How did you get there? Tom Kerr

Great to catch up with Tom Kerr who has spent a lifetime in market research watching it develop from a cottage industry providing vital information to the leading companies of the day, to a highly proficient and vital profession that has come of age and is now omni-present and influences every aspect of the world in which we live.  He now devotes his time to supporting AURA, coaching and mentoring a wide range of very talented people, and having fun with his family and his dogs.

Always great to catch up Tom! Let’s get stuck right in! So, tell us, how did you get into the industry, and take us through how you got to this point?

I am at heart a market researcher.

Aged 10, like all little boys of my generation, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would have said I wanted to be a pilot or a train driver.  It was only in late teens that I, or any one else for that matter, would have answered teacher, lawyer, accountant, architect or engineer, and very much later in life before I would have answered ‘a market researcher’.  Back in the day market research wasn’t a career one aspired to, because, frankly, it wasn’t a profession that anyone had ever heard of (beyond a small circle of the knowing).

So where did it all begin?  Straight out of college, fresh faced and innocent, I applied to join the John Menzies Group graduate trainee programme.  I wanted to work with people.  Retail offered a way to do this.  Every journey starts with the first step.  Things moved quickly at Menzies.  I was put on a management training programme, then sent to London to run a store.  A house was provided on Edith Grove, Chelsea, which was a nice bonus.  The very clever part, which I didn’t fully understand at the time (it was much later in life that I came to understand the importance of cultural fit) was the matching of individual to store location by personality.  I was given Maida Vale, and I loved it.  Each morning at 5am I would take a taxi from Chelsea to Maida Vale to open up the shop, and each evening at 6pm I would shut up shop and get a taxi back to Chelsea.  It was a great time, and a defined career path with JM was on offer, but I was young with a head full of lofty ideas, the hours were long, and I already knew, or believed I knew, that I needed to follow a different path.

And so I launched into the world of market research.  I had been introduced to market research on the JM programme and it had aroused my curiosity.  A friend of a friend worked in research.  I got in touch with him and arranged to meet for a coffee.  He gave me a copy of the Market Research Society Handbook and encouraged me to apply.  I contacted the first 50 agencies in the Handbook and got, amongst others, an interview with AGB, now part of Kantar.  Long story short, I joined their graduate programme.  It was a sensational programme, offering comprehensive coverage of the tools of the trade, which I’m thankful for to this day. It was my education in continuous research, analytics and account management, but, of equal importance, it was where I first observed effective people management and business practice.  And again the importance of culture came into play.  When we were ready to be set loose on clients, AGB matched us on the basis of cultural fit.  The result – happiness.

But the time came when I had to decide whether to stay with AGB or to move on  to a new challenge.  I joined NOP (now GfK) and moved from the retail sector to the financial sector.   Two years later NOP was acquired by Lord Hollick.  A management shake up followed.  My boss and another fellow director left the company to join MORI.  I was promoted to Board Director of the Corporate and Financial Division.  Three years later I reached another crossroads.  I had the good fortune to be approached by Bank of Scotland to set up and manage a research team within their newly formed Strategic Analysis Unit.  This opportunity arrived at the same time as my son.  I had a decision to make.  Either continue on the agency path in London or move to Edinburgh to take on a client side role.  I chose Edinburgh.  There were sound reasons behind the decision.  SAU was the brainchild of the Treasurer of the Bank so I was confident of his support.  The customer was being put at the centre of the business agenda, which meant research and analysis would have a central role.  My boss, newly appointed to role, was super smart, and likeable, with a great set of values (her background was academia and consultancy).  And, significantly, my role, and by definition, my boss’s role, were graded above the Heads of the product, brand and marketing teams, which strongly indicated that we would have a much greater chance of influencing the business agenda and driving change. 

And so it turned out.  Research and Analytics drove the business agenda. 

Our findings were acted upon and a period of remarkable success followed for the Bank. 

This success led to a broadening of the role of the Strategic Analysis Unit.  Data quality, marketing communications and direct marketing were added to our remit.  I was appointed Customer Director with responsibility for research, analytics, statistical modelling, and the Bank of Scotland brand.  I was also put on the Bank’s Executive Development Programme which was designed to develop senior personnel in preparation for appointment to the Executive Team of the Bank.  It was an extraordinary training programme and well ahead of its time.

