As a lead-in to the upcoming Corporate Researchers Conference (CRC), MRA conducted a brief Q&A with some of the experts scheduled to appear. We got some great answers, which should help you get to know the speakers a bit as well as whet your appetite for more.

Leading off is Mike Ryan-Todd, Director, Market Research, at Texas Instruments, whose session, “Doing More With Less: Every Corporate Researcher’s Reality,” will be co-presented with Melissa Barrow.

MRA: People get into marketing research in so many different ways, sometimes by accident. How did you end up in this field and what attracted you to it?

Mike Ryan-Todd: I definitely did not arrive at marketing research by accident. When I started my undergraduate studies at Penn State in engineering, I loved the technical aspects, but started to find that it was a little too technical. The field didn’t give me enough socialization or contact with other people, so I switched to a marketing curriculum.

In my first semester in business school, I got my introduction to marketing research in Marketing 101. Research was a huge part of the class because the professor came from a marketing research background. I discovered that I loved statistical analysis and sampling, as well as interacting with people, learning how to understand people, and many of the different ways to address business issues through research. At that time I didn’t even know marketing research was a career option. I talked to my professor after a few of his lectures and he introduced me to MR as a career option, then connected me with a masters student in marketing research.

The two of us went into the MR business. We used the school’s Scantron technology, which was only being used to score tests at that time, to start running surveys for various university departments. This was back when computers were very basic in nature. I was fortunate that my partner had the first Macintosh computer and a graphics design background. All in all, it was a great experience, thanks to the grad student I partnered with and the professor that helped to bring me into the marketing research field.

I had a guidance counselor early on who discouraged me from getting into MR. He told me there was no money in it and it wasn’t where marketing students typically go, but I told the counselor that I wanted to do something interesting and that was more important than simply doing what everyone else was doing.

I wish I could run into that advisor right now and teach him how you can make a career in research succeed.

MRA: What do you think is the biggest threat facing corporate-side research today? How can the industry deal with that?

Mike: The biggest threat to us is in the growing automation of research functions. Automation means that more and more people think that they can do marketing research without any experience or education. There are now a plethora of survey tools and it is exceedingly easy to conduct do-it-yourself (DIY) research. DIY is attractive because it is easy and cheap, but people either forget or don’t understand that a methodology underpins research. The biggest danger is that corporate America will do marketing research on its own, without proper expertise, and get erroneous results. The effects won’t show up right away, but will become an Achilles’ heel in the long term to companies that go the DIY route.

MRA: What’s the biggest opportunity for corporate-side research? Is there anything in particular that stands in the way of exploiting that opportunity?

Mike: Marketing research is a support function that usually takes the first hit in a corporate downturn. Companies can get by with a minimal amount of proper research, at least for a short period of time, so they often do so. It sometimes takes a few years for them to learn that they’ve lost the voice of the consumer and then they have to work twice as hard to get it back.

Companies may be nearing the rebound point of this downturn, where they are reviving their marketing research. Doing that will be essential, since marketing research is the go-to method to hear the voice of their customer and get the macro-level understanding needed to prosper.

MRA: Since you began working in research, do you think the institutional value/reputation of corporate researchers has increased, decreased or remained the same? Why?

Mike: We know the value of marketing research in corporate America should be really high, but unfortunately, corporate America doesn’t value research as much as it should. Marketing researchers in a corporate setting are becoming more and more like project managers, outsourcing their work, and not growing and learning as part of the research process. Their skills and techniques are stagnating.

Corporate researchers need to learn how to get the most out of the research process themselves. Corporate researchers need to relearn how to be their own researchers and not pass off the work. No offense to project managers, but corporate researchers play a highly skilled and important role in modern business.

MRA: Thinking of your day-to-day work and responsibilities, what is one important element of your job that’s “broken” or dysfunctional? Assuming you had necessary resources, how would you change that?

Mike: When I began in my current role, the market research group was functioning as a job shop. We were not being brought into internal organizations as a partner and were essentially order takers. Someone would have a survey envisioned, maybe even have the questions they want asked already written, and just give it to the group to program and field. They were not aware of the potential value of partnering with their market researchers and were not able to leverage this expertise to find the best research design to meet their needs.

As I’ll cover in much more detail during my presentation at CRC, we’ve been working to address this problem internally. We’re prioritizing projects and asking the tough questions up front — and if those questions can’t be answered, we tell them to go back to the drawing board. How can the marketing research department be valued if we put our imprimatur on just any old survey? We will always give them the tools, if they insist, but our goal is to try to get them involved and interested in using marketing research and to try to better understand their own business needs.

MRA: How can corporate researchers better sell the value of what they do within their organizations?

Mike: This is, again, a major focus of my CRC presentation. Corporate researchers need to become embedded in internal customer operations. Make yourselves a part of weekly and biweekly meetings, in and between departments, and better understand your internal customers’ business and needs. Until you take that step and begin to better understand your internal customers, you’ll never provide true value and never be truly valued. When we come to our internal customers with good ideas on how best to meet their business needs — before they ask — we have succeeded in becoming a valued part of their team and they are much more likely to seek us out in the future when the need arises.