David Smith founded DVL Smith Ltd which later grew to become Illuminas. He now runs DVL Smith as a consultancy working on a range of insight projects, training and business coaching assignments. David is the author of three books, the latest being The High Performance Customer Insight Professional. The two earlier books are Inside Information – Making Sense of Marketing Data and The Art and Science of Interpreting Market Research Evidence both published by John Wiley. He has also written numerous papers and articles on customer insight and marketing intelligence.
How did you get into the industry?
After graduating, I jumped on a plane to New York to look for some work there, but there was nothing doing. So I took on a train to Toronto and wandered around tapping on doors to try and get a job to earn some money.
One of the doors I tapped on was a company called Canadian Facts. They were apparently a market research agency. I didn’t have a clue what market research was, but they gave me a pile of tables and said, you need to write a report about what all this means. I locked myself away for about 30 hours not having a clue what about data analysis or report writing was all about. When I returned they asked me how long it took me to prepare the report. I was slightly economical with the truth implying I dashed it off in no time at all.
Anyway, I got the job which was clearly nothing to do with my ability to analyse data, but I think simply because I had an English accent albeit an East London one.
So, like so many market researchers, I got into the industry purely by chance.
Two things that junior researchers should focus on in progressing their careers?
In building up DVL Smith Ltd and in recruiting and developing quite a large number of young researchers, I learnt that there were two key dimensions on which success hinged.
The first was the ability to be a problem simplifier and crystalliser. These are people who can combine the ability to always see the context – the big picture telescopic view – along with having microscopic attention to detail. These clear deep thinkers who simplify everything never fall into trap of being a problem confuser.
The second dimension is to be an energy radiator. These people always bring their A-game to the table. They have a growth mindset. They live in a world of abundance not scarcity and are a delight to work with. They are in sharp contrast to energy drains who sap the will of everyone around them.
Put these two skills and mindsets together – being a problem simplifier who is an energy radiator – and you have the prefect insight professional.
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?
In founding and building up an agency and being fortunate enough to win a number of the industry’s top awards, I have got more right than wrong but perhaps have made one fundamental error. This is not thinking bigger early enough about the contribution that insight professionals can make to public and private sector decision-making.
It took me years to recognise that I could handle things in the top league with the best the boardroom had to offer. I always knew that the ability to identify key insights was a critical dimension to solving business problems, but I was backward in coming forward to drive home the power of the contribution our sector can make. The penny dropped when I was successful in applying to become a Fellow of the Institute of Consulting, to sit alongside my Chartered Institute of Marketing Fellowship (and my MRS Fellowship).
How should we encourage young people to join our sector?
We need to dispel any perceptions that we are some kind of back office support service. As a former Chairman of the MRS and former Vice President of ESOMAR I have been privileged to work with so many super talented people and it has always niggled me that our sector doesn’t get the recognition it deserves.
We need to drive home the fact that anyone who can make sense of complex evidence, work out what makes people tick, and put this story together in a compelling influential way to help organisations make a difference, is never going to be out of work. These skills will always be massively in demand. Who is going to say No to someone who has a deep understanding of the human condition.
Any advice to the sector?
For me, the future of the sector lies in cultivating individuals who have that curiosity and creativity to work out what’s possible and will make a difference (and can do this with alacrity and agility).
There is a danger of us becoming lost in a black box world of algorithms that can dull the creative spark. We could drift off into decision-making driven by the tyranny of metrics. But what we need are individuals who understand the Why behind the data and who operate with informed intuition.
So my advice to sector would be dial-up and showcase our creativity.
Who has helped you in your career?
The grounding for everything I’ve managed to achieve has been based on understanding the fundamental research craft – the disciplines, the theories, the frameworks, and the attention to detail.
And this I learnt primarily from the late Gerald Hoinville, an MRS Gold Medal holder who co-founded Social & Community Planning Research which later became the National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), where I worked for almost a decade.