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The Typical Career Path of a Marketing Research Specialist in Advertising Agency

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Q - How did you get into the field?

A - My undergraduate degree is in the humanities. I went to a master's program in counseling, and then got into a doctorate program in counseling psychology. I took a job at a medical center as a visiting staff psychologist and thought I was on the way. But some things happened, and I found myself out of work for a while and interviewing again. I was beginning to start considering things like community mental health and private practice in the line of clinical psychology, when I heard about this job through a friend of mine who was already working here, and who had himself made a switch from academic to marketing research.

I was one of the fortunate people who got exposed to advertising research when I was an undergraduate. I had an opportunity to spend my summers with an agency as part of the research department, specifically the analytical department. I was doing survey analysis. It exposed me to things like coding and tabulating. My internships gave me the advantage of being exposed to the advertising business, specifically marketing research. I had an advantage over someone right out of an undergraduate or graduate program who was never exposed to the practical business environment of an advertising agency.

Q - What would a typical career path be like?

A - Starting at the entry position of a research assistant, a person is gaining experience in working with others and being exposed to the various types of research that the department gets involved with. The individual gradually begins to accept additional responsibility, working toward the position of research and planning manager, which is the next level up. Titles have changed over the years, but the responsibilities are similar. The position is similar in structure and function to that of a client service person, except instead of dealing with the client's brand managers, we deal with the client's marketing research department. Next is the associate research director, and then the department is headed by a research director. At our agency, each of four groups is headed by an associate research director, and those four individuals report to the research director, who reports to the office manager.

I began as a research assistant, which was part of a support group for a particular account. When I started as an assistant, I had the opportunity to work with different members within the department. I wasn't restricted or limited to a particular group. I had the opportunity to work on various projects, both qualitative and quantitative, and to work with different products and clients.

The entry level is called a research associate. That's where someone with no experience begins. The next steps are supervisor, associate director, and then director of one of our two separate departments, then director of all marketing services. The two departments are research and marketing decision systems. Anything that has to do with gathering information for creative development usually falls under the authority of the research department. The technical sales forecasting, simulations, new product models, or model building in general, and profitability analyses tend to fall under marketing decision systems, because we have a fair amount of computer and quantitative expertise. Marketing decision systems wouldn't moderate focus groups, for example.

We have a director of the department, then a department manager, two associate research directors, and three research associates. The manager of the department is a political science Ph.D., one of the associate research directors is a Ph.D. in sociology. I and the others on my level were really selected on the premise that a background in behavior science had a lot to bring to the arena of market research, not just on our training in research itself. Research associates have, for the most part, bachelor's degrees; one of them is currently working on an M.B.A.

Q - What are some important skills that would be valuable?

A - Communication skills are essential, both written and verbal, and I think doing whatever is possible to strengthen those before you get out of school helps in getting a job and in maintaining your position after you're in. Besides interpersonal skills, you must know how to write clearly, distinctly, and quickly; how to read information quickly; how to present numerical information in ways that people who do not have a good working knowledge of numbers can make use of, and how to translate information to people who don't have the quantitative skills. Public speaking skills are necessary. You need a disciplined way of analyzing information; you have to know whether you are off track or whether someone else is off track. Too often people substitute marketing jargon for good solid thinking. Computer science is a good area, because you are forced to reduce your words to simpler forms and your logic to the clearest form.

There is a balance that needs to be maintained. In many cases you must recognize what each person's pet peeves are and what side each one is on in a political issue. And yet you're the one who is expected to come back with truth and reality, with capital T and R. At best, research only approximates truth and reality; actually it's just theories, so there are times when I feel like, "O Lord, I hope they don't shoot the messenger." If you come back with information that a certain product isn't going very well or that their communication isn't working very effectively, then you have to be very diplomatic without giving up the integrity of the findings. That is where the interpersonal skills come into play and are very useful. You have to know how to approach people to tell them things that they really don't want to hear. Yet they need to hear them, or there is no reason for you to be a trusted member of the team.
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