Very fortunate to have the chance to talk to Martyn Richards, a qualitative consumer researcher who I’ve known for a number of years. Listen to his podcast here What is qualitative research


Well hello everybody, it’s Neil Foley from the Business Growth Club here again today. Very fortunate this morning to have with us Martyn Richards, a qualitative consumer researcher who I’ve known for a number of years. Good morning, Martyn.

Martyn Richards:              Hi Neil. How are you doing?

Neil Foley:                           Very well, and you?

Martyn Richards:              I am very well. Enjoying the sunshine.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah, we’re sitting outside The Forum in Norwich enjoying the sunshine, so there’ll be a fair bit of background noise. But what we’re hoping to cover over the next 25 to 30 minutes or so is all aspects of qualitative research and how it applies and what it actually is, because there’ll be a number of listeners who don’t necessarily know what it is, possibly me included.

So if we kick off then, Martyn, how would you describe what it is that you do?

Martyn Richards:              I think the best way to start is at the end, with what I do when a project is actually finished and I’m in front of a client presenting the findings of the research that I’ve done. And once I’ve told them the sorts of things that have come out and through the project we will finish with sets of conclusions and recommendations which will always be targeted to help their business improve what they do. So it’s never nice to know stuff.

Neil Foley:                           Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Martyn Richards:              We try and ignore the nice to know stuff. It’s how can I talk to my customers, my potential customers, so that they understand the proposition that I have and get interested in it and therefore dig into their wallets to go and spend money on it.

Neil Foley:                           So the end result is that’s what people want is … when they come to you is that they want a greater understanding of what people think of their product and services?

Martyn Richards:              It depends. Briefs to me range from “I’ve only just thought of this. Can we have a cup of coffee and a chat?” through the back of an envelope through to 25 page documents that you have to fill in and answer every question, tick every box, et cetera. If I think about the old-fashioned advertising research briefs, they would be much more concise but typically would be two or three pages and would include things like this is the advertising idea. Will people understand it? Will it resonate with them in terms of something that they recognise in their lives? This is a particular execution of that idea. Does that work? Has it communicated the things that we wanted to communicate? Tone of voice. Are we speaking in a way to our potential consumers that makes them feel at ease because they recognise it as the way that they expect to be spoken to?

All those sorts of things can be within the compass of a project that I do.

Neil Foley:                           And you said they were the old style advertising briefs.

Martyn Richards:              Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           So they’re still just as popular now?

Martyn Richards:              Everything has got more woolly these days.

Neil Foley:                           Okay.

Martyn Richards:              Yeah. I think what happened particularly within the marketing industries during the earlier years of the most recent and deepest recession that I’ve faced as a businessperson over the last 20 odd years is that a lot of the middle people were stripped out.

Neil Foley:                           Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Martyn Richards:              So whereas in a client company or even in an advertising agency, et cetera, you’d have had a good range of people it tended to be the top and the bottom that were left. The top people were often hard to get to. The bottom people didn’t really understand what it was that you could do, et cetera. There’s an awful lot that goes on in the world of marketing which I wouldn’t really call marketing. It’s just pure promotion or sales. Marketing is really about understanding what your market is, who your market is, all the sorts of things that I’ve talked about.

So there’s a great tendency with … And I hope I’m not going to upset anybody who’s listening to this. But there’s a tendency, if you are young and put into a role that traditionally would have had somebody just a few years in to report to rather than a marketing director 20 years your senior, there’s a tendency to do what was done last year.

Neil Foley:                           Right.

Martyn Richards:              So here’s the budget, here’s what we’ve got. And of course budgets have been cut and cut and cut over the years. Oh well we won’t do 1,000 leaflets, we’ll do 500. But you still do the same thing.

Neil Foley:                           I can understand though.

Martyn Richards:              Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           Can’t you. Because if your contact was an employee, then the risk is that we do something radical, something a bit extreme, something not been done before and it doesn’t work, in which case people then say, “How the hell did you choose that?”

Martyn Richards:              Yeah, of course. And that is the underlying anti-philosophy behind the … There was a famous American guy who a long time ago said, “50% of my advertising budget is wasted. The problem is I don’t know which 50%.”

