Matt Houltham is CMO at Glow, a research platform with the purpose of using research to raise awareness and understanding of how a company’s ESG-related policies and actions affect consumer sentiment and commercial performance. Matt and David discuss insights, politics, ESG in the agency sector and the importance of business and consumers to shaping the agenda.
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Okay, welcome to Managing Marketing, a weekly podcast where we discuss the issues and opportunities facing marketing, media, and advertising with industry thought leaders and practitioners.
And today, I’m sitting down with Matt Houltham who is currently CMO at Glow, which is described on your website, Matt, as a best-in-class online research platform that enables better decision making fast with direct access to over a hundred million consumers and 6 million businesses worldwide, which is an impressive way to start. Welcome, Matt, and thanks very much for joining me.
Thank you. Lovely to be here, and thanks for making the time.
You’re welcome. Let’s start by talking about Glow. It’s something that I can see is gaining traction in Australia, both just by researching you and by talking to you. And my brief intro there didn’t even scratch the surface. So, could you just describe the proposition and purpose of Glow for anyone not yet aware?
Sure. So, we’re a research technology business. So, I think as you read on the website, we make it easier, faster, and more affordable for businesses of all sizes to conduct market research so they can make better business decisions.
So, that means everything from figuring out whether there is an opportunity by sizing up a new market or doing concept testing before you launch a product through to things like brand tracking or understanding shopper behaviour, or assessing advertising effectiveness, or even helping agencies figure out who the audiences are for new business pitches. All of those things are use cases for Glow.
So, it’s got quite a span of uses. And as a result of that, it’s used by a range of different companies. So, we have management consultants like PWC and Bain who use us, consumer goods companies like Reckitt, ad agencies like Leo Burnett or Atomic 212 or the Havas Group.
And then market research agencies themselves use us as the software platform that powers their own services. So, it’s quite a span of capabilities and for people who are more interested in the research space, it’s kind of like Google surveys or SurveyMonkey on steroids, a little bit more sophisticated, or a back version of the 500-pound Gorilla that is Qualtrics, if you’re more familiar with the high-end enterprise side of things.
So, that’s the business. It’s been around for a while. It’s a wonderful startup success story. Been around seven years, probably found its product-market two years ago and has been growing really quickly ever since.
And I think, again, from our conversations and from what I’ve read, there’s a purpose behind this business and we’ll come and talk about that in a bit more detail in a few minutes time. But before we do, just talk about you a bit, because I had a sneak look at your LinkedIn profile, but we know each other fairly well.
But a sneak look at your LinkedIn profile shows that you’ve had a long history in agencies; agencies just came up there as part of your one of the prongs of Glow’s business customers. But Glow is clearly a different type of business. How have you found the transition? You know, why did you decide to join Glow and what excites you about the challenge?
Indeed, David; we have had the pleasure of working together for a while at Havas and dealing with you and your consultancy guys over the years as well. So, yeah, I was a long-time agency guy over 20 years in agencies running media and digital and integrated agencies in Australia in the UK and the US. Loved it, have had a wonderful time in the advertising environment.
But one of the things I’ve always really enjoyed as part of that has been working with a number of startups over the years because the value in that is really applying a broad range of skills to help them grow much more quickly. And as many people have, I kind of left agency land in 2020. And when I did that, I had decided that I was going to go and do some consulting for a while and reflect on what I wanted to do next.
And the thought was really that I would probably carry on doing consulting and advisory, which is what I’d been doing for a while, and make that more of a next step. But as it turned out, Glow needed some part-time help in the marketing capacity because their marketing guy had left and I was already on the advisory board for Glow at that point in time.
I’d been involved in the business for a year or so. And that had happened because I was a customer using it at various agencies. So, when I sat down with the Glow team and I was filling in for them, I ended up having some long conversations with Tim who’s the founder about his global aspirations and what they were trying to achieve.
And both the scale of what they hoped for was really interesting, but also the fact that they were launching this new product called Catalyst which we’ll talk about undoubtedly in a minute. It’s all about measuring social and environmental issues. And it was something that got me really excited because they were a research business with a really strong sense of purpose, which is not something I’d seen before.
