completely in their hands. The scandalous length of interview would, however, sometimes tempt a few of these poor interviewers to take things into their own hands and fill out the impossibly long questionnaires under mango trees with made-up answers.
The downsides, as you can imagine, were mostly because, at each stage, there was complete dependence on individuals’ personal discipline, competence, resilience, and, most importantly, integrity. After completing all the questionnaires, a long and painful process of manual encoding and coding was required before the machines could take over and run the program to churn out data tables, which would then be the basis for charts that researchers would create – also manually – depending on the agreed analysis plan and what the clients required.
Over time, as technology progressed and the environment evolved, data capture moved to computer-assisted interviewing with the use of devices that field interviewers brought along with them from house to house.
Currently, at least in Kantar, there are now more online surveys being done than face-to-face, the advantage of which is that it effectively addresses the perennial issues that came from the use of human interviewers (inconsistent interview conduct, fraud, etc. even though there were more honest and competent interviewers than rogue ones). The con, of course, is the endless debate about how representative the online sample is of the market population that clients are interested in studying.
Data then automatically goes through the computer program, which is either pre-coded if a proprietary solution is used in the research, or customized to address the specific information requirements of the project. Human intervention remains but to a significantly reduced extent. Output is usually delivered via online dashboards, which both the researchers and the clients can access, enabling more perspectives to surface and enriching the final analysis. Use of non-survey data such as social media buzz, passive measurement data and secondary data from several sources can now more easily be integrated into the analysis via advanced analytics.
The recent surge in the use of AI appears poised to upend market research further. Years ago, the need for a big number of field interviewers to do house-to-house data collection whittled away, resulting in the loss of livelihood for a great number of people, mostly women. Now, there is excitement because of the expected advancement in speed and scope in research work, but there is also concern and nervousness due to all the imagined adverse effects, particularly on the job security of people. Will AI eventually replace market researchers? I think that this is possible if we think about those who do the most basic outputs of market research – data tables, charts, and first-level analysis. For in-depth and customized reports that require creativity and deep understanding of people, culture and business, humans will always be required. This means then that there will be a need for market researchers to upgrade their skills across a whole slew of disciplines – from psychology to sociology, economics, politics, and perhaps even epidemiology, on top of the usual and even more advanced statistics and data science expertise – and bring them all together to come up with genuine understanding of the consumer, delivered to clients in a way that effectively answers business questions and helps them make timely business decisions.
Q2: How has technology changed the way we approach market research, and what do you see as the biggest opportunities and challenges in this area moving forward?
A2: With the advent of new technologies – eye-trackers, facial coding, augmented reality, AI and others – the data collection and analysis process has become faster and more efficient. For certain types of research, data collection can even be done in real-time! This allows businesses to respond quickly to changes in consumer behavior and market trends. Another opportunity is the ability to collect data from a wide range of sources, such as social media and mobile devices.
However, there are also downsides to all this. For example, for research that requires projection to the actual market, the classic representativeness of samples and the appropriateness of statistical tests being applied may be forgotten.
It is now commonplace to not have any discussion about whether the online survey sample truly represents the consumer segment or market being studied. Often, this matter is dismissed by saying that the source panel of online respondents is, anyway, “large enough.” Sometimes, little conversation had to make use of some statistical remedies such as applying weights appropriately to correct for any disproportionate representation in the sample. Another atrocity that’s being practiced is the application of significance testing to samples whose characteristics are not even assessed in any way to determine whether the statistical tests being applied are appropriate or not. The other extreme of this is not to bother with significance testing at all, paving the way to needless panic or undeserved celebration at every little decline or increase in a client brand’s key performance metric.
There seems to be no widespread understanding anymore that survey data is most often sample data, not population data, and hence, not everything that happens in the sample is necessarily happening as well in the real market. I hope other agencies are not saying, “Kantar, speak for yourself” because I have seen other agencies’ reports as well with these same challenges.
The industry still needs to resolve conflicting ideas about how to move forward with the new and shiny while keeping the necessary disciplines of the old.
Initially, the new may dazzle clients, but, without the required disciplines and expertise that will keep the market research grounded in true science, the hollowness of some of these new toys will eventually be found out, as business recommendations become misleading, unreliable, and possibly even detrimental to the clients’ businesses.
Q3: What do you think are the most important qualities or capabilities of a successful market researcher and why? What do you think sets successful market researchers apart from those who struggle to achieve results?
A3: Attributed to Pablo Picasso is the saying “Learn the rules like a pro so you can break them like an artist.”
Market research is both science and art. Successful market researchers should be able to balance both. It’s important to have a deep understanding of the science of market research, and also the ability to be creative and think outside the box when needed. After all, the end goal is to help clients make informed decisions in the face of uncertainty, and we all know that getting certainty is either a pipe dream or extremely expensive.
This straddling between science and art will require a huge sense of responsibility and integrity because, often, the clients being serviced do not have any background in market research and depend entirely on what their friendly market research partners or their market research department staff tell them.
Humility is another essential trait for a successful market researcher, especially when it comes to accepting different perspectives. It’s crucial to be open to the possibility that someone else may have a better or the correct view on a particular piece of research. This is especially important for market researchers who move to client organizations, as their research skills can quickly become outdated, earning for them the moniker “old school,” a running joke among former colleagues who are secretly appalled by some directions being imposed on them by their now-clients. Therefore, it’s crucial to maintain partnership with the research agency to stay up-to-date on the latest advancements in market research.
