From an interview with Paul Twite, Toluna's MD EMEA and LatAm, looking at the company's recent big announcements - rebranding and the launch of Toluna Start. For the podcast, and a fuller write-up including more personal reflections and detail, see the forthcoming Data Viz supplement.
Interview by MrWeb's Nick Thomas on September 2nd.
Researchers: Hard People to Change
NT: So you were working in media before..?
PT: Absolutely, I worked out of Hong Kong for 4 years for a media company, then came back and worked - I wouldn't say with, it was very much under - Michael Heseltine at Haymarket, which again was an incredible experience.
NT: Was the move from media to MR a big risk to take, and what were your expectations from this new sector?
PT: I'd love to say it was a big change, but at Haymarket I worked in b2b and probably across six different industry sectors at the same time, whether that was the marketing sector, printing sector, promotional marketing and events... so I was used to working across sectors, and I think running most businesses is a very similar process. The knowledge of a sector comes about through asking questions and listening, and the running of businesses is very similar, keeping close to your customers, anticipating their future needs. Probably the biggest jump was almost the cynicism, that someone could come into our sector and possibly understand what it is to be a researcher! So you get internal challenges but actually it was a very simple transition.
NT: Did you literally get people saying 'of course you're not a researcher so you wouldn't understand?'
PT: I think the challenge is when you're surrounded by very bright and inquisitive people that there can be a tendency to know they're doing something the right way, or feel that because they've always done it a certain way it's the correct way - and one of my primary goals when joining and working with my CEO was obviously to change the business, and I think change management in research firms is probably more challenging but ultimately more effective than in other sectors.
I'll refine that - normally when you're doing change management, you turn the head of the organisation and the body follows. In research firms, you've got to turn the head, then the shoulders, then the body and the legs, probably all individually over time, the good news is once that's happened you've got the emotional and intellectual investment in the team, so I would say that in a lot of the larger [research] businesses change is something that's quite difficult to manage, and we're quite lucky that one of our core values in the business is think big and embrace change. It has to be if you are going to survive and thrive in this sector. I think some research firms - I won't name them, but you can see the ones that are struggling to survive Covid, and they are real challenges, but it is that ability to really listen to customers and then to pivot where it's required. Without being indecisive. It's about leadership and defining a path for the business - and embedded in some research firms is that slight tendency bordering on arrogance, which you should never have, you should always have the humility to listen to other people's opinions, and even if you don't agree with them, see the merit in them.
NT: You say you can turn the head and the body will normally follow, but it doesn't with research - is that a comment on leadership of the organisation then, as much as the people further down the structure?
PT: I think you've got a lot of very bright people... you can encounter five people in the same sector team doing things in a slightly different way, even for a standardised piece of research, just because intellectually they've done concept testing say, a certain way. Standardisation is such a horrible word but putting some sort of system in place where people do things in a similar way across an organisation has huge benefits not just in terms of efficiency but in terms of customers - so whichever door they enter the business and wherever it is geographically they're getting a similar service / product if you like. So there were challenges getting people to see that - and positioning was key because of the horror of hearing a word like standardisation, you did have to work your way through the entire organisation.
Identifying brilliant leaders is also key... Normally acquisitions can be a bit like 'the acquirer's won, the people who have been bought have lost and we'll replace them' - but we've really identified the talent across the team, based on meritocracy, so it's worked very well.
Toluna Group Rebrand
NT: In the light of what you say about standardisation, why did it take so long then to have this rebrand and get everything under the Toluna name?
PT: Great question, and if you look at Toluna becoming the main brand, the previous one was ITWP, our shareholding umbrella if you like for the business, there was this thought that we're fast-growing, we're still relatively small, I'd like to think we're still humble, having four brands wasn't adding value.
Toluna, Harris and our Chinese business KuRunData, growing incredibly fast and doing a great job, and the choice wasn't to remove the Harris Interactive or KuRunData brands, but to leave all three brands doing a fantastic job in their own space. So yes it took us 5 years to do the rebrand, but we still see benefits in the brilliant work Harris Interactive is doing around adding true expertise in their sectors and it's certainly been outperforming the MR sector as a whole which is great, so there was no need to go to one brand. Had we been a very large multinational research firm we would have changed the logos over the doors 5 years ago.
NT: Tell me a bit more about KuRunData, as that's probably the one people know least about, out of the three names.
