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Saturday, March 01, 2008

30 years in marketing research

March 1, 1978, 30 years ago today, I started as a research analyst at the Quaker Oats Company in Chicago, working in their pet food division.

This was a big jump. I'd spent 5.5 years in a PhD program in social psychology at Michigan. I was in some danger of becoming one of those grad students who hang around forever -- a pleasant experience, but devoid of respect and a decent salary. The academic job market was in a big downturn as the baby boomers graduated college and faculties ceased expanding. This meant that when I did get out, I was likely to be nomadic for a while. I'd liked the applied work I'd done at ISR-CRUSK and at the Feasibility Research Group.

So, I left, figuring that I'd take my dissertation data with me and finish up in 6 months. Maybe wait out the job market a bit. I was right about the "6", but wrong about the time unit -- I finished up my PhD 6 YEARS later.

By then I'd gotten used to the rhythm and flow of marketing research and was making a good career out of it. Starting over at the academic bottom didn't make much sense and would have seemed inexcusably selfish at a time when I was starting a family.

Instead, I kicked around the 1980's, moving from Quaker's marketing research department to heading their sales research unit, moving to Beatice during their big corporate push (before they were bought by KKR and dismembered), and starting up SAMScan with SAMI/Burke as the doomed third service in a market not really quite big enough for two services (IRI and Nielsen). When SAMI was clearly headed down the tubes, I jumped short term to IRI -- getting a quick job offer from my friend, Mitch Kriss. I figured I'd be there a year or two while I sorted things out. Mitch left 4 months later, but I've been there 18+ years now.

So, what lessons might be drawn from this?

First and foremost, your personal destiny is only loosely connected to the destiny of the outfits you work for. Quaker's pet foods division was long discarded as being insufficiently profitable. Beatrice's corporate push failed (and I spent the last 6 months there un-doing the corporate contracts and systems I'd put in over the previous 2 years). SAMScan failed. IRI's Infoscan system, which I was proud to be part of building out after it's initial start, got a big market share, but the company has long had profitability problems. But I learned a lot, and made enough money to retire on.

Second, it's important to make carefully considered decisions, but it's also humbling to realize that they turn out differently than you think, so you have to be flexible. So, don't take on debt, be financially flexible, and try to enjoy the ride.

Third, having worked at the same company now for 18 years, it's clear that staying in the same place in a tumultuous environment can give you a change of venue without having to move. Experiences can come to you, if you are in the right spot.

It's particularly important to realize that you aren't going to be working for the same boss forever. I've averaged a new boss every 2 years or so, and lots of people I know have a similar experience. I've worked for 3 people twice.

(Heck, at IRI I think I've outlasted 7 CEO's, although due to title changes that's open to debate: 1 John Malek, 2 Gian Fulgoni, 3 Magic Abraham [might not have been CEO], 4 Tom Wilson, 5 the guy from SmithKline, 6 Joe Durrett, 7 Ed Kuehnle, 8 Scott Klein and now 9 John Freeland). One would think I would remember all their names, but it's hardly worth the trouble.

Fourth, stress will kill you. Luckily, I only lost 30% of my lung capacity (to sarcoidosis). There's a reason why by far the highest suicide rate is among middle aged men. (Thanks, Sis, for sending me that middle-aged men suicide article on my birthday.) Learn strategies for dealing with this.