Insights — An Interview with SimpsonScarborough Senior Research Analyst, Hira Siddiqui

An Interview with SimpsonScarborough Senior Research Analyst, Hira Siddiqui

SimpScar Culture / October 12, 2021
Malachi Koop
Malachi Koop
Hira Siddiqui is SimpsonScarborough's recently promoted Senior Research Analyst, overseeing everything from survey instrument design to data analysis and insights building. In her new role, she'll expand her leadership responsibilities and help mentor our growing Research & Analytics team. 
 
We sat down with her to learn about how research and analytics have evolved as SimpsonScarborough has grown, hear about some of the favorite projects she's worked on, her involvement with our people & culture committee, and what she wishes more people understood about the role and purpose of research in higher education marketing. 
 
Malachi: First off, congratulations on the promotion! I think I speak for everyone at SimpScar when I say that it is well-deserved. Why don't you start by telling us a little more about your new role and what you're looking forward to? 
 
Hira: Thank you! The most significant change is about stepping into a role that allows me to spend more time training and mentoring our new analysts. We recently hired a new junior analyst and have another one starting soon, and I'm excited to be part of the process of welcoming them into our team and really digging in and understanding where their interests lie. I feel like I'm paying it forward because I was lucky to have people do that for me as I've grown and evolved in the company.
 
Malachi: Let's dig into that a bit more. Can you give us a little background and how you first came to SimpsonScarborough? 
 
Hira: I went to the University of Richmond (UR) and double-majored in Leadership Studies and Business Administration, with a concentration in Marketing. Some of my favorite classes were studying Group Dynamics, Consumer Behavior, and Marketing Research, so looking back, it's no surprise that I am where I am now, but at the time, I was strongly torn between getting my master's in higher education and working on a college campus or pursuing a role in a marketing function.
 
I was deeply involved in working for Admissions and Advancement, but my job at the Student Center for Equity and Inclusion in particular really helped me find a passion for higher education. We served first-generation, low-income, LGBTQIA+, and multicultural students in providing community-building events and resources. As a South Asian and first-gen student on a predominantly white affluent campus, it helped me find my own sense of belonging at UR and opened my eyes to the waterfall effect of positive change that can happen from interactions on college campuses.

So anyways, graduation comes, and I'm still conflicted on what to do. Then, one day, shortly after graduation, I got an email to take a survey for the University of Richmond — from SimpsonScarborough.
 
Malachi: Ok. Lots to unpack there but I like where this is headed. 
 
Hira: Right, so I see this survey, and I'm intrigued because it's this intersection of higher education and marketing — the two things I was trying to decide between. And so I looked up the company and sent an email to Chelsea (now our AVP of Operations, but Director of Project Strategy at the time), and ... I don't hear back.
 
Malachi: Ok, Chelsea's in trouble. 
 
Hira: Yeah, my initial outreach was asking if I could chat and learn more about what SimpsonScarborough does. I later followed up with my resume and heard back from Chelsea, agreeing to a phone call. We hit it off immediately, and I became even more interested in SimpScar, but she told me that they didn't have any openings as much as she would love to work with me. A few weeks go by, and she calls me to say... "You'll never guess what we have for you."
 
Malachi: This story has so many parallels —
 
Hira: To Elizabeth's! I know! And what's funny is that I didn't actually know that until she was on the Enrollify Pod and told the story of getting her first market research job out of college, and it's like the same thing I did. So I don't know if that weighed into the decision at all, but it's so funny. Either way, I started a few weeks later — February of 2017, almost five years ago!
 
Malachi: What was your role back then? Because you didn't start in the Research division, right? 
 
Hira: Right, so I actually joined as an Assistant Project Strategist, which was a mix of everything we did from research to strategy to account and project management. I worked on client kickoffs and discovery audits, wrote survey instruments and qualitative research reports, and performed brand and competitor assessments. At that time, we were only 15 employees, so you could really get your hands dirty in developing all these different deliverables, and because you worked so closely with leadership and the partners on every project, you could just learn so much. It was honestly kind of a dream scenario for a new graduate.
 
Malachi: And how did you make the transition over to the Research team? 
 
