In this first-ever live episode of The Consumer Insights Podcast recorded at IIeX North America 2023, Thor is joined by Miranda Patton, Director of Strategic Insights at AT&T.
Research is a creative art, but inefficiency can prevent that creativity from blossoming. In order to make time for the brainpower that leads to business impact, it’s essential to prioritize efficiency in your approach to insights work.
In this first-ever live episode of The Consumer Insights Podcast recorded at IIeX North America 2023, Thor is joined by Miranda Patton, Director of Strategic Insights at AT&T.
- The practical importance of defining insight
- What makes an insight strategic
- The role of new and emerging tech in insights work
- How tech can create more room for creativity
- Why it’s worth investing time to increase efficiency
- Best practices and benefits of building a knowledge sharing culture
- The importance of strong relationships with agency partners and internal stakeholders
- How the center of excellence model can facilitate more strategic insights work
- The DNA of a successful insights team
- The opportunities and challenges posed by AI
If you’re interested in exploring how efficiency and creativity go hand-in-hand for insights professionals, tune in to this episode of The Consumer Insights Podcast.
Thor Olof Philogène:
Welcome to The Consumer Insights Podcast. Every episode, we speak with an insights leader from one of the world's leading brands to hear how they're integrating consumer insights into strategy to move the business forward. I'm your host, Thor Olof Philogène. Hello, everyone, and welcome to this first-ever live episode of the Consumer Insights Podcast. We're here today at IIEX North America in Austin, Texas, and I'm joined by the brilliant Miranda Patton, Director of Strategic Insights at AT&T. Miranda has led research brands across the marketing spectrum, providing a deep understanding of how human behavior, emotions, and perceptions work in the omnichannel marketing funnel. She's also led efforts to apply her expertise to drive transformation towards operational efficiency across AT&T's internal and external marketing teams, including leading a team to develop a future-proof solution that has significantly improved the knowledge-sharing culture across AT&T's marketers. She has 18 years of marketing insights experience, including 10 years as an analyst leader within Escalant. Thank you so much for joining me today, Miranda.
Miranda Patton - 00:01:23:
Thank you, you're too kind.
Thor - 00:01:25:
And Miranda, I know that I just gave a bit of information, but perhaps you could tell the audience a bit more. Could you take a couple of minutes to tell us about yourself, your company, and how you got to where you are today? How did it all begin?
Miranda - 00:01:39:
Ah, it all began. I fell into market research by accident. I was about 18 years ago. Many of us in the industry did just that. We, it wasn't an intentional move. I actually was planning to be criminal profiler in the FBI. That was my big dream. But when I realized that that wasn't going to work well for multiple reasons, one of which being like, you can't really have a family and, you know, have security at home if you chase serial killers around, that perhaps that was not the best decision for me. So I found an opportunity by chance and circumstance to apply for a market research job that just required knowing SPSS and I was able to check that box. So totally by accident, but yeah, I eventually landed at Escalant. Market strategies is what it was called at the time before we were acquired and spent a good 10 years really developing some strong research methodology, rigor and analytics. AT&T was one of my clients for many years when I was there and I eventually was hired directly onboard AT&T. In the past 7 years, I've gotten to work on some really fun and dynamic projects and lead some different programs like brand health and some advertising that you mentioned just prior. So. My experience is pretty varied. So pigeonholed, fortunately, and just a particular topic or expertise, it's been pretty broad across the research spectrum of marketing needs.
The definition of an insight
Thor - 00:03:10:
My next question is one that I ask most podcast guests, but I'm really curious to hear your take. So as an insights leader, how do you define an insight? And tell me a bit about how you got to that definition.
Miranda - 00:03:24:
An insight is something that you can hand to a marketer or a strategic leader, and they know what to do with it
Gotcha. The question is funny to me right now, because we just, stepping out of a year of developing a knowledge management strategy for insights and how we centralize and make better use of them, that question came up quite a bit, and it was almost a challenge. So we had to spend some time really articulating what a definition would sound like for that. For me, the way I describe it is, it's more than just a fact, it's more than just observation of data. It's how that observation and how those facts come together into an actionable recommendation for the business. So an insight is something that you can hand to a marketer or a strategic leader, and they know what to do with it. They don't have to do a lot of guesswork in what exactly the applications could be.
