I caught up with Crispin Beale who has been a Board Member of the MRS for over 15 years and UK ESOMAR Representative for nearly 10. Having also led client teams at Dixons, Royal Mail, and BT, as well as running Chime Insight & Engagement Group for a decade he knows a thing or two about research! He’s a qualified chartered accountant, been a consultant, runs a farm, writes for publications and is currently involved in various global M&A projects and acts as a senior advisor to mTab and Behaviorally. One thing that everyone you speak to in the industry will tell you though, is that Crispin will always make time to help and always gives an honest answer, from the heart!
So let’s jump straight in Crispin, how did you get into research in the first place?
Like so many people I fell into research by accident. I studied Biological Sciences at the University of Bristol and as a passionate conservationist wanted to go and save the natural world – I was good friends with the sadly now departed, TV naturalist Prof. David Bellamy and he said he’d give me a job but they really needed people with strategic and management experience to make a real difference. With a heavy heart I decided to follow his counsel and get a professional qualification first and keep my environmental activities alive as a volunteer/running a conservation charity. So having done some research I decided the best business grounding was qualifying as a chartered accountant. So I joined Coopers & Lybrand (now PricewaterhouseCoopers or PwC) simply because they were number 1 in the UK and had fantastic London offices that I loved when I went for interview!
Having qualified as a chartered accountant, specialising in Financial Services, I then spent time seconded to a whole range of disciplines, Forensic Accounting, International Taxation, and Consultancy – where I worked on the launch of then Prime Minister, John Major’s “Charter Mark” project. I then found my niche in Business Development & Marketing – supporting both the Forensic Accounting and the Client Training Divisions.
I loved PwC but after 4 years wanted to be closer to the conservation charity that I ran so took a job with Dixons Stores Group and moved to Hertfordshire (close to the charity’s Buckinghamshire base). Initially I was joining a Business Performance team at Dixons but the manager that recruited me then convinced me to join her in setting up a new Research function – when I say join her, she also announced, before I had even started, that she was pregnant and that we would have a few weeks together before I would have to take over and set-up/run the team! Always up for a challenge I agreed and from that point on I became well and truly immersed in the Research & Insights space.
I was then in quick succession poached to BT and Post Office Ltd. At Post Office, I ended up running all Marketing Services/Advertising as well as setting up and running a centre of excellence for insight and competitor intelligence across Royal Mail, Parcelforce Worldwide and Post Office.
When Royal Mail Group split-up I couldn’t imagine going from looking after three big brands to one so said I was leaving and by complete chance was convinced by Liz Norman to talk to the Chairman of Facts International about turning around Facts International, a loss-making company that he had bought with Lord Bell’s Chime Communications plc. I dived in and rapidly turned the losses to profits bigger than the turnover when purchased! This caught Lord Bell’s attention and when Deborah Mattinson and Viki Cooke left Opinion Leader/Chime, I stepped up to run all of Chime’s research and engagement companies (including Opinion Leader, Brand Democracy, Caucus, FIL and of course Facts International).
With a team of great people we created a new vehicle, Chime Insight & Engagement Group, and transformed it into the highest % margin division within Chime Communications and had great fun at the same time – launching a digital agency, Watermelon, launching in Australia, launching new products and services – PowerProbe and PowerCode and taking every opportunity to champion our sector. Clients loved our focus on exceeding their expectations and delivering robust, evidence based, recommendations and advice grounded with business acumen and taking account of their commercial realities. Happy clients led to us delivering multi-million pound profits every year and we seemed to win every contract going (as well as lots of industry awards). I made great friends, met my wife, and look back fondly on my decade at Chime.
Since then I’ve worked as a consultant and run communications projects for a variety of agencies and Fortune/FTSE100 companies. I’ve also led a $150m takeover bid for a large tech insight group but we pulled out when we failed to secure exclusivity. I remain keen to run a large agency again as I love the buzz of winning accounts, making acquisitions and leading the industry, so, watch this space.
Having said that, I love what I’m doing now too. As well as remaining a UK Representative for ESOMAR and serving my fifteenth year as a Board Director at MRS I’m currently working as a Senior Strategic Advisor for mTab. I’ve also recently started to work at Behaviorally as a Special Advisor,
I love the working with some of the industry’s best and brightest and enjoy the variety that acting as an advisor offers – it also gives me more time to run my farm!
So tell me about the farm … where is it, what animals do you have .. would you leave research to be a full-time farmer?
As I mentioned I’ve always been a keen conservationist and so jumped at the chance to own and run a c200 acre farm on the North Downs in Kent, about 15 years ago. I’ve loved every minute of it – we’ve revitalised the farm and transformed how it operates. We make hay and haylage and have sheep and cattle on the farm (as well as some llamas, rheas, geese, guineafowl, ducks, chickens, and a couple of pygmy goats!). Quitting the “day job” wouldn’t really be an option as the farm struggles to make any profits like most small farms) but on the flip side, we get to live in a beautiful place and I can indulge my other passion (the first being “Evidence”) for tree planting and protecting wildlife. The farm is in various agri-environmental schemes and most years we try and plant a couple of thousand native trees – primarily to replace hundreds of dead Ash trees that are heartbreakingly following Elms in being all but wiped from the tapestry of the English countryside.
