Interview with Dr. Andreas Neus


Dr. Neus, five years ago, you took over as the head of the international university program at the GfK Verein and afterwards, you launched projects for the future of market research. This year, you will be assuming the position of managing director of the GfK Verein. What do you find exciting about the role?

Dr. Andreas Neus: What I find exciting is the special structure of the GfK Verein that has its roots in history – in other words, the duality of the role: On the one hand, we serve as a think tank for market research and on the other hand, we serve as the majority shareholder of GfK SE. This situation gives us a unique opportunity to have a clear perspective on the needs of today’s customers. At the same time, it allows us to look ahead five to ten years into the future in order to analyze technical developments and their potential effects, thereby creating a “radar” for structural changes in a market. In the area of disruptive digital transformation, it has been shown that you have to keep a close eye on both aspects.

In addition, the important function of the GfK Verein as the majority shareholder of GfK SE is an exciting issue that demands a high level of responsibility: Surely, the most important task is to support the transformation of GfK SE in a meaningful way, i.e., as a good sparring partner in terms of content.

As the managing director, you will have many different tasks. Are there tasks that you are particularly looking forward to? 

Dr. Andreas Neus: There’s a whole bunch of them (laughs)! For example, I am especially looking forward to deepening the exchange of expertise between our members – in workshops, talks and other formats. My idea is to also invite young scientists, start-up founders and young professionals in the field of marketing to meet with us. I am convinced that this will allow us to prioritize the most relevant questions for the future of market research even better and establish an even broader basis for dialogue. Because one thing is clear: Science and practical application – both for established companies and for start-ups – can and should learn from each other. Supporting this transfer of knowledge and enriching it with our own insights is one of the core tasks of the GfK Verein.

What priorities do you want to set in your new role?

Dr. Andreas Neus: The GfK Verein is currently working on implementing its new strategy, which includes a number of other points in addition to interdisciplinary research. But the first objective will be to convert this strategy, which has been approved by the Executive Board of the GfK Verein and will be presented to the General Assembly by Manfred Scheske in July 2018, into a plan and prioritize our activities accordingly. 

That sounds like a realignment – how will this change the research work of the GfK Verein?

Dr. Andreas Neus: In terms of content, an important focus will be on consumer behavior and the way decisions are made by customers as well as by marketing and product managers change and the effects that this has on market research and market insights. This will also change “how we work.” In this regard, I am a great believer in interdisciplinary and flexible project teams in order to obtain the most relevant findings in shorter cycles and with the involvement of the best external partners and ideas – the keyword here is “open innovation.” The dynamic exchange with other industries and disciplines is important at the moment in order to understand how the context in which market research operates and creates added value for its customers is changing.

To this end, we will also develop a trend radar and also look at questions that are “uncomfortable” for market research. In addition, we will develop a research map and test out from whom we can best learn about which topics and which topics we should focus on ourselves. During all this, the keyword is “testing”, because the digital transformation of market insights cannot only be understood in abstract scientific terms. New technologies, such as augmented reality, machine learning, blockchain, voice assistants, new e-payment methods, etc., really need to be put into practice in real scenarios and analyzed through experiments and prototypes to determine what does and what doesn’t work. 


Why do you believe it makes sense to rethink research approaches, interdisciplinarity and exchanging knowledge?

Because the way that successful research works has changed fundamentally in the last ten years. Actually, there are three dimensions of research that have changed.

First, the shift from specialization to interdisciplinary research.

We owe many discoveries and inventions to scientific specialization. At the same time, however, increasing specialization, with its own concepts and terminology, also means that the dialogue between different disciplines will become more difficult. Many of the questions on the future of markets and market decisions do not follow disciplinary boundaries. In fact the thing is the interaction of human decisions with information and markets. In order to understand the effects that augmented reality and machine learning will have on consumer behavior and market decision makers, we must bring together the different perspectives and ideas belonging to behavioral science, data science and research into the future and trends. 

Second, the shift from the “secret research lab” to “open innovation.”

In the past, research was done behind closed doors in a “secret lab” over many years – it was the paradigm of choice. In the meantime, the keyword “open innovation” has shown that you can achieve your goal much faster through the open exchange of ideas. The approach itself is not new: Newton called it “standing on the shoulders of giants.” Open source software and its development methods are key success factors in this process. In the area of data analysis as well as in the area of machine learning, the development speed of open solutions is usually far superior to proprietary solutions.  

