Cutting through the politics of a business

November 8, 2020

Things could have turned out very differently for Kim Davis, who grew up thinking she’d go into accountancy before discovering a passion for rigorous, independent market research. Now managing director of Explain Market Research, Kim tells Richard Dawson how she got there, how the business is moving forward following an MBO last year and everything that’s happened since then.

Kim Davis completed a management buyout of Explain Market Research (Explain) from the founder David Shiel in December 2019 together with three other company directors, creating an all-female management team with vast experience in the industry.

What Emma Hopkins, Becca Crinson and Holly Shiel- Redfern – and Kim – could not have known when they took the helm of the Newcastle-based market research agency last year is what was coming down the track just four months later.
Like all businesses, Explain has faced its fair share of turbulence this year in light of the coronavirus pandemic. But Kim is clear that the firm she joined back in 1998 is weathering the storm.

She says: “Like all businesses, we would rather not have faced what we’ve had to face this year, but that’s why we are incredibly proud of what we have achieved. “Given everything that’s been thrown at us, we’re still here and we’re still strong.”

In fact, Explain’s long-term relationships with clients such as Northumbrian Water, Newcastle Building Society and Northern Powergrid have ensured that each member of the 45-strong team has been retained throughout the pandemic.

“We haven’t furloughed anybody, and we haven’t had to lose anybody,” Kim adds.

That’s a big achievement during a period when businesses of all shapes and sizes have seen their order books and client lists diminish.

It probably has something to do with Kim’s long- term commitment to the business, having joined from university when Explain’s headcount was just five. Since day one, she’s been passionate about growing the company and creating opportunities to fulfil her ambitions.

The Northumbria University graduate actually started out dreaming of a career in accountancy but while doing her A-Levels decided to do business studies to gain a broader knowledge of the business world.

“I’ve always had an affinity for numbers and, if you like numbers, accountancy is a bit of an obvious choice,” she explains.

“Actually, my degree helped me rethink and realise it probably wasn’t the right role for me.”

A marketing placement between studies allowed Kim to consider the market research route, which is where she found her home in business.

Market research is all about gathering information using different methodologies that can be broken into two categories.

Qualitative research is about investigating and understanding people’s thoughts, feelings and behaviours, and quantitative research is about analysing the numbers behind those thoughts and feelings.

“It’s the combination of the two that really gives you the insights you need,” Kim explains.

Market research has become increasingly valuable in recent years as a way of informing decision-making by providing a rigorous evidence base.

The role of the researcher is to be given a set of objectives, to go out and find the information relating to those objectives and then to report back on the findings.

“Whatever we find, we go back to the organisation and tell them,” says Kim. “We have to deliver the good news and the bad.”

This is a critical point because when market research is done in-house, it’s often working towards the answer a particular organisation wants to find, rather than delivering true insight.

It’s therefore preferable to do research independently because it is unbiased when presenting the findings – cutting through the politics of a business.

Many of Explain’s clients work in regulated industries where independent market research is a critical business function that must be carried out regularly.

In recent years, there’s been a big push for these companies to engage with their consumers continually, and engagement is slightly different to research in the sense that it’s a two-way conversation.

Kim explains: “It’s not just about what I want to ask you; it’s also about what you want to tell me.”

Explain leads the way in the research and engagement space and Kim sees this as being a major growth area in the future.

Since taking over as managing director in 2012, Kim’s approach to running the business has been to grow it in line with the personal growth of the team.

As such, Explain has expanded steadily over the years and it’s been that measured approach, which has provided opportunities for career development while also becoming a trusted partner in the marketplace. Kim says: “We are absolutely trusted to deliver what we say we’ll deliver, and we don’t let people down.

“In the last six months, it’s been those relationships with clients making us the agency of choice that’s seen us through.”

This year has been about consolidating Explain’s position and finetuning the new management structure following the management buyout.

Moving forward, the future is very much about getting back on the growth path but in a way that allows the company to retain everything. It’s about trust, reliability and robust market research.

Kim’s advice to others looking to the future right now is simple: “Nobody’s perfect. Nobody’s brilliant at everything. So, make the most of what you can do really well and get help from others where you need more support.

“I think that kind of outlook allows Explain to excel.”

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