Thor - 00:04:13:
And if we dig a bit deeper, given your current role, what would you say makes an insight strategic?
Miranda - 00:04:22:
Great question again. So a strategic decision for me in my particular... I work for the growth and marketing organization. So for me, it's being able to take an insight and apply it across multiple products and businesses within AT&T. And it's something that's more evergreen. It's not just something that you use perhaps in one particular circumstance. It could be, I suppose, if it's driving a strong strategy, but I think the ability to apply it in multiple scenarios is one way.
Thor - 00:04:56:
I love how you connect strategic to applicability. And there are also many tools available for insights teams today, but naturally you have to prioritize. And especially when you think about the capabilities you build out, how do you think about the role of tools as well as tech like AI and insights? How do you think that's essential?
Miranda - 00:05:18:
Having the right tools... can be game-changing. This AI that's coming out... making sure you know how to use it so that you're not left behind and you're able to leverage the efficiencies that they bring to your job.
So tools are, and we're hearing a lot about it in the conference here today, you really have to know how to use the tool, how to make it work for you. Someone earlier today said that the thing that. separates us from animals is the ability to actually use a tool. Market researchers having the right tools, I think, can be game-changing. This AI that's coming out, I'm still learning a lot about it. We're using it in some instances, but I think making sure to be open to that and staying up to date, making sure you know how to use it so that you're not left behind and you're able to leverage the efficiencies that they bring to your job. And then 2, I would add onto that to say research to me, it's a creative art. And the more tools you can use, the more processes you can put in just to get some of the non-creative work out of the way so you can spend more time on the brain power and the really good gold that comes out of sitting down and developing insights. I think that's very critical for researchers to have the right tools.
Thor - 00:06:25:
I love the way you talk about that. And if we shift gears for a second, and if we talk a bit about your many accomplishments developing, you know, best in class research standards and achieving ISO 2252 certification, can you tell us a bit about that process? What did you learn along the way?
Miranda - 00:06:43:
Sure, yeah. So that certification was part of a program at the research firm, Market Strategies. Our leadership kicked off in order to compete internationally. For those of you who aren't familiar, it's basically just standards and making sure that you're working within a standardized protocol and you're checking all the right boxes, data integrity, security, things of that sort. My role for that in that was to take the legacy, like Wilkerson, which is one of the boutique firms that was acquired in this whole Market Strategies world. And I represented like Wilkerson and the team of offices we had and making sure our teams were participating and providing feedback of all the best practices we had learned as researchers across our experience with our clients and what worked well and what didn't work so well. So we could really develop standards across all these global companies' offices. It was a bit of a gruesome process. Nobody really likes to be bogged down with red tape and talk a lot about templates and process. But one thing I learned out of it was just to be patient with that kind of work because it can really make your work more efficient. Again, it's all about efficiency and freeing up the time and space to do the important work.
Thor - 00:08:07:
You talk about efficiency, but you also describe insights as a creative art. So. I mean, you've also developed a comprehensive strategy for centralizing AT&T's insights and market research and all that to transform the culture into a knowledge sharing culture. How did you identify the need to do that? And what would you say is important when building a knowledge sharing culture?
Building a knowledge sharing culture
Miranda - 00:08:32:
If I may just quickly on the efficiency and creativity point you just made, just make a comment on that. Insights development to me is not actually a very efficient process. So the need to build in process to make those other tasks that surround the insights development process more efficient allows you to, in some cases, stare out the window while you're thinking about something, you know, you need to give yourself brain space to be able to just really think about the implications of all these data points and different facts that you're looking at and how it all matters to your story. So. Sorry to backtrack a little.
Thor - 00:09:14:
Not at all. That was a very good point.
Miranda - 00:09:16:
Good. Yeah, the insights management element and centralizing to your next question you just mentioned. The need for us to centralize all of our market research assets. It really was identified by our leadership. So I was not in the room for that conversation. I work at AT&T as you know, and it's a large company. And so by the time that decisions are made and someone's acting on it, there's usually a few layers. I wasn't in the room, but I know it was abundantly clear what drove that decision from our leadership. In order to what drove the decision from our leadership to embark on this, were pain points like not using our insights enough, you know, you develop these brilliant insights and then they just sit on the shelf.
