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What is market research?

(illustration by Katie Walmsley)

It's funny because when you say the words 'market research', people tend to think about a woman with a clipboard who asks you about the last time you ate a digestive biscuit. And that is what it is sometimes. When I got my first and only real job back in the late nineties I'd never heard of market research. I applied for the job because it mentioned 'travel', the website looked cool (my Dad said it looked like the website of a 'cult' but that's another story) and I also had my Mum on my back as I'd finished university, and moved back home. My days were taken up with moaning about my sisters and doing a touch typing course because I thought it'd help my employment skills (I got so nervous doing my touch typing test at a temping agency that my hands shook and I totally flunked it).

I'd studied media and wanted to work in TV but realised early on that it was unrealistic. The only people that could afford to work in TV were wealthy. I'd spent a summer working for Sacha-Baron Cohen on a new TV channel called 'Granada Talk TV' and we'd been paid two pound a day (travel). The producer's hair fell out from stress and the other girl that worked with me fainted whilst we were queuing at the local deli to get Sacha's lunch (it wasn't unusual not to eat - we couldn't afford it).

I went for an interview at this agency. The interview went on for over two hours. I talked about how much I loved Calvin Klein. I threw the word androgynous into the mix quite a bit. This seemed to work. I started work in November and that was that.

'This is your diary Anniki and all your groups will be put in it each week,' one of the bosses told me.

First off nobody had called me 'Anniki' since primary school (I'd found it a real bummer to explain my name and so had chosen to be Niki instead). Then the next thing was this GROUP thing. What did it mean?

Market research more often than not involves talking to people about ideas- be it a new product, a new brand or an advertising idea. It isn't as straightforward and people often like to make it a serious art, but I was tasked to speak to people about a specific thing and then feedback on the thing. I enjoyed talking to people and that was good as three nights a week, I travelled to different corners of the UK (and Europe) to talk to people. It might be a new rim block for the loo, or a cat snack or a moisturising toilet roll. Or a new alcopop, or a deodorant or a face cream.

If I couldn't speak the language, then I had a simultaneous translator who spoke in a very, low monotonous voice and I wrote down everything they said. Sometimes I battled to keep my eyes open. Sitting in a dark room late in the evening after a lot of travel wasn't conducive to being awake. I drank a lot of Coke to stay awake. It was interesting but not always that much. The clients were often difficult. They got cranky because they wanted the people that consumed their product to look more aspirational and were disappointed that they had frizzy hair and spots. The ideas weren't always particularly good either.

I did the job for a long time and towards the end it felt like the ideas were getting worse. The key issue seemed to be that the people creating these ideas lacked an understanding of how regular people lived their lives.

No women do not want a cream that removes their underarm hair whilst it deodorises. Why? Because it will BURN THEIR SKIN OFF. No she is not impressed by the idea of a chicken that's pre-cooked in a bag and then has to stay in the bag whilst it cooks some more. Why? Because it looks frightening. It looks like it's still alive and screaming from it's bottom. Don't you think?

I often felt like an interpreter between the real world and the world of marketing- a different tier of society that didn't ever wash clothes, prepare food, put cream on their face, navigate a supermarket etc. My skill was in understanding people, in being normal, always remembering how normal people lived their lives- chiefly because I WAS A PERSON and a consumer first and foremost. I like to think the clients I worked for regularly respected this about me (and the fact that I didn't use long words to outfox them as many of my colleagues did).

Market research is no longer 100 % what I do. It's more like 30%. Now I can come at a project with a fresh perspective. I can offer up things I've learnt outside research (like how it feels to be marketed to as a parent, what brands cut through when you're ageing, what stories engage and keep you thinking and why, what keeps an ageing woman awake at night when she's a full-time freelancer).

I enjoy talking to people. I like finding out what makes them tick. The stuff I learnt in my research days has all proven valuable. Things are changing rapidly and market research is oftentimes not about sitting in a room talking to people about something. Now it's about mining data, employing data analysts, ploughing through all the information online that exists on behaviours, online methodologies - the list goes on. In some ways I'm considered 'old school' but I still feel like sitting in a room with people is valuable. In a world where face to face contact is on the decline

I still find I know a person best looking into their eyes and hearing the way they describe their life.

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