New Member Interview: Nancy Serbin, Cherry Hill, NJ
Mike Courtney, firstname.lastname@example.org
Here I am with my family in California. I’m second from the left.
I'm guessing you were born young. What is your earliest memory?
Most of my childhood memories are kind of foggy, but I do vividly recall a summer evening ritual I loved as a kid growing up in Dayton, Ohio. Many people who were kids in the early '60s will have the same memory. Every summer evening I would rush through dinner so that I could be ready on my bike at the end of the driveway when I heard the anticipated “PFFT, PFFT, PFFT” and the revolving orange light of the mosquito truck as it rounded my corner releasing plumes of yellow fog off the back of the truck. All the kids on the block would race after it on their bikes trying to get as close as possible to the truck, as that is where the fog was the most dense. We would ride for blocks and blocks becoming invisible within the fog. With all the DDT we inhaled off those trucks, it’s no wonder the rest of my childhood memories are foggy.
Who were you and what did you do before you got into marketing research?
Somehow all of my jobs since college have involved market research. My summer jobs in high school and college were spent working in daycare. I loved and was fascinated by kids. This interest lead me to pursue a degree in developmental psychology. For my Master’s thesis, I stood at the edge of a playground every day for three months during recess and recorded the kids’ interactions. I wrote my thesis on the development of cooperative play. It wasn’t until many years later that I realized what I was doing at the time was ethnography.
What drew you to qualitative research? Did you stumble into the field, or was it your childhood dream to moderate?
Qualitative research found me. My first job out of grad school was to conduct market research for the design department of Fisher Price Toys. Dream job. I didn’t even know what a focus group was. My first week on the job, there I was, flying to California with three prototype dollhouses to gather mothers’ reactions in focus groups. Each week I would take out new prototypes of toys and do either mall intercepts or focus groups. The majority of groups were led by seasoned moderators, so I got to witness lots of different styles and figure out what worked and what didn’t work. It was a great apprenticeship.
Company and Work
Please tell us about your company, what brought you to this company? Is there a story behind your company name? What’s it like in your office?
I am going to tackle all three of these questions at once. This section will be short because my company is me, and I call it Nancy Serbin. (Please don’t judge my creative abilities based on this. I am actually quite creative.) I work out of my home in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, with an old, annoying Wheaton Terrier always at my feet.
I worked on the client side of the market research table for 15 years. I went from research to guide the design of dollhouses at Fisher Price to research to design hotel rooms and hotel chains at Marriott. I worked at Marriott during a time of crazy growth. I was part of the small internal development teams that designed and built two brands, Residence Inn and Fairfield Inn. We researched everything from design, branding, naming, positioning and cannibalization. The research experience was exciting, but equally exciting was being part of the team and figuring out how we were going to use the information the research gave us. The VP of Marketing used to sit at the table when I was presenting research results and tell me, “I don’t care how you slice it, it’s still boloney.” Eventually I learned to cut to the chase of the research and figure out what was really going to be important and actionable for my team. Having to help make those internal adjustments – changing design, tactics and messages based on the results of the research – gave me a great perspective on how research is used within a company. This knowledge has served me well in all my contract work.
Tell us about your typical day.
Within my own practice, right now, 75 percent of my work is sub-contracted. I work with other independent researchers or small firms that need help from time to time. I started doing this just to fill in the lulls, but I have found that I actually love doing this work. It has exposed me to all kinds of work, methodologies, and industries that I probably wouldn’t have been exposed to any other way. For instance, I never really thought about how different employee focus groups would be from consumer groups until I was asked to be part of a research team for a company that specializes in employee-engagement research. I didn’t know this before the groups, but you can’t audio or video tape employee groups. This presents all kinds of challenges the typical consumer group doesn’t face. My last employee group project was for a major retailer. We conducted 33 groups across the country with four different moderators and 33 different note-takers, a different one in each city. Judging by the notes, I am pretty sure a couple of the note-takers had never seen a focus group so instead of writing, they were watching. Synthesizing and distilling all that information from typed notes to find and tell the research story was challenging, to say the least. This kind of “jumping in” work and being part of different teams is really fun for me, and each experience has been a learning experience.
Do you remember your first few moderating sessions? If we were able to watch a video of that first session, what would we see?
Well, my first moderating sessions were with mothers talking about toys, and since I had observed so many of these groups before doing my own, they went fine.