You develop these brilliant insights and then they just sit on the shelf.
I don't think we're the only ones who've experienced that problem. We're duplicating research across our massive enterprise. When it comes down to it and through our journey of looking at what it's gonna take to centralize research, we realized we have over 1000, maybe 2000 people who technically fit within some definition of a marketer. So that's a lot of people that, you know, just don't have access to research for either intentional or most of the time unintentional reasons. They don't know what, you know, the research was done. They don't know who to call cause they're newer in their role, things of that sort. So having leadership though, define the need and really push it has really been a game changer for us. It's not the first time we've tried it, we've tried to centralize our research and insights. In fact, there've been multiple very recent efforts but they all failed because they didn't have leadership support. Our CMO herself is just pushing this knowledge management for research. She's supportive of it. She's, you know, putting it out there in town halls. Our CEO is even aware of the effort. And so we have a lot of very senior support that is helping this program to be and stay successful.
Thor - 00:11:20:
I love that. And I think that you are highlighting some of the big important aspects of how you need to get everybody involved. And that also ties to what you talked about before, which is the cultural transformation, right? That needs to happen, which is also something you can't do alone or you can't do it on your side. Now, maybe you could share a couple of stories of times in your career when you have work with integrating insights and ideally, you know, when that has fueled some level of innovation, you know, could be to build a better campaign or a better product or a better process. Anything you could share on that?
Miranda - 00:11:55:
Unfortunately, there's a lot that I can't share because AT&T's a lot of it's competitive and we got to keep it pretty close given the nature of our industry. But one that I think is really fun to talk about is the it's more of an internal application of research and insights. So AT&T spends a ton of money on media and advertising and our partnerships with our agencies are therefore super critical. We work with them like they're coworkers. It's super close. Back in 2020, a need came up to create an assessment of those agencies. So when I hear that, it's like you want us to write a survey to assess our coworkers. My leader and I at the time were looking at that and just thinking, you know, it's really only going to tell you half of the story if you're not looking and taking the mirror back to yourself as a client. A lot of people here have been talking about AI and garbage in and garbage out. The same is true with the client and vendor relationships.
AT&T spends a ton of money on media and advertising and our partnerships with our agencies are therefore super critical. We work with them like they're coworkers.
We'd be kidding ourselves not to really do a thorough assessment. So we designed this program. We spoke to a lot of our stakeholders to understand pain points there as well, which I can't stress enough the importance of stakeholder relationships. And all the things we've talked about so far, but yeah, we just listened to, what's working well, what's not working well. And we developed just standard research, quantitative survey to ask clients and agency. partners, how those relationships were going. And those insights just that we pulled from that were so powerful in helping us to understand some other ways we could work that would be more, again, efficient and optimized for everybody. Agencies and I know research firms, as I was in one for quite a while, you burn the midnight oil many times, you're working weekends and it doesn't have to be that way. So because of this assessment and having an insights person involved, usually you don't have the luxury of having an insights person involved in an assessment like that, allowed us to redesign the way we work, both internally and externally. We literally all of our marketing and growth organization were able to clearly see the paths that we needed to do to bring in more tech, to simplify some process for us, to have universal marketing briefs so that all of our agencies were given the right and enough information to be able to launch amazing campaigns and do their best work as well. Again, back to the process and just really simplifying and saving time and those laborious tasks to unlock the creativity that's been going on. And we've seen some significant year over year growth in a lot of these different ways of working that we put together based on those results.
Thor - 00:14:53:
I'd love to hear how you not only shield, but also empower through the work that you have done to again, go to your point, like unleash these creative forces that are needed. And if we shift focus a little bit and we take a look at the role of the insights function within the organization, where would you say it best fits in? And we frequently talk about the role to elevate the insights and in particular, the role of the insights function on this podcast, and also how you can work on shifting the perception from a support function to a strategic function. I would really love to hear your thoughts on this, your perspective on this, especially because your title is actually director of strategic insights. So how do you think about this?
