You have been vice president of the GfK Verein since 2017 – now you have been nominated as president. Which challenges do you think lie ahead for the GfK Verein?
Manfred Scheske: We see that market research is going through a phase of significant and accelerating changes, both as a sales discipline and as an industry. Methodology, data generation, data collection and data processing as well as the analysis and evaluation of market data – everything is being put to the test. This means, of course, that value principles and value-adding elements of market research are being challenged or redefined outside of established paradigms.
These are highly dynamic changes for the GfK Verein in terms of its main purpose, which is not commercial but rather geared to providing science and its practical applications with new and useful insights at an international level. In addition to research, however, we also have to live up to our role as the majority shareholder of GfK SE. We guide and support the company alongside co-shareholder KKR not only to survive in the economic environment but also develop a leading global profile with new forward-looking services. As you can see, there are considerable challenges that have made the GfK Verein revise and adjust its strategic orientation
You talk about revising the strategy – what personal and strategic goals would you like to implement?
Manfred Scheske: There are three major focus areas. When I think of the GfK Verein’s target groups, then we want to be even more open and also more collaborative at the same time, i.e., we will be offering different levels of interaction intensity.
In our research strategy and work, we have to put ourselves at the frontline of current changes even more than before in the area of methodology, technology, consumer behavior and market decisions. Because we should not only describe the paradigm shift but also be a part of it and experience it on an intellectual level. It is important to me that we create new, relevant levels of knowledge through our research and bring them into the global dialogue. Of course, this can only be done through a strong international network with other “thought leaders” and “think tanks” that work in disciplines that are relevant for us.
In addition to our work as a think tank, we naturally give top priority to our shareholding in GfK SE, which is also used to finance our activities. In this respect, we must do everything we can to secure the value and profitability of GfK SE in the long term and support the company during its new and future orientation phase.
Your sights are firmly set on the future – do you want to make a clean break with our past?
Manfred Scheske: No, not at all. I believe that if you look to the past too much, you can miss out on the future (laughs). But often the past also provides a solid basis for the future. While it’s true that the discipline of market research and the market research industry are undergoing a phase of radical changes, the core values of our mission and our vision have not changed. Wilhelm Vershofen called it “make the consumer’s voice heard.” And I see it this way: Listening to consumers is also part of the fundamental democratic principle of modern marketing. Proceeding to make this insight the foundation of business decisions is what we call today in marketing “making consumers’ voices count.” And this builds on our very own history – this is pretty timeless!
However, GfK’s history is also very strongly influenced by significant economic events. Market research and relevant information lead to clarity, truth, transparency and quick decision-making. These are all essential elements of a competitive economy, which was largely shaped in Germany by the father of the social market economy, Ludwig Erhard, cofounder of the GfK Verein. We still feel absolutely committed to him and the market economy concept. Let me put it this way: Consumption and consumer-based decisions and the resulting economic momentum were and will remain the heart and soul of our endeavors.
“LISTENING TO CONSUMERS IS ALSO PART OF THE FUNDAMENTAL DEMOCRATIC PRINCIPLE OF MODERN MARKETING.”
The GfK Verein currently has close to 530 members – do you want to increase this number? Who would you like to have as new members?
Manfred Scheske: Of course, we also want to increase the number of members in the long term, but that is not a priority at the moment. It is more important that we rethink the quality of interaction with our members and the professional community and create more room for dialogue. We are thinking about introducing two new levels of interaction. One idea is to introduce something like an “associate” membership. This offer could be aimed especially at young people, students and young professionals who are looking for direct exchange and dialogue without committing to a full membership. A “Fellows” level would also be possible. By this, we mean select individuals who are particularly interested and committed to research topics of the Verein and therefore want to and are able to contribute intellectual or creative input.
But of course, we do not want to and will not lose sight of the interests of our members but rather include them in our research strategy. Our goal is to fulfill our role in the transfer of knowledge between science and practical application in the best way possible. At the end of the day, we want to be a point of reference for the expert community interested in market insights.
“AT THE END OF THE DAY, WE WANT TO BE A POINT OF REFERENCE FOR THE EXPERT COMMUNITY INTERESTED IN MARKET INSIGHTS.”
By when do you want these target group and member goals to come to fruition?
Manfred Scheske: These are all plans for the next one to two years. We are in the planning phase and implementing things step by step – please have a little patience with us in this regard.
Mr. Scheske, you have been an active member of committees of the GfK Verein for over 20 years. How did you come to the GfK Verein?
Manfred Scheske: Peter Zühlsdorff approached me at the beginning of the 90s and suggested that I become a member of the GfK Verein’s Advisory Board. I had already worked with him on various committees and associations, and at that time I was the CEO of Lingner + Fischer (now known as GSK Consumer Healthcare). I then lived in the U.S. for six years – during this time, I was not involved with GfK. In 2004, I returned to Europe and got involved with the GfK Verein again, first as a member of the Advisory Board, and later also on the Members’ Council and on the Executive Board starting last year.
Let’s take a brief look back at your professional history: What is the biggest milestone you have reached in your career? What are you proud of?
Manfred Scheske: In this regard, I consider myself lucky, because I have so many wonderful and different kinds of milestones to choose from! One, for example, was when the Lingner + Fischer team, which I managed for around ten years, was awarded the German Marketing Prize in 1998. And during my time as president of the North American operations of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), I was also very fortunate. At that time, we established an entirely new market with nicotine replacement products, which generated annual sales of over half a billion U.S. dollars for GSK. However, it wasn't just about the sales potential – it felt particularly good to know that I had made a tangible contribution to the decline in smoking-related mortality in the U.S. Back in Europe, I have particularly strong memories of the very first central European approval procedure for an over-the-counter drug (approval for all EU Member States), of which there are still only a handful to this day. As head of European operations, not only was I responsible for getting this drug through these regulatory authorities but also for introducing it simultaneously in all European countries. That was my first sales/launch conference with simultaneous translation into 15 languages. But I am especially proud of the last eight years, which I have spent with infirst Healthcare. It is a small, privately financed start-up based in London, where we develop products and drugs that I believe and hope we will hear a lot more about in the future.
What (or which qualities) has helped you along the way to attaining manager positions? What advice would you give to young professionals just starting out?
Manfred Scheske: I have always taken the consumer extremely seriously, listened very carefully and watched closely – however, I have also made sure that what I am observing is sufficiently future-oriented and not a reflection of the past. At the same time, I have always specifically made sure that developments offer added value or increased efficiency for the consumer. Admittedly, I have been and continue to be tirelessly driven by innovation in this regard. For me, good marketing still begins with product management. It’s a pity that many brand management techniques often lead to compromises in new product development that are accepted as long as such me-too products fit under the brand umbrella somehow.
As far as the younger generation is concerned, I would like to give them the advice: See your career as a journey – a journey that you love, even if it is often tiring. If you focus too much on the goal or are only enamored of your career path, viewing the work itself and the path toward your goal as mere necessary evils, sooner or later, you will experience a rude awakening.