From the Client Side: Brian Cain, Senior Pharma MR Executive
By Ron Sellers
To hear more from the perspective of the corporate researcher, this occasional Greenbookblog.org feature will spend some time with a researcher From the Client Side. My fourth interview changes direction from the first three, which covered vendor marketing and sales efforts. This one explores Next Generation insights techniques and the future of the insights industry.
This interview features thoughts and observations from Brian Cain. Brian is a recognized market research leader with proven success in applying insights to strategy, as an organizational influencer, and as a strategic thinker. Brian has been in market research for over 20 years and has led global market research groups for 15 years, including at Pharmacia, Schering-Plough, and most recently at Merck.
Ron: Tell me, what research or consumer insights methodologies or approaches have you used?
Brian: I’ve used qualitative, quantitative, secondary data, etc.
Ron: So surveys, focus groups, IDIs, online quant, online qual?
Ron: What about a lot of the newer techniques – mobile, text analytics, eye tracking, any of those kinds of things?
Brian: I’ve used eye tracking, brain mapping, and limited social monitoring. Very limited, because I’m in a regulated industry.
Ron: Are there any methodologies or approaches you’ve intentionally stopped using or considering over the past 12 months or so?
Brian: I’ve put some limits on broad, global, attitudinal studies. Looking at it from a broader standpoint, what I’m asking is, “What’s the action standard?” As a result of that, those larger attitudinal tracking studies have been going away.
Ron: And when you say you put limits on them, what do mean—in terms of how many you do or how big they are?
Brian: I’ll use the example of an annual analytical study for forecasting. That’s been a tried and true method used to get perceptions for making assumptions for a forecast. In markets or categories where it’s stable, I’ve been saying, “Gee, the likelihood that an attitude of any substance has changed is not great.” So we’re no longer doing those attitudinal segmentation studies.
Ron: But does that have more to do with just realizing that things aren’t changing that fast and not continuing those studies, and that’s totally divorced from the introduction of any new methods, or does that have anything to do with doing that same kind of research or attacking that same kind of problem in a different way?
Brian: It has to do with budget management. It also has to do with the precision of the method, quite frankly, and the question of, “What do I really think about product X or category X that I’m going to act on?” And the basis of perception for that always has swings.
Ron: With all the new consumer insights methods that have emerged recently, where do you see the market research/consumer insights industry headed in the next few years?
Brian: In the space I’m in, I think there’s going to be a greater connection between more traditional pharmaceutical products and over-the-counter methods, and the continuation of appropriate treatment from early diagnosis or self-diagnosis to position payers paying for prescribed products. I think therefore it’s going to cross the line of the production solutions, and we as researchers are going to need a broader sense of appropriate treatment, rather than just the products.
Ron: Is that something you think is being driven more by the industry that you’re in and the changes happening within that industry, or is that something that is also being driven by research techniques?
Brian: It’s definitely being driven by the space. It’s also being driven by a generics-first mindset. In the U.S. and most markets, generics are now 90% of those prescriptions, so the branded pool is smaller. Further, it’s also being driven by the larger amount of information on the over-the-counter side, in terms of how patients are being treated. I don’t think the techniques themselves are driving it.
Ron: When it comes to newer research methods or newer approaches, how and where do you tend to learn about those?
Brian: It’s been pretty broad – I rely on places such as GreenBook, different market research associations, clubs, and trade groups which are pharma-related or packaged-goods-related. It’s been a matter of reading and doing everything I can to stay networked to strong researchers, including outside of the pharmaceutical industry.
Ron: And when you evaluate an approach or a method you haven’t used before, in general, what are the factors you tend to look at to determine whether it’s something you believe is valid, or something you just don’t think is a proven method or you’re just not interested in using?
Brian: To oversimplify it, I look at what the method itself is. I work to understand the method, the process of the method, and the pros and cons of the method. I then look to get “referrals” on the method and talk to people who have used it, to understand the potential types of business questions. And then, with an understanding of what I believe it is, I’ll see how it fits into our business problems.
Ron: The research industry still has a lot of traditional approaches. Which of those, if any, do you feel are valid and useful today for your work?
