Interview with Richard Thornton – Global Sales & Operations Director, Direct Sales, Cint AB

online panelsBrief background of Richard Thornton:

Richard has over 12 years of experience in consultancy, operations and commercial sales. He has held strategy positions within the research industry, building up a particular expertise in the online research sector. A BA Honours graduate in Human Resource Management and International Marketing, Richard started his career as a Research Analyst at CAP Ventures, a strategic Marketing Research and Consultancy organisation, working with brands such as Hewlett Packard, Canon, Xerox and others on competitive analysis, product positioning, and forecasting.

In 2003 Richard moved to Ciao Surveys to start-up it’s UK operation, establishing a client services and operations team before taking European commercial roles and thereafter becoming co-European Managing Director.

In February 2009, Richard joined Cint AB, a technology and solutions provider to the research industry, to set-up its UK operation and in December 2009, Richard was appointed Global Commercial Director for the Group.

Online MR: Can you briefly describe your current roles & responsibilities?

Richard Thornton: I’m ultimately responsible for Cint’s Global Sales and Operations teams across the Direct Sales Channel. The end goal is to drive sales and oversee all of our commercial activities in terms of selling our portfolio of technology products and software. My tasks cover managing the global P&L through to being a business owner for our core self-service sampling tool, Cint Access.

Day-to-day, I’m on the Senior Management team and working across functions with Division Heads and key stakeholders in the business on sales, operational strategy and tactics.

Online MR: How has leadership role changed in the past decade especially with shrinking of market boundaries?

Richard Thornton: This is a great question and very pertinent to my time here at Cint. When I joined we were still a small Scandinavian firm operating out of a handful of locations primarily across Northern Europe and here we are just 3 years later with something like 14 locations globally, in 3 continents and 11 countries.

There is no doubt that the world has gotten smaller but the job has become much bigger! In a way it’s made my role more exciting and certainly more challenging. Over the past 12 months we have done a lot of internal restructuring in how we are set-up to service our client’s needs and in our reporting lines.

We have moved to regional teams and I manage the Regional Heads directly in North America, Europe and APAC. This is coupled with working alongside our Global Head of Operations and the regional teams there to ensure service and delivery is aligned with our sales efforts and clients’ needs.

There is also a need for me to understand the global markets and trends, and to stay abreast of these in what feels like a constant cycle as we try to spot opportunities ahead of the curve and tap into them.

We pride ourselves on being innovators and first to market in the area of online research solutions.

Understanding local markets, cultures and technology development is critical to our success.

It has meant more travel, the upside there being new experiences and a stack of air miles, the downside being that I’m recently married and have a wife that wants to see me at home. Thankfully she is very understanding!

Online MR: What are your top most priorities for the coming few months?

Richard Thornton: Well, first of all, it is the start of the conference season in the US so our North American team will be busy meeting and greeting clients and networking with new leads to showcase our services. I’m personally attending CASRO Online in Vegas because the program put together this year is extremely interesting with a strong focus on sampling technologies, routing, river and of course quality.

Given that Cint has just been ISO 20252 certified, quality controls and procedures are something we take extremely seriously and invest a lot of time, resource and budget into.

So I’m interested to see what new aspects of the quality debate pop up during 2012 and CASRO is normally a good forum for this.

In terms of products, we have recently launched Cint Access – our new SaaS-based self-service platform for feasibility, pricing, sampling and project management.

So there is a lot of excitement amongst our client base and a significant amount of sales and marketing work to do post launch now as we roll out Cint Access to both existing clients and new prospects globally.

The initial uptake has been very encouraging and our drive to convert clients into the self-service model is proving to be quite fruitful so far.

Elsewhere we continue to focus on emerging markets and are ramping up our presence and efforts in APAC, having opened an office in Tokyo last autumn, and with Esomar APAC coming in in mid-April.

Otherwise it is about continuing to focus on service and delivery. We have a tight quality programme in place internally that our VP of Quality leads and it touches all facets of our business.

We continue to refine processes and fine-tune how we deliver the right individual to the right survey in the most efficient manner, with technology at the core of our sampling and delivery strategy.

We also continue to explore opportunities in newer research methods such as passive measurement of consumers and tapping into multi-mode data sources to marry up with panelist data to create a holistic data set which I guess is the golden goose for buyers of insight.

Online MR: What does 2012 hold for CINT? In context of European markets being seriously hit by recession.

Richard Thornton: Obviously like everyone else out there we are keeping a close eye on the macro environment and events taking place in Europe. There is evidently a lot happening both politically and financially that has the potential to derail any momentum or positive trends the Online MR industry is riding on right now.

As a result, we need to be prudent in our planning and expenditure but whilst I wouldn’t say our industry is in a bubble regarding the recession, certainly Cint’s core business and current growth is far from being undermined by these events.

In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Over the past 2-3 years we have seen almost triple-digit growth year over year in sales and a continuation of loyalty and spend by our clients, for which we are extremely grateful. It’s up to us now to continue to sharpen the pencil and deliver on our promises around quality, efficiency, automation and innovation.