And they were really focused on trying to develop these products to help businesses do a little bit better without being judgmental about where they’re at, but to help them to think a little bit more broadly than pure profit.
And so, I think the product itself that Glow has is fabulous, and the biggest challenge they’ve got is this … that nobody’s heard of it. So, it was a best kept secret kind of situation. So, the product was what got me interested, but I think it was the purpose that got me across the line.
Well, let’s talk about that. I mentioned purpose, you mentioned … it’s almost like you’ve prepared for this interview. But I think ESG is really interesting — I’m really interested to focus on environmental, social, and corporate governments. You know, it’s a topic that’s been around for a long time in various guises, but I think it’s seen increased traction in more recent times.
And you just mentioned Catalyst and as I understand it and correct me where I’m wrong; the focus of Catalyst is understanding from a consumer perspective, the pressing issues, the cause and effect, who should take responsibility and what do they want to see from the businesses they support. And I know the research programs tend to be tailored to individual partners, but can you identify, can you talk about that a bit more and identify any core trends or insight from the work that you’ve undertaken with various organisations?
Yeah, sure. So, I think you captured it well, but I guess taking a step back, it’s a slightly different type of research because it’s what we call an open-source research program. So, it basically means that members of the community who just sign up to subscribe to the research for free are able to submit their own questions about the issues that we’re addressing as well. So, everyone can contribute to the line of questioning and the content and the insights that we get.
But we do have commercial partners who more actively get involved in helping to promote the program. But as you said, it is a program that measures consumer perception of the social and environmental issues that we face today. So, it works by tracking over 30 issues every single month.
So, it spans everything from COVID to homelessness, to gender equality or inequality from an issue perspective, diversity and inclusion, climate change, packaging waste; a range of things that are fundamental concerns that we have identified that the broader population has. And we look at how those issues and sentiments towards those issues are tracked over time. So, it’s effectively providing a little bit of an anxiety monitor for the Australian public.
And then critically, what we do is we dig into those issues month on month to understand how people are currently behaving, what they expect of businesses to help to address some of those issues. And what kind of programs could help consumers to change their behaviour to support overcoming those issues as well.
So, the reason that we’ve developed it is to try and help businesses that don’t necessarily have an understanding of what consumers want them to do. So, a key part of it is to not only talk about what the broad population is worried about but what is it that they expect businesses to do to help because that’s really what it’s all about; helping to influence ESG and CSR strategies at a business level so that they can make a difference.
So, it’s been going for about six months, we’ve captured well over 15,000 responses from a range of a nationally representative consumer panels over the course of that time. And I guess we’ve dug into so many issues, it’s quite hard to distill it down for a session like today. But there is a wealth of data there for anyone who’s interested, they can simply reach out to me or firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll share some of that data with you.
But I think some of the things that are important to businesses that we’ve seen really being elevated over the last six months are things like cost-of-living, affordability of housing, mental well-being, things that have some knock-on effects from COVID, but there are also things that businesses can if they think a little bit more broadly about their remit start to play a role and impact. And then we’ve got things like climate change as well, which is obviously a fundamental issue.
I think one of the areas that have been most useful, and maybe this is where I can be a little bit more specific, is that when you start to look at the issues that consumers expect businesses to address, there are some very significant differences, depending on what type of business you are.
So, if you’re an FMCG brand, for example, there’s a very strong expectation from the public that you should be doing your bit to address plastic and packaging waste, and ethical sourcing in your pipeline. If you are an airline, you’re expected to really lean into supporting carbon offsetting and climate change solutions and air pollution. If you are social media, you need to be doing a hell of a lot more than you are to stem the spread of misinformation and to support mental well-being.
And so, there’s some really strong direction from consumers saying, I will spend more money with the type of businesses who lean in and help with some of these issues. And I think that’s really what we are trying to do, is to help shine a light on the expectations that consumers have, so that businesses can be a little bit more informed when they’re building their strategies to make sure that they are reflective of what their customers really want, as well as what their own internal machinations would suggest are important.