Brian: I have trouble saying any of them is not valid. I see the various methods as tools in a toolbox, so I still see that can be applicable – it’s just a matter of how they fit. I haven’t ruled out any of the “older methods,” not because I’m being stubborn, but because I’m trying to evolve older and newer in a purposeful way.
Ron: Do you feel that any of them has decreased in value to you recently, or that you’ve really started de-emphasizing a method in favor of other approaches?
Brian: I look for more efficient methods. For instance, doing focus groups with multiple people online is a lot easier than it was even two or three years ago. So yes, we’re going to do online groups. That serves us better because we can get a global group on a call in the same hour, whereas we either used to get them on the phone in one country or through video streaming in a limited way. So the techniques have helped use move forward from how we did it, and they’re more comfortable and easier because respondent groups are more comfortable with them. Therefore, they’ve become more viable solutions.
There are still times when it’s worth going live, behind the glass, watching the respondent’s body language as he or she reviews a new product concept. Or maybe it’s our first time watching that type of respondent – how they look, how they feel – and really understanding their reactions.
Ron: Do you feel like these more traditional methods are likely to still be valid and useful and have a role to play five or ten years down the road?
Brian: It’s hard for me to say. As we become more comfortable with more and more online, along with having better quality video so we can consider respondents’ full features, do I really need to get to “the local facility?” Probably far less than I used to.
Ron: A lot of new techniques, to some extent, can be used in partnership with traditional research approaches or are extensions of traditional research approaches, such as mobile market research, eye tracking, facial coding, Google Surveys, text analytics, things like that. Which of these, if any, do you feel are valid and useful for your work, or will be very soon?
Brian: You have to understand that some industries face more regulation than others; in the pharma and medical world, it’s things such as HIPPA laws and privacy issues. Because of those issues, I’ve used social media monitoring far less than other industries may have.
Ron: What about the other methods I mentioned?
Brian: I’m deploying those things. I started gradually, but now I’m deploying them to a greater extent. I’m continuing to understand them. I first put them in a test control, and I’m seeing benefits with those different options for solutions.
Ron: Are there any of those newer techniques you feel are pretty much unproven, or are proven to lack substantial validity or usefulness?
Brian: Eye tracking and brain mapping are unproven from the perspective that they don’t have a set of norms. We have a bank of norms to do DTC executions, so we can put those in a traditional execution test and we’ll have comparative norms. How we work to understand those methods to apply to specific products and categories, I think, is the opportunity.
Ron: Beyond the lack of norms, are there any methods you’ve tested or evaluated and you say, “You know what? I just don’t buy it. I don’t think this is valid. I don’t think it’s useful.”
Brian: I haven’t landed there. As a researcher, my mindset has been trained to understand what the tool can or can’t do, and use it where I believe it can be used.
Ron: There are also completely new approaches that generally replace or are totally separate from traditional research techniques. Social media monitoring is one you already talked about. But that also leaves behavioral economics, big data, and neuroscience. Those are things that don’t require gathering primary information through a survey or an IDI. Which of those do you feel are valid and useful today for your work?
Brian: I’ve heard a lot about big data, and I’ve heard a variety of perspectives within the health care/pharma space. Those perspectives generally manifest themselves as either “big data is going to save the world,” or “until big data gets integrated and can speak to all the touch points of the datasets, it won’t have a value proposition.”
Personally, I think there’s tremendous opportunity with big data. If I applied a construct in the past where I might’ve talked to 100, 200, or 300 respondents and projected that to the universe – whether that’s a portion of the country, the whole country, or a couple of countries, I still have more data points within big data.
To me, the question isn’t: Is it the Holy Grail or will it never be applicable? It’s that our work means having to understand how we apply it and knowing the pushes and pulls to those applications the way we understand the pushes and pulls to talking to 300 respondents. So the learning for me isn’t about the data grinding or the datasets talking to each other; it’s really, really understanding how to apply it.
Ron: Do you see the usefulness of big data more along the lines of just getting into a dataset and sort of playing and poking around and finding totally unexpected things? Or where you have a specific data need where you want to see whether the correlation is there, or is there some type of a connection, and you’re going to the work with a very specific issue you’re investigating?
