How did you get there? Paul Griffiths

We caught up with Paul Griffiths who is the founder of a growth consultancy, Client Advocates. Paul supports the insight industry to increase revenues and win the battle for budgets, working with both research agencies and heads of insight. As such, he has a great perspective on the sector and what young researchers might want to think about, to further their careers and be fulfilled.

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

Well James, I got into the industry by good fortune really.

I was finishing my MBA (having started my career in insurance) and looking for a role in an industry and business that was growing and innovative. A job was advertised for the frankly ridiculously named position of” Aide de Camp to the Global CEO” of Taylor Nelson Sofres and I thought – I don’t know what that job is, or what it might involve, but I know that’s a market-leading business and growing quickly -it’s got to be a good chance to get involved and be near the action. I had no training or background in market research, but somehow talked my way in.

I was at TNS for 11 years in a variety of roles, working first in the corporate HQ and then later in the UK operating business – mostly in commercial roles. It was a privilege to work in what, at the time, was the best market research business in the world. I learnt so much about what makes a great agency (it is entrepreneurial client focus btw!) and worked with some amazing research experts and for some inspirational leaders.

After TNS was bought out by Kantar, I wanted a change of scale, so I tried my hand in a smaller agency (Simpson Carpenter). But I’d always wanted to be my own boss, and this coincided with the emerging needs of my family (my eldest son is neurodiverse), meaning that I wanted to better manage my work-life balance.

So, eight years ago I set up my own business, Client Advocates, which is what I still do. To be honest, I was never a great technical researcher, but I understand how to grow a research agency, how to delight and sell to clients and how to use research to make commercial decisions. So Client Advocates combines these. We advise two sets of people – owners and leaders of insight agencies that want to grow their businesses faster, and Heads of Insights in brands and businesses that want to increase their commercial impact.

At the moment I’m working with five different insight agencies in three different countries, helping with strategy, key account management and business development campaigns. I’m also working on a big insight strategy project for The New Statesman Media Group. Sitting at that nexus between the agencies and the clients really is fascinating, and hopefully helps me to add value.

And if you had to distil everything you’ve achieved right down, what would you say are three secrets to your success so far?

Great question, but I’d like to change it, if I may (you can see why I’m better off as my own boss!)?

I think we should talk about contentment or happiness rather than success. You’d hope they’d be synonymous, but I’ve known plenty of people that would be described as successful, but who were not particularly happy or content.

My four secrets (sorry not following the rules again) for achieving contentment are simple:

  1. Put family, friends and loved ones before everything.
  2. Do something that you love, not what others say you should.
  3. Be authentic and honest, especially with yourself.
  4. Help and support as many people as you can without hope or expectation. Good things happen when you just try to help others.

So, come on, if you’re allowed to say, what’s the most interesting, crazy, fun project you’ve ever worked on?

I’ve been lucky enough to work on some really cool projects over the years. Buying and merging businesses, setting up new agencies, putting in change programmes that lift a business and motivate all the people in it.

But honestly, the most interesting, crazy and fun thing I’ve ever done is set up and run my own business.

I get to collaborate with interesting and challenging people, I get to make a difference and I get paid for doing it. I can make mistakes and learn on the job how to fix them (luckily, it’s difficult to fire yourself for messing something up) and things are always changing, so there is no time to be bored or to get too comfortable. And I get to pick up my lads from school and eat dinner with them (although I’m not sure how happy they are about that!).

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?

Both of my bits of advice are around communication:

First up, investigate, be curious, ask questions, offer to help, may be even be a bit pushy. Whether it’s the project and clients you are working on, or the business you are working in, you are hired as a junior researcher because you are smart and thoughtful, opinionated and proactive, and you have loads of potential. Use those skills and attributes to deliver on that potential, so explore and test, challenge and help your peers, the people you report to, and your clients.

Secondly, please ask for help if you are struggling, finding things difficult or just need a bit of a friendly support. We’ve all struggled at some time or another over the last year -it’s not a weakness to be vulnerable and admit you are finding things tough – it’s a sign of strength and resilience. Young researchers are the future of the industry – we need to look after you, but we can only do that if we know you need help!

And thinking more long term now, what two things should junior researchers focus on as they progress in their careers?

First up, make sure you get as broad a commercial awareness and understanding as you can. Great researchers solve the commercial issues of their clients; while you may never know as much as your clients do about their particular pet-food or bank account, you can bring a breadth of understanding and awareness of marketing, advertising, innovation etc and how to apply it to the insights you are generating.

It’s vital to remember that the research you do will only be as useful as the recommendations and advice that you can give as a result- so make sure you can join up the research to the business issues.

So get marketing qualifications, go on secondment to a client, basically explore the commercial context and develop opinions or hypotheses on what needs to be done, what works and what doesn’t.

Second, develop your authentic voice and sense of who you are. I mentor postgrads at City University as they set out on their post-qualification journey into careers and jobs. They are super smart, motivated and far better qualified than I will ever be. Most of them are in their late 20’s or early 30’s, and a lot of them are still in the process of working out who they are and how they want to be. Goodness, I didn’t work it out for myself until I was in my 40’s! We use Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle as a great construct and way to think about yourself, what motivates and inspires you and to help develop a clear sense of who you are.

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?

Gosh this is so difficult – there are so many people I owe so much too… and so many people I need to apologise to, as well…

Suffice to say, to anyone who reads this interview, knows me and has worked with me:

If I did a good job, then thank you for your help, patience, and support – I’m sure my success and the value I delivered was down, at least in part, to your belief and input.

And where I screwed things up or didn’t do a great job, (and I’ve made many mistakes and bad decisions), I can only apologise – for the fact that I probably didn’t say sorry at the time, and for not doing better. I hope I’ve learnt from my mistakes and I promise I’m trying to do better now!