Lee Smith: Global Head of Shopper

This week we talked to Lee Smith, the Global Head of Shopper at a market research company in London. We know what you’re thinking and the answer is no, her job doesn’t entail shopping all day. What it does include is using data to help companies understand their customers. Aka, giving advice that makes your shopping options and experiences better every time. Curious to learn more? Read on!

Ok, let’s start with the basics. What is your official job title?
My official job title is Global Head of Shopper at Kantar TNS.

What are your main responsibilities? From day-to-day to more long-term duties.
My company (Kantar TNS) is one of the largest of what they nowadays call “consumer insight companies” in the world, which is really market research. I do market research to understand how people behave when they’re making a purchase. It’s the purchasing behavior that I’m specialized in.

People used to say “market research.” If you were a market researcher you would talk to a client about something they didn’t know and needed to find out for their brand to go to market, have higher sales, or understand young moms, or whatever it is. You’d write a survey and you’d interview either a thousand people or do a sort of psychological interview and interview ten or fifteen people. But [market research] was always about designing interviews.

That has really changed. I’ve been in the business since 1994 and that was what you were expected to do. The reason the word switched to “insights” is that clients were happy with the data, but now they don’t want the data, they want the insight: “What should I do?” The what-we-call “So what?” Because you can say 47% of men do this and that, but the client still says, “Well, what should I do about that?” So that’s where the word “insights” comes in. When you’re looking at polls, that’s basically insights. You’re trying to understand not only if or not they’re winning, and why or why not. It’s about where to look and to tell a story so they can do something about it.

That makes sense! So then you’re a specialist in insights? Are there different roles within insights?
If you’re talking about market research, people get quite specialized in insights. You could be a polling person, and those people are political—they’re specialists in politics. I wouldn’t be able to talk very much how they do polling or how they do questionings in politics. Or somebody might be specialized in the automotive sector. Or someone might be specialized in CPG brands, like Procter and Gamble and brands like that. Some people are specialized in—and this is one of the biggest areas— brand equity, [understanding] how people feel about a certain brand. What makes you want a brand?

Another really big area is innovation, product innovation and product development (when they want to come out with a new product). Could be a new car, could be a new yogurt, could be a new anything. But you have to test it. Greek yogurt got really popular a few years ago, and companies that had not ever done Greek yogurt but had done other yogurt had to invent—for them it was an innovation—“How do I make my yogurt? How should I make it different? How should the packaging look like?” [There’s] customer experience—“Were you happy in the store? Last time you made a purchase, how did it go?” Those kinds of things, customer experience—that’s a really big area.

And then there’s a small area, and that’s mine: it’s called shopper commerce. If you took a brand like Dove cream, you say “Well, I really love Dove products.” But you’re not always that loyal, because something happens on your way to the store or between that moment of me loving the brand and pulling out my wallet, something happened that made me make a decision that might have been different. I’m not a specialist in how to make people love my brand, I’m a specialist in helping people buy my brand. And there’s a difference.

It sounds like you’re in a position to influence a lot of people. How do you handle that responsibility?
You have to be very responsible with the data because you can prove anything you want with data. You have to sometimes step back and say, “Is this really objective? Is this right?” It’s hard to be totally objective. In politics it’s much harder. You like one party versus the other, and you’re going to really want something to be a certain way. You might not feel quite that way or it might not be as blatant about certain brands, but subconsciously you might have your own biases. You need to move away from that and try to understand. “I feel like this and this about this brand. Or I feel like this about perfume, but actually I’m not typical, I’m not the one they’re going to make money on.”

How did you figure out you were good at this? Are there certain skills you have that predisposed you to this field?
I initially thought I would do something more where social sciences apply to government like education, [but] I realized that that moved too slowly for me. I’d do work and then they’d just file it away because the government changed or something. So then I thought—and this is what I was doing in grad school—“Well, I’m just going to apply this to the business world.” I had a feeling I was going to go into consulting and I liked retail. I found this really small consulting firm that did just that—they were studying people’s behavior using cameras and doing all this really innovative stuff in the nineties.

It’s such a big industry I would say there’s room for everyone. There’s people who are mathematical geniuses that do algorithms and calculate things. And then you have psychologists who will really get at some, what-we-call, “qualitative research.” But I think the people who go to the top have a combination of those. There’s some room for creativity if you have that storytelling gift that you can look at data and make it into something more than “47% of women do…” You can say, “Imagine a woman getting up in the morning …and the one thing she would like is having five minutes to herself.” You can tell that story and then show statistics: “47% of women say they wish they had five minutes to themselves in the morning.” There’s this quant-qual combination.

Looking back, what’s the best training for this career? And what were some of the formative experiences you had that set you up to succeed in this area?
You have varied training. Like I said, there are psychologists, there are sociologists, there are mathematicians. Especially in the junior roles, you might have some liberal arts people or people who are just smart enough to be able to do these things. You do need to be able to do something with numbers. I had somebody who worked for me once who kept getting confused. But I think that as with any job, really liking it, really being curious about people, I think that’s really important—having a curiosity about how people behave lets you tell a story beyond numbers. Because we can all see numbers, but why are they happening?