Hira: As the agency grew, we were shifting from defining ourselves as a market research firm to a full-service marketing agency and expanding our deliverables from research through strategy and creative. As a result, my role started shifting and I realized there were certain aspects of my job that I really enjoyed more than others and was able to open a dialogue about where I wanted to focus in some honest conversations with Mere (our VP of Research) and Chelsea, who was my manager at the time.
 
Malachi: What were those things you enjoyed the most? 
 
Hira: I found the most joy in digging into survey instrument design, presenting research findings to clients, and generally managing other parts of our research projects. As the SimpScar team and deliverables expanded, I thought it might be an opportunity to specialize more, so I asked Chelsea if I could shadow our analysts to see if it was a good fit. Our qualitative research was a strategy deliverable at the time, so I had lots of experience with that side of research, but I also had some quantitative experience from college. I took the same Marketing Analysis and SPSS course at UR that Mere did 10 years earlier — the same professor and everything. And that was the specific class Mere took that made the light bulb go off in her own head that this was the work she wanted to do, so it was cool to share that connection.
 
Malachi: That's a great story. Not just you & Mere taking the same class at the same school from the same professor, but also that you were empowered to explore other areas and eventually make that transition to the Research team.
 
Hira: It really was. I'm really grateful that SimpScar supported this exploration and that I got support not just from my direct supervisor but also from the research team and the partners themselves. They allowed me to go slowly and make sure this was actually the right decision for me. And once I knew it was, and the timing made sense for the agency and our workload, I moved over, and it's been so great. I think that's one of the things that's always been great about SimpsonScarborough — once you're here, everyone wants you to succeed. They want you to grow and pursue your passions and empower you, wherever that takes you. 
 
Malachi: Ok, so Chelsea gets some redemption from earlier. Can you tell me about some of your favorite projects you've worked on? 
 
Hira: One of my favorites has been working on the replication study for the University of Richmond — the exact survey that helped me find SimpScar in the first place. Obviously, that one just means a lot. But it's also been incredible to see the impact of our work with my alma mater. For example, our research study was pivotal in getting their central marketing function appropriately funded. Eliz presented the data from our first study at their board meeting, and they immediately saw the need for a proper investment in their marketing function. It's paid dividends for them, and it's something I'm really proud to have been able to work on. 
 
After 5 years of working closely with Butler, it's hard not to call them one of my favorite clients. One of my first projects at the agency was helping to refresh Butler's brand and building brand architectures for each of their colleges. Even now, I'm currently working on a project designing a brand equity tracker, but there've been quite a few projects in between.
 
One is the project we cover in our Butler Case Study. I remember a round of applause on campus after Kristen and I presented the slide that showed a jump from 30% to 58% of alumni associating job preparation with Butler between 2014 and 2018. Following the presentation, there was a Marcom pizza party to celebrate the upward movement of many of their brand equity measures. Stephanie (Butler's AVP of Marcom) says we changed the trajectory for Butler, but I think Butler has been key to our company's trajectory as well. They're not afraid to try new things and are incredible collaborative partners; we both push each other to be better.
 
Malachi: That's so true, but that's honestly the first time I've heard it articulated that way. We always talk about the clients who let us push them outside their comfort zone, but having clients who do that back to you is special. 
 
Hira: Exactly. And honestly, there are so many great projects I've been fortunate to be a part of over the years. I could go on for a while. 
 
Malachi: What do you wish more people understood about the role of marketing in higher education? 
 
Hira: Research is a force-multiplier. It's a leverage point. Clients usually come to us with a specific issue, decision to make, misperception to tackle, or knowledge gap they want to address, but they don't always know the underlying cause of the issue.

An everyday example is when a student doesn't hand in homework or participate in class; some may think the student lacks motivation, but we know that there are many other contributing factors. Does the student have a part-time job that prevents them from studying? Do they struggle with the material but are too embarrassed to admit it or get help? It's critical to accurately identify the underlying causes that might be at play because, without a well-defined problem or objective, you're likely to end up with unfocused or less valuable data.
 
More often than not, our discovery and research processes shift our client's perspective on how they may have initially perceived the situation; it helps clarify the problem or uncover an underlying cause they may not have thought of. That's not an indictment of their talent or sophistication; it's indicative of the complex nature of higher education marketing.

But that's what's at stake when you skip research — you don't have a chance to let data inform your strategy and can end up wasting so much time and money trying to solve a problem using incorrect assumptions.
 