PT: That's a tech bus that we acquired I think 3 years ago, and it's added real value. It's a Chinese company, it's now a JV as all companies must be in China, and it was already a great business, fast-growing again, in the survey space, and we felt it had a natural fit with us. It's inside the Chinese firewall so it's able to do very fast very high-quality research, and I think shared similar values. Our own digital tracking tech, we've been able to now put into that Chinese panel; they're doing some extraordinary stuff embedding questions into social media platforms in China like WeChat, so it's worked very, very well. One tangible benefit to the business was when Covid hit, understanding and learning form their plans and their reactions since the APAC market was hit first. The response by our shareholders was that their strategic response was best in class because they were immediately focused on the opportunities, whether it's around off-line moving to online, fast-growth companies in media, fast-growth companies in e-tail, they were immediately well-placed to steer their clients through those challenges, so they will enjoy fast growth this year. So it's boosted our tech, our ability to grow in China, and we felt it was a faster route to success than trying to grow something of our own in that market. I think it's certainly proved the correct decision.
Toluna Start - Overview and Drivers
NT: You've been making a lot of moves recently to bring different bits of the survey process together into a single platform - tell us a bit about the rationale behind that.
PT: How we've looked at the process is: we've always had a tech platform, which we built up ten years ago, then launched into panel and at the same time having analytics, so that once surveys are filled out you can start analysing that data. I think what's most exciting is that as of this month, September, we're launching Toluna Start, which will be a true end-to-end consumer intelligence platform. So it's taking our legacy of technology - we started with the tech probably before the market was ready for it ten years ago - but now taking that legacy and really putting it on steroids and involving [eg integrating] it.
With Toluna Start we'll see robust automated methodologies - you clearly want your methodologies to be road-tested, you want them to be automated so there's speed there, but it will take the collaboration element to new levels - sharing info across the organisation. If you want to create templates so that quality indexes increase and usage becomes standardised across large organisations, that's very easy to achieve [with Toluna Start]. Then there's innovation, which is made much, much simpler on the new platform - businesses will be able to have the flexibility within a framework to really, really innovate, and make iterative decisions faster, which is where the entire market is going.
The end to end platform is key - and in terms of visualization, the idea that a CEO or a CMO has ages to read a 75-page deck, clearly that's a myth and people know that but still insist on it. The visualization [challenge] is to explain to someone who is time poor, in a clear visual way what is going on in the data, is critical, as is the ability to look at those visual cues and recut the data. So you will see in the Toluna Start platform you can start filtering. You'll have instant infographics telling a story, but then you might want to filter and have those images recut, that sort of ability will start coming in.
It's exciting for us, but what's honestly extraordinary is in EMEA and LatAm the old system Q2 revenues were up substantially, so you could say hang on, why change? - but it's in our DNA and our customers' DNA that we've got to be innovating, so the Toluna Start platform will take these core messages of embedded methodology, collaboration and innovation to new levels, and enable areas that haven't been touched before to be integrated as well. Beta test feedback has been extraordinary - we've taken some of our key customers through and it's been amazing to see their reaction - we're addressing key challenges they face. One of the reasons I joined the business is to see us constantly innovating, pushing the boundaries.
NT: To check, are you running it alongside the old system, side-by-side for the time being?
PT: No that's not how we work, we're not going to run them in parallel, because the evolution / upgrade benefits are so strong, there aren't any negatives, anything you could do on the old QuickSurveys platform you can do on the new one. It's a cliche but it's win-win. Our clients have all the old functionalities they used to have, whether it's live in-fill, cross-tabs, derived questions, weighting or any of those other facilities they rely on day to day, but we've added a whole new level of collaboration, innovation, additional modules around ad and brand, into our automated suite, so as of 13th September evening we turn off QuickSurveys, and as of the morning of September 14th it's on the Toluna Start platform.
NT: Sometimes the faster something gets the less people expect to pay for it... I've heard many complaints over the years about what it can do to perceived value.
PT: That sounds to me like a trope that is put out there by... research firms who don't have differentiation. When I joined ten years ago, commoditisation of research was a watchword, you had panel companies, CPIs, the MR industry was extraordinary bad at identifying ROI and value - the critical thing you do is to identify what's of value to your client, and I think the mistake we make is to focus on the wrong thing. So yes this is automated, this is fast, but what it enables you to do as a business is respond to your business challenges at a pace that redefines the position of the insight team in a business and that business's ability to respond.
I'll give you a specific example, I was with a client last Wednesday, they're a very, very large CPG firm, one of the world's largest, the client was wearing a mask and he said I'd love to give you feedback on your technology but I'll have to lower my mask to do this, and I thought 'Oh Dear this could be interesting', but what he said was: 'your team and your technology has redefined our business's ability to respond to Covid, redefined our share price and it's redefined our bonuses'. That's me done in terms of impact on a customer, that's perfect. Where we need to go, and the industry needs to go, is how we impact on our customers in a positive way, and the value we bring. The second we're involved in price - if I start saying a concept test is £1,50, someone else will come up and say it's £1.25, but what are you getting for £1.25? So it's about value, not price. One other example I'd give, virtually every big CPG firm phoned us or emailed us in March and said we're stopping all non-essential research - that's the point in every business where collectively your heart stops... a large portion of your revenue's just rung you up and said right, we're stopping all non-essential revenue, our response to that was, 'Great, surely it's more important than ever that you're getting good research'. That's why we saw substantial growth in the old QuickSurveys platform, because you have to be essential, and if you're purely bidding on price, which you do see, you see the results coming out of the big research firms and they're catastrophic - 20%, 40% down in H1 and that's because a lot of buyers have cut back on research that's not essential.
