Great to hear from Russ Wilson who remains full of wonder and surprise that he still gets to spend his life travelling the world, meeting brilliant people, and discussing and contemplating such a broad range of questions, and that this somehow counts as a professional career!
So, how did you get into the industry, and take us through how you got to this point?
I ended up accidentally doing a PhD in Applied Linguistics, which is, in simple terms, looking to understand what people really mean when they give opinions. I was developing a detailed understanding of all the different markers that indicate whether or not someone really means what they’re saying, and how strong their opinions are without really knowing that there was a whole industry out there that would value this skillset. This was despite the fact that the PhD was sponsored by all the big FMCG brands, and that I spent 6 months at Unilever with their insight team to collect my data! I was then lucky enough to be sat in the right place at a wedding, and it was that conversation that landed my first job at what was then The Futures Company, now part of Kantar consulting. I didn’t really know what I was signing up to, but I knew that I was fascinated by people, communication and brands, and this seemed a good way in.
Via a short stint as an attempted tech entrepreneur, looking to leverage the IP from my PhD (I was talking about the value of large language datasets, long before ChatGPT came along), I then joined Clear where I learned a lot about brand strategy under Damian Symons and his team, and then moved to truth where I spent a very happy 5 years gaining more responsibility and experience across team and account and client management. I left there to take a leadership position at Hall & Partners where I successfully turned round their Qualitative business and offer, working with great clients and a wonderful team. The pandemic brought that to an end, so when I was offered the opportunity to go to Amazon, it was too good to turn down. Whilst the role didn’t live up to expectations, it was still fascinating to be client side, and to learn about the inner workings of such a mega-corp, even if ultimately that didn’t fit well with the kind of culture I thrive best in. And then to Quadrangle, where I currently lead the Qualitative practice, helping the business to continue its evolution from management consultancy, to research expertise. We talk of offering a research skillset with a consultancy mindset, and I love that neat encapsulation of what it is that we try to do, and the value that we bring to clients.
Why should anyone consider a career in market research, data and insights?
I just think it’s an incredible privilege to be able to explore and understand the world around us. I often describe our industry as seeing the first draft of culture; we get to see and impact how the world around us is created. We get paid to think about the most interesting of questions – at its best, it’s just a complete joy. It’s also an incredibly grounding career, I’ve interviewed such a broad range of people over the years, from people with everything, to people with nothing – and yet the similarities between us all are much greater than our differences, which is a humbling thing to see. I’ve also had the joy and pleasure of experiencing things that you just don’t get in most careers. From hanging out with 80yr old Chinese grandmothers in Liverpool to understand their media habits, to spending two weeks in Sao Paolo exploring dining culture, and finally to working with Cancer charities to improve the lives of patients and their families – something of real personal relevance given my own cancer experiences in my early twenties. The sheer variety of the role is astonishing. I’ve also worked in small 30 person businesses, and for Amazon, which is as big as it gets. This career can take you almost anywhere you can imagine and continues to keep me inspired and motivated on a daily basis.
What two things should junior researchers focus on as they progress in their careers?
At the start of your career, get as broad a range of experiences as possible, it’s unlikely that your first or even second role in the industry will be the perfect one for you – there are so many elements to what we do, and the more experience you can get early on, the more paths there are that will remain open to you further down the line – but then as you develop, try and go deep in your expertise, and really become known for something. Secondly, I think trying to collect mentors and advisors is a great way to turbo charge your career, if you can develop good conversations and relationships with more senior people in the industry who you can turn to for advice and guidance, that will always stand you in good stead.
Do you have any advice for our sector?
When we get what we do right, we offer so, so much value to our clients. Although there are always multiple inputs into any business or product decisions, Insight has the potential to save or earn brands huge amounts of revenue, and yet we often sell our collective capabilities and wisdom far too cheaply. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do think we need to find a way to elevate ourselves up the food chain a little.
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?
As above, collecting mentors is incredibly important. There are many I’d want to mention, but I couldn’t answer this without referencing in rough chronological order the following 5 brilliant women from across our industry:
Sue Hepworth, who was my Unilever contact during my PhD, gave me the confidence and opportunity to moderate for the very first time
Jo Phillips, now at nest, who I was lucky enough to have that first research conversation with at the wedding.
Gill O’Hanlon at the Behavioural Architects, was Head of Qualitative at the Futures Company when I joined and taught me so much about the foundations of great research.
Sue Frost, my manager at truth, who helped me to really step up into the more senior stage of my career at the right time.
Gaby Bell – the European CEO at H&P who hired me and gave me the perfect combination of space and support to do what I do best.
And then literally dozens and dozens of other people who have acted as sounding boards, confidantes, sense-checkers and more. There’s a nice line from somewhere about how each of our lives are co-authored by the people who we surround ourselves with, and I’ve been very lucky to have many wonderful people travel with me through my career so far.