Insights function within organizations
Miranda - 00:15:38:
One of the tricks I think, and I don't know if it's just because I'm a stubborn person or what, but is look beyond that first question that you get when someone comes to you with a problem. Really push your internal clients. And if you're on the research provider side of the house, push your clients as well.
To me, an insights function though should more than likely sit in like a center of excellence model.
They need it. We need it. Get us past that first question and really ask what's going to push the needle. What's really going to make the difference. So to me, and this is all just my opinion based on my experience in this industry and not a reflection of AT&T's endorsement obligatory clause. To me, an insights function though should more than likely sit in like a center of excellence model. I've seen it work poorly when it's the insights professionals are scattered across business units. They're not given the opportunity to really be developed and trained. You're reporting to somebody when you're sitting in a business unit who's an expert in something way different, which I mean that has its benefits too, but a center of excellence allows you to very strategically support the business in super fundamental ways. You can organize yourself in a way that is purely focused on business questions, business needs and making sure you're close enough to the business because like a dotted line kind of relationship where you're sitting in their staff meetings, you're connecting with your BU clients all the time. You're an extension of them, but you're sitting in a center of excellence so that you can be really trained, developed and use the power of the full research team versus just what you're able to get done in an eight hour period each day.
Thor - 00:17:21:
I really like the way you talk about it and how you describe that whole situation. And if we would switch topics a second, and we've talked about process, we've talked about the creative nature of insights work, let's talk a bit about the team. So what would you say is the DNA of like a very good and well functioning insights team?
Miranda - 00:17:40:
That's an interesting question. I oversee an army of volunteers in many cases because of the particular role I play right now. But in that center of excellence style of model, I think the ideal team is to have someone at the helm of it who really understands the research process end to end and the clients to some degree as well. But having strong insights managers and also strong primary researchers who can manage, we outsource everything we do. You know, we don't do any DIY work in house. So overseeing the research vendors and providers, you also need a strong data analyst or engineer. Now, what level you would need of each of those is dependent upon who you're, you know, the business questions that you're facing. RCX teams, as an example, they require lots of data engineers versus our, you know, media teams, excuse me, our media teams also do. primary research programs like our Brand Health Programs and things like that, they require fewer resources. So it truly depends on what questions you're answering and what topic you're on. So.
Her best career advice
Thor - 00:18:54:
And if we look a bit on your career and specifically the success you've had, with that in mind, what's the best career advice you've ever received?
Miranda - 00:19:04:
Actually, the more controversial advice I've been given is the employment relationship is a voluntary relationship on both ends.
That's a good question. The best career advice I've ever gotten has been to just really have a clear understanding of what you're good at and chase and develop those areas where it can get you strategically to where you're at. Those are pretty boring things. Actually, the more controversial advice I've been given is the employment relationship is a voluntary relationship on both ends. So always be aware and fighting for yourself. Just know where you want to be and don't sell yourself short. I have been in a situation where, you know, at a large company, I've been on that surplus list before I got through it, but having some of that more proactive understanding of where you want to be next, I think is super critical. Just keep a focus on.
Thor - 00:19:51:
Miranda, you've been involved in a lot of change projects. I mean, you've really helped companies step up and become much stronger. And if you look ahead a bit now, what opportunities do you think there are for insights professionals to make true business impact and challenge the status quo?
Miranda - 00:20:10:
I think this AI has been the word of the day. Getting ahead of understanding how to use those tools, I think is gonna be a game changer for a lot of us. I'm not saying that that's the one thing we should be looking at, but we need to be aware of things like that that are gonna make us more efficient in some of those tasks again, and being able to have the skill to look. Sorry, this is an interesting question. Just being able to be kind of a consultant type role, is what I'm trying to be anyways, like understand the business problems that you're working with and understand the tools that you're working with, including some of the skillsets that you have to really answer those questions like nobody else can.
Thor - 00:20:55:
And on the flip side, however, again, we've talked a great deal about generative AI on this conference today. What challenges do you see? And they don't necessarily need to be AI related. What challenges could insights professionals face, in the wider industry, when you think about the near future.