Neil Foley:                           And is that what you’re trying to solve with the …

Martyn Richards:              Often.

Neil Foley:                           … qualitative research?

Martyn Richards:              Often. Because an awful lot of research … And here I go upsetting people again. Now I’m going to upset the quantitative research fraternity. You ask questions, you get answers. They will be thought answers. They will be considered answers. They will be what people think they want to tell you rather than actually what’s going on in their gut.

We now know, and this is where interestingly my industry has moved on a lot in recent years … Our struggle always is persuading the client to understand what we understand, particularly about the way that the human brain works and the way that decisions are taken. And if we think about a lot of the things that I would be asked to investigate, whether it’s a bursar in a school and what stationary they buy through to a housewife and which margarine she chooses, many of those decisions are taken without reference to what we would think of as cognitive thinking, the gut reactions …

Neil Foley:                           Really? Instant and quick …

Martyn Richards:              Instant or dependent on an emotional response rather than a considered, rational response.

Neil Foley:                           Isn’t that why supermarkets play certain sort of music and …

Martyn Richards:              Do you think that works?

Neil Foley:                           I have no idea. It’s really amazing.

Martyn Richards:              I don’t know. And to be fair the likes of Tesco will spend an awful lot of money on research and they know to go to the good people.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah.

Martyn Richards:              So I certainly wouldn’t knock what Tesco do. I suppose where I’m working these days, though, is not with the Tescos of this world. I’m working much more with more regionally-based organisations, et cetera. And it’s much harder there breaking in and explaining to people you’ve got this whatever it is, quarter a million pound budget that you’re spending in here. How confident are you that the messages that you are sending out are the ones which are going to have an effect in terms of people buying your product?

Neil Foley:                           Could you?

Martyn Richards:              I could find that out for you.

Neil Foley:                           And is that what you … Do you end up in competition then, potentially with the marketing department? Because if the marketing bods or the salespeople have said, “This is the message that we’re doing and delivering” and your evidence then says, “Actually that’s missing the mark” …

Martyn Richards:              Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           … potentially you could be in conflict, couldn’t you?

Martyn Richards:              Yeah, absolutely. I’m going to tell you a story. You know I like stories. And I’m going to try and avoid mentioning who the client is because I don’t want to be sued. This was a … Actually, no, I can’t even do it. There’s no way I can describe who they are or what happened without giving away who they are.

Neil Foley:                           How did you get over the conflict then? Because clearly you want to retain them as a client.

Martyn Richards:              Well I lost it. I lost this one.

Neil Foley:                           Did you really?

Martyn Richards:              I did. I told them a truth about their marketing and their advertising, and we’re talking multi-million pound television advertising year on year. I told them a truth about that because of what I had heard and understood from, in this case, child consumers that meant what they were telling them was just completely misunderstood.

Neil Foley:                           Really? And they didn’t want to hear it?

Martyn Richards:              Well, no.

Neil Foley:                           Even though they …

Martyn Richards:              They didn’t want to know.

Neil Foley:                           … commissioned you to do the work?

Martyn Richards:              Well, through an advertising agency, yes.

Neil Foley:                           So let’s move on to that bit in terms of, Martyn, how do you actually do the work? Because I guess we’ve all been subject to surveys and people ringing up for surveys and I’ve had loads of them, and I think over the telephone or wherever they strike me as a total, complete, and utter waste of time. Because I answer the first three questions honestly, and thereafter make them up because I’m bored.

Martyn Richards:              Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           So how do you do your research?

Martyn Richards:              Sometimes, if I can just go back to that first before answering the question more properly, sometimes I do telephone as a methodology. If you think about the way that some organisations, that their customers will be spread all around the country …

Neil Foley:                           Yes.

Martyn Richards:              … it doesn’t make sense for me to get in my mini and head up the M6, though I do do that as well. But sometimes I will be on the telephone. Well, the most important thing for me is to listen to your answers …

Neil Foley:                           Yes.

Martyn Richards:              … to those first couple of questions.

Neil Foley:                           So it’s not a tick boxes on a scale of 1 to 6.