So does farming sit comfortably with the day job?
I have some of my greatest ideas and insights when out walking the dogs so I do find the farm helps me in the day job too … I would find it hard to leave … indeed, I’ve been asked to lead two groups in the last 12 months but both opportunities would have meant I would need to relocate the family to the US (or be away from the farm for protracted periods) and with a new baby and a toddler, the time just didn’t feel right. I loved the travelling when I set up Chime’s research companies in Australia – and got involved in operations in China, Singapore, and Dubai – but I think my days of constant global commuting are behind me – well at least for now! The world is also changing and you can now do so much more remotely. Almost every day I have calls with people across the globe and working in this way is far more environmentally sustainable, unbelievably more efficient, more cost effective and without doubt, better for family life and one’s mental wellbeing.
And if you had to distil everything you’ve achieved right down, what would you say are three secrets to your success so far?
I could probably get it down to three words! “I really care”. I’ve always thrown myself into everything I do and I think that helps you have fun too. Fundamentally though I care about people, I care about being fair, and I care about doing a great job.
At Chime I introduced a system that we called WKD (Wicked). In short it was all about Winning, Keeping and Delivering. Winning new business; Keeping existing clients; and Delivering on our promises. We put this into everyone’s objectives and circulated a weekly update on how we were doing .. and then held WKD awards. It was instantly memorable and so simple that everyone could remember and align around this as a common goal. Variants of these three things have been the foundation that has allowed me to build “super teams” wherever I’ve worked. If you do these three simple things you make money. If you make money you can invest in your people (their wellbeing, their mental health, their bonuses!). If you make money you can invest in CSR initiatives. If you make money you can champion diversity and equal opportunities. All of these essential things can generate revenue in their own right BUT, you often need profit to set up for success in the first place. Profits are a bit like a flywheel – once you start it spinning (start generating profits) it gains a momentum of its own.
I know you said three, but I would also add, be yourself, be fair and importantly be honest (to others AND yourself). Life is so much easier that way.
So, come on, if you’re allowed to say, what’s the most interesting, crazy, fun project you’ve ever worked on?
Facts International had a “Royal Visit” from HRH The Countess of Wessex visited to celebrate 30 years of delivering research excellence and we offered to carry out a pro bono research project for one of HRH’s charities. We ended up doing a huge piece of work for Childline and the NSPCC on online safety. We presented the results in Buckingham Palace and the research generated millions of pounds of PR for the charity and helped to influence government policy. For me though none of that mattered – the thought that we had helped protect even one child made everything worthwhile. That was one of my proudest moments.
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?
Contextualise your work. Don’t just look at the results, understand the organisation’s strategy and what competitors/similar organisations are doing. Simply reading a company’s annual report and recent press coverage from the internet can give you invaluable insights.
Be commercially pragmatic – make recommendations that are realistic/deliverable. I’ve seen people recommend conducting research that would cost more to deliver than any possible benefits that could be forthcoming! I learnt a similar lesson when Post Office Ltd were launching financial services – we spent a small fortune researching product features with prospective customers as to what their ideal loan would look like, only to then be told by the bank “manufacturing the product” that we could only have x, y and z! So, we’d designed the perfect customer loan but it was commercially useless as totally undeliverable!
And thinking more long term now, what two things should junior researchers focus on as they progress in their careers?
Profit – deliver your projects as cost effectively as possibly. Demonstrate to your clients that they are getting best value.
Build strong, trust-based relationships with colleagues and clients alike. As you progress through your career that network will be invaluable.
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?
I’m really lucky to have had some great mentors, including Jeremy Darroch and Elizabeth Fagan early on in my career. They both talked a lot about not having really set-in stone plans but seizing opportunities. That has been invaluable advice and has encouraged me to take calculated risks (e.g. leaving BT for Post Office Ltd to “save” the Post Office network, helping it relaunch as a financial services/telephony services provider). Having researched how to talk about our products and then actually making the adverts at Pinewood Studios with Joan Collins, Westlife, Ray Mears, Bungle, Bill Oddie, Wendy Richards, Chris Eubank and others has to be a career highlight (with the “icing on the cake” being grabbing a headset and clipboard to look authentic and just wandering onto the set where they were filming Mamma Mia!).
More recently, Kristin Luck, who like you is running for ESOMAR Council (good luck to you both) has been a great sounding board and source of encouragement as has the CEO of mTab, Mark Langsfeld, and the CEO of Behaviorally, Alex Hunt. I love working with bright, passionate people who are determined to break boundaries and excel and I’m lucky to get that on a daily basis.
Thanks Crispin, some priceless advice and endless lines of inspiration for both junior researchers, and those at all levels.