We have even trained our clients to constantly ask, “Is that statistically significant?” despite the fact that very few people truly understand what that means.
Even if you haven’t had the pleasure of meeting this month’s member spotlight, Chris Robson, his face might still be familiar. MRA has prominently used his image in conference marketing materials – perfectly illustrating the use of technology, of course. As you will learn, Chris is a self-proclaimed techno-geek, but is also a much more multifaceted and valuable addition to the marketing research profession.
Amy: You’re a mathematician by training, so how did you first become involved in the marketing research industry?
Chris: I never really intended to become part of the marketing research industry! My business partner, Scott Laing, and I set up Parametric after coming from an analytics start-up. We had been working on Web analytics, and realized there was a need amongst marketers for support with quantifying marketing outcomes. We began as a market science and business modeling consultancy. However, we rapidly realized that our clients often had poor or outdated data, so we began to get involved more in specifying the primary data – and that’s how we became part of this industry. I went to my first MRA conference just to see what the industry and people were like, and never looked back.
Amy: I have it on good authority that you’re also the inventor on seven patents. What are some of your inventions?
Chris: I was very fortunate to spend some time as a manager of HP Labs in Bristol, England. This was an advanced technology research lab – think 200 Sheldon Coopers from The Big Bang Theory with large budgets. It was a lot of fun, and we worked on some really outrageous technology, some of which is only now beginning to come to market. Much of my early research was on mobile devices and communications systems, so I have patents in that area. I also have inventions relating to radar, optical character recognition and distributed computing systems; a little bit of everything.
Amy: As the Co-Founder and Chief Scientist at Parametric Marketing, tell us about the core services and mission of the company.
Chris: We come from a strong belief that the role of research is to reduce risk for our clients. We do that by combining an understanding of business realities with advanced quantitative methods. Our clients are a mix of end-users for whom we offer full service projects and other research companies where we help to “beef-up” their advanced analysis capabilities. We also invest in tool development, and have a number of both end-user and practitioner tools and simulators.
Amy: What professionally inspires you? What do you enjoy most about working in the field of marketing research?
Chris: I’m a right-brained technologist, so I really get inspired by the creative use of new techniques and technologies to solve problems. I like to trawl through the best of academic work and see how we can make it practical to help our clients. I love having “new thoughts” and moving our capabilities forward.
For me, the best thing about working in the marketing research industry is the people. I’ve made some great friends and work connections and love getting together with other researchers.
Amy: What advice would you give to someone just starting in the marketing research profession?
Chris: Be flexible. There are going to be many changes coming in the industry, and just looking at how we did things in the past is not going to be viable. Look around at other industries and steal the best of their methods and approach.
Amy: What motivated you to become a member of the MRA and what services are of greatest benefit to you/your company?
Chris: As I mentioned, I went to my first MRA conference just to get a feel for what the industry was about. Coming from the analytics and business modeling side of the world I really had no idea what to expect. As it turned out, I felt at home right away. Since then I’ve become more and more involved, speaking at conferences, serving on the NorthWest Chapter board, and I am currently chapter president. I feel strongly that industry organizations like the MRA are essential to the health of the industry. There are many challenges to marketing research at the moment: changing technology, disenfranchised respondents, legal restrictions and competition from the analytics industry. In order to meet all of these we need a strong organization, and I’ve been really encouraged by the way the MRA is taking some of these challenges head-on.
Amy: Your views on the future of marketing research are somewhat controversial. What are your feelings about the future of the industry and why do you feel the way you do?
Chris: I am concerned that at least the quantitative part of the industry has fallen behind in its methods. We are stuck in the old Fischer/Pearson Frequentist view of the world, where everything is about rigorous samples and “statistical significance”... We have even trained our clients to constantly ask, “Is that statistically significant?” despite the fact that very few people truly understand what that means. As the old joke goes, we run a hundred t-tests and build a presentation on the five that pass. Sadly, I find that there are fewer and fewer people in the industry who even understand why that is funny. Meanwhile, the world of statistics has moved on. Bayesian methods are now mainstream and there is so much more that we can be doing for our clients. Perversely, as an industry we are happy to put 10 people in a room and report on the results, while at the same time we tell people that looking at a million tweets is “unscientific”.
We need to start taking more modern statistical techniques from machine learning, decision analysis and the analytics industry. Otherwise those industries will make us obsolete.
Amy: Technology is another area you are interested in. How do you see this specific area impacting marketing research in the future?
Chris: Well, to quote Amber Case, “We are all cyborgs now.” The thing we need to understand is that as researchers, we need to be where people are, and for better or worse people are living their lives in technology. The recent election, where pollsters who ignored cellphones embarrassed themselves, shows how we just have to be where the people are. And more and more that means that we need to be present in technology, whether that means mobile, social media or whatever people do next.
Amy: What are the most challenging issues you’re facing as a business person?
Chris: As a small company you have to balance selling your services, delivering great service, and building longer-term assets – and that is hard. It’s always tempting to focus on one at the expense of the others. The old ABS, “Always Be Selling” is true, but you also always have to be delivering and developing new products as well.
Amy: Where are you originally from and how did you end up in the US?
Chris: I’m originally from Southern England. I initially came out to the Pacific Northwest when one of the projects I was developing in HP Labs was turned into a product. I really liked the cold and damp climate here, so I stayed.
Amy: You have a rewarding career, a rich personal life and many interests outside the industry. Tell us a little about these areas of your life, including the classes you teach and any altruistic causes that you support.
Chris: I have to confess I am a true geek and I do dabble with technology on my own time – I’m one of the few people who actually write code for fun at home. But on top of that I love to do things that have nothing to do with technology. I play Ukulele badly whenever I get the chance. I practice meditation and also teach meditation classes every week. I find it helps provide a balance to my natural “Type-A” personality. I also study dreams and actively participate in dreamwork groups, including doing some teaching. So just like in my professional life, I like to have a wide range of activities.
Amy: If you could go back in time 15 or 20 years and meet yourself, what would you tell the younger you? Do you have a favorite quote or life philosophy?
Chris: Probably to encourage myself to enjoy life, though I’ve never really had a problem with that! The most important thing is to never stop learning new things. That’s a good motto for individuals, companies – and the marketing research industry.