However, one idea Fisher Price tossed around was entering the Matchbox category and for that, we knew we needed to talk to the boys themselves. We wondered how hard that could be to get a group of 7- to 8-year-old boys around a table for discussion. None of us had ever seen a focus group conducted with kids, but we figured it would follow the same format as with the mothers.
This was at the time when individual juice boxes with straws had just come on the market and were a novelty for the kids. We gave the kids the juice boxes, cookies, munchkins, M&Ms…we wanted them to be happy, right? We also asked them each to bring in seven of their favorite Matchbox cars. Within 20 minutes we had complete chaos with cars being thrown everywhere, juice boxes being used for everything from car wash to squirt gun, and kids unable to sit down because of all the sugar we fed them.
We sent them home after 30 minutes, and I tossed my two-hour discussion guide. To this day, I don’t think Fisher Price ever entered that market.
Imagine someone has created a look-alike clone of you. The only thing left is to program the clone to act like you act. What are the most important habits and attributes your clone needs to master?
This clone has to be naturally able to chat up anyone and everyone, making personal connections in every line, waiting room, or bus ride. This clone also has to be able to embarrass their kids daily when engaging in the aforementioned activity.
What motivated you to join the QRCA, and what do you hope to gain from your membership?
In all honesty, I only joined QRCA because membership would give me a discounted rate for a RIVA class I was going to take last December. I joined and then the class was postponed. At first I was bummed, but then the emails started coming from all these QRCA members welcoming me, and it felt like my birthday. I looked the people up on LinkedIn; everybody seemed so interesting, I wanted to start meeting them, so I went into action.
So far, since joining in December I have: 1) Been to a Philly chapter meeting, 2) Had a fantastic blind lunch in Philly with another member, Barry Davis, who welcomed me via email, 3) Sat in on a great QRCA webinar on shop-alongs (Tom Rich), and 4) Noticed another attendee on the webinar who seemed to have a lot of experience in shop-alongs, so I reached out to her. We had lunch in Annapolis. (Shout out to Kristin Schwitzer who gave me all kinds of tips on getting more out of my membership.)
And last week, I went to the QRCA meeting in NYC which was lightly attended, but I met all kinds of wonderful people with whom I am now planning a fun day in NYC. They also had great tips like going to the ARF Think Convention Expo part for $25. Who knew? At the risk of becoming known as the “QRCA slut,” I plan to keep attending meetings in both Philadelphia and NYC and would love to get to one in Washington/Baltimore.
I know I will only gain what I put into it, but I have just touched the surface on the QRCA website. I didn’t know about this Connection [sic] publication till yesterday when you asked if I would do this interview. And I have never attended the annual convention, but you will find me in New Orleans for sure in October, where I hope to meet people from all over the country.
What advice would you give others in the research industry who might be thinking about joining QRCA?
JOIN. I wish I had joined five years ago when I just started freelancing.
We are both in your favorite city with a day between groups. What do we do? Eat? Etc.
Let’s just say my favorite city is San Francisco, so I can give a shout-out and shameless plug to my son’s food truck, which is out there. It’s called Doc’s of the Bay.
Our day off in San Francisco would start with a mouth-watering gourmet hamburger from his truck. Then we’d hit every thrift store and record store on Haight Street. Hopefully, there would be a flea market going down too, in the afternoon, and live music at a local venue in the evening.
What books are you reading right now?
I love crafting: think Martha Stewart but give her ten thumbs. So on my nightstand right now are three books on modern quilt-making, a DIY guide for making the woven part of a dream-catcher, and my iPad is open to Pinterest. Also on my nightstand is the new Kate Atkinson book, “Life after Life,” which I just finished for book club and loved, and a book called “Tuning into Moms: Understanding America’s Most Powerful Consumer” by Michal Clements. I highly recommend this book to anyone conducting research in categories where Mom is the decision-maker or influencer.
The Final Question:
A client tells you they'll triple your project fee if you can beat them fair and square in a game. You get to choose the game. What game do you play and how likely are you to win?
Tough question. I am going to have to go with my new favorite, “Cards against Humanity.” The box says is a party game for horrible people: think the X-Rated version of “Apples to Apples.” To be good at this game you need a warped sense of humor, a tendency to think outside the box, and a willingness to be politically incorrect – at least around the card table. I have what it takes to be really good at this game. I plan on bringing it to New Orleans if anyone wants to play.
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