Charting the course of your career: Advice for market research professionals

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Posted Dec 07, 2022
Eliza Jacobs

Last week, we hosted a roundtable webinar discussion with three market research leaders titled, “Charting your career: Roundtable advice for market research professionals.” The goal was to have a discussion about the big changes taking place throughout the industry, and what career pathways current and aspiring market research professionals can take to find success as it shifts. It was a lively conversation chock full of incredible insights and helpful tips for folks at different points in their careers. In this post, we’ll share some snippets of the conversation but be sure to check out the on-demand recording for the full conversation!

Let’s meet our panel

Kerry Sette

Kerry Sette, Vice President, leads consumer insights and research for Voya Financial. She specializes in strategic brand research, cultural and consumer insight with over 20 years of in-depth experience across all phases of international qualitative and quantitative research. 

She began her career at VMLY&R specializing in brand evaluation and strategy leading the world’s largest global brand study in over 40 countries. She later worked for an international consulting firm where she professionally moderated and conducted multi-country qualitative research studies in over 20 countries. 

Prior to joining Voya, Kerry led large teams of consumer insights specialists and brand planners for Hill Holliday and Ogilvy. Kerry has been quoted by Ad Age and Bloomberg Businessweek for using controversial techniques within her qualitative work. 

She is an expert in all types of research ranging from consumer segmentation, advertising testing, brand tracking, discrete choice/conjoint, traditional/digital/social media measurement, PR/thought leadership to ethnography. Kerry is a graduate of Hofstra University, where she received her Master’s Degree with High Distinction in Industrial Organizational Psychology.

Marcus Cunha Jr.

Marcus Cunha Jr. is Professor of marketing at the University of Georgia (UGA) and the Director of the UGA’s Master of Marketing Research (MMR) program. His research focuses on cognition, judgment, and decision making as applied to understanding issues in pricing and branding. 

Dr Cunha’s research has been published in premier research journals such as the Journal of Consumer Research, Journal of Marketing Research, Marketing Science, and Journal of Marketing. He teaches MBA, MMR, and PhD students at UGA. He was awarded the college wide Outstanding Faculty Award for Teaching Excellence and the Hugh O. Nourse outstanding MBA teacher award by the Terry College of Business. 

Dr. Cunha also teaches the topics of statistical analysis, consumer behavior, behavioral economics, and media effectiveness research to large corporations such as Chick-fil-A, Lowe's, and Assurant, the Georgia Banking Association, and the Advanced School of Marketing Research (American Marketing Association). He has conducted consulting projects for multinational corporations both in the USA and in Brazil and has trained research executives in both countries.

Stephanie Vance

As VP of Research and Client Enablement, Stephanie leads the client supporting teams at aytm, including Client Support and Success, Learning Enablement, Research Services, and our nascent Solution Strategy vertical. 

Prior to joining aytm in 2015 as Director of Research, Stephanie spent significant time both on the supplier side of MR, conducting quant and qual research, and on the client side in Consumer Insights at a F100 tech company. Stephanie got her start in academic research, earning a PhD in experimental psychology while conducting research on implicit cognition.

Eliza Jacobs

Moderating the discussion was me, Eliza Jacobs, the Sr. Learning Enablement Manager at aytm. 

Working within the Learning Enablement group, I partner on the creation of learning programs and content that serve both internal teams and external clients. I author original learning content pertaining broadly to quantitative market research, but also show how these principles and best practices apply when leveraging aytm's technology. 

I have over fifteen years’ experience in market research and was most recently the Director of Consumer Insights & Analysis at PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) where my research measured audience behavior and preferences. I’m a graduate of Georgetown University, where I received a Master’s Degree with Distinction in Communication Culture and Technology.

Professional advice for today’s landscape

The world of market research is constantly (and sometimes rapidly) changing. We really wanted to focus the conversation around helpful advice to navigate all these changes. To kick things off, we asked our panelists to share some of their insight into how our panelists see career pathways playing out in the industry. Here’s how the conversation went:

How do graduate programs like the one at UGA help prepare students for success after graduation?

Marcus: We prepare students at various levels. Of course there’s the basics—there’s the academics and the methodologies. You learn everything from a simple T test all the way to deploying a conjoint or choice model and doing regression analysis. But we also focus a lot on developing soft skills. The consulting skills. The ability to present data in a persuasive way. Because we think this is even more important than knowing how to run an analysis. It’s thinking about what the implications of that analysis will be for the business. What kind of decisions will that analysis influence? 

Another thing we do is make sure the students really understand the industry. As you know, it’s not a very large industry. You run into the same people at different conferences all the time, so every connection that you make is going to have an impact. To that regard we prepare students through our mentorship program where they are paired with a graduate from the program that is currently working in the industry. Our alumni network is really really passionate about the program so we usually get two or three times more mentor volunteers than we have students. They really want to give back and help create those connections.

Is graduate school necessary to break into the market research space?

Marcus: So, I’m of course biased here right? But I will say that your odds will increase substantially if you do a program like our MMR program. Not to say that you’ll never get into research without higher education, you might! But your ceiling will likely be much lower than someone that has this type of degree. And it’s not a really long program. It’s an 11 month program and opens all of these doors for you. The return on your investment if you want to get into the industry is phenomenal.

Kerry: Market research is a relatively small industry. I’ll just say this—I don’t really know anyone at my level who is running an enterprise research and insights team that does not have a graduate level degree. It also depends on what your undergraduate experience looked like. We always say it’s about knowledge, skills, and abilities. I’m not sure that anybody coming out of undergrad has the base level of foundational knowledge absolutely required to excel in the field. Not just excel in the field but be that visionary for an insights team.