Malachi: How do you get at the root cause of the problem?
 
Hira: This is where great instrument development comes in. It's also why we're investing so much into our Analytics function now. We're now the Research & Analytics division at SimpsonScarborough, and that's transforming the way we're able to answer our clients' most pressing questions. Leveraging analytics helps us to develop tighter, more focused survey instruments. Talk to any researcher, and they will tell you that the key to uncovering the most actionable data is to design an instrument that is highly focused.
 
Malachi: Can you talk more about the integration of Research & Analytics?
 
Hira: The key is in how we marry the insights gained from each to make for deeper, more meaningful insights and stronger recommendations. For example, surveys can help us get a read on awareness, perceptions, and appeal while analytics can dig into actual behavior patterns. So it's bigger than just research and analytics, it sort of flows seamlessly between our digital work and media planning and back to research and analytics again. I think that's actually the most exciting thing about our growth — as we grow, our work gets smarter. 
 
Malachi: What does that look like in practice? 

Hira: A great example is how we're using analytics to help inform discovery. We joke that our discovery process goes deeper than most agencies' entire research process. Historically, the discovery process involves having a bunch of conversations with key stakeholders across an institution. Through analytics, we're able to bring some powerful data & insights into those meetings which enables those conversations to go much deeper, be much more focused, and really start to uncover the core issues. That has a waterfall effect on strengthening all of the work that follows. 
 
This happened recently with a client of ours where they believe they had problem X and thought it was caused by issue Y. They called us in to help them test their hypothesis and strategize a solution. A deep dive into their Google Analytics and a UX audit cross-referenced against their peers uncovered that the issue might be different than they initially thought and likely have other underlying causes. That process allowed those initial conversations to be much richer and allowed us to design research tools that directly addressed the underlying causes.
 
Combining analytics, primary research, and secondary research sources together allowed our team to provide strong tactical and directional recommendations that we wouldn't have been able to do if we'd only used only one form of analysis. And that's when the magic happens because now we have a better grasp on what's contributing to the problem and can leverage that research to design data-driven strategies to actually address it. That may sound like an extra step, but in reality, it saved them a bunch of time & money they would've wasted designing strategies to tackle a problem they didn't have. And I think that's the most important thing of all: that data inspires confidence. They now have a clearer idea of what their problem is and how to address it.
 
Malachi: I think that's what Eliz used to say — we don't sell research, we sell confidence. We enable the CMO to go to their board of trustees and, with 100% confidence, say: "Here's our problem, here's how we fix it, and these are the resources we need to do it."
 
Hira: Exactly. You've heard the Abe Lincoln quote about chopping down a tree? 
 
Malachi: About sharpening the axe? 
 
Hira: Exactly. Research is sharpening the axe. 

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Malachi: What about when a client has a much more direct issue? Often times it seems like the more direct an issue is, the more nuanced you have to be to answer it.
 
Hira: This happens a lot, too. Again, it just comes back to good survey design. For example, we recently worked with a client who wanted to know whether the institution should change its name. That's a difficult question for high school students to answer and potentially alarming for internal audiences to even read. Instead, we gauged positive and negative associations of the name, perceptions of if the name was seen as a strength, and measured how internal audiences may react if the name were to change. Across a series of questions and data points, we were able to provide insight into the larger question at hand of what the institution might gain or lose in changing its name as opposed to directly asking should XYZ change its name.
 
Similarly, many client higher ed peer surveys want to explicitly ask what factors influenced their voting in the US News rankings. Or have the underlying goal to answer the question of "how can we improve our rankings?" We take the same approach to those types of questions as well. 
 
Malachi: Changing gears here. You've been pretty instrumental in building our People & Culture committee and helping shape the way our agency approaches diversity, equity, and inclusion. Can you talk more about how that's evolved? 
 
Hira: After the murder of George Floyd last summer, I think we just all hit a breaking point. We didn't have many persons of color on staff back then, and we didn't really have any formal DEI initiatives. Jason opened the dialogue by sending an email to the company one afternoon posing the question "how can we do better?" Following that, a few coworkers and I had some candid conversations with leadership. And those were some really emotional conversations for everyone involved.
 