So, that’s, I guess the program at a high level. And one of the things that I did just want to say today because we’re really excited about it, is that we are about to launch a new product that’s come out of this research, which has emerged from all the conversations we’ve been having with businesses about Catalyst where they’ve said, “This is great, and you’re giving me some good, broad direction about what I should do as a business in a certain industry. But can you tell me what consumers actually think of my performance as a brand and as a company and am I doing okay? And if I’m not, where should I focus? And if I am, how do I make the most of that?”
And so, we’ve created something which is an ESG brand tracker and it uses a metric called social responsibility score, which we’ve created that enables brands to get a single score metric of how well they’re doing, that they can compare across industries and across time and across competitors. So, they have a really clear sense of how well consumers think they’re doing or how badly they think they’re doing.
And either obviously, stimulates some actions. So, it’s kind of like a net promoter score for the ESG space. And it’s something that we think is pretty unique. We’ve spent a lot of time in the last 12 months benchmarking it and validating it against all sorts of measures of brand health and revenue growth. And we’re about to put that into the market now in the next month or so.
So, we think that’s going to be the next level kind of support for businesses who are trying to do a little bit better in the space.
I was going to ask you about the reaction of your customers, of these businesses to some of the home truths that you are giving them. But I think, I mean, having just listened to you there, I need to wait another six months or whenever they.… you’ve just described it, you’re really now zeroing in on individual businesses for those that want this kind of light shone on their SRS performance.
Do you think there’re going to be some hard truths or any surprises they’re going to have to swallow or take on board?
I think there are going to be some hard truths for many brands, but the reality is any listed company in any large corporate or any business with a sense of responsibility is already developing its ESG approach. And this is just another important way to measure whether or not that is having the impact you desire.
So, I think some businesses may want to bury their head in the sand and just commit to an ESG framework. But if they’re not measuring its impact, then they are missing the opportunity to take advantage of it. And I think what this does is it sets a baseline and the beauty is no matter where you are, you can get better and it’s more than just your score.
It’s a diagnostic set of 13 drivers that enable you to understand where you’re actually doing well or where you can improve. And it’s all relative to consumer expectations set at an industry level and then compared against your competitors. Because the reality is no matter whether or not you think you’re doing well, if your competitor is perceived as much better, then they’re the one who’s going to get the money at the point of purchase.
And that’s what we’ve seen through the analysis that we’ve been doing, is that the kind of switching behaviour that’s already occurring is very much driven by the rising tide of consumer expectation about what’s an acceptable practice, but also, how they perceive you relative to the competitive set.
I mean, hard truths can be good truths obviously, and that’s where the insight is. And I think it’s really encouraging that … I’m not sure if it was the genesis of this new launch, but you’ve had businesses coming back to you and literally asking for it essentially, is what you said.
So, that’s a really positive sign generally. They want to hear, right? They want to hear the good, the bad, and the ugly and they want to really drill down. So, it’s such an important issue.
I think you’re absolutely right. And I think the case study that I can talk about publicly already is that we’ve done a lot of work with Mondelez over the course of the last couple of months. And we’ve been measuring Cadbury against its competitors. And they’re in a fortunate position in that consumers think they’re doing a pretty good job.
So, I think that’s the exciting bit, is that once you know where you’re at, it’s actually fairly easy to measure your progress and to at least sense-check what you’re already committed to against its impact on where you’re trying to go.
And of course, that raises the attention of the rest of the C-suite, right? If essentially, you’re drawing a line to commercial results of whatever kind, whether it’s just sales or whatever, that’s incredibly valuable.
Absolutely. And I think one of the things that has been really important is to prove that what we’re measuring is not just vanity metrics. So, we’ve done a lot of work to show that it influences willingness to pay a premium, that it influences trust, and is related to net promoter score, and importantly, is aligned with revenue growth as well.
So, we just did a large piece of analysis with over a trillion dollars’ worth of US home scan data through our partner Nielsen and it showed that there’s a significant relationship between revenue growth and social responsibility score. So, the businesses that are growing most strongly tended to have the higher scores.
