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COMMUNITIES FEATURE: Interview with Tim Martin

June 28 2021

Continuing our focus on insight communities, Verve's Joint Head of Research talks about setting up the world's largest community panel; the boom in exploratory digital qual; and why he's seeing research better represented in board meetings than ever before. Available in print or as a video podcast.

Tim Martin

Tim was interviewed in May by MrWeb's Nick Thomas: abridged version below or watch the video at www.mrweb.com/drno/timmartin.htm [length c.34 minutes]

Getting Here

TM: I'm from Yeovil in Somerset where the big employer was Westland helicopters - and my dad worked for them. My mum was a physiotherapist, for the NHS for a bit and then went private. Growing up I was always exposed to lots of new experiences, and they were always very keen to push me forward for new things. I think that's created a natural level of interest for me, in lots of different things, for which market research is very well suited: you get to see lots of different clients, different industries, categories, and different priorities, and you get to be immersed in what they're doing. That's key for me in terms of why I find the job so fascinating.

I studied politics and history at Manchester University, and for the dissertation spent a lot of time going and researching historical material, which I loved - so I was interested in the research side of things, but I wanted it to be something fresher and more current, and a friend from my course was talking about MR so that's how I ended up in MR.

NT: When you started at Verve, can you remember how big a factor was 'working with communities' - did you have any experience of it specifically...

TM: I didn't have any specific experience but I loved the idea of companies really putting customers at the heart of their decision-making. I think also I could clearly see the need for research to go digital, and Verve are forward thinking in that space.

Big In America - the 400k Walgreen's Community

NT: What does your job as Joint Head of Research entail?

It's a wide-ranging job. I joined to work on the Boots account, one of the bigger ones at Verve, and that led to a number of opportunities - the main one was that we successfully pitched for the Walgreens community panel in America, so after a couple of years in the UK I went and set up an office in Chicago, recruited a brand new team over there, teaching them about the way we do things at Verve. We then went about setting up the world's largest community panel - currently 400,000 Walgreen's customers, all linked with transactional data from their loyalty cards, so it's an incredible insight asset that we're very proud of.

NT: 400,000 members! Tell us more about the Walgreen's panel.

TM: It's a fascinating client. The main value that we see from it is not only the front-of-store data that you have from Walgreen's but also the pharmacy data: all panel members sign a HIPAA waiver which means we have all their prescription data. Walgreen's also sell [the community] as an insight tool for their suppliers, so we work with big brands like Pfizer, Reckitt-Benckiser, Kellogg's, all of those big brands to understand what the Walgreen's consumer thinks of their products and how it can be better utilised within that convenience space. We do the same for Boots in the UK, we not only work on Boots' business priorities, but also those of all the brands that sell in the store as well.

NT: Are any of those people like Kellogg's etc companies you work with separately?

TM: No, so it's exciting again because it's broadening the repertoire of clients that we work with. If it's done in the right way we can really help individual categories work well together. In Walgreen's for example there was an issue with ready-to-go drinks, so we brought together Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Dr Pepper to jointly fund a project and actually helped the category grow. So, you can look at it on an individual product basis - how does this product resonate with the Walgreen's customers - but also at the category level, bringing lots of different suppliers together to fund the work, so that the category itself will grow.

Panels Without Frontiers

NT: Are Verve mainly US and UK or do you have other things going on elsewhere?

TM: A lot elsewhere actually. Those are our two main research hubs, and we have an operations team in Iasi in Romania, but so many of our clients are doing international research now... Samsung is the biggest example of that, where we've got communities in about 15 European countries but again that goes to other areas of the world - like the US and South Korea - too when the briefs demand it. We also work with companies like Innocent and Shell which have a lot of European reach in terms of the work we do for them. Boots have international brands like No.7, Soap & Glory... It's important that we do a lot of work in Thailand and China where they've got a presence - that's one of the great ways that we have used digital tech to expand the scope of the work we do, because reaching international consumers is so much easier these days.

NT: Would you have a lot of nations mixed within one community, or do you tend to separate them out into one region or another?

TM: They generally sit on the same platform so it's easy for us to sample them and use them in similar projects but they will often have a different journey - the community platform they see is in-language. Samsung is a good example of that - we have some pan-European communities where they're all mixed in the same community, but also we have some that are just in native language as well - but they will all sit within the same platform, so it's efficient in terms of setup, sampling and project execution.

A Shot In The Arm

NT: Can we step back and take a look at what's happening in the (insights) industry at the moment, especially the last 18 months since we published the previous supplement: split if you like between things driven by Covid, and anything that was happening anyway.

