Great to catch up with Alex Hunt, who is Chief Executive Officer at Behaviorally (formerly PRS) the agency dedicated to supporting clients drive shopper growth. Alex has some great advice for junior researchers and for the industry as a whole as we step out of our various lockdowns.
Hi Alex! Let’s dive right in. So, how did you get into the industry, and take us through how you got to this point?
By accident! After studying Politics at university I was considering going to law school, but ready to take a break from study, thought about working for a year first and saw an ad for the graduate program at Millward Brown (now Kantar) which looked interesting and so applied. The interview process was over two days, and the last question in the final interview was “if we offer you a job, by the time you start, do you promise you’ll know something about what we do?” Wasn’t sure at that point if it meant I was coming back or the interview had been a train wreck – but it worked out!
From the moment I started I did though love all aspects of the agency world; internal co-ordination and teamwork, analysis and advising clients on marketing activities, the pace of work. Especially the commercial challenge; deepening relationships the agency had with clients and offering new services. This instinct for what is essentially sales – still a dirty word in some market research circles! – has served me well through my career.
After two years on the graduate program at Millward Brown UK, an opportunity came up to move to the USA to service one of our large global clients. I spent a further five years with Millward Brown/Kantar in NYC working across a range of clients and ultimately managing the Pepsi business. It was a great time; digital advertising was in it’s infancy, brand tracking was migrating online. I also met Pam, my now wife, at Millward Brown which obviously has to be the highlight!
In 2009 an opportunity came up alongside former Kantar colleagues to join BrainJuicer (now System1 Group). I was at a crossroads personally and again considering going back to school to do an MBA. Distinctly remember John Kearon saying “don’t do that. Come and learn on the job instead” and so joined as #5 employee in the USA. What attracted me was the ambitious growth plan both in terms of building the business but also challenging the insights industry itself which was – and in too many ways absolutely still is – ripe for disruption.
Certainly the growth journey at BrainJuicer/System1 was a great ride. Our turnover grew, especially in the USA, which became the company’s largest and most profitable market. Our capabilities grew exponentially, from small ad hoc boutique to productized and scalable comms testing business. And I grew personally with the business; initially opening the office in Chicago, then overseeing Los Angeles, before moving back to NYC and managing all USA and LATAM operations. Eventually was promoted to lead the research business across our 14 office global network and joined the PLC Board. Things came full circle as was again spending plenty of time in the UK!
In late 2018 Scott Young of PRS IN VIVO approached me about leading a global transformation program in their business which wasn’t something I could pass up. It proved to be a terrifically rewarding challenge; supporting the team as we crafted and then implemented a new vision and strategy across the company to evolve toward both a more disciplined commercial culture and digital product portfolio. It showed the power of building a great leadership team around you, as well as reinforced that your responsibility as a leader is to look beyond the risks and be unafraid to make changes that by definition alter the status quo.
Have now inherited the mantle, alongside a great management team, of re-launching Behaviorally (formerly PRS IN VIVO USA) under a new and supportive shareholder. Couldn’t be more excited about this entirely fresh challenge. We’re embarking on an ambitious global-growth play underpinned by a future-focused digital-first strategy. Much was changing in the shopper world prior to COVID but in 2020 we saw a decade of digital transformation in a few short weeks, especially in sectors such as packaged goods. The Behaviorally team is now building a global agency that can support our clients in driving shopper growth in this new retail world.
Such a great journey. And if you had to distil everything you’ve achieved right down, what would you say are three secrets to your success so far?
Love what you do. Get uncomfortable. Help people.
Love (most of) what you do – life is too short! Going back to that first instinctual passion for working in the agency world, can honestly say I’ve enjoyed every role I’ve had. If you are passionate about what you do then it shows to colleagues, clients, partners alike. It also makes those inevitable tough days much easier. Think about what you enjoy and make that one of the largest elements of your job.
Get uncomfortable – it’s the only way to learn. Throughout my career I’ve learnt most from mistakes (those disastrous pitches, presentations, hiring decisions) or when I’ve felt most uncomfortable (new countries, new roles). When you’re stretched in a job it’s instinctive to migrate back to what you know and are comfortable with. But to learn and grow you must push past discomfort. This never stops no matter where you climb.