If we continue to do that and focus on what we can control then I have no doubts we will buck the trend this year and going forward.

I certainly believe in the ‘survival of the fittest’ philosophy and those with technology at the heart of what they do, combined with smart thinking and a humble approach, will more often than not succeed.

Online MR: How are you ensuring that CINT maintains a unique brand identity?

Richard Thornton: This is very topical for us because we re-branded back in January and spent the past 6 months intensely talking to clients, employees, industry contacts and working with external agencies to formulate our brand and vision.

We have moved to a more modern, bright, colorful brand which I think far better represents who we are as a company and business model. One thing we’re lucky to have is a unique concept and idea.

No one else in the industry has an open online panel exchange or marketplace where buyers and sellers trade transparently. From a branding and messaging perspective that is gold-dust and something we intend to tap into more and more. We strive every day to showcase how innovative we are and central to that is to better convey that we are not an online access panel firm. We don’t own panels and have no interest to do so.

What we care about is stripping away the black-box element of the sample procurement and creating a more efficient process and sustainable supply chain model for buyers of data and insight.

Online MR: What is the role technology is playing in CINT’s success?

Richard Thornton: Technology is what we do. Cint was launched as a consumer community portal with the idea to sell consumer opinion and to put like-minded consumers in touch with others to share experiences and solve queries.

We have always preferred to build rather than buy although that is changing somewhat and today we have a number of strategic tie-ups with third party technology platforms and software firms.

However, we invest significant sums of money into technology development and have just recently gone out and grown our in-house development team by 30% to ensure we are staffed up appropriately for the challenge ahead.

Cint in short is an open platform.

We are building something that allows us to be agnostic and encourages other technology firms to ‘plug into’ our tools.

Over-time we want to take out as many of the human touch-points as possible from the delivery process around sample selection and deployment.

That doesn’t mean we want to de-personalise our service, far from it. In fact all of our self-service or DIY products are intertwined with account management and technical support.

We then have a very successful ‘serviced’ business under our Direct Sales Channel which offers clients the traditional way of working with us.

Online MR: Your take on the deterioration in the panel quality with so many players jumping into the fray.

Richard Thornton: I’m glad you asked this because it is a particular point of frustration for me personally. The current supply model that most companies are utilising is simply not sustainable. If you then factor in the continued price erosion and pressure on margins up and down the supply chain it becomes even starker that change is needed in how this industry views quality, pricing and supply sustainability.

Panels are by no means dead but the online access panel segment is in danger of imploding. And everyone has to take part of the responsibility here. From the design of questionnaires that MR firms can influence and control through to incentive levels paid to respondents and pricing points offered up by suppliers, there is room for improvement across the board.

The problems are many and well documented so I won’t rehash those now but the US should serve as a case study to the rest of the world as it is a good example of where the “asset” has been abused and burnt. The reason we have routing, river sampling and emerging methodologies isn’t solely because of innovation and the need to evolve.

It has been necessary in order to broaden the pool of people willing to take surveys and to ease the burden on panels that have been diminishing in size, responsiveness and quality due to a lack of management, a lack of relevant surveys, a lack of fair rewards for one’s time and a culture of trying to bleed out as much as possible for as little in return.

We then have the on-going price war that shows no sign of abating. You can have all the automation in the world but it still won’t allow you to sustain price points at the $1.50-$2 CPI range for surveys with a length of interview of 20 mins and a qualification rate of 50% or less.

However that is exactly what is happening in the market today and the losers in all of this are not the suppliers but rather the clients (quality of data) and the respondents (for all the reasons I have already stated).

I think initiatives like the Grey Matter Report on the “Dirty Little Secrets of Online Panels” are a step in the right direction but I think we can do more.

I would like to see more transparency around sampling practices, frequency of invite, validation of sample uniqueness, as well as panel cleansing results and more suppliers coming together to try to tackle the problem collectively.

I’m a realist though and appreciate in today’s competitive environment that last point is unlikely to really come to fruition.

Online MR: What is the future of online fieldwork 5 years down the line and how you are gearing up CINT for the same?

Richard Thornton: I personally believe that research buying will become more fragmented than it is today. We will see the continued emergence of DIY solutions and I think these will start to take market share when it comes to the lower complexity, easier to do research that can be done in-house by insights and research teams sitting within end-client companies (retail, FMCG, other verticals, etc).

You will then see MR firms further consolidate, especially at the level below the global Tier 1s and within the long-tail of the MR industry.

Technology will dominate and there will be further convergence to online techniques and methodologies, with panel working alongside passive measurement, so self-reported vs actual data, with mobile, social media, web mining and other sources of data being merged and sliced and diced as everyone looks to understand the “who” and “why” behind consumer behavior thought processes.

There is also a lot of thinking around platforms and APIs right now and we will see more system integration and collaboration between tech firms to streamline the access, purchasing and delivery of data and insight for research.

The big question is whether this investment and innovation can be achieved without further pressure on pricing.

