How did you get there? James Sallows

Insights is the new rock and roll

Great to hear from James Sallows who is leading the insights transformation at the newest Consumer Healthcare giant, Haleon, Working on ensuring insights is at the top table and driving business growth.

Great to catch up James, so, how did you get into the industry, and take us through how you got to this point?

A summer of free drinks and endless parties, and I’m not even kidding… the dot com boom was short-lived but it was a very good summer as an intern in an MR agency in France, building some of the first online access panels in Europe at what is now Harris Interactive France. I initially joined them for a few months on a summer internship to help scale the business outside of France, but then returned to them for a full time role a year later, after completing my degree and my dissertation (on the birth of online research). From there, the free parties more or less stopped, but the industry retained my interest regardless!

I spent 3 years living and working in Paris, perfecting my French, learning the basics of Askia and SPSS and cutting my teeth as a business developer for the UK market. I made some amazing friends during this stint, who I’m still very close with today. The online panel market was in triple-digit growth at the time, not many people had panels and we had an amazing barter-based business model to create them. My biggest client was the Kantar group, who eventually came knocking to ask me to come back to the UK and work at Lightspeed Research (now Kantar Profiles).

At Lightspeed I was leading on the external business growth (clients outside of Kantar) and managed to build a nice portfolio of MR agencies, consultancies but especially media agencies. I think I loved the way agencies bucked the trend to simply replicate CATI research online and allowed themselves to be more creative. In partnership we built some amazing products, and I was lucky enough to have a fantastic pool of researchers at the time who leant into these opportunities to create and grow. As a Business Developer I couldn’t help but partner with the research operations team, as I was focused on long-term client growth beyond single projects (and we all know that comes from successful delivery and trust) and so my CEO at the time asked me if I would like to take over the EMEA Operations team to help drive this focus. This push to round out my profile, and better understand project dynamics and revenue delivery, was really a foundational moment for me – and rounding out my profile even further become somewhat of a challenge I set myself. How better to see the opportunities in the industry than from someone else’s view?

From Kantar I went to Ipsos, moving from managing a large team to working with a handful of people on driving innovation in the copy testing area and to look at panel/sample quality. Bringing perspective from Kantar where the areas of strength at the time were very different to Ipsos allowed me to drive change in some key areas, such as reducing field times radically for copy tests (to help compete in a market segment where speed and automation were becoming the primary drivers of growth), and learning/sharing lessons about the impacts of recruitment and invitation frequencies on respondent quality within panels. However, in hindsight I suspect something was missing for me in terms of the dynamics of strategy and growth for the business overall – so of course I moved to a comparatively small business looking to grow fast in the online quantitative space, where I could set the strategy and drive growth. This time at Schlesinger was a LOT of fun – working with a team mostly based out of Germany we carved out a niche in online quant in other markets, winning projects we had no right to win, against far more established players. In particular we built an amazing product for a media agency partner, looking at the movie industry. Our success was founded on the fact we were the only agency to tell the client that we wouldn’t respond to their brief, as it was the wrong thing to do… so we were asked what we would do in their shoes. We partnered with them and pushed the boundaries of the data collection platform, breaking it on multiple occasions, all in the service of maximising respondent experience and making it easy for them (“no more than 6 clicks a day” was my goal). We built a very successful mobile-based product as a result.

Standing tall

So I had been in fieldwork and MR agencies (big and small).. where to next? A media agency of course!

I joined IPG Mediabrands as Chief Insight Officer and spent 2+ years helping bring together a fragmented approached to insights across their different agencies, and working as part of the central pitching team for European and Global media accounts. There was something intoxicating in the thrill of £100m’s of spend on the table for a 2hr pitch, and a lot of fun and freedom in the approaches that you could take as a “non-research” research team. However, as is often the curse of the agency world, the strategy was suddenly changed with a change in leadership, and centralisation became fragmentation once again… Having just become a father for the first time, we decided as a family (not that my 15month old daughter really had a say) to take a break and travel to all the places we hadn’t been able to visit due to family caring commitments we had taken on over the previous 8 years. So, off we went, around the world with a toddler in tow (or in the tow of a toddler, more likely) to recharge the batteries and reset. Japan, New Zealand and Easter Island were probably the highlights, but there were many… and I came back wanting to take on something new… something fast moving… something unique.