Brian: I see both. I see it weighted more towards “Let’s go play around and create the sandbox.” That’s generally how we learn “better,” and that’s going to get us to new learning. There are specific questions, though, for which we’re using big data, but I think the exponential applications are going to come from trial and error.
The other piece to that is linking all of the data elements. In the past, we had a limited number of data elements – the old “tab and code.” You’d have a twenty-minute interview. If I now transfer that simple mindset of “tab and code” to an entire electronic medical record or health record, the volume of data is just so much more than we used to have doing a twenty-minute interview. So I think the trial and error is going to be needed to really identify not just causality, but the true connection points.
The explosion of big data in our space has happened and still is happening. What we’re really working to do is apply it and make that big data what I would call small – small to a cohort, small to a patient population, or small to a group of constituents. We need to work actively to do that. I anticipate we will evolve the way other industries have evolved when they first had the luxury of very large behavioral data sets.
Ron: What about neuroscience? You said you’ve been doing some brain mapping.
Brian: I’ve started with neuroscience. I personally still have work to do to understand it more. I’m very open to it. The question, to me, isn’t the validity of neuroscience as a method. The question is where it fits into the complement of research tools we have.
Ron: One complaint I’ve heard about neuroscience is a perceived lack of ability to tie the findings to an actual business case; to be able to say, “Okay, the brainwaves mapped this way and we acted on it, and therefore sales increased 40%,” or anything like that. Have you experienced that or do you have concerns about that?
Brian: Let me go back to the delta where I start. I start with, what is the business problem? What is the research question? And then I match what I’ll call the potential research solutions against that. I do trade-offs quickly. Sometimes, in my mind, a focus group doesn’t make sense; maybe do one-on-ones? No, we’re still not going to get what we need. What about brain mapping?
So I anchor a method to the problem. With that, I also work in a way that if I spend money on the method, we have alignment with the brand team and we’re going to take action. So there’s less of an implementation problem because of all that up-front work. It’s what will we get and what won’t we get relative to other methods?
Ron: With your stakeholders or your internal clients, have you noticed either a desire to try some of these new techniques because, in a sense, they’re unknown or because of the promise? Or maybe a reluctance to try something new and a desire to stick with the tried and true?
Brian: Ninety percent of the time during my career, I’ve seen an openness to looking at different methods and ways to get there.
Ron: Some of these newer approaches require specialized skills that a lot of traditional researchers don’t necessarily have. Do any of these newer insights approaches make you nervous about your own skill set or your own future in the industry?
Brian: I think you touched on a different issue. The profile of the researcher or the profile of what research needs to be is a broader question than any one method. So if I broadly look at what skills are required to be a researcher in any industry, they’ve evolved to, in some cases, much more of a consultant, much more of a business owner, or much more of a consultant/business owner/research expert, and being able to manage outsourced agencies.
With that different job description, that still includes picking the right method, understanding the right method, and how that gets deployed. Understanding the method is still a responsibility, but the method piece is only part of the broader change.
Ron: When you consider all these new techniques and approaches that are in the toolbox, in general, which of these do you tend to feel is more true? A) Too many research professionals are dragging their feet and need to get on board with these new approaches or they’re simply going to be left behind. B) Too many research professionals are abandoning proven methods and jumping on the bandwagon of these new approaches without sufficient proof that they’re valid or meaningful.
Brian: I’ve seen pockets of folks who just jump in and are comfortable doing trial and error, which is one way. And then in talking with peers, I’ve seen pockets of resistance. So I haven’t seen either side “winning out.” I’ve seen both. I’ve seen what I’d call dramatic resistance and I’ve seen dramatic denial as to the pros and cons of method A or B.
Ron: In the cases where you’ve seen dramatic resistance, what do you think is driving that?
Brian: I actually had this conversation last night. There are researchers who are trained in the need for the depth of scientific proof. And I would also say there have been a large number of researchers who have been generally resistant to the changes in the space, and this component is just one of the components they’re resisting.
