Malinda Sanna is one of the most sought-after strategic planners in the world of consumer research, advertising development and marketing strategy. She cut her teeth at The Coca-Cola Company in brand management straight out of business school in the New Products department, and then worked for a decade as an independent strategist following tenures at both Fallon and Merkley Newman Harty in New York.
HOW DID YOU GET INTO THE INDUSTRY?
I started my career at The Coca-Cola Company on the marketing side in New Product Development. My favorite part of the work was consumer research, so I transitioned into account planning. I moved to New York to work in advertising, and learned to conduct qualitative research with some great mentors like Jane Newman of Merkley Newman Harty and at Fallon. In 2009, I incorporated SPARK IDEAS because I saw an opportunity to bring more creativity into market research.
TELL US ABOUT SPARK IDEAS. HOW DID IT COME TO BE AND WHAT IS YOUR VISION FOR THE COMPANY?
I developed some projective techniques using symbols and artwork when I was working with corporate executives as a consultant, and finally started using it with consumers. It worked better than I could have ever imagined. I named it The Sensory Safari, trademarked it, and we were off and running. We found that there were a lot of marketers who wanted new ways of talking to people about their ideas, their creative campaigns, and their brands.
As someone who gets bored very easily, I wanted to make market research more fun for everyone involved. My motto has always been “no boring focus groups!” Talking to one’s customers is always going to be important for successful businesses - but with so many exciting ways to engage with people, the possibilities are endless… There’s no reason to sit around a table behind a one-way mirror. There should always be new techniques, technologies, and platforms that keep marketing research exciting and fun. We create research projects that people want to join, not just for the money.
WHAT STRATEGIC PARTNERSHIPS / MARKETING STRATEGIES HAVE YOU IMPLEMENTED THAT HAVE LED TO SPARK’S SUCCESS?
Our clients want maximum bang for their buck, so we keep costs down by staying very lean. We don’t pay rent; instead we work at Neuehouse, which is a cool, collaborative workspace in the Flatiron district in New York City that’s devoted to creative industry entrepreneurs. It is an awesome place to work, network, and conduct most of our research events.
Also, we’re organized differently, which allows us to stay flexible. The best talent in our industry are now freelancing, so we create custom teams. We hire moderators, designers, stylists, photographers, videographers, editors, and writers and cast them like a movie studio would by project. Every project is a custom configuration, which also reduces our overhead.
We hold research events at places like art galleries, hotels, and even wellness spas. We don’t use traditional focus group facilities with the one-way mirrors. We believe in total transparency and creating a space where our clients are up close and personal with the study participants because it’s much more interesting for them. And it’s more engaging for the participants, too.
WHAT INDUSTRY TRENDS ARE YOU NOTICING AND HOW ARE YOU CAPITALIZING ON THEM?
The fact that everyone’s smartphone is practically embedded into their arm makes for some pretty great ways to talk to people while they’re living their actual lives, rather than getting them to drop everything and come to a physical place. We created an app called LookLook™ that is designed to be a fusion of Instagram, texting, and a camera. It allows us to talk to people in real time about how they are shopping, what they are consuming, and the lives they are living. It goes beyond regular mobile ethnography as a way of getting answers to survey questions; we’re actually having conversations with people.
Social media has also led to new avenues of growth for us. We use it in recruiting, and building it into LookLook™ as a way of using social listening in qualitative research.
Learn from everything.
GREATEST SUCCESS AS FOUNDER/CEO OF SPARK?
I’ve been most successful when I trust my experience, intuition, and take risks. These days, everyone is so risk-averse, especially at big companies. I think with so much change going on in the world, you have to try new ways of doing things. It’s riskier to keep doing things the same old way because you’ll get railroaded. And nothing gives me more satisfaction than when I encourage clients to take a risk or even people that work for me – I can watch them stretch, grow and feel powerful because of it.
MOST DIFFICULT MOMENT?
Definitely the most challenging part of my business has been creating our own technology. It was way out of my comfort zone and when things would go wrong in the early days, there were several times when I wanted to give up. Finally, we took coding classes and learned some of the language, which really helped us find the right people to build it and make it amazing.
ADVICE TO AN ASPIRING ENTREPRENEUR / PROFESSIONALS IN THE INDUSTRY?
Get ready for your life and your work to get very blurred. I work every day, but I love it. I think you sort of have to embrace that when you’re an entrepreneur. But when you’re a social researcher, you also can’t ever turn it off completely because you’re naturally curious. Maybe it’s a cliché, but if you’re passionate about what you do, it doesn’t feel like work, it feels like what you want to do. Not that work doesn’t suck sometimes, but at least when it does, it sucks on your own terms, and only you can change it.
DESCRIBE THE IDEAL EXPERIENCE FOR A CLIENT WHO PARTNERS WITH SPARK.
The ideal experience starts with letting us surprise you with some new research design ideas. If you come to us with a clear objective or challenge, we’ll give you multiple ways we can uncover the insights and get the learning. We want to help our clients look at their challenge from a number of different lenses. We will often combine methodologies in a research design so that we can keep it from being too linear. We are fast and responsive. We are grown-ups with a lot of experience. Our clients feel very well taken care of. We are only happy when are clients are very happy. And happy means inspired. They leave us with new energy to move forward with their goals and their projects.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR SPARK?
We are looking at ways to create a hybrid of qualitative/quantitative that can satisfy clients’ needs for bigger samples without having to go the wholescale online survey route. Our database of research participants is now enormous, and it includes some pretty hard to reach segments, like high-net-worth individuals and professionals. We’re exploring ways of being able to get quick reads on questions for our clients or perhaps starting syndicated trend reports and future casting.