We did some research 3 or 4 years ago into what was important to our clients, we had a lot of MR clients and then a lot of end clients: and back then speed was much more important to the corporate clients than it was to the MR clients, and you could see that disconnect. I think quite often MR companies assume things of their own customers that just aren't true. Which is ironic. When we present these things, [focused on] collaboration, innovation and so on, we're not presenting things we've sat in a dark room and decided are important to our customers.
New Features: Collaboration and 'Democratization'
NT: I want to get a better idea of some of the new features that appeared with the September 14th launch.
PT: We see the automated methodologies extended, so they've always been very, very strong in the NPD area with various methodologies embedded in concept testing, pack testing. We see a lot more collaboration on the platform, so it's easier to share surveys, collaborate on work - which is kind of critical because for large organisations quite often you've got individuals asking fairly similar questions re fairly similar consumer sets at the same time, in different markets, so the ability to share that data across all parts of an organisation is key. On the visualization side, the ability to cut data in different ways, to instantly alter infographics based on different cuts of data will provide real differential. On the quality side - some of this is very technical but - some of the quota balancing has been made more robust so you're going to get even more quality. I think they're the key things.
NT: So the new system is a bit more iterative, feeding back results and adjusting on the fly, which has huge implications for data viz, having dashboards feeding things back to people real time as you go - can you elaborate on that?
PT: Let's look at that step by step: you can either look at things longitudinally and take very fast reads on situations - a lot of the work we've done recently has been very fast dips into consumer behaviour and you can thread them together to track over time; you can get instant driver analysis if you want to test concepts; if you want to test pack designs, pre- or post-comms, literally within minutes or within hours, our clients are going to get those results back visualized, whether that's simple stuff like areas of statistical significance highlighted; whether it's automated infographics around key points that can be shared seamlessly with your team - it's all about simplicity in terms of the visualization, the speed, and getting the key points across, and literally everything from fast dip infographics to more longitudinal studies.. Now it's everything from fast dip to longitudinal research, and literally getting things back at a speed which... some clients find uncomfortable - having our driver analysis and your infographics... we anticipate literally that more than 50% of projects for the iterative stuff will be from start to finish within 2 hours. We have had feedback before: how can I persuade my boss of the value if it's that fast - but all the automation involved, the intelligence involved doesn't remove any of the quality.
NT: On the collaboration side in particular, we've heard a lot about democratization of data and making research results not just easier to view and to understand but also to cross-analyse, for people who are not research specialists and not data professionals. Is that a key part of what you're doing, and how do you see that evolving?
PT: Democratization of data is something my CEO mentioned 10 or 11 years ago, and I think then it terrified the industry because the idea that 'someone stupid in marketing' rather than the insights team could possibly ask questions of people... they'd do it wrong and the survey would be wrong and everything would fall over. The good news is with this, if you want to have the insights team ask all the questions that's fine, and I'd certainly suggest in some cases it's the best course of action - and then that information can be shared seamlessly with people across the org. Equally you can then share the templates that you've created, for example if you want a specific way of asking a barrage of questions, you can have that set out for the organisation, whether that's across divisions in one territory or globally, so there are real advantages to that in terms of consistency and quality - the insights teams can own the quality thresholds, but also share the data very quickly. Then flexibility - you can take automated modules for questions, very standardised, and then you can add at the beginning and the end of that automated module. People haven't seen that ability before: there's plenty of places you can pull down a module from a library, but what you don't have then is the ability to top and tail it with bespoke questions - this will guarantee robust methodologies at the core of what you're doing, and the flexibility around it.
NT: Do you have a motto, or a phrase by which you like to live your life or your business life?
PT: It's 'Actively listen to others'. I don't see globally a lot of active listening going on, I think people talk at each other, and don't listen. Actively listen, and be prepared to learn.
Paul Twite brings an abundance of digital technology experience and knowledge to his role as Managing Director, EMEA. After joining Toluna in 2013, he was tasked with growing the company's UK business. Toluna has experienced a sustained increase in both the number and depth of client relationships in the research and technology sectors under Paul's leadership. Before joining Toluna, he led divisions at United Business Media in Hong Kong and Haymarket in London. He holds a BA (Hons) II.I in English Language and Literature from the University of Leeds.
All articles 2006-20 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas unless otherwise stated.