So, there are some good early signals in our analysis. Obviously, it’s not longitudinal yet. But early signals in our analysis that it is a really important business metric to have a handle on as well.
I call that a win-win because it pushes ESG much further up the radar than perhaps could have been. And like you say, it’s not just vanity, it’s not just doing the right thing. It’s actually helping to drive a business.
Yeah. And I think that’s an absolutely critical point. We want this to be a benchmark that CEOs are looking at and saying, “Hey, what’s our social responsibility score? And how’s that improving with our ESG strategy? And we want the marketing team to be using it as just another tracker of brand health and performance.”
Let’s go a bit closer, let’s shift gears a little bit. We’ll go a bit closer to home. We’ve both had a history in agencies. Let’s talk a bit about ESG and the agency industry. Over the last 12 to 18 months, I think there’ve been some announcements from the global players and notably WPP, but not just WPP, about commitment to working with ethical organisations, about initiatives they’ve launched themselves to get stronger from an ESG perspective and basically, pledging to ditch clients operating in categories or with methods that don’t comply.
I mean, I’ve not in my career seen anything that strident from the industry. What’s your take on that? How genuine is that, do you think, and have the actions taken so far backed up the words? What would you like to see more of from the agency industry more broadly in this space?
Goodness, that’s a big question, isn’t it?
Yeah, well, I mean, we’re aiming not to get sued here, so it’s obviously all constructive and objective. But the industry is making more noise, but of course, the action has to follow. So, I think it’s interesting to get your view.
Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right, and I think it’s fabulous that the industry is making a lot of noise and it’s making a lot of noise across all sorts of areas of ESG. Because obviously, ESG is a very broad framework, environmental, social, and governance.
So, it covers everything from a lot of the conversations that we see around climate, diversity, equity and inclusion. The kind of community impact and supply chain and transparency and all sorts of things.
So, making significant change is often really difficult because it impacts all different parts of a business from its structure through its talent, through its supply chain, and beyond. So, I guess from my perspective, the first point I should say is I think it’s fabulous to see so many agencies out there talking up their aspirations and their plans and their commitment to making some positive change.
And you mentioned WPP, I know there’s been versions of similar kinds of proclamations from Publicis and Havas, and many of the other holding groups. And I think also, there’s a lot of smaller agencies, especially in Australia who are really well-advanced in some of these areas. But I think at least if you look at the big holding companies, it’s probably still a little bit too early to see whether the rubber is going to hit the road on this one.
And I love your comment that let’s see whether some of these agencies keep the clients that are not necessarily operating in the most appropriate way in this space. But WPP has come out and effectively with their net-zero program, held, I guess, the production and media partners that they work with to ransom a little bit on this, because they’re saying, hey, unless you are adhering to these goals and getting on board with them, then you’re not going to be on the roster.
And I think that’s great to force change, but I think we need to see some choices from them to prove that they’re really committed to this, so they’re not applying double standards. So, WPP has BP and Exxon and Shell, and their carbon footprint is far greater than the benefits that WPP’s proposed program is going to deliver.
So, we kind of need to see that action that you’ve talked about and let’s see them drop some clients or put some lines in the sand around what they expect with their clients, as well as their suppliers. So, maybe we’ll see more of that this year.
We’ll see. I mean very diplomatically put as I would expect, but you’re absolutely right that it’s … I think it’s got to start somewhere. And so, they should rightly be applauded for being public about it. I think it does need to be backed up a little bit and we’ll see whether or not that happens.
Yeah, and I think hopefully, I mentioned there’s probably much more progressive smaller agencies or some parts of the holding companies are already kind of getting ahead of the curve. And I think with them doing that, then that’s going to hopefully motivate some clients to make some choices on the basis of progressiveness that force the holding companies to see through some of these promises.
I think there are little businesses like Benedictus Media who won the Comms Declare Award who are a B-corps, really…
B-corps certified, of course, yeah.