So I joined a pharmaceutical company…

You may well think this would fall into a “none of the above” category from that list, and you would be partly right. However going client-side at GSK Consumer Health not only helped me round out my profile further, but I knew I was joining at a unique time. Pfizer and GSK were merging to create a new business, and for the past 2+ years we have been working towards the separation of this business to become Haleon, the world’s biggest standalone consumer healthcare business. What is new, fast moving, and unique is that Haleon is founded on a primary principle that growth is driven through Deeper Human Understanding. This means insight and analytics is front and centre in driving business strategy and growth, and also that we are able to focus on growing our people in parallel through our Academy, Ignite (high performers programme for insights/analytics people) and our soon-to-be-launched miniMBA qualification in partnership with UCL. I am also trying to help drive industry discussions and debate about the future of insights (value creation Vs cost centre) and also our role (data driven Vs insight driven) from this vantage point at Haleon.

An amazing transformation team – nominated 2 years running at the MRS awards for Global business impact!

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?

We should never shy away from the challenges, and there have been many! The one that probably taught me the biggest lesson is when I was faced with a serious issue with a media agency client a long, long time ago (serious enough for potential legal action to be threatened between the businesses). It came to light that there were issues with our data that they had subsequently made investments from. We had an opportunity to pass the buck, we had the emails where they approved the data, we had the proof it “wasn’t us”… but I chose not to take this route, as I knew this was the end of the relationship if we did. We have all been in those tit-for-tat arguments and they are a zero-sum game. Instead we stood up, faced into the conflict, accepted our part of the  responsibility and won a huge amount of respect as a result. And when I say we faced into the conflict, it’s not a metaphor – we actually sat in a room with our client and took all the criticism and anger on the chin in what was a very tough meeting. They had every right to be angry and I felt it was important to accept that, even if it was against the wishes/advice of some senior colleagues. The lesson for me is that that, even when you think you can pass on blame and get away, it often isn’t actually a resolution. When conflict/criticism is merited, its far better to step into it and attempt to resolve it, than to resort to playing the blame game or shying away from it.

Proudly wearing the alumni hoody from the Ignite programme!

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

  1. Reflect on the context of WHAT you are being asked to do, and WHY you are doing it, this is what helps you get confidence to grow, push back, make suggestions – getting stuck in the details sometimes means we put the blinkers on and forget what the role of our work should be.
  2. Don’t get comfortable… whilst there are many specialist careers in the sector, the well-rounded researcher is very much sought after. I would encourage you to look at how you can increase your breadth of skills and knowledge, even if you go on to specialise later.
  3. And if I can sneak in a third… network, network, network. It’s a small industry and you can learn a lot from others, and build those future career opportunities. 

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

More free drinks and parties? Joking aside, I do think we need to further develop our desirability and networking for younger people and maybe not take ourselves so seriously. I think we often present our role as somehow detached from sectors and activities that feel more exciting to young people, we need to show that it IS exciting. If we show what we actually do… our role in building brands, launching innovative products, identifying opportunities for new businesses, understanding how people are feeling…this is what gets engagement and feels more aspirational.

Do you have any advice for our sector?

Stop talking so much about AI, Automation and Data-Driven. There is absolutely nothing unique in this, and it pretty much describes any sector right now. We have a unique value in the insights and value we bring to our clients, and that role needs to be played up more – the layer of “human capital”, consultancy and insight on top is where we are amazing, unique and best positioned to flourish. Of course we mustn’t ignore our need to lean into those areas far more, and build for the future, but I feel it often dominates the discussions and debate and moves us away from our core strengths. They are enablers, not the end game.

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?

Can I cheekily pick four? Surely that’s permissible for someone who has been in the industry for a while? I would firstly like to thank my first bosses, who are still friends of mine to this day and working at the head of the agency they founded. Nathalie Perrio-Combeaux and Patrick Van Bloeme gave me opportunities and responsibilities at a ridiculously young age, and allowed me to grow for more quickly than would ever had been possible elsewhere – they gave me such a strong platform to start from.

I also thank Eric Salama and Anne Hedde from my time at Kantar and a few other experiences together since. They both believed in me and helped push me in new directions that set me on my path, focusing on rounding out my skills to help me do more of what I love. Kantars “Young Lions” program also inspired my creation of the current high performer/high potential network for insights people at GSK – the Ignite network.