Going places! Benedict Vigers

Great to hear from Benedict Vigers who is an Insight Manager at Cancer Research UK, helping them understand their supporters to drive value for the charity.

So, how did you get into the industry, and take us through how you got to this point?

Growing up I never had a set career goal I was desperate to reach. I was always much happier floating along in education, following paths I found interesting and stimulating without thinking of the ‘end goal’. In that vein, after graduating from King’s College London with a degree in Geography, somehow I ended up getting accepted onto Cambridge’s MPhil course in Architecture and Urban Studies. Not once did I ever think I’d end up there, especially in a department full of people who actually know how to design buildings! My time there was spent doing a year-long qualitative project into the political legacy of the London 2012 Olympics on the East End. I absolutely loved having a year to myself to focus on a research project I was deeply interested in.

Towards the end of that year, I was at a bit of a loose end with what to do. I knew I didn’t want to pursue a career in academia and was watching many of my friends secure places in excellent grad-jobs or PhD courses. And because I had enjoyed my research-led masters so much, I decided to investigate jobs in the insight industry.

I’d always been aware of the market research industry to some degree, not least because my mother started her career at Millward Brown before moving to the Central Office of Information within the civil service. So I knew the basics of what to expect with surveys and focus groups, and thought that seemed interesting enough!

I put in a few applications to some of the big research agencies, but without much success. Just as I was starting to lose hope, I saw a job advertised for a Research Executive at BBC News on LinkedIn, where I hadn’t logged on in months! Thankfully I saw it just in time, and my slightly sad level of news-geekery managed to swing me my first full time job.

At BBC News I got a great foundation in the basics of client-side research: conducting primacy insight across qual and quant, engaging with stakeholders and working with agencies. I got to work across all of BBC News’ big programmes, and conduct research into the 2019 election, Brexit and Covid-19.

I then moved onto the World Service as a Senior Executive, mostly working on huge global quant studies to measure our reach and impact. This was an amazing education in the principles of study design, randomised sampling and quality control. The opportunity to work on such big and strategically important projects was something I feel very fortunate to have done at a relatively junior stage in my career.

The skills I learned at the BBC set me up very well to accept an Insight Manager role at Cancer Research UK at the end of 2021. At CRUK, I look after our insight needs across legacies and individual giving – our two biggest sources of income – as well as brand tracking and other ad hoc projects. Six months in and I’m loving it so far.

Career paths are rarely without challenges. Can you share an honest moment from your career when things didn’t go quite according to plan, but the lessons remain with you to this day?

The biggest challenge of my career, and probably my life in general, is dealing with the death of my mother in 2019. Losing the most important person in your life right at the start of your professional life is very difficult to adjust to. Thankfully management were incredibly supportive and understanding and didn’t put too much pressure on me when I came back after the funeral.

My first 9 months at the BBC had been hugely exciting and ambitious, but her death put a stop to this. I lost a lot of motivation at work, not feeling emotionally capable to go beyond the bare bones of the job description. For months I just wanted to turn up, do the bare minimum, and get through the day. I didn’t have the energy to be inquisitive or challenging – two of the fundamental traits young researchers really need to demonstrate to progress up the chain. This also meant I didn’t feel able to apply for other jobs as they came up, watching instead as other colleagues progressed as I stayed static.

Thankfully with time I regained more of my interest and passion for work, and life more broadly. This experience taught me quite a few things:

Some things are much more important than insight.

It’s fine to accept that at points in time, it feels like your career path has stalled or is moving backwards – especially if it means you can look after yourself and mental wellbeing

It’s also fine to not always feel your best at work, and to be gentle with yourself for perceived failings. I know some people like to throw themselves fully into work to distract themselves after a bereavement, but I just had to take care of myself and zone lots of external things out.

The best trait a manager can possibly have at times like that is empathy

Bereavement leave is critical, and all good firms should have a very generous allowance for employees if they need it. If I hadn’t been treated so well by my managers as I was, I would have been looking for another job immediately. Research, an industry built on understanding people’s needs, should really get this more than most.

Thanks for sharing this and for your honesty, this is all incredibly valuable insight that I know will leave an impact on others.

So what two things should junior researchers focus on as they progress in their careers?

I actually have quite a few to offer here!

Prioritise learning, and don’t go all out at the beginning of a new job. In all the jobs I’ve had, I’ve always felt it takes about 6 months to feel like I had fully found my feet and knew the ins and outs of my role and responsibilities. In the first 6 months of any new role, I’d advise just soaking up as much information as possible without trying too hard to impress your superiors. Obviously try your best and do good work, but don’t go overboard trying to impress. It will be pretty obvious to them if you try to do so without a proper grounding in what you’re supposed to know. Much better to turn on the fireworks 6 months in when you know what’s what and can really prove your value, critical thinking and strategic judgment.

Ask your managers for opportunities: all the best projects and work aren’t just going to end up in your lap. Sometimes you need to nudge those above you to give you chances on things you’re particularly interested in. Even if there isn’t capacity to have you on a project team, ask which meetings you can sit in on and which documents you can read. Don’t just be given work by your managers, ask them if you can help on x y or z.

A bonus third – ask lots of questions. But always make sure when you ask a technical work-related question, you go armed with an idea of a possible solution. Even if its wrong, all managers I’ve come across would rather be posed a question with a wrong answer than no answer at all.

And a bonus bonus fourth! Go easy on yourself when you cock up. It will certainly happen to you, as it does to everyone at work. You might think you have made the right decision, and something goes wrong. Almost no mistakes you make in the insight world are life threatening, so go easy on yourself when you make one. Identify why it might have gone wrong and go from there. That is how you learn: making the right and the wrong decisions.

On top of those four, my mum always used to tell me and my sister her ‘five golden rules’ for life. As a young boy I’d always pay lip service to the five golden rules and somewhat shrug them off. But since becoming an adult, I realised quite how profound they were. As an ex-researcher herself, you can totally see how they’d be valuable references for anyone wanting a fulfilling successful career in the insight world:

  1. Ask for help if you need it
  2. Think before you do
  3. Make up your own mind
  4. Trust your own feelings
  5. You can say no

How do we ensure that students and those leaving school aspire to join our sector?

The age-old question. There is probably more we can do with internships and apprenticeships to get people in at an early stage, particularly among those without degrees from Russell Group universities (which it seems the industry still tends to skew towards). In my view you don’t necessarily need the practical research skills like statistical inference or semi-structure interviews from tertiary education. Many of these you can learn on the job. What is much more important is an ambition to understand people – surely this is something far more young people are interested in from all sorts of backgrounds. The more valuable apprenticeships and internships, the more diverse, the better the industry.

The classic case is of people stumbling into research after graduating university, without ever having planned to. So in one sense, we also want to make it easier to stumble across us – whether by being much more transparent (and generous!) with starting salaries. We also need to make sure we are giving exciting opportunities to our junior researchers. What a shame it is when talented people leave the insight world because they don’t see a future in it!

And do you have anyone who has helped your career so far that you’d like to acknowledge and say thanks or give a shout out to?

Quite a few to mention here!

Emma Theedom and Hannah Sainsbury from the BBC for being so supportive during tough times as a young researcher.

Kevin for being the font of all knowledge, and the most generous colleague I’ve ever worked with.

Santanu Chakrabarti for trusting in my abilities and giving me opportunities that I wouldn’t have had elsewhere.

And Rachel Binks, for giving me the chance to come and work for an organisation so close to my heart.