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An Interview with Christian Kugel

Vice President, Consumer Analytics & Research at AOL

Christian Kugel leads the market research and sales research teams at AOL. He’s responsible for developing new ROI-based advertising solutions and uncovering relevant consumer insights for the sales, product and content organizations. Heading a team of 25 people, Kugel manages all primary quantitative and qualitative research at AOL.

Prior to his current role, he was senior vice president of strategy and innovation at Publicis Groupe’s VivaKi, where he worked with senior leadership to navigate new data and research challenges posed by emerging media. He has also worked at Millward Brown, Starcom and Denuo, which is now part of Razorfish.

Can you describe your role and what it entails?

Christian Kugel: My team focuses mostly on the US. I was brought in to consolidate the various consumer analytics and research functions at AOL because they were all siloed. Sales research was off by itself, reporting into sales. Market research was similarly siloed, reporting into the consumer marketing organization. There was also a media research function. None of these groups talked to one another or collaborated.

I consolidated the groups and cross-trained people to create hybrid skills across those teams. Now we have different skill sets in different teams that are connected to each other. The sales and marketing organizations, as well as the content brands like The Huffington Post, StyleList and Engadget, benefit from the great work market research does. We’ve been able to unlock a huge amount of latent value.

Last year we created a third team for research operations. We do well over 200 ad effectiveness and ROI studies and about 60 primary market research projects a year. There’s a lot of really great information from those initiatives that nobody ever sees again. Our research operations team looks for ways to reuse a lot of these valuable insights. So if we get an RFP [request for proposal] from a movie studio to support the launch of a new film, the team can mine the data from a three-month-old Moviefone study—it’s still very relevant. The insights we extract from that affect how the proposal is put together.

What do you spend most of your time on?

Kugel: Ensuring that our stakeholders get the right type of output from the team and that we’re aligned with their goals. Whether it’s increasing revenues by being more strategic with clients or agencies, or increasing the growth of an audience for a particular brand, the research, insights and data can certainly help accelerate those goals.

What are your biggest business priorities?

Kugel: For AOL, it’s pretty clear that the biggest priority is to grow our audiences—especially our valuable audiences—so we can grow our revenues. On one hand, our strategy is based on advertising, so it involves a lot of what Advertising.com [a division of AOL] does via paid performance, ad networks that are highly scalable, machine-driven, automated and everything in the ad tech world. On the other hand, we are creating highly premium, customized and amazing experiences for advertisers building their brands.

What are your biggest challenges?

Kugel: We have a lot of competing stakeholders because AOL is a large organization. We serve everybody in the organization—sales, brands, products, the board of directors and executive management—so prioritizing projects and initiatives takes an inordinate amount of our time. We want to make sure we’re deploying our resources appropriately.

Programmatic ad buying is a hot topic. What are you seeing in that area?

Kugel: It’s a sweet spot for Advertising.com. The nature of consumer buying cycles tends to color how an advertiser uses programmatic vs. premium display, branded content or something else. If consumers have a product with a longer purchase cycle like cell phones and cars, programmatic is really important. If they know, for example, that their car is coming off lease in the next month, they’re ready to gear up in terms of researching for the next vehicle they want next—and that’s the active consideration phase.

Performance-oriented and programmatic advertising can be really effective at that part of the purchase process. Programmatic is great for driving specific actions, even on third-party sites like AOL Autos. And deploying things like retargeting is amazingly beneficial because being able to retarget those individuals across ad networks is another way to engage them.

Have you used eMarketer to inform AOL’s perspective on programmatic?

Kugel: We’ve certainly used eMarketer data around programmatic to inform trends specifically around industry categories. For example, how is CPG [consumer packaged goods] adopting programmatic vs. retail? As we’re packaging solutions, it’s really important for us to be aligned with the trends taking place. eMarketer data has served as an input to determine how we need to emphasize or de-emphasize programmatic based on the amount of programmatic dollars flowing into each industry.

How has eMarketer helped inform your thinking and research approach?

Kugel: For primary research, part of our process is to understand what currently exists. eMarketer is an important source in that process because it does such a great job of collecting so much information from such a wide variety of sources. If someone in the industry has covered the topic, the likelihood of eMarketer addressing it is pretty high.

We also use a couple of other resources to inform what we know and to address unanswered questions for a particular initiative. Sometimes someone has a specific or a quick question, and that probably accounts for the bulk of eMarketer’s use within AOL.

For my team in particular, eMarketer does a really good job of providing a background knowledge base when we’re going into any sort of primary research. eMarketer is one of a handful of resources that help us. The others are Forrester [Research], Warc and academic journals. And sometimes we access specific category-focused data sets as well.

Why is it important to make eMarketer information available to everyone at AOL?

Kugel: We really like to democratize access to data when it’s appropriate. There are certain resources we don’t do that for because either they’re highly technical or it creates the need for a ton of training. I’ve been a long-term eMarketer subscriber since 1999, when I was at Starcom.

As eMarketer’s system has expanded, the data sets have broadened, and the user interface has become much more user-friendly. So we were perfectly comfortable broadening access to eMarketer among our constituents. That’s why we wanted to ensure we had an enterprise-level agreement and in fact, we did a multiyear deal with eMarketer.

The ability for people to do a couple of searches and find the answers they’re looking for is a real benefit because a lot of times the turnarounds are really quick. We like our stakeholders to have direct access to information. And the nice thing about eMarketer information is that it’s packaged in a way that prevents a lot of misuse and misinterpretation. The packaging of the information is digestible and clear.

We also have people on the team who our stakeholders can turn to. For example, we have strategic sales categories like finance, autos, retail, and so forth. I’ve got two analysts supporting each category, so every salesperson who calls on a retailer has two people they can contact anytime they need help doing primary research or answering a question.

That’s a service we provide, and I don’t see any other way of doing that. However, there are certain things they don’t need to call us for because it’s a simple question and the answer probably exists within eMarketer or perhaps one of the other resources we subscribe to.

What makes eMarketer unique in the research marketplace?

Kugel: The large number of sources is unique and a benefit because it obviously saves a tremendous amount of time. You guys do the work of aggregating a lot of that stuff. The way it’s packaged and the user interface make it really easy for users who don’t spend all day doing this stuff to get quick answers to questions that come up quite frequently.

The focus on the breadth of material available, rather than the depth, is something that differentiates eMarketer because most syndicated research services tend to focus on one or two things. It’s very quick and easy to use eMarketer to get a lot of data from a lot of different resources aggregated in one place. And so by casting a wide net, it provides a really unique offering.

What do you like best about eMarketer?

Kugel: The user interface and the ease of getting at information. The nice thing about the user interface is it allows for a few different ways to navigate and ultimately, to find what it is you’re looking for. The fact that you guys do it well is not lost on me. I’m impressed with what you’ve done. Clearly there’s been some really extensive thought and, I would imagine, refinement and testing that has been going into the user interface.

As a user, I find eMarketer one of the easier systems to navigate. And I think that’s really important when you’re talking about end-users who don’t have a highly technical skill set or even a research or information sciences sort of background. Having an intuitive interface, something people can sort of pick up naturally and navigate themselves without a real training session, is a difficult thing to do. I find the intuitive user interface to be a pretty elegant solution—it certainly played into our decision to go enterprise with eMarketer.

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Christian Kugel

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“I find the intuitive user interface to be a pretty elegant solution — it certainly played into our decision to go enterprise with eMarketer.”

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