It was during this period that the Strategic Analysis Unit identified the opportunity to launch a supermarket bank.  I was part of a two person team to do the evaluation, wrtte the business case, and pitch the proposition to the Exec team.  We recommended a collaboration with Sainsbury’s.  Negotiations took place and contracts were signed.  My next responsibility was to do the research and analysis to inform the launch plan.  Within a year Sainsbury’s Bank was successfully launched to market.  In time I was invited to join the Exec Team at Sainsbury’s Bank with responsibility for market research, data strategy, business information, customer strategy, statistical modelling, direct marketing, and IT/technical architecture.  To my knowledge it was the first all encompassing Chief Customer Officer role in the financial sector.  It was a great role.  It soon became apparent that the development of the technical architecture, including a single customer view and an enterprise wide data warehouse, was going to be a massive undertaking.  I had to learn about the world of IT, and identify the right mix of skills to successfully implement the programme.  It took four years to complete and, to my knowledge, is still in use to this day.  And then, coincident with the completion of the programme, I was invited by the Royal Bank of Scotland Group to apply for the role of Head Customer and Market Insight, possibly the biggest role in client side research at the time.  Having had enough of the world of IT, I wanted a new challenge, and I wanted to re-engage with the world of market research, so I applied.  After a lengthy selection process – I later found out that forty senior level researchers had applied from all corners of the globe – I was offered the job.  I accepted. 

The period of my employment at RBS Group was the period leading up to the credit crunch.  It was a facinating, though curious time.  Restructuring was a constant process.  Within 6-months my boss was promoted to run Private Banking in Jersey.  I found myself reporting directly to the CEO, who had far too many direct reports.  And so, in the next reshuffle, I found myself reporting to the Chief Marketing Officer.   The infamous Fred Goodwin, or, as he had come to be known, Fred the Shred was in charge. 

He was an accountant and a numbers man with an ‘if it doesn’t get measured it doesn’t get done’ mantra.  So we measured everything. 

We did a lot of tracking studies and we did a lot of reporting.  But it was also a learning culture and I was put on another Senior Management Development Programme developed in collaboration with Harvard Business School.  Yet again I found myself the beneficiary of world class training.

In the months leading up to the credit crunch I made a decision that would be directly impacted by the financial crisis and which ultimately led to my last, and final role in the corporate world of banking atTesco Bank.  It had been identified on the personal development programmes that I had a talent for building effective teams.  I decided to put this team building talent to the test.  I left RBS Group to set up as a consultant to help set up, build or restructure insight teams.  One of the most enjoyable challenges in this period was with Direct Line and Churchill Insurance in Bromley, Kent.  An old colleague needed my help.  At the end of a six month assessment and transition period the new team was successfully in place, as was a new strategic insight programme.   I was offered a full time role.  I was mulling over the offer when Tesco Bank approached me to fill a Resident Research Adviser role.  Both roles appealed.  Yet another decision to make (life is full of big and small decisions).  I loved working with the team in Bromley but I was settled in Edinburgh.  I believed that the advisory role at Tesco Bank would be less pressurised and give me more time to spend with the family.  I’d already missed big chunks of family life, and the kids were growing up fast. I chose the Tesco Bank offer.  It was great to be back at the research coal face again.  Yet again good fortune had knocked on my door.

Time passed.  I wanted to spend my september years helping others to develop.  Throughout my career I’ve always believed it important to give something back to the industry (I happily volunteered my services to help run the MRS Summer School [10 years] and to present at MRS events).  So I decided to step back from the corporate world to do my own thing.  By a happy co-incidence I was made a Fellow of the MRS in 2015, an event which opened the door to becoming the Treasurer and Adminstrator for AURA (which I’d been a member of for almost 20 years).  Supporting AURA and mentoring a bunch of talented individuals is how I now spend my time.  I guess I’m just a lucky fellow.

Career paths are rarely without challenges. Resilience is of course mostly forged from tough moments and many lessons are learnt from mistakes, challenging moments, and/or failed attempts. So, 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 face many decisions on the career path.  Some small and some large.  It simply isn’t possible to see every possibility or threat, or get every decision right.  We make decisions based upon the information we have available to us at the time, and upon how we feel.  It is easy with the power of hindsight to look back at decisions we have taken and wonder whether we made the right choice.  We are feeling beings that think, and when looking back we have a habit of overlooking our feelings at the time. There are a number of decisions that I now question, but it is pointless to consider what I could or should have done.  It is best to accept each decision as ‘the right decision at that point in time given the available facts’.  It is generally the outcome that makes us reconsider the wisdom of our choices, but each decision presents new opportunities to learn, and, with the right attitude, new options appear.  Who knows down which path any decision will take us. 

Having said that, I can think of two example of experiences I learned a lot from. 