Help people – you’ll get it back in spades. While important to surround yourself and build coalitions and teams with people more talented and better skilled than you, it’s equally important to include and help everybody you can whenever you can. In the long-run we all reach a moment when we need a little support – our team certainly did as we re-launched Behaviorally this year! – and having a wide network to call on is priceless.
Not being in the office and around colleagues, it is incredibly challenging, for younger researchers to stand out. What two bits of advice do you have for a junior researcher, working from home in lockdown, on how they can best stand out and impress their teams?
Show you’re engaged; send meeting agendas, switch your video on whenever possible and ask those you’re interacting with do the same, send follow-up notes, or better still actions. All part and parcel of demonstrating your engagement and enthusiasm for your work.
Take the time you need to care for yourself and your family/friends; working from home has blurred the lines between personal and professional more than ever. But it remains true that rarely can anybody succeed professionally (certainly over the long-term) if they don’t take care of themselves and their loved ones personally. For me working at home during the pandemic, I took a bike ride with my six year old every day around 5pm, a great pause and moment to re-set. When the world returns to normal, the Holidays are sacrosanct for our family and every year over Christmas and New Year we try to take an extended break chasing some sun.
And thinking more long term now, what two things should junior researchers focus on as they progress in their careers?
Build your network; internally, externally, among colleagues, partners, clients, across the industry, beyond the industry. One day your network will help you when you least expect it. Another day you’ll need the support of your network and have lots of people there for you. Insights is a wonderful industry, full of genuinely good people who want to help you, get to know them and invest them in your success.
Focus on creating commercial value; whether on the agency or client side, insights professionals will in the future be under pressure to demonstrate their work creates value for end users. This is long overdue! So keep asking how the projects you work on are creating value for the end user (and if not how they can), align yourself with people and organizations committed to using insights to create value (versus do research as an end in itself).
So, you have the mic, what advice do you have for our industry as we emerge from this awful pandemic?
Been a tough year for many people personally and certainly let’s hope that in 2021 our ‘new normal’ provides an improvement. But it’s also a moment where once-in-a-career opportunities will be presented in business!
You’ve got to literally go back to wartime to find an equivalent shock; economically speaking, in terms of the magnitude and speed of change in human and consumer behavior (at least in Western societies). Coming out of the pandemic we’ll be at the beginning of another 7-10 year economic growth cycle, working in an industry that is in demand. There will be huge opportunities for all who are prepared to be uncomfortable, reinvent, and embrace the future. That’s exactly what we’ve done at Behaviorally, launching a new brand alongside a new digital-first strategy built around the digital shopper.
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?
So many people have helped, supported, coached and taught over my career – most proud to say work with many of them today which is part of building teams containing people far more talented than you.
At the start of my career at Millward Brown/Kantar was fortunate enough to work for Ian Elmer (who is now the US, MD of Behaviorally) and Marisa McMahon. Both showed the power of an trusting, supportive and empathetic management style. Something Alex Batchelor (now Europe, MD of Behaviorally) also embodied over the years at BrainJuicer/System1.
While always having an instinct for sales and business development it was only really when working with John Kearon at BrainJuicer/System1 that I began to learn what it meant to be an entrepreneur. John’s relentless drive to build business and instinct for survival almost by osmosis embedded itself in many of BrainJuicer/System1’s people; namely Susan Griffin who is one of the pre-eminent marketers in the insights industry as well as a driving force behind much of our Marketing at Behaviorally, and Brent Snider who remains one of my best friends to this day and is now co-CEO of Maru Matchbox.
Also important to mention Stefan Barden, now our non-Executive Chair at Behaviorally, who coached on what it really means to run a business. As well as Bianca Pryor who is now VP at Viacom/CBS. Both, in very different ways, contributed heavily to my own learning curve.
Continue, too, to be grateful for all I learn daily from team members at Behaviorally. Our Client Development leaders are, for example, world class at building trust and delivering their and our domain expertise to clients. It’s why Behaviorally has such long lasting and deep relationships with nearly all the largest packaged goods brands in the world. Case in point of the benefits of relying on people more talented than yourself!