Martyn Richards:              So question three will not be what’s on my list. It will be something that you are interested in because you’ve already hinted at it by your answers to questions one or two.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah.

Martyn Richards:              That’s my scale.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah, which makes a lot more sense.

Martyn Richards:              Yeah. And …

Neil Foley:                           But isn’t that the … Sorry to interrupt you.

Martyn Richards:              No, go on.

Neil Foley:                           That’s the issue, isn’t it? So often surveys are thought about, they think they know what they want to try and find out, and then they give it to a bod or some bods who’ve got no knowledge of the business or interest, who just go through a tick box exercise and think, “Well I’ve got 20 surveys to get through.”

Martyn Richards:              Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           “I don’t really care.”

Martyn Richards:              Do you know it’s even worse than that now?

Neil Foley:                           Really?

Martyn Richards:              Yeah. It’s only emerged very recently. But obviously with digital technology the great change in my industry has been how many more people are being accessed via Internet use rather than face-to-face or telephone.

Neil Foley:                           Really? So it’s just a server.

Martyn Richards:              All those sorts of things.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah.

Martyn Richards:              Yes, but what has interrupted that very recently is the use of bots.

Neil Foley:                           Oh, okay.

Martyn Richards:              Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           Never heard of that.

Martyn Richards:              No.

Neil Foley:                           Not for surveys.

Martyn Richards:              Right. Well, I know somebody who … This happened in the states very recently. They’d run a survey, they got loads of responses, they’d taken the first hundred to give a top line response to. They’d already done that, went back to the data, and started looking at the open-ended questions and started noticing patterns, did a proper interrogation of it, and found out that there were numbers of responses where the punctuation, spelling, letter usage, et cetera, was exactly the same. So what was happening was a bot was going in, taking a survey, and simply replicating it over and over.

So they were reporting 76% of people say this. Well, they had no way of knowing that was remotely accurate because a bot had been in there replicating a number of the answers.

Neil Foley:                           So you and I are on the same-

Martyn Richards:              And this is happening over here now as well.

Neil Foley:                           Really?

Martyn Richards:              Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           So you and I are on the same page in terms of anything that’s process-driven like that to my mind is a bit of a waste of time. You need somebody who’s got the skills to interpret the pauses, the ums, and the ahs that people say, and then actually to try and drill down. And then is that in essence what you’re doing?

Martyn Richards:              Yeah. And as I say, listening to those first things, knowing what my client needs to find out without necessarily having specific questions that I’m constantly going to be referring to. What’s more interesting to me is to find out about you, listen to you, and work towards what it is that my client wants. Because you know what you’re taking part in, somehow we’ll get there together.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah.

Martyn Richards:              And that is far more productive in terms of actually understanding the consumer view of a particular arena product, whatever. I should go back and answer your question, though, shouldn’t I?

Neil Foley:                           It would be a first.

Martyn Richards:              Because we’ve allowed to divert ourselves. So what do I do? I suppose the most common method that would be at my disposal and which most people would have heard of is the focus group. However, no product is ever one focus group unless it’s a political party wishing to make a point through it and using research in that way. No particular political party is indicated there. Focus groups borrow their clothes from psychotherapy. So when psychotherapy was being developed first in the states and then over here during the ’50s and ’60s, so qualitative research emerged. In fact, it was called motivational research initially, trying to understand people’s motivations.

So a clinical group would very closely resemble a qualitative research group. The same number of people, the same length of time, the same skills required of the person sat at the end of the table in terms of getting people to talk together, to feel comfortable, all those sorts of things. There’s then multiple variations around that. Shortened groups, extended groups, bigger groups, smaller groups, repeated groups, all sorts of ways of playing around with that methodology.

And then there’s the one-to-one. So similar to what we’re doing now except the role reversal. I would be sat with a microphone somewhere listening to somebody and asking questions, et cetera. And I do a lot of that, as I hinted earlier, on the phone. Sometimes more often face-to-face, travelling around, making appointments, going to see people. One of the reasons … Everything that we do of course is controlled by clients’ budgets, but it’s always 100 times better to do it face-to-face if you can. Not just because of watching out for the little giveaways that people … but also because you see people in their environments.