Pushing the envelope here and even bigger agencies like RGA and Leo Burnett who are championing their environmental transparency as well, and good on them for getting out there and stating their claims and putting it out there in public because it’s that kind of attitude, I think, that’s going to force faster change.
Phil Benedictus was an early adopter. He started out as B-corps certified and was ahead of the curve and that’s been great to see. And yeah, you’re right, more agencies are now following particularly the smaller ones who can make decisions more quickly. And I know there are agencies out there who are completely dedicated, and they started their life like that, so they have the heritage of having Shell as a client. So, that’s great to see.
Yeah. And I think it’s got to be the balancing act, hasn’t it? I think a lot of the very small agencies who’ve set up as B-corps are unfortunately going to work with probably smaller clients whose potential impact is less than some of the massive multinationals who we would hope can shuffle closer to doing the right thing.
Well, every little help — to borrow Tesco’s slogan from the UK; probably not a good example. I’m not sure how net-zero Tesco actually is, but anyway. Okay, let’s talk…
Well, it’s good to see our supermarkets here going so hard out on being sustainable. So, Coles statement, they want to be the most sustainable supermarket. I think that’s fabulous because again, that’s going to put pressure on all of the businesses who sell through them.
Of course, that’s massive. Coles have massive power in that as do Woolworths.
Let’s talk a bit about the challenges. The definition of ESG is I think becoming broader as time goes on and it’s clear that we don’t have a magic wand here, none of the constituent parts of an ESG policy can be solved tomorrow, but as awareness continues to grow, are there any areas you feel are particularly challenging or should have more focus politically? Either from the corporates or from a consumer perspective?
I think there’s a lot to do in lots of areas. But for me personally, I guess the one that is just glaringly obvious and probably still top of mind on the back of COP26, was that the Aussie government isn’t doing anything fast enough to support the kind of climate change initiatives that we really need.
So, without the government acting as fast as it needs to, I think there’s a dependence on us as individuals to do everything we can, but also, on business to support there and to be really driving the change that we want to see. So, I think for me, business is helping in all of those areas around climate, and carbon offsetting is fundamental and relatively easy in the sense that there are lots of ways to get involved in that now and do your bit. So, I think that’s a key one for businesses.
I think interesting, at an industry level, I think the marketing and kind of advertising and research industry, which is a classification we’ve used in some of our analyses has got a lot of work to do. I think certainly when I started out in advertising, I saw it as a really progressive industry and one that was at the forefront of cultural change.
That’s certainly not the way it’s seen by consumers now. Our analysis of 30 looking at which ones were deemed to be the most socially and environmentally advanced and progressive and considered in their actions, shows that the advertising sector is like the ninth-worst. So, we’re way down there with alcohol manufacturers and property developers and real estate agents.
And so, there’s a lot of conversation going on in the trade media now about how do we attract the right talent into the industry and how do we demonstrate the diversity and appropriate representation. I think we’ve got a lot to work against if that’s how the public sees us. So, I think that’s a big challenge for the industry.
Yeah, I think that it’s always been a big challenge. And there’s no easy answer, but you were touching on broader issues, diversity of representation. I mean, that’s a broader issue again. And I know people are working on it and let’s hope it continues. But I think it’s fascinating that basically outlined … I mean, I asked you about challenges and you sort of brought up the government, the way the government is reacting and that’s a fascinating tangent, isn’t it?
Because what’s going to make a government react differently? Well, it’s going to be big business and it’s going to be consumers who have the vote pulling in a different direction. So, it’s all completely interlinked. But I agree with you, it would be fantastic to see some more productivity and some more bravery, frankly from the government.
Yeah, and I think it’s unrealistic probably to expect that with the current government, but it is what it is. We can keep waving the flag for action and hopefully, they’ll take notice. I think you’re right though, businesses are going to be the ones that drive the biggest amount of change. And I think that’s where there’s still a lot of opportunities.
I think the other thing that we are seeing in our analysis is that there’s a reluctance sometimes from brands to stand up and talk about what they’re doing because they are concerned about a backlash through people identifying the negative stuff that still happens because “I don’t want to talk about my supply chain advancements if people are still seeing my plastic packaging washing up on the beach in Indonesia.”