Third, close exchange with start-ups and innovative companies as a “win-win.”

Another key aspect is the close relationship between scientific research and practical application. This has advantages for both sides: Practical application is supported by science through new concepts and perspectives. At the same time, practical application also challenges science to put its research results to the test in real-life scenarios and prove the practical relevance of its findings. However, there is a further advantage for science: It gains access to relevant data sets in the area of “fast & big data,” which require completely new concepts and methods of analysis and interpretation.

The in-depth exchange with start-ups also provides valuable input for innovative research approaches. Many of the exciting research topics in the area of data science, machine learning and the future of markets are handled by start-ups. This is where students apply the theoretical knowledge from university to practical situations and find completely new solutions.

All in all, these three dimensions of change in the area of data science have led to a powerful acceleration in research and development. We have already started the change in these three dimensions at the GfK Verein in the last few years and will continue to implement it rigorously as part of the new research strategy. 

You say that an interdisciplinary way of working is paramount nowadays. What does interdisciplinarity look like at the GfK Verein?

Dr. Andreas Neus: One of the real strengths of the GfK Verein is that we have colleagues with profound expertise in different subject areas. This means that we are indeed an interdisciplinary think tank in the best sense and want to harness this strength even more in the future.

Previously, the different disciplines were organizationally divided into three teams. In light of the new research strategy, we have now combined all the disciplines under one “research” team. The three professional perspectives from which we now consider our research questions are behavioral science, data science and future and trends. Also new is that each of our researchers is assigned to two of these thematic areas. This also allows them to deepen their own expertise in both disciplines. Alongside the appropriate organization of projects, this ensures that we can implement interdisciplinarity better ourselves.

Does digital transformation also play a role in the GfK Verein?

Dr. Andreas Neus: Absolutely, and a very important one, since the digital transformation is changing market research in a significant way – with regard to tools and methods, and customers’ demands for speed, quality and relevance, but also in terms of the business model.

In order for us to take an in-depth look at the relevant trends of digital transformation, we introduced a new workshop format with the “Digital Future Council” in 2016 and 2017. In addition to representatives from the GfK Verein, independent market research experts, external top experts from the areas of start-ups and digital platforms, information and decision quality, data science and predictive analytics, do-it-yourself market research, mobile networks and security take part in this two-day seminar. All of the participants work together to analyze the trends, methods, technologies and hypotheses that are particularly relevant for the future of market research and its digital transformation. Also very important in this regard is to critically examine the basic assumptions of market research and go far beyond the traditional thought patterns of market research.

Let’s take a look back for a moment: What is the biggest milestone that you have reached in your career? What are you proud of?

Dr. Andreas Neus: “Pride” is not the right word – successes always require the right team and a dash of good luck. I am happy and also thankful that I had the opportunity to gain practical experience with digital transformation fairly early on. In 1990, I set up an email and newsgroup server at the University of Bonn with computer scientists and also cofounded a start-up to support companies with their first steps online. As a result, I had to and was able to delve into the opportunities and challenges of the new communication technologies quite early – and I benefited a great deal from this.

At the end of the 90s, I was given the chance to head several innovation projects for media companies in Europe and North America in Strategy & Change Practice at IBM. That was an incredibly exciting time, and it was clear that the changes in media usage were mainly driven by the younger generation. In one project, the CEO of a major media company said to me, only half joking, that one of our biggest problems was that we didn’t have enough 13-year-olds on the board! 

Later on, from 2008, I helped set up the Service Innovation Lab of the Karlsruhe Service Research Institute at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. We investigated why innovations fail and which methods can be used to promote them. And we observed that innovations are suffocated in many companies by a sense of hierarchy that is too strong. After all, nobody knows who will come up with the revolutionary idea – the recognized “expert” or the intern? We figured out even back then that we have to create an environment in which a “bottom-up” innovation process exists alongside the typical “top-down” format, so that people with the best ideas could be found, including a small amount of room for trial and error.

Looking at the bigger picture, I am especially grateful to have been able to work on projects in various countries with very different people from whom I have learned a great deal. However, the most important lesson for me is that you have to critically examine your own assumptions about what is “feasible” or “unfeasible” in order to avoid developing tunnel vision. I have also learned that – despite my fascination for new technologies – “innovation” is first and foremost a cultural and human challenge, not a technological one. That people – and not technology – are ultimately the most important success factor for innovation is an insight that I find very positive. Sometimes it gets lost in all the hype over the latest technical toy.