The first was a failure to engage key stakeholders. 

Sir Stelios Hadje Ioannou, owner and founder of EasyJet had approached Bank of Scotland with a proposition to launch a new bank.  Bank of Scotland accepted the opportunity.  I was chosen to be part of the Bank work party because of my part in the successful launch of Sainsbury’s Bank.  Stelios offered a team of strategists.  Two consultants from CapGemini were drafted in to oversee the programme.  A previous attempt at a business case had been rejected.  We were asked to revisit the challenge and to write a new plan.  We were flown to the headquarters of EasyJet at Luton Airport to meet with Stelios and his team.  We were then given a tour of his incubation centre at the Rotunda, Campden Town where all new EasyJet business opportunities are assessed.  The next step was to isolate this team of twelve, plus the two consultants from CapGemini, in a hotel in the Scottish Highlands for six weeks to build the business case.  At the end of the process the business case for Easy Money was presented to Stelios.  He accepted the business case and gave his approval to proceed.  The final stage of the process, which I thought was going to be a formality, was to present the business case, and the approval from Stelios, to the Executive of the Bank.  The business case, even though it was rock solid and the potential returns, for the first online bank was impressive, it was rejected.  No reason was given for the rejection, but I immediately realised that for the very traditional semior leadership of the Bank the idea of online banking was a radical step.  I had assumed that the key player in the process was Stelios.  I realised too late that he was one of the key players but not the only one.  If I had met each member of the Executive team at the Bank individually to keep them appraised of the programme, and to take them on the journey with us then I would have identified the key obstacle to the ‘go’ decision, which was that it was an online bank, and beyond the understanding of the Exec team to whom banking meant branches.  Had I discovered this during the process we could have found ways to win them over and ensure that they weren’t ‘surprised’ by this radical new initiative.  The financials were great, but they weren’t ready for the concept of online banking, which potentially heralded a threat to traditional high street banking.  The moment was gone.  A great opportunity was lost.  The business case was shelved.  I learned from this not to make assumptions, and to include every potential stakeholder whether I recognised them to be key decision makers or not.

Another example I can share with you is when I decided to join The Royal Bank of Scotland Group.  I’ve already referenced the importance of culture and this is an example of a time when I made a decision based on the facts I knew at the time. 

As I stated earlier, John Menzies put me in a location that fitted my personality, and AGB put me on accounts that were natural cultural fits.  My decisions to join of Bank of Scotland and Sainsbury’s Bank were good decisions as both organisation were both cultural fits.  RBS Group was not a good fit for me. 

Cultures, like people, are different.  The culture that fits my preferred way of working is one of team over self.  I’ll use Unilever and Proctor & Gamble as examples to explain what I mean.  AGB put me on the Lever Bros. account.  The culture of Lever Bros., as indicated by the language used for the advertising of Persil washing powder, is about family and caring ‘dirt is good’.  Whereas the culture of P & G is more hard-nosed and task oriented ‘Ariel gets stains out’.  Both culures are good and have driven remarkable success.  Bank of Scotland and Sainbury’s Bank were both similar in culture to Unilever.  RBS Group was similar in culture to P&G; and I didn’t fit in.  It’s a great organisation but I wasn’t right for the role.  Curiously, having been invited by RBS to apply for the role there was still a recruitment process to go through.  Some forty senior researchers from across te globe had applied for the job.  Over a six month evaluation process the bank whittled the applicants down to two.  I knew the other applicant.  She was a very successful highly capable, task oriented, individual with an Ivy League education and a PHD.  It was a case of chalk and cheese.  I felt confident that the decision makers at the bank would get the decision right (recruitment is a two way thing) as we were so totally different.  After I left the bank, the individual who was responsible for my personal development at the global training firm used by the RBS Group for the development of ‘future leaders’, invited me to a meeting.  He expressed his delight at my decision to leave.  He put it succinctly ‘either you would have had to change the culture of the bank Tom, or the bank would have had to change you.  It is unlikely you would be able to change the a bank, and it wouldn’t have been good if they had changed you’. He went on to offer me a job in his team but that is another story.

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

The obvious things for me to urge junior researchers to focus on are communication skills and influencing skills.  An old boss gave me sound advice.  He said, ‘Tom, before you come to talk to me I want you to ask yourself 3 questions.  One – does my boss need to know what I’m about to say?  Two – will it add to my boss’s quality of life?  Three – what do I expect to happen as a result of imparting the knowledge?’  He candidly stated that the purpose of communication is to drive a change in behaviour. 

