Toluna's Paul Twite on leadership and the impact of COVID-19

By Amber Donovan-Stevens
Paul Twite Managing Director at Toluna (MENA) on his career journey, leadership and the impact of COVID-19...

You joined ITWP, the parent brand to Toluna and Harris Interactive 10 years ago and the business celebrates 20 years since founding this year. What is the most important lesson you’ve learned about leading a company during that time?

My first working day was actually on Toluna’s 10th Anniversary, with a celebration at a restaurant within the Eiffel Tower. I remember how excited I was to join; I had done my due diligence, and even asked several analyst friends for their thoughts on the Market Research sector in general (“ripe for further disruption”) and of Toluna in particular (“an agent for change”).

I’d also been able to spend direct time with Frederic, Toluna’s founder and CEO, who still runs the business to this day. I could immediately tell we had a shared vision for how to drive innovation in the MR space and grow the Toluna business. I’m proud to say that 10 years on the business has trebled in turnover and acquired a radically different customer base.

Throughout our journey, the most important thing I’ve learnt is to embrace and proactively drive change - before the market moves. When the data shows you an obvious course of action, you must act swiftly and decisively. Procrastinating or otherwise justifying inaction will likely lead to your business failing.

For example, at one point we asked MR agencies and brand owners about their decision-making process, and how important speed was in that process. There was an obvious disconnect between what the agencies were saying and what the end-clients (theoretically their customers) actually wanted. The simple action of soliciting their feedback and listening to their specific needs and concerns enabled us to embed our technology in the heart of some of the most successful CPG firms in the world.

It’s also critical that you surround yourself with a team that buys into that change. I’m fortunate to have an extraordinarily passionate and gifted leadership team to help us drive change. As a group, we’ve made decisions over the years that some customers may have questioned or not immediately understood, and times we’ve made decisions that had some questioning the path - but a few years later, they’ve become some of our most loyal customers and biggest advocates.

What do you believe sets Toluna apart from its competitors?

We’re fortunate to count many of the world’s largest brands as our clients and are extremely proud of our ability to work collaboratively with each of them to meet their business goals. If you spoke to our clients, they would tell you that our relentless focus on innovation and reputation as disruptors who have revolutionized portions of our industry over the last 20 years set us apart from the pack. We developed the first online survey tool directly linked to a global consumer panel with the launch of our real-time scripting and analytics platform, QuickSurveys, as far back as 2007. And we reinforced our tech savvy and focus when we introduced Toluna Influencers, a panel community that today is 30 million members strong and delivers over 100 million consumer insights a year.

Innovation is in our DNA - much as it is with our most successful customers. While some may have come before us and others have since entered the field as technology has become more of a focus, our CEO and leadership team have always recognized that technology and the ability to engage online would change the research industry. And they built a strong, diverse global team focused on delivering on that vision.

Toluna and Harris Interactive has been able to introduce automation that removes a great deal of the manual work that historically added time and resources to research projects, but didn’t add any value. When we first started out, research projects could take months or even years to complete. We recognized early on that technology would change this, enabling us to automate repetitive processes in gathering people’s opinions while achieving a new level of scalability– seamlessly reaching hundreds of thousands of people in different countries and time zones. We can now accelerate results and time-to-value with mobile apps and virtual focus groups, and added real-time analytics to the data to further reduce time-to-insight.

Much of this may seem obvious today – but over the past 20 years, we’ve made bold moves in the market to continuously introduce this level of innovation before the majority of the market.

How has your role evolved over the last decade?

When we started, we were like any emerging company; all of our staff had to be prepared to step in to help with any role and any activity. As the company has evolved and we’ve expanded across the globe and added new employees, our team has developed the ability to become specialists vs. generalists.

For me, that means my role now enables me to focus exclusively on our clients and ensure they are consistently impressed by their Toluna experience. Toluna is committed to always being available for our clients and ingrained in their business so we can understand their unique goals and challenges. That’s how we’re able to continuously exceed client expectations.

What’s kept you with Toluna and Harris?

Two main things - one professional and one personal.

