In The Wild: Colin Strong

Colin Strong WebThis week in our practitioner series we’re featuring Colin Strong, managing director of the Technology division at global market research agency GfK in London. He first studied judgement and decision making in the late 80’s, looking at the way in which framing effects influenced propensity to wear seatbelts at a time when legislation was coming in.  Although at that point in time behavioural economics and decision making science was not on the agenda of the market research industry, it has been an important influence throughout his career. As the managing director for the technology division, he  is engaged across a broad range of issues that keep the division at the forefront of the market research industry with a particular focus on the way in which Big Data is providing the market research industry with significant new challenges and opportunities.  GfK UK has also recently set up a partnership with City University to develop the way in which behavioural economics can be used to throw new light on complex consumer issues which mainstream market research techniques cannot always answer. The team is increasingly looking at connections between these disciplines, exploring the way in which behavioural economics can be applied to the Big Data agenda to generate new insights for businesses to leverage.

Tell me about your work: how does decision making psychology fit in it? I work as MD of the Technology division within GfK, working with a team exploring a wide range of consumer (and b2b) issues for our tech clients.  The category is hugely interesting to work in from a decision making perspective, not only because it is rapidly evolving but also because decisions tend to be fairly infrequent.  So you are only deciding which device to purchase once every year at most unlike in FMCG (fast moving consumer goods) where the same decision is repeated sometimes daily. 

As far as I am concerned, decision making psychology can infuse pretty much everything that we do – there is always an angle that has something to offer to the client’s brief.  It’s a matter of thinking creatively about how to respond to the brief and having access to some good people who have a familiarity with the psychology literature. 

Whilst market research approaches have proved themselves to be incredibly useful in tackling business issues, I find that decision making psychology almosy always gives a fresh perspective and challenges all parties to look at the issues in a new way.

How did you first become interested in decision making psychology? I first became interested in this area years ago as psychology undergraduate,  A fresh faced Peter Ayton taught a course on Judgment and Decision Making and I did my final year dissertation on framing effects relating to seat belt usage (seat belt legislation had recently been passed).

This being the late eighties I then wanted to find a job in business and after a few blind alleys started working in market research.  I was somewhat surprised at the time that market research did not make use of the decision making literature or indeed consider using experimental design as part of its repertoire.  Over the last five years the area has obviously come into the mainstream and it is more accepted to integrate into a commercial context.

What type of research do you find most interesting, useful or exciting? My dad used to say that anything is interesting if you look at it long enough.  I used to think about that when I was doing long hours managing my first project at GfK (or NOP as it was then) which was possibly the driest project in the agency – b2b market sizing of the telecoms market.  Many groaned at what they considered my misfortune but I was ridiculously enthusiastic about the challenges that were in front of me.

And I think the same for decision making psychology – it’s all pretty exciting and useful stuff.  If we think as market researchers we are interested in the way people make decisions then nothing is really off bounds.  Some areas may be harder to sell than others but that’s simply because we have not always properly assimilated the learnings, worked out the benefits and considered how to communicate them effectively.

Do you see any challenges to the wider adoption of decision making psychology in your field? In my experience a lot of people are interested in this area and can see the relevance but it can be a challenge to find the time to properly integrate it into the day job.  And it is only by integrating it into our other work will it be successful as clients are not interested in spending money on ‘Behavioural Economics’ they want to spend money to fix a business issue.  I think too often the industry discusses Behavioural Economics as a ‘tool’ and not enough time is spent considering ways in which they can be applied to answer our clients’ business challenges.  I see our efforts within GfK as a long term project where we incrementally learn from our successes and failures rather than there being a small number of blindingly obvious opportunities.

How do you see the relationship between academic researchers and practitioners? In a word, tricky. The career and personal motivations are often completely different so it takes a while to build up that mutual understanding and respect.  We are fortunate in having a strong relationship with City University where we are building a familiarity with the team there and each learning about the other’s needs and challenges.

Practitioners certainly find value from the academic literature that help to differentiate themselves in the market but need to have guides through the morass of academic papers.  Academics are keen to get involved in business and indeed government guidance is encouraging this.  So both sides are keen suitors it just needs time and patience to understand each other.

What advice would you give to young researchers who might be interested in a career in your field? The market research industry is an exciting place to be right now.  Businesses are desperate to find sources of competitive advantage in order to grow and research is well placed to offer this.  The explosion of Big Data provides us with new opportunities to monitor human activity in ways never previously imagined.  There is an increasing recognition of the need for bold thinking to generate fresh approaches using a variety of social science and humanities disciplines from psychology and sociology to geography and history.

So my advice?  Plunge into the work with an open mind, keeping an eye open for ways to bring in new approaches and thinking.  Be mindful about the way you do this – change is typically incremental – nobody wants to risk all their budget on a left field approach.  If you have a background in decision psychology then infuse this in the work you do but unless you get one of the very few jobs you can specialise, keep an open mind to other disciplines.  Some days I am just as enthusiastic about sociology.

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Also from GfK NOP: Kiki Koutmeridou, behavioural economics researcher (Outside the Matrix series)

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2 thoughts on “In The Wild: Colin Strong

  1. Pingback: Outside The Matrix: Kiki Kikouki | :InDecision:

  2. Pingback: Outside The Matrix: Kiki Koutmeridou | :InDecision:

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