This statement highlights the need to clearly think through not only what you are about to say but how you are going to say it

The opening sentence is crucial.  To identify the most potent opening statement you need to have thought through exactly what you want the oucome to be and how you are going to stir the listeners emotions to persuade them to offer you their support.  This is a real test of how communication skills and influencing skills combine to achieve results.  Good communication skills are essential in most walks of life.  Everone should read ‘Writing that Works’ by Kenneth Roman and Joel Raphaelson, and ‘Body Language’ by James Borg and take a course – Body Talk is as good a training company as any, and better than most.  But perhaps the most important advice of all is to accept any and every challenge.  The only thing that limits us is us.  Even though a challenge may look daunting, and you may never have tackled anything like it before, you will be surprised at what can be achieved when you put your mind to it.  We researchers are naturally inquisitive, creative types who find solutions.  And even if we tackle a project and fail, that’s OK as long as we identify the reasons for the failure and learn from the experience.  And I learned early that it is OK to ask for help.  The best question ever is ‘Can you help me?’.  We are all well disposed to responding favourably to that question.

Do you have any advice for our sector?

Yes.  I do have advice for the sector.  I’ve often heard researchers complain about how difficult it is to reach board level.  Well there is a reason for that.  And it is founded in the belief that the role of the researcher is ‘to ‘inform the decision makers’.  That is much too passive a mission statement for my liking. 

The purpose of research is to find ways of doing things better.  The role of the researcher is to drive change.

We are the ones who drive incremental change and identify improvements that result in a better quality of life.  This may involve making improvements to business processes that improve the quality of life of the staff, or in identifying potential improvements to products or services that make life better for the customer.  The client side researcher should be seeking to work in tandem with the agency researcher to identify what could, and should, be done as a result of the new found information.  In this way the researcher drives the business agenda and wins a seat at the top table.  I also believe that researchers are the ones who ask the best questions.  It seems to me that the business world is obsessed with the amount of data that exists.  It feels like data scientists are told to ‘go seek’ and answers will tumble out.  I believe it would be much smarter to have the insight teams identify the best questions and then for the data scientists to be targeted with finding answers to the specific challenges.  There is a danger that the data dog will wag the research tail whereas it would be beneficial to all if we turn things around and let the tail wag the dog.

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

The MRS have a very good approach to visiting colleges and universities to promote market research as a profession, and I’m sure the MRS will have a presence on the milk round.  I feel that a more strident articulation of the purpose of research, with examples of the success that great leaders such as Sir Terry Leahy (a market researcher) have achieved for their companies, will appeal to the types of student that relishes new challenges and creativity. 

Research is still not widely recognised or understood in the community at large.  We definitely need a major PR push. 

Other professions such as chartered accountancy are promoted on the basis of security, success without risk, good incomes and boundless opportunities, and this has a great appeal to those who perhaps seek a safe passage through life performing a role where the onus is on repeat behaviours and learned practices.  Market research is about taking risks, creativity, finding solutions and driving change.  It is also about the joy of discovery and the pleasure of making a difference in life.  The type of individual who will be drawn to market research is different to the type of individual who is attracted to the type of profession I have just highlighted.  And each is well suited to the their chosen profession.  Both have an important role to play.  I simply believe we need to grow greater awareness of the importance of market research to a healthy growing economy and we need to make graduates aware of the typical persona of the market researcher, the joy of discovery through research, and the opportunities available to them, should they choose a career in market reseach.

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?

There are so many people who have helped me along the way, and I’d love to thank them all, but I probably owe the greatest debt to AGB for setting me on the path to success.  It was the insight of the individuals at AGB to identify my talents, when it wasn’t apparent to me what those were.  I was a relatively introverted individual who preferred to stay behind the scenes in the stats and analytical space but others saw a capability in me that I wasn’t aware of and nudged me into a client facing role.  There is one person I’m going to mention as he influenced me in a way that has impacted my life several times over.  It is Chris Longbottom of Kantar.  Chris was an outgoing and successful guy.  He was  promoted from Account Director to Commercial Director as a reward for his abilities and his contribution.  But it was a promotion that took him away from the thing he loved most, analysis and interfacing with clients, into the role of everseeer and accountability for the commercials.  It made him unhappy.  He took the courageous decision to demote himself to Account Director and promoted one of his team, better suited to the role, to succeed him.  He became his happy self again.  I learned from Chris that it is in our gift to reverse poor decisions and rediscover happiness. 

Whenever I’ve found myself unhappy in a role I’ve taken the decision to rediscover happiness.  Life is too short.