Neil Foley:                           Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Martyn Richards:              And I learn a lot from looking at the books on somebody’s shelf, from seeing what …

Neil Foley:                           So you’ve tended to do it in their home or office?

Martyn Richards:              Yes. Always.

Neil Foley:                           Oh, okay. Really?

Martyn Richards:              That’s my M.O.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah.

Martyn Richards:              And I’ve been in the last number of years all over. I’ve done a lot of work in the states as well as over here. I’ve even driven around the east coast of America knocking on people’s doors in the blistering heat and interviewing families, et cetera, about …

Neil Foley:                           Do people react differently in the states than they do over here?

Martyn Richards:              Well the whole system works differently over there.

Neil Foley:                           Does it?

Martyn Richards:              Everybody who takes part in that sort of, well in any sort of research over there is enlisted from a panel.

Neil Foley:                           So you put yourself on a panel?

Martyn Richards:              You get yourself on a panel, you earn more.

Neil Foley:                           Do you get paid?

Martyn Richards:              Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           How do you get paid?

Martyn Richards:              Oh yeah. I pay people.

Martyn Richards:              If I go to somebody’s home, for instance, we will always offer. It’s a thank you rather than a payment. And so the offer is always made as well for me to give it to a charity and send them the receipt or whatever if they don’t want to take it personally. And that happens a lot when we do business research.

Neil Foley:                           Yes.

Martyn Richards:              Because a lot of people feel that they shouldn’t take something for giving up a half an hour of their business time.

Neil Foley:                           That’s an interesting one. I interrupted you again. In terms of …

Martyn Richards:              No, that’s fine.

Neil Foley:                           The number of times … Maybe I’m being a bit old and crotchety but there were a number of times where you would get approached to do a survey. It might be half an hour or 20 minutes or whatever that they want of your time. And there’s a bit of me inside resenting it, thinking, “You’re getting paid to do this.”

Martyn Richards:              Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           And so now I always say to them, “Are you going to pay me?” And if they say no then I won’t do it.

Martyn Richards:              Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           I don’t know, maybe I’m getting a bit churlish for the charity bit. But this whole idea that you can take my time when … I don’t know, there’s something that doesn’t sit quite right there.

Martyn Richards:              When I do a focus group … and obviously people know that they’ve received an amount of money to say thank you for coming along, so that’s been done, dusted, signed for in their pocket, wallet, handbag, whatever. The first thing that I talk about is that my client will be making decisions based on what they hear from this and other focus groups that I’m doing, or depth interviews. Thus it’s important everybody joins in, everybody’s honest with me, they don’t say things to please me or to upset other people or whatever.

And 9,999 times out of 10,000 that works. People buy into that. They can see that for once in a while, even if it’s about the colour of a yoghourt pot on a Tesco…

Neil Foley:                           At least it shows somebody wants to know.

Martyn Richards:              … they’re going to have a say.

Neil Foley:                           That’s true.

Martyn Richards:              They’re going to have an input into what that ends up looking like or how it’s communicated or whatever. And people do buy into that. And I swear that if we were able to get that across in the first place, most people would just do it for nothing anyway.

Neil Foley:                           Yes, you would. Well it’s a different mindset, isn’t it?

Martyn Richards:              Yes.

Neil Foley:                           Yes, well I’d never thought of it like that but that’s a good way of describing it. That’s why you’re good at what you do. So in terms of numbers, then, if I’m thinking of doing some research … And some of the advice I give people is when they need to research their existing customers …

Martyn Richards:              Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           … you don’t actually need to do colossal numbers, do you?

Martyn Richards:              No, absolutely not.

Neil Foley:                           Is there a feel for it?

Martyn Richards:              Think about the … We’ve talked a lot about the supermarket shelf.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah.

Martyn Richards:              Think about the luxury biscuit section. How do you know when you’ve reached the luxury biscuit section?

Neil Foley:                           Normally gets to chocolate, maybe, or chocolate-covered or a brand name?

Martyn Richards:              Right. So you told me three things now. I’m looking for chocolate. There’ll be clues as to that. How will I get a clue for that?

Neil Foley:                           I don’t know.