The likes of us that are technology firms need to be able to continue to invest in our platforms, our people, and our quality processes knowing that the investments will reap the rewards from fair and competitive pricing.

At Cint we are already heavily making our ‘play’ in these areas. We have the core platform and our model hasn’t changed since its inception of the marketplace concept back in 2004.

What we are doing is evolving all of our UIs (user-interfaces), building APIs (buy side and sell side) and offering up self-service and DIY solutions to automate accessing and buying sample. This will continue to be our focus in the next 5 years.

Wrapped around this is our affinity-based supply model where we partner up with Brands, Publishers, Media firms and owners of niche websites and audiences to build panels that are unique, engaged and sustainable.

As I said, panels are far from dead.

Online MR: How are you convincing old school clients still apprehensive about online fieldwork methodology?

Richard Thornton: Happens very little nowadays in most markets, at least in Europe and North America. However, in Latin America, much of Asia and certainly in the limited countries within the Middle-East and Africa where online panels are available, the education process is underway and forms very much part of the growth and development strategy.

The best driver for conversion is proof of concept and real data.

In the past we have conducted a lot of trial work where we have run collaboration studies with clients alongside offline and more traditional sampling methodologies so clients can judge whether there are any data variations in the results and review the quality of sample and service for themselves.

We then combine project tests with our own efforts, which fall into on-going analysis of our own supply base in emerging markets, macro trends and factors that come into play and promotional pushes that encourage clients to dip their toes into the water when it comes to scrutinizing online sampling as a methodology.

I think for the most part that we as an industry have done a fairly decent job of supporting the migration from offline to online with sufficient research on research robust scientific sampling tests that consistently show that online research is now an established and very viable and reliable method for data collection.

And where online doesn’t make sense, isn’t feasible, or will inherently bias the data we strongly advise clients to look elsewhere for their fieldwork provider or to alternative methodologies that will get the job done more accurately and efficiently.

Online MR: Proprietary Panels vs. Panel Aggregation – which side are you on?

Richard Thornton: I thought this might be asked! It is particularly pertinent to me because I have sat on both sides of the fence having worked for many years at one of the largest global access panel firms and now here at Cint with the unique marketplace concept.

Our model aggregates up, or put more simply, blends sample through a sophisticated algorithm from across available and relevant panels in our marketplace, which is rather different from a traditional online proprietary access panel model. That said we need to realise that increasingly the default way to get a project delivered these days, especially on much of the continuous research being run, is to work with multiple vendors and to aggregate up sample from different sources in a controlled way.

Very few individual panel assets can deliver all the work that comes their way as a standalone contributor.

I think it is also important to differentiate the different ways to aggregate.

There are brokers out there that are buying in third party sample from a multitude of sources and then packaging it up, adding their margin, and selling it on.

Some do it more sophisticated than others and some are fairly crude in their approach.

At Cint one of the benefits we have is that all of the panels within OpinionHUB, our online marketplace, are hosted and physically sit on our platform.

It means that all are tied to the same profile attributes, quality controls and processes, but importantly also our centralised pricing tool, feasibility engine and sampling algorithm so although they are different panels the ease in which to access them and pull and deploy sample is very efficient.

So we are using a blended approach from a mix of panel sources which we argue through data and experience reduces any inherent biases in the source but only because the sample is controlled, measured and balanced.

Clients hate inconsistency and they hate jumpy data.

Data buyers want stability and they want confidence in the numbers and to know that everything possible has been done to ensure the respondent is unique, who they say they are, and are answering honestly and carefully.

I believe if you’re ensuring these 3 things then it becomes secondary as to whether the panel source used is proprietary or aggregated.

Online MR: Any new product/service you are planning to be introducing soon in the market?

Richard Thornton: We are developing an exciting new product called Cint Engage, which is our product for traditional Publishers. Without giving away our secret sauce, the thinking here is geared at adding value to the Publisher pitch and tying in other types of self-reported and passively measured data and packaging as part of our panel owner proposition to entice Publishers and other firms to build panels and supply using our technology.

Alongside this we continue to lead the way in API development in this industry and will build on our existing Cint Link product which is an API based product for survey tool-makers to allow their licensees to access our 600+ panels within OpinionHub for market research insights.

Online MR: What legacy you would like to leave behind in your professional life?

Richard Thornton: My focus is 100% on this ‘project’ at Cint and seeing this through. We have a fantastic team of employees, a very driven and experienced management group and a willing and patient Board, so all the ingredients to be successful.

What I want to achieve personally from this and from my professional career as a whole is to simply be remembered as someone who inspired change, growth and success and did it in the right way. I’m less concerned about making a name for myself in a broader context and more concerned about leaving a positive mark with those I have personally worked with. It needs to be fun, honest, hard-working, exciting and with a purpose.

I’m competitive and like to win, but not at all costs. I think there is a happy medium where you build something that has longevity and credibility.

I think if I can retire having helped build a business or businesses that are going strong beyond my time with them then I’ll be content with my work. That would be my legacy.

Editor’s Note: We really appreciate Richard taking out time from his hectic schedule to share his detailed views with us.