How did you get there? Ricky Shah

Had the huge privilege of chatting with Ricky Shah who is about to step into a role leading strategy and insight for global homecare innovation at Unilever. Ricky has worked in senior clientside insight roles for the last 15 or so years. A staunch advocate for the power/role that insights plays in business strategy and execution, Ricky has been recognised internally and externally for the impact he has made. Outside of work, Ricky lives with his wife and 2 kids – and has been juggling the gauntlet of homeschooling and remote working like many others. He has a strong passion for health and fitness, running a crazy Mark Wahlberg-esque schedule of 4am workouts daily!

Hi Ricky, what a pleasure to catch up! Now I know between a big job, the absolute beauty that is homeschooling, and your impressive 4am exercise regime, you are a man with very little time to spare, so I really appreciate this! In the interests of time, lets dive right in. So, how did you get into the industry, and take us through how you got to this point?

Way back in 2006 I was lucky enough to join Sainsbury’s as a Marketing graduate. As fate would have it, one of my placements was in Customer Insight and right away I was struck by how I could make an impact on the business’ decision making and get involved in fairly major projects – night and day to some of the junior marketing placements I did. I took on progressively senior insights roles until the fateful day came where I realised my love for brands and jumped into the fantastic world of FMCG. The world of retail had given me a great analytical and commercial grounding, but I wanted the chance to really get involved in the detail of all aspects of the marketing mix.

I’ve been lucky enough to work on iconic brands like Hovis and Dove, launch entirely new brands and countless innovations, see parts of the world I never dreamed of and in all that time learned more about people and cultures than I dared imagine. I’ve had the chance to work on global ad campaigns to local micro executions, brand purpose to shopper executions, and everything in between for brands ranging from £100m-£1bn+ – local jewels to global behemoths. 

Over time, I have opted to specialise in innovation and my FMCG career has come full circle as I rejoin the organisation I regard as my alma matar, Unilever, taking on a role responsible for Global Homecare Innovation insight and strategy.

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

Curiosity. You’ve got to have a love and a passion to want to understand what makes people tick. Asking the right questions is a fundamental part of the insights role – not just of consumers, but of stakeholders and of yourself. 

Commercial acumen. Consumers don’t live in a perfect bubble and to be a successful insight leader, you’ve got to first and foremost be a successful business leader. Your word has commercial implications. Know what they are, and you’ll have more credibility and better able to land your point.

Clarity and Confidence. Someone once told me the essence of an insight role is to give the business clarity on what needs to be done and the confidence to do it. I couldn’t agree more.

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

Some of the innovation projects have been pretty wild. I remember running an innovation workshop about feeling “protected” by a product and throwing tennis balls at marketeers hiding behind plastic! Surprisingly effective and we generated some fabulous language here. Not all of it starting with the letter “F”! Equally leading agile innovation sprints has always been a roller-coaster – not knowing what curveball the next day will throw at you – and ending up with something tangible after 5 days that historically might have taken 6-9 months to develop.

The most fun has been when trying to understand unfamiliar consumer co-horts.

I have spent time looking at everyone from rural, low income families in India to CEO’s in New York across projects – it really gives such great perspective on the diversity of the world.

And finally the most interesting have been those tied to brand or company purpose.

From talking to schoolchildren about beauty stereotypes to understanding how to help people improve oral hygiene – this has been probably one of the most rewarding parts of my job. It’s insight at the heart – understanding a tension/societal issue, and helping brands and business develop solutions to overcome them.

This advert, like others across the site, is pro-bono, and in support of our wonderful in-person research community who are standing strong and ready to welcome in-person research back with a bang soon!

So, 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?

Fundamentally our function is about people and relationships. In the office, it’s so easy to have those passing conversations where you can drop those insight gems, but you have to work harder to make those opportunities virtually.

The concepts of Mental and Physical availability can be applied to you as an individual. Ensure you reach out to others for informal conversations to help you stay top of mind. Find a topic or narrative you want to advance and look for opportunities to do that. Digital consumer closeness is a good one in this context. We all know we need to do it, but many people don’t have the time or know-how to figure it out.

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

Assertiveness and business/commercial acumen.

It’s a given that you know your stuff about technical research details, but that isn’t enough to progress to the more senior roles (or even have impact in the junior roles). You need to be brave enough to land tough points of view and recommendation, assertive enough to know how and when to insert yourself in a conversation, and have enough business/commercial acumen that you can truly empathise with the stakeholder you are trying to influence.

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?

Honestly the list is too long to mention. I have been lucky to have some fabulous line managers in my time, and so if you are an ex line manager of mine and reading this – thank you! All of you have had an impact in shaping and developing me in some way.

I suppose the one person I would call out who (perhaps unknowingly) has had a huge impact on my career has been Stan Sthanunathan. His vision for CMI at Unilever truly changed my perception of what the insight function is and what it needs to do.