Martyn Richards:              Probably a picture.

Neil Foley:                           Oh I see. Okay.

Martyn Richards:              Yeah. Packaging you mentioned.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah.

Martyn Richards:              Will there be clues in the packaging that I’m in luxury rather than down market?

Neil Foley:                           Yeah, they’ll say premium or whatever.

Martyn Richards:              So there’ll be words. What about colours?

Neil Foley:                           Yeah, colours as well.

Martyn Richards:              What sort of colours do you think?

Neil Foley:                           I would have thought more muted colours rather than garish.

Martyn Richards:              Yeah. Now if I’m doing that with consumers who regularly buy luxury biscuits, it won’t be long before they tell me purple and gold.

Neil Foley:                           Oh, okay.

Martyn Richards:              Yeah. And that’s because that is a standard coded way of suggesting that part

Neil Foley:                           Really?

Martyn Richards:              Yeah. Go and have a look tomorrow.

Neil Foley:                           Oh, okay, yeah.

Martyn Richards:              Okay. Now how many times do you think I would need to ask that before I was convinced that that was a truism?

Neil Foley:                           There’s no huge number.

Martyn Richards:              10? 12?

Neil Foley:                           Yeah. I would have thought 10.

Martyn Richards:              There you go. Now you’ve got the feel of my work in that particular arena. So the important thing always is I’m not just walking up to some random person in the street and saying, “What do you think about this?”

Neil Foley:                           Yeah.

Martyn Richards:              Carefully recruiting people who are the right people to be talking to. And as long as you got them, then sufficient of them, as I say 10, 12, can be enough. Sometimes it’s 16, 20, whatever, depending on the …

Neil Foley:                           So it makes it more affordable, then, for …

Martyn Richards:              Absolutely.

Neil Foley:                           Because not everybody’s obviously got big budgets, et cetera.

Martyn Richards:              Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.

Neil Foley:                           What sort of size companies are you working with then, Martyn?

Martyn Richards:              It really is across the board. I recently worked for an excellent … I mentioned educational stationary. There’s a company called Eastpoint based out in Lowestoft, so nice and local.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah.

Martyn Richards:              Really good company working in an interesting arena providing good product. It was good work, enjoyed that. At the other end of the scale, I’ve done a number of projects now for a company called Interface whom almost nobody has ever heard of. They’re one of the biggest carpet tile manufacturers in the world based in Atlanta, Georgia. Some of the people that I’ve interviewed for them are working with budgets of several hundred thousand pounds each time they specify carpet.

Neil Foley:                           Wow.

Martyn Richards:              Yes. Huge.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah.

Martyn Richards:              So that’s the other end of that scale. In between, over the years, I’ve done lots of work because I’ve got a specialism in kids and young people. I’ve done a lot of work for Guinness World Records, helping them with design issues, how the cover should work to make sure that it shouts off the shelf, internal design issues, new product development, all that sort of thing.

Neil Foley:                           So there’s lots of stereotype stuff as well, isn’t there? Do you challenge the stereotypes? There’s been a TV programme, I watched one of it yesterday, about can you make seven-year-olds more unisex in their approach.

Martyn Richards:              Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           And mums are buying the boys blue stuff and “I’m a terror” and things like that.

Martyn Richards:              Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           And the girls are all in pink and called princesses. And it affects their self-esteem, which this programme was …

Martyn Richards:              Yeah, yeah. It’s a huge, huge issue. And interestingly I did a focus group just this week down in Stratford. Not the nice one in Warwickshire, the other one. And a group of mums almost kicked off between two of them who had very opposing views on this. One who felt that you should go as far as you could to prevent those stereotypes from taking root, and another who just felt that girls and boys were different and that you just simply had to get on with it and allow them to be themselves.

I think the truth actually lies somewhere between the two. And to be absolutely honest, we still don’t know how much is nurture, how much is nature. I can tell you that a truth which a lot of people don’t like to hear is that male and female brains are actually made up slightly differently, both in terms of physical things, I won’t go into all the technical stuff, and in terms of the chemical reactions that go on as well. Having brought up two girls and a boy I’m a huge believer in providing equal opportunity and equal everything. But I think at the same time one has to recognise that there are going to be influences both internal and external which will make the genders behave differently.