Ron: When you have seen people who sort of jump in with both feet, even in something that is not proven – and I’m not talking about people who give it a shot and make a fair evaluation, but the people who, like you mentioned, aren’t willing to listen to the potential drawbacks or problems with the new methods – what do you think is driving that “full steam ahead” kind of mentality?
Brian: I think there are two things. One is just an eagerness to keep trying new methods, and generally that’s been a good spirit, a good mindset, a good attitude. And the other has been competitive pressures. Old tried-and-true methods may not be delivering the differentiating insights we need, so some people are eager to try new methods as those other methods have become less effective.
Ron: With the rise of some of these new approaches, how do you respond to some people who say things about more traditional methods such as, “Focus groups are dead,” or, “Survey research is obsolete”?
Brian: I don’t do well with statements like that. I don’t see them as dead. Again, the way I approach it is: What are the tools? How do we apply them? What are the right business questions for the tools? I don’t ever envision when focus groups will be dead. Will we use it less? Probably. But I just have trouble seeing any method as obsolete.
Ron: One of the primary places you see statements such as those is from vendors of these new techniques. I’ve seen vendors who do analytics and social media monitoring saying, “You’ll never have to do a survey again. You’ll never have to do a focus group again.” Or with mobile market research, “You’ll never have to do another phone interview.” What tends to be your attitude towards vendors who are taking that position, who are making those kinds of claims?
Brian: When I hear those kinds of claims, they’re difficult for me to accept as factual. Even in the case with behavioral data, do I anticipate a greater volume of behavioral data analysis? Yes, I confidently say that. I still have trouble believing that we will never want to anchor attitude and trend lines that behaviors generate and never again want to think about the attitude.
Ron: Are there any research methods or approaches used today that you feel are going to stop being used in the next few years just because there are going to be better ways of doing things? I hear what you’re saying about the toolbox. Does that, in general, apply to all the methods that are being used today? Or are there some that are going to be the exception and just are going to go away?
Brian: Again, I would say “go away” seems dramatic to me. Do I envision flying from Texas to California to the East Coast to France the way we used to? No. I don’t see that happening the way it used to. So that manner of how we did our job will change.
However, we still look for cultural differences. We still need to drill down. Do I think the kind of study I just talked about will go away? That specific description might, but I’m still going to need to understand the cultural differences in terms of how patients are treated or how willing a specific population will be to try a specific applicator or kind of device, and I assume I’m going to want to talk to them face-to-face.
Ron: With some of these new techniques and approaches, either the ones you already are using or the ones you are considering using, are you generally looking to your traditional research vendors to work with those approaches and offer those? Or are you looking for new vendors that specialize in these newer methods?
Brian: A little bit of both. There’s clearly an appeal to the newest shiny tool. However, as part of the assessment, I try to understand what that method is and I try to put that method against what I already know to be true. And I see some of the more established agencies working on new methods as well. I know this isn’t an exclusive choice. Clearly, there are situations where someone comes up with a new method and then owns that method. Well, in that case, it’s theirs and we won’t to talk to anyone else about it. However, I haven’t seen a delineation of just the newbies trying new methods.
Ron: With a lot of traditional research vendors, it used to be (whether you chose to do this or not) you could go to one company and get your focus groups done, get your online survey done, get your IDIs done – a one-stop shop. With how much variation there is in some of these new methods, do you feel like that’s still going to be the case where you’ll have vendors out there who can be a one-stop shop? Or is it going to be a lot more boutique vendors where this one does the text analytics, this one does the brain mapping, this one does the focus groups, etc.?
Brian: If the products I manage are only one market and one therapeutic area, the likelihood of a one-stop shop will be greater than if I have a large number of products across the globe in multiple therapeutic areas with varied customer sets. So it’s hard for me to believe I’ll ever get to a one-size-fits-all situation with any book of business. It just wouldn’t fit.
Now, will I try to group work? Yes. And will I still understand that there are exceptions to the grouping? Yes. And some of it will be needing moderators or people who understand specialty categories or specialty disease areas relative to primary care disease areas. When it comes to understanding payer research versus understanding consumer research, not every agency has the same depth of expertise around the globe.