Challenges for the future
Miranda - 00:21:13:
I think just going back to the trash in, trash out concept, just really understanding what's being used to train the AI that you're using. I think being mindful of what's happening to all that information, including the questions you're asking. So with like ChatGPT, if it's even storing the question I'm asking, as some people suspect other big tech companies have done in the past, that could actually be a threat to your company's intellectual property. I think the ethics and making sure that you just really understand the risks and benefits associated with AI. As an insights professional, that's what I plan to do. I think that's the responsible and wise thing.
Thor - 00:21:58:
I think you've been part of a lot of big initiatives, both on the client side and also on the agency side. I think a lot of our listeners are probably maybe engaging in their first big transformational project. What advice would you give to them when embarking on this journey? What would you have told yourself?
Miranda - 00:22:19:
There's some things you can catch with just a good old like gut check, you know, you get some kind of a response from an AI engine. It just doesn't make sense. Don't ignore that impulse. That's there and the insight is professional for a reason. But yeah, I think. Other things we could do is just test it, you know, go and look, do your desk research and find out like are there other pieces of research that would support the outputs that you're seeing. Maybe look at it a couple different ways before you go and present it to your leadership or to others outside of your team.
Thor - 00:22:54:
I'd like to double click on a topic that has come up during this conversation today, which is a bit the creative nature of Insights Work. And I think that we've all been inspired by how you really have worked on shielding the team and on creating processes so you can offload them and empower them. Then when you get to the actual creative side, what are the learnings, looking back at your career that you have seen, what are the things that you can take with you to become better at that creative work?
Miranda - 00:23:25:
Sometimes we'll just, as I'm going through and developing insights, I call it my paints and my paintbrush. I literally think of it as a creative process. Really, research fundamentals are important in that. Just remember what the objectives are, the business question that you're trying to answer.
Then when it comes to synthesizing information, play out that story in your head a couple of times based on the data points that you see and just keep asking, why should I care?
That has to be like top of mind, front and center in just about everything you do when it comes to setting up and executing a project, a research project. Then when it comes to synthesizing information, play out that story in your head a couple of times based on the data points that you see and just keep asking, why should I care? That's a question I just repeat in my head so that I can get to that really actionable result. So it's like, okay, all these things happen, like so what, you know? And my boss even says, it's the what, so what, and now what. That's the VP of research at AT&T. That's what he keeps telling me every time I present to him. What, so what, and now what. Those are the three questions that I make sure I answer when I'm ready to give some insights in my current role.
Thor - 00:24:33:
And it's so funny that you mentioned that because I think the so what question is one that's really top of mind of anyone that has been in big organizations that have struggled to get a seat at the discussion table. One thing I've heard a lot of people react positively on is the concept of bringing the CEO perspective to any conversation. What advice would you give people, especially maybe earlier in their careers, how can they add the CEO perspective to anything that they do? And I think you've touched on it to some degree with the so what, just kind of the essence of it, but what else would you give people as advice?
Miranda - 00:25:10:
To answer that so what question, I've often found that you have to go outside of a lot of times the data points that are in front of you. You have to go and find business statistics or maybe some secondary research. So think in those terms when you get to that so what question, put that storyline that you're working on kind of in the broader context of how does this fit in the ecosystem. CEO is really worried about the profit and loss, you know, and maybe the future of the business. When you can put this business question in the context of that using actual data that it's a must have and just about every executive is report.
Thor - 00:25:49:
On that perspective, on that topic, I think we hear a lot is that, you know, a good way to get yourself grounded in regards to conversation or a research project is to go and talk to the actual human, you know, talk to the people that, you know, and, you know, I think we haven't touched on this conversation. Maybe we could, you know, hear your thoughts and reflection on that aspect and also the empathy side of that.
Miranda - 00:26:12:
Yes. I missed a big important piece of that, the stakeholders. I don't do any of my projects in a silo, for better or worse. So stakeholders, you know, people that, that are closer to the issue than you that aren't researchers, you know, I oftentimes will put a few data points in front of them and get the reaction.
Really getting their perspective. It's not asking them to do the work for me. It's just understanding, like, when I tell you this, what are the concerns that come up?