What are some skills you’ve found useful in keeping good relations with clients, especially in situations where you might have to disagree with them?
Listening, listening, listening to the client, not already having something in mind that you’re trying to sell them. You’re in a sales role because you want clients to pay you money. If you go in it thinking, “I’m going to sell them this thing we have that does a calculation like that or a certain study,” then you will often miss out on what the client is saying. And you really need to listen to them and think about what you might have that will help them. So, put the client first.

It’s better to build up a trusting relationship with a client then to win something once. The other thing is being really reliable. When you say you’re going to do something, do it. Don’t over-promise and don’t be a doormat. That’s really hard. If you’re sure of yourself, you can be very polite and say, “I wish I could do that for you by Friday but it’s not going to be possible. Could we see about getting a piece of it Friday and the rest would come to you Tuesday?” There’s some room for that. Clients are working with people, not companies, and when people switch companies, clients will switch companies to stay with a person they really trust. But like any relationship, you build it up, it doesn’t come overnight.  

It sounds like there’s a lot of specialization in your industry. Does this mean it’s hard to move horizontally in this field?
No, I think you can go horizontally. People might start in one area and say, “Oh, I really like brand equity,” and some people really like a special area, like the math of it. Some people like just managing a project. They’re really organized and they actually don’t get into the data part of it. They probably aren’t going to go really high in their career, but they can be really valuable. A good PM (Project Manager) will probably work a 40 hour week and then they’re done. But I think there is horizontal movement. People find they’ll go in, find an area they like, and specialize in a methodology or in management.

What is your least and most favorite part of your job?
My least favorite part of my job is doing budgeting. I think most people in my industry would say that. My favorite part of the job is working with clients, hearing client issues—even though sometimes it can be hard and they can be tough, I like making clients happy. I like them to say, “Thank you, you guys solved my problem. You did great work.” I’m a people person, generally, and in the industry I’d say half the people are client people and the other half are people who crunch data all day and never see a client.

What’s been one of the most difficult challenges in your career so far? And how did you overcome it?
Some things are just human challenges—what does it mean to work smarter and not harder? That’s something I’ve struggled with. I think I’m starting to get it now. You think if you put in more time, you’re working hard. But actually, sometimes you really have to change a habit of how you work, and changing habits is much harder then putting in an extra two hours. Making big decisions like changing jobs, moving from one company to another, that’s really hard. And has been for me.

And when a client is really really annoyed. Sometimes it’s not fair, but it happens to everybody once that a client takes you aside and says “I really wasn’t happy,” and sometimes they’re right, and you need to stand there and hear it. And that’s tough. I remember a time when a client took me aside and said, “That presentation was not good, somebody was falling asleep, you were flippant,” I was about 29. I was in tears. I went to my boss and I told her and she said, “Well, what do you think?”

She had me talk it through and supported me, but she didn’t say, “Oh, you were right and the client is a horrible person.” Because she probably wasn’t. And actually, if I look back, that client was somebody who thought I was one of her best consultants. So, you see? But it was hard.

What is one thing that you didn’t expect you’d have to be doing but find yourself doing?
Maybe this is normal, or maybe it’s just me—babysitting staff. Having people who are immature or just not good workers, and having to treat them like little children when they’re forty, you know, it’s sort of… I think everybody has someone like that on their team, and I was really surprised and thinking “Wow, these are not kids right out of college, these are adults who have two kids.” Probably people management is one of the harder, unexpected things. Yeah.

There’s a common notion that there’s a manipulative aspect to advertising. I know insights isn’t advertising, but what would your argument be to debunk, justify, or to make it clear that that’s not what you’re doing?
What is it they say? “Assuming no evil actors.” Let’s say all products are great, in insights I’d say we’re really trying to understand what people need to help them--help our clients give their customers the best service and the best products they can, and help them make the best decisions. If you’re doing customer experience work and someone is really unhappy because they had to wait in line a really long time and then someone was rude, that’s a really good thing to find out.

There are a lot of players, it’s not always that pure. We do have very high standards and ethics about research and interviewing, and what is allowed and not allowed to be done. For example, you cannot do any research or interviewing about alcohol and cigarettes with minors. You cannot try to convince people who don’t smoke to smoke. You can’t do any research at all that would lead that way. There should be certain ethics— it doesn’t mean it’s always perfect, but...

Final question. If you weren’t doing this, what do you think you’d be doing?
Possibly, lawyer. There’s probably some similarities there in understanding complex situations and dealing with clients. I was on the lawyer track until I got sidelined.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your answer as if you're explaining to your ten-year-old self.

 I work in a Consumer Research agency where I help clients gather the data that will help them make better business decisions. My focus area is Shopper Marketing: brands in store and the relationship between manufacturers and retailers.

I work in a Consumer Research agency where I help clients gather the data that will help them make better business decisions. My focus area is Shopper Marketing: brands in store and the relationship between manufacturers and retailers.

Thanks so much, Lee! Learning more about what you do was fascinating, and very helpful. Readers, not to worry, there'll be more from her next week! Come back Monday morning to learn from Lee about a topic we didn't get to cover in the interview – how to move abroad for work. (Photo credit Kantar TNS and Lee Smith)