Stephanie: I think if your goal is really to be designing, executing—or especially interpreting research—there are foundational skills that are needed that aren’t taught at the undergraduate level. That said, I think, and this is very much a supplier side lens, I do think that there are many, many types of roles that are in market research but are not researcher roles. 

I think the best example of this, for me, is a research operations role. I have a very good partner here at aytm who is my research operations partner. I don’t come with an operational background. I am a consultant by nature. That’s what I do. And when it comes to building processes, I just don’t love that and I don’t have the mind for that. So, being able to partner with someone who can bring that to the table and help us be the most efficient research services department possible is critical. And there’s a lot of growth in that career path as well.

What do you look for in candidates when hiring top talent?

Kerry: I think you have to find people who are curious. You can't really teach curiosity. Understanding how things work, how people make decisions, why they're making decisions and understanding what they want to learn, and why they want to learn. And for me, personally, understanding what makes people tick. I love the science of human behavior. I’ve translated that to consumer behavior and made an entire career out of it. 

Beyond that, in our world, you have to be able to write. You have to be able to put lots of disparate data together, and then say, “well, what is it telling me?” and write a story. Being able to piece together all different data sets, and then tell a story about what it means to our clients, and then also how they can take action. That, I think, is absolutely critical. But I have learned through the years. curiosity has to be there. It's a necessary, but insufficient condition for success on the job. You have to be curious walking through the door.

Stephanie: I'm always looking for people with high conscientiousness. Supplier side research is highly deadline driven. And those deadlines do not move. And so you really need people who can work in that fashion and can work up against a deadline in an effective way.

I also think the ability to balance multiple priorities and to know what your glass balls are, and your rubber balls are, is very important stuff. Those can of course be learned, but definitely things that I look for with people coming in. 

Then, finally, having a team orientation, because supplier side market research is a team sport. You live and die with that team, so to speak, and you're gonna need help at some point. So you need to be the kind of person who also provides help, because it's just a very reciprocal kind of relationship.

Exploring different career paths in market research

As the conversation went on, we wanted to dig into the different pathways for entering and advancing in the field. Our panelists all come from unique backgrounds and have different perspectives on the industry, so I asked a number of questions to illuminate their viewpoints and expertise in the area. 

Are there differences in skills required for brand side research versus supplier side? 

Kerry: Time management is absolutely critical on the supplier side and agency side, based on my experience. I think for corporate researchers, you have to realize that sometimes things take longer and we do have to dot the i's and cross the t's. Especially when you work in something like financial services, pharmaceuticals, or other highly regulated industries—they're intentionally slow because we have to get certain approvals. We have to deal with compliance and all of those things.

But the skill set that has really benefited me on the corporate side is that I came in fully understanding client service. This whole idea of, you don't give your clients what they ask for, you give them what they need. If I had a dime for every time someone's like, “Kerry, we need a survey.” But do they really? Let's talk about what they’re trying to do. What is this going to drive in terms of actions? What are the business objectives? Basic questions like that.

How can someone know which route is the better fit for them?

Stephanie: I've worked both sides as well, brand side and the supplier side, and I think working on each made me better at both. Maybe that’s not true for everybody but it’s certainly been the case for me.

I definitely have had newer researchers ask advice before about whether they should go to the brand side or should they start their career on the supplier side and there’s this very simple heuristic that I use. Do you want to go really deep on consumer behavior in one vertical and really take the space to understand that vertical, or would you like to sacrifice some of that depth for a lot of variety? Most people find that they prefer one of those things or the other.

How common is it to switch from supplier or agency side to brand side and vice versa?

Marcus: We have a lot of data on that. It’s much more likely for people to transition from supplier side to client side for a few reasons. Clients tend to pay more than suppliers, the hours tend to be more manageable, and benefits tend to be better because client companies are larger. So the vast majority of moves are happening that way, but I’ve seen it happen the opposite way too if someone, for example, wants to see more variety in the studies they’re doing or different industries. The ratio is about three to one in terms of that switch with the majority moving from supplier to client roles. Suppliers also don’t mind losing an employee to a client because that’s a connection then, but they don’t like to lose employees to other suppliers.

How to stand out in times of uncertainty

Finally, at the risk of dating our conversation, we wanted to get our panelist’s opinions on how professionals and teams can stand out and prove their value. To do that, I pointed out recent events that have been taking place in tech, and used that as a starting point for discussion with our panelists. 

Unfortunately we’ve all seen a lot of layoffs in the news recently. What can market researchers do to make themselves indispensable? 

Marcus: Something that I advise my students: When you're looking for jobs, try to find a company that cares about research—and really uses the research—and ties that research to revenue. That will give you job security. In the interview process, ask the company about a few examples where the research made a difference for the company. What were the outcomes? Make sure that the research process is not just like a rubber stamp.

Kerry: Always ask, is this driving value for our shareholders? Is this furthering our strategic priorities? And if it’s not, then you need to take a look and ask yourself how you can innovate the study so that it’s more valuable and more action driven. Make it so people can’t wait to see the results. You can spend all day answering questions that have nothing to do with helping the company move forward on their growth strategy, right? But then you’ll be seen as a cost center and not valuable.

And I always say, be the first person to want to kill one of your studies. You should be the first person to want to kill it or be innovative. Not every question deserves an answer. Not every person deserves a question, so that's part of that ruthless prioritization of figuring out where you're gonna put these valuable, but limited resources.

View the on-demand recording now

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