You know, what does this make you think when you see this before I ever consider a report or an analysis complete? Really getting their perspective. It's not asking them to do the work for me. It's just understanding, like, when I tell you this, what are the concerns that come up? What are, you know, what are the implications that are hitting you? It's treating every project like a partnership with those stakeholders. In fact, a lot of times we co-present, we just go to the leadership alone. It's a partnership and saying, hey, here's what the data is saying, and here's the storyline, and, and here's what this team is going to do about it. And we just kind of volley it in that way.
The importance of stakeholder management
Thor - 00:27:10:
And I think my last questions, actually not the last one, but almost is going to be around the whole stakeholder management component. What advice would you give people that are earlier in their career in terms of how to handle and how to keep FOPO updated? You know, so they do a good balance between the actual work that needs to happen, the updating, and then also securing continued support. So what advice would you give people?
Miranda - 00:27:37:
Stakeholder management is probably top two things of importance, I think, in my career as an insights professional. Probably the top, actually. I would just say, even if you're on the research provider, well, especially if you're on the research provider side of the house, because then you have two matrices of stakeholders that you need to really know how to work. It's the internal one and the one with your client team. So if you're on the research providers side of the house, one thing I would do is understand the world that my client lived in, you know, and just who's their client, what questions are their clients trying to answer. And so touching base, of course, you can't go and just call your clients, internal stakeholders. I would not advise to do that by any means without their permission, but just understanding that.
Stakeholder management is probably top two things of importance, I think, in my career as an insights professional.
And let's say for the client side, stakeholder, I literally create spreadsheets sometimes when I'm trying to stakeholder for a particular topic. So I can understand what's important to each of my stakeholders. What are they being asked to do? You know, when they get their annual reviews, what's it going to be about? And how can I help them accomplish that with the resources that I'm developing or the insights I'm working with? Just touching base, being really as personal as you can with them and understanding their world beyond just, you know, know what they're being held accountable for. It's just old fashioned relationship management. Just get to know them as people. Everybody likes a phone call when you're talking about being able to help them with something. So that's been paramount to just about everything I've done at AT&T, especially building that insights management, knowledge management space that I've been working on the past year. Just making sure their needs are being met and their pain points are being heard.
Thor - 00:29:21:
Miranda, I'm just amazed by how good you are at highlighting and putting your finger on the complexity of this work, right? I mean, the fact that you need to balance the human side of talking to the different people and keeping people updated at both levels, you know, both the people that are expected to do the work, the people that depend on the work you do while doing the process work, driving efficiency to unleash the creative side. Unfortunately, however, we've reached the end of today's discussion and I have one last question for you. And that's my favorite question to ask. So who in the world of insights would you love to have lunch with?
On who she'd like to have lunch with
Miranda - 00:29:59:
Oh man, this is a tepee. I don't know. There's so many, the authors of the Think Fast, Think Slow. I think that would be a very interesting conversation to have. Unfortunately, this, their names have escaped me and Daniel Kahneman. Yes. I should admit that, but man, their work is brilliant. Yeah. I think it's just them would be my perfect day if I could have that lunch with them.
Thor - 00:30:23:
Smerosky and Kahneman, amazing people. Wow, Miranda, this has been such an amazing conversation. You've shared so many bits of wisdom that I think we can all learn from. And before we sign off, I'd like to play back some of the parts of our conversation today that really struck a chord and resonated with me. So when we talked about insights, you said that it was more than a fact, more than an observation. It's really how the two come together to create an actionable recommendation for the business. I loved the fact and how you talked about research as a creative art. It's a tool that can, you know, and really what we need to do when we think about tools and processes is remove all the friction that prevent the creative work from happening. The goal that comes out of the insight work, the goal that really like the way you talked about that, that will empower you. When we talked about the strategic side of the work, in order to ensure that you bring a strategic lens to your insights work, look beyond the first question. When people come to you and ask you for help, force yourself to understand what is really going on, what's really gonna make a difference. And then lastly, on a personal level, for yourself, make sure that you have a clear understanding of your own strengths, build on them, but always be aware that everyone, every employee, employer, relationship is mutual. So make sure that you know where you wanna be.
Miranda - 00:31:54:
Thor - 00:31:55:
I know I've learned a lot from talking to you today, and I'm sure our audience has as well. So Miranda, thank you so much for joining me today.
Miranda - 00:32:04:
Thank you. It was fun.