I remember one case when I saw a segmentation result with one segment occupying more than half of the total market. This immediately gave me the impression that the segmentation work was incomplete, but it was sold to the client as the final result, which became the basis for a very costly strategic restructuring. After only a year or two, the client needed to undo the mistake before it could wreak further havoc, which took a lot of humility to admit.
Successful market researchers also understand the importance of questionnaire design and the impact it can have on the validity of the data collected. Atrociously long questionnaires – 2 to 3 hours long! -result in useless data that can mislead clients into making wrong business decisions and hurt the industry because, not only does this besmirch the reputation of the craft, it also further exacerbates the fast-diminishing willingness of people to participate in surveys.
In this day and age, who will willingly give 2 to 3 hours of their time to answer surveys, either face-to-face or online? Even if you find some, the high incidence of aborted interviews leading to high sample substitution makes the representativeness of the final sample highly suspect.
Many clients do not realize that they are paying huge amounts of money for garbage survey data, whose complete uselessness no amount of weight application or dressing up can remedy.
If you are a client, I hope you will listen to someone who’s been in the industry for long enough and is now exiting it. Ask your market research department staff or your agency partner about the length of the questionnaire being used for the research whose results you base your business decisions on. I hope you will not cringe. Whatever you find, you will know what to do based on common sense. Further, if your market research function lead or agency partner knows nothing else but to ask more questions for any additional business issue to diagnose and solve, it may be high time to replace them, or send them to a refresher course on market research. Asking more questions every time is a lazy way to do market research.
Q4: What advice would you give to someone just starting out in market research and how to build a successful career in this field?
A4: Every field of career will have its unique sources of satisfaction and challenges. In market research, you will really need to be a lover of learning about anything and everything to be successful. You will, of course, still have a choice about what sectors you will want or are willing to study, but you cannot be too choosy either. Your curiosity about all sorts of things should be wide enough and strong enough to keep you in enjoying the endless investigation and exploration that you will be doing for as long as you are in this industry. It will feel like you are always writing multiple theses – everyday!
It goes without saying that you will need to have the determination to make sure your basics are as solid as they can be depending on the sub-expertise of your choice – quantitative or qualitative – though I will argue that being a well-rounded market researcher will position you much better for success.
Another one is understanding and keeping in mind what the client has really commissioned the project for – to help them make business decisions in the face of uncertainty. Descriptive statistics will never be enough – unless the project specifically defines the scope of work to be data only or first-level analysis only. Expert interpretation of information is ALWAYS required. To wrap the work up, there should always be a strong and clear point of view that helps the client make informed decisions that will help them grow their business.
A third advice is to stand your ground when you know you are in the right. Market research is a service industry, but service does not mean servitude. If your boss or client wants you to do something that is clearly wrong such as using a questionnaire that is more than 30-45 minutes, applying significance testing to a sample that does not qualify for such statistical test, tinkering with sampling or the data to create a different impression other than what it plainly says, you must still decide to do what is right. It is your responsibility to echo the true voice of the consumers, and that is such a great honor, privilege, and responsibility. No one can argue with you when you are sure you genuinely represent the consumers in those client board meetings you are always nervous to attend.
Q5: Looking ahead, besides technology, what do you think are the biggest challenges facing the market research industry, and what will it take to overcome them?
A5: As research companies move towards standardization and using online panels, the challenge of keeping the solid basics will become even bigger. Black-box metrics and normative databases become the selling points without any mention at all about the fundamentals such as sample representativeness, confidence levels, proper articulation of questions, appropriate rating scales, and the like.
How do you keep one foot in the genuine science of the work, and the other foot in the technological advancements of data collection and delivery? AI is coming, and we will see its impact on market research soon. All these will gain strong attraction because they will offer speed and shine, but you will have to understand what you may be giving up when you use them and be clear about the implications of the trade-off.
I think the industry should continue to have an open and honest conversation about these matters until everyone is clear about it, or it is resolved. Most remain in the dark about the debate, and there is an impression that these issues are simply being dismissed and swept under the rug as if old always equates to irrelevant.
Q6: Looking back on your career, what are the top 3 projects, studies and activities that you’re most proud of, and why?
A6: It has already been 15 years since I was completely involved in specific research projects, but I still vividly remember those that I consider even more enjoyable than managing the whole business.
I consider myself as having a good mix of science and art. I have a bachelor’s degree in Statistics, but my first love is the visual arts. I look back at the brand health tracker projects I won and led a fantastic team to run for market leaders in the fast food and snacks categories as defining moments in my career. These continuous research projects became the sources of information for the clients’ KRA evaluation. Because of these projects, I became the local champion for MIRIAD (Managed Integrated and Research Information Database), the brand health tracker solution of the now-defunct TNS. I even earned the nickname “Tracker King” from Dr. Ned Roberto, which was a great honor.
Another project that stands out for me is the big needs segmentation that my team and I ran for a consumer health client. This one gave me much artistic high as the work made use of archetypal marketing as basis for segmenting consumer needs. The process was enjoyable, and the outcome was amazing, as the piece of research involved running workshops with all the client’s brand communication partners to formulate and flesh out archetype-based brand positioning plans, resulting in a cohesive and effective system of brand portfolio management for the client.
Finally, I am most proud of the team I had the privilege of leading for 15 years. It is a bittersweet experience leaving them behind, but I am confident in their ability to continue growing the Philippine business of Kantar even beyond what I can imagine myself. 25 years of working in the organization has truly been a great honor and fulfilling experience.
Kantar is the research and validation partner of the Mansmith Young Market Masters Conference (YMMA) for the last 18 years. The YMMA search is ongoing through www.youngmarketmasters.com
Josiah Go is Chairman and Chief Innovation Strategist of Mansmith and Fielders Inc.
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