From a profession perspective, every day I have the opportunity to perform a job that I am passionate about, working with colleagues and clients I respect. And we continue to challenge the norm, drive innovation and view every day as an opportunity to do something new. Since I joined the Toluna London team in 2010 the growth has been explosive, from additional global offices to new solutions and a diverse client base that keeps us constantly engaged. With the addition of Harris Interactive Europe in 2014, we were able to combine their award-winning research methodology with the industry’s fastest growing technology solutions, and we built on that with the acquisition of KuRunData and our entry into China just three years later. ITWP continues to set the bar by combining technology, engaged consumers and best-in-class qualitative and quantitative research services.

On a personal level - 10 months after joining Toluna, I was diagnosed with throat cancer. In the early stages, the odds did not look very good for me. One night my wife and I were coming to terms with the news over dinner. My home phone rang, and it was Frederic, my CEO, phoning to say that, whatever may occur, he would support me and my family through my ordeal. That amazing gesture of kindness and humanity is just one example of why I’m still happily employed with ITWP, and I hope the success of the EMEA business over the last 10 years has gone some way to repay the extraordinary support and loyalty Frederic showed a relatively new employee.

Do you have any advice to other entrepreneurs looking to create a scalable, sustainable business?

Be Bold. Staying in your comfort zone will not lead to real change. Your leadership team needs to make bold moves, think big and embrace change. Leaders who take calculated risks will achieve far more success for themselves and their company than those who play it too safe.

Know Your Clients. Know what they are thinking and anticipate their needs before even they know what they want/need. If you are constantly engaged with your clients and focused on understanding their pressures and challenges, you will deepen your knowledge of their business, their broader industry and their competitors’ business models and products, and then you can never lose.

Celebrate. Enjoy and reflect on success. Too many times, companies are focused on the negative or too engrossed on what’s next. Take some time to reflect and celebrate. We will celebrate our 20th anniversary this year and we are going to ensure we recognise that achievement across every level of the business. Always recognize it’s a team effort.

Why is employee engagement more important than ever?

Employees want to feel that they are a part of something bigger than themselves. Our company is based on a foundation of six values. Those values don’t just hang on the wall - they unite the employees and help each excel in good times. During difficult periods, when there is uncertainty or things may not be going in the right direction, values help people regroup and course correct. Our values include:

Meritocracy. Regardless of an employee’s background, it’s critical to give people the opportunity to grow and build a career, irrespective of location or skill set. Recognizing and rewarding talent is one of the most important things that we do.

Act as a team. Work together as a team, which delivers results through common goals and shared values. It’s not just about being one team, but one team that succeeds.

Integrity & Respect. Treat colleagues, clients, partners and customers with respect.

Rapid, informed decisions executed without delay. Make sure that your team is well informed to make the right decisions quickly.

Delight your clients. In our industry, it’s all about exceeding client expectations so you need to ensure that your team is all working toward that goal. That is why every Toluna employee aspire to always be available for our clients. We take it to heart that we are in a service industry.

What is on the horizon for yourself and Toluna & Harris Interactive?

The market continues to shift and change at an incredible rate, which means we need to stay ahead of what’s next. There is still so much to achieve with Toluna and Harris Interactive, and I’m excited at what the future holds for us.

How is COVID-19 going to impact businesses of all sizes in the longer term?

We are living in unprecedented times, and none of us knows what the future will hold. But even during such uncertain times, there are factors we can control:

  • Protect employees with telecommuting and clean, healthy work environments
  • Stay in contact with clients as there are still business needs to be met
  • Shore up day-to-day business processes to minimize or prevent interruptions
  • Monitor the situation with global and regional authorities as it changes every day

How will COVID-19 accelerate the need for technology?

For more than 20 years, we have been delivering high-quality insights to clients around the world enabling global organizations, corporations and agencies to make better, more informed business decisions.

The need for fast and accurate data and research is ever more critical during a time of uncertainty. We continue to work with some of the world’s largest organisations to provide real-time data and analysis on consumer behavior to guide them through the fast-moving challenges they face and to take opportunities as they arise.

We have and will continue to produce research reports on the pandemic and its impact on consumer sentiment globally including consumer readiness in the UK and the opinions of physicians, nurses and pharmacists in the US.

For more information on business topics in Europe, Middle East and Africa please take a look at the latest edition of Business Chief EMEA.
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