TM: Yeah, the very obvious answer is that the whole industry has been much more open to digital approaches over the last 18 months... and particularly from a qual perspective. People have accepted the benefits of online quant for a long time but there has been a reluctance to take that step into the digital qual space - we are seeing that clients now have been forced to take that leap of faith. Pop-up communities, digital depths, online diaries, missions - they're all techniques that we've done for years that people are now seeing the benefits of. It's an area that we've started investing heavily in - now some much bigger exploratory pieces are coming to us because people have seen the benefits of it, and I think we'll see a lot more of the hybrid kind of brief coming in, where the main part is a digital qual approach, but then mixing that with some ftf rather than being ftf-led.

One of the biggest changes across research generally in the last 18 months is that it's had more prominence within businesses. It's more important than ever that clients know what their customers are doing and thinking in this space, and with my clients I have never seen research represented in board and executive meetings as much as it has been in this past year.

The world is changing so quickly, that teams and boards are saying 'What are our customers thinking *now*?' We saw a number of our clients changing [elements of] their service proposition on a regular basis so they needed to keep on top of what consumers needed. It was really refreshing to see that they needed that insight from us on such a regular basis, and this is where communities really came into their own. My team know about their communities and the customers on them really intimately so we notice even small shifts in attitudes or behaviour. [This means] we could really call that out to our clients, and start to get ahead of the game.

At the beginning of the pandemic we saw a lot of U&A type studies coming in, just so clients could see what consumers were doing; but then that really helped us inform future briefs. We started to see a lot more innovation briefs or really big exploratory qual pieces, because our forward-looking clients realised they needed to work their way out of the pandemic to come out in a strong place.

NT: ..and indeed we are 'coming out' of the pandemic, it seems now, touching a lot of wood - you've had your jab this morning by the way, I believe, feeling OK?

TM: [laughing] Yes, still bearing up.

NT: I'm interested that people are now starting to talk about the different phases within the pandemic period - the first c.3-4 months of shock when business didn't really do anything, then maybe 6 months when there was a sort of stuttering start, then more on hold, and now they're trying to prepare / do more developmental work. Is there a rise in brainstorming, idea generation projects now?

TM: Yes, completely right, we saw those initial studies of customer mindset and how consumers were reacting, then we've seen those studies of what consumers were going to be looking for in the new normal, but the other thing we've seen is a lot more briefs around CSR - so, what should our clients be doing to help customers, communities, the country - and where should they fit in terms of their social positioning. [We've used] both quant and qual work to help clients position themselves around what consumers expect, and what's authentic for their brand as well. It's really important for it to be a credible position you're taking on these things - so that it does feel natural.

Looking to the Future

NT: Can we look at the research and data sector as a whole and where it's going and where communities are going within that?

TM: I believe that in the last 12 months, the importance of having a regular monitor of what customers are thinking and doing has grown significantly - so we've seen significant growth in the community space as a result. Not only for long-term communities but also pop-up communities - so bringing 30 or 40 consumers together for a 3- or 4-day period, to really understand them across a specific subject.

Companies see the benefits of having an agency that's part of their team - it is a cliché that's often rolled out, but I genuinely feel that in the last 12-18 months we've become closer to our clients because we have worked with them side by side in terms of understanding their customers and their needs moving forward.

NT: Everything used to be done on a project basis - quote for something with a specific amount, do the study, come back with the results and that was it - but obviously as you say it's moving away from that towards working closer - how far down that road have we got do you think?

TM: Obviously when we run communities we have individual briefs that are sent to us and we deliver on a project-by-project basis, but what we then do is have quarterly or biannual reviews where we can take a step back and over all the projects we're doing, all the forums that we've run, all the ad hoc mini-polls, all the ad hoc projects we've been briefed to do. We look at overarching themes and that's when we start to identify trends and different opportunities for clients.

NT: What in particular is being worked on at Verve that we can look out for?

TM: The big opportunity for us is the exploratory qualitative space - those really big strategic pieces of work that lay the foundations for a client or a category moving forward - and we are developing our offer. We've been doing it on an ad hoc basis for the last three or four years, what we want to do is take everything we've learned from that space and have a really strong offer associated with that, so that more of our clients can see and experience the wealth of knowledge we have in that space - and this is the prime time to do it.

NT: Do you have a motto?

TM: No, but when we were in Chicago, we were based in a We Work space and their motto is Love What You Do, and I think that sums up how I feel about things - I think that working in a MR agency, your clients want to see you being passionate and enthusiastic about their brands. That's something I like to adopt and it's not forced.

Your enthusiasm for delivering great insight for your client really shines through if you genuinely enjoy it.

Tim Martin jointly heads up Verve's UK research team, having previously opened the Verve Chicago office. An expert in retail research with more than 14 years' working with FMCG and retail brands, his experience includes exploring customer journeys, triggers and barriers to purchase, branding, concept testing and loyalty. Tim passionately believes true insight is about connecting multiple data points to provide a rounded view of the consumer.

Watch the video at www.mrweb.com/drno/timmartin.htm [length c.34 minutes]

All articles 2006-23 written and edited by Mel Crowther and/or Nick Thomas, 2024- by Nick Thomas, unless otherwise stated.

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