And I think that’s a valid concern, but I think that comes from a kind of corporate comms risk management, philosophical approach. And I think we need to see a little bit more marketing going into some of these conversations to prove that there’s a lot of good stuff that we’re doing and bear with us as we get better.
Because our analysis shows that whilst most businesses seem to be concerned about green-washing as they should be, it appears that for many, the opposite is true. So, they’re kind of green whispering. Nobody knows all the good stuff they’re doing. And if they don’t know, then they can’t choose you over the competition.
But you’re also touching on truth and honesty in marketing more broadly. It shouldn’t be green whispering, it also shouldn’t be green-washing. But this whole concept of look, we’re doing this, we’re doing this, we’ve got a plan, bear with us. We know we’re not perfect, but we’re genuinely wanting to get there; we’ve seen it. It can be a really powerful marketing message in all sorts of ways, but it requires courage and bravery and investment and commitment.
Yeah, and I think honesty and transparency and all of those things…
And everything else. Everything else, going to perfect marketing….
Yeah, and a willingness to be kicked a little bit on the way through. But that’s what will make it fun and that’s what’ll make a difference.
Well, that sort of brings us full circle because I think that’s what makes a difference, is clear the purpose, to me — at least, the purpose of Glow is rooted in raising awareness and making a difference, creating change. So, fast forward five years, what to you would represent success for Glow? Not just commercially, but in terms of the broader purpose that we’ve been talking about for the past half an hour.
Yeah, I think there’s a kind of a scale, very operationally. There’s a scale play for us. We’re currently about 30 employees. We want to have a couple of hundred, we’re opening an office in the US in the next month or so. So, we want to make sure that we’ve got a footprint in the US as well as the UK, Hong Kong and Australia where we currently are and have scaled the business.
But more importantly, I think kind of philosophically, we want to be globally recognised as the insights leader for courageous businesses who are wanting to do better. And we want our social responsibility score to be the benchmark by which they assess what consumers think of what they’re doing.
So, if we can achieve that, then we will have won in terms of our own business success, but we will have hopefully, made a difference to hundreds of businesses around the world as well.
Alright. So, one final question — and I always, I deliberately don’t have this plan. I sort of listen as I go through and work it out. But I think I’d love to know from a global perspective, and particularly from a Catalyst and an SRS perspective, who would you love to tackle that is not on your books? Who would be your dream client? Here are the truths about what your consumers think of you.
I think that’s a good one because there’re about 10 brands running around in my head. I think the dream client is not … and I immediately went to the ones who are already doing well, but I don’t think the dream client is the ones who already score well, it’s the ones who are on the journey to better.
That’s what I would want.
Personally, my dream client would be Adidas to get them involved because one, I’m obsessed with trainers and I love Adidas. But two, I think they’ve been quite progressive in what they’re doing with a whole lot of material work and supply chain stuff, but there are also loads of things that they still need to do better. And there’s some sweatshop baggage, I think from the whole industry that they’re probably tarnished by.
So, I think a brand like that would be a great one to have on board as part of the journey to show how they are making changes and how that’s being impacted and seeing that reflected through the perspectives of consumers.
Well, the global CEO of Adidas, I’m sure is listening and you will get an email from me, whoever she or he is. We’ll see if we can make that happen.
I don’t know, I’ll need to look it up afterwards.
I’ll need to look it up. But meanwhile, look, it’s been great talking to you, mate. Thanks again for your time and probably one of the deepest conversations I’ve had on this podcast in terms of really scratching at the surface of some big issues, not just for marketing, but for society as a whole. So, I wish you all the best with Glow and with your upcoming launch. And no doubt, we’ll speak again soon.
Thank you very much for the airtime. I really appreciate it. It’s been great to have a chat about what we’re up to.
Ideal for marketers, advertisers, media, and commercial communications professionals, Managing Marketing is a podcast hosted by Darren Woolley and special guests. Find all the episodes here