Neil Foley:                           We are different, aren’t we? I guess it’s about the opportunities, isn’t it? From a personal viewpoint that’s what I suppose incensed me when I saw the BBC results. They had to publish their … You then think, “Goodness me, how can we be this far off since the Sex Discrimination Act in ’75 or whatever it was.” And here we still are.

Martyn Richards:              Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           And you’ve got public institutions being sexist and racist and that just incensed me, I have to say.

Martyn Richards:              Yeah, well, power to you for that response.

Neil Foley:                           Rather than burning it down I don’t know what to do about it. Would have been probably not a good idea. So in terms of … How do people get in touch with you, Martyn? If they wanted to take this further and talk to you?

Martyn Richards:              Well, I got a website.

Neil Foley:                           What’s that one? Do you want to give us that?

Martyn Richards:              So I’m Martyn Richards. My website is

Neil Foley:                           But Martyn with a Y.

Martyn Richards:              I am Martyn with a Y, yeah. I’d love people to watch my TED Talk if they haven’t seen it.

Neil Foley:                           Yeah, I’ve seen your TED Talk.

Martyn Richards:              Thank you.

Neil Foley:                           Where you’re all about teenagers?

Martyn Richards:              It is, yeah yeah.

Neil Foley:                           It’s a great TED Talk.

Martyn Richards:              Just search my name on YouTube and it comes up. Do you want me to give a phone number over this?

Neil Foley:                           Absolutely, yeah.

Martyn Richards:              Okay. Well my mobile number is 07766 778793.

Neil Foley:                           And we’ll put those at the bottom of the podcast in terms of the transcript. And then finally, Martyn, because it’s been a fascinating, and I know that we could talk together which would probably bore the pants off of everybody apart from you and me … The question I always ask people with the podcast, if you could go back to being a young man of maybe 18 or 20 … I know that was a long, long time ago in your case, Martyn. If you could go back that far, what advice would you give yourself knowing what you know now?

Martyn Richards:              Crikey. Well don’t forget I had two careers, so at that point the world of research was way …

Neil Foley:                           So you were a professional actor…

Martyn Richards:              Yeah, I trained in London and then was an actor for a dozen years or so. So all my advice would have been about that. Can I respond to the question, though, by giving you a real answer, which is I would have said when you make the change into whatever it is that you become in your second career, don’t ignore all the stuff that went before. Don’t assume that that belonged to a different world. We hear a lot these days about transferable skills. It’s not just about transferable skills, it’s about transferable understanding, transferable approach, philosophy.

Neil Foley:                           Mm-hmm

Martyn Richards:              All those things are you, and you have to take them with you. I spent a lot of time trying to shake off all those things because I thought, “No, I’m becoming a serious businessperson now, I must stop being the frivolous actor” or whatever. So that would be the advice that I would give myself for some time in the future from then. Do you know, how long have we talked for just out of interest?

Neil Foley:                           Nearly half an hour.

Martyn Richards:              Nearly half an hour? Do you know we never even got onto storytelling.

Neil Foley:                           Which is your big thing, isn’t it?

Martyn Richards:              Yeah.

Neil Foley:                           Everything’s … all are good stories.

Martyn Richards:              It’s so. And it’s how human beings share their experience with each other. And it’s about how they make sense of their own lives through the story that they live. And that’s something that I’m trying to embed in my research and the way that I work in the future, but we haven’t got time to talk about that today.

Neil Foley:                           Well we’ll schedule another one.

Martyn Richards:              Yeah yeah.

Neil Foley:                           And we’ll carry on with a storyline. Because I think that would be fascinating.

Martyn Richards:              Absolutely.

Neil Foley:                           Well thank you very much indeed for your time, Martyn.

Martyn Richards:              No worries.

Neil Foley:                           It’s been fascinating as ever as I knew it would be. Thanks very much for listening, everybody. The transcript will be available together with Martyn’s contact details and I know he’d be delighted to talk to anybody. So thanks very much.

Martyn can be contacted on 07766 778793