DEI was a blind spot for SimpsonScarborough like it was for a lot of organizations. I knew I needed to talk about the biases and subtle acts of exclusion that I'd experienced working here to start uncovering some of those. I remember telling them about how, before we adopted our new unlimited vacation policy that year, fellow non-Christian coworkers and I would count our religious obligations and then see how many PTO days were left after that to use for our vacations. A few of us would swap holidays, like working the 4th of July to take Eid off or Labor Day to take Yom Kippur off. There was an additional layer of figuring out how to take your holidays off while also having time to take a trip (because we all need breaks!) that those who the calendar was designed for didn't have to worry about.
 
Or how, when I first started, people used to mix up my name with another girl who started shortly after me — you might think no big deal people can be bad with names, except we were the only two girls with brown skin and the only names people would mix up regularly in a company of 15 people. It unintentionally makes you feel invisible like your individual contributions aren't seen. I hadn't shared those things with anyone at the company until those conversations last summer. But subtle acts of exclusion like that are common, even in otherwise well-meaning organizations.
 
What the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and countless others before exposed was this reality that it is not good enough to not be racist, to rely only on our good intentions. We have to be intentional with our actions and actively work to be anti-racist and inclusive. 
 
With a foundation in research, we apply a scientific method to our work—we question ideas, test hypotheses, and strategically adjust course based on learned insights, always curious about where we can improve and search for better practices. So, it was natural that, as data nerds, we applied that approach to DEI and our company culture. Following the conversations, we put together an anonymous internal survey to have a pulse on employee sentiments and understand how to create sustainable change.

That survey helped us form the People & Culture Committee, a group of employees across divisions who guide the initiatives that strive to make SimpsonScarborough a place where every employee feels seen, heard, and valued. We genuinely want to make SimpScar the best place people have ever worked.
 
We've rethought the way our sampling plans and survey language can be more inclusive so that we can deliver insights from those whose voices are often not heard, created processes to limit biases in our hiring practices, revised our company benefits and policies, and worked to hold deliberate spaces for our teams to discuss, learn, and grow in their understanding of each other and the world around us.

Now that we've grown from 15 employees to nearly 50 employees spread across the country, we've also become more intentional about what culture looks like and means to us, especially as a remote-first agency. We're actively focused on seeking better practices in our work and culture, understanding that it doesn't happen automatically and the process never ends. We still have a ways to go— but I hope we never stop saying that.
 
Malachi: Thank you for sharing, Hira. And thanks for your leadership in moving our company forward. I promise I'm going to let you go soon — just a couple of easy questions left. First, who are the three people you're inviting to your dream dinner party? And what are you eating? 
 
Hira: So the first person who comes to mind is my grandpa—my mom's dad—who came over on a boat from Pakistan as a young adult. He died when I was still a toddler, so I never really got to know him, but I know him through so many different stories, and there are so many questions that I want to ask him about immigrating to America. So he's the first person I'd pick.
 
The second person would be Oprah. My mom and I would watch her show together after school. She truly transformed the space of storytelling and didn't shy away from any topics. I imagine all the people she's interviewed, and how much she's accomplished. She'd have so many great stories and wisdom to pass on. 
 
And then the third person would be... I think I'd go with Angela Duckworth. She's the author of the book Grit, and she co-hosts a podcast with Stephen Dubner (who wrote Freakanomics). They dig into all these fun little topics on their pod. Like this morning, I was listening to an episode where they talked about the psychology of shopping and why finding a bargain deal is so gratifying. 
 
And I feel like instead of going out to eat somewhere, we would just have a fun, casual night in with everyone getting their hands dirty and cooking in the kitchen. Because we've done that at some of our agency retreats, and it's usually the best way to get to know people and learn from one another — just in the kitchen cooking dinner together. 
 
Malachi: Ok, great segue. What's your favorite SimpScar retreat memory? 
 
Hira: Hmm. The first ones that come to mind are NSFW. 
 
Malachi: Those are the best ones. 
 
Hira: I think I'd have to go with Big Sky. There were so many cool moments at that retreat. But I think one of the simplest moments that brought us together was the night where there were no formal company dinner plans. Everyone could just branch out and do whatever they wanted. So Chelsea & I decided that we would have a casual night in, watch The Bachelor, and go to bed early. But then everyone starts asking around to see what everyone else is doing, and they hear that we're just going to stay in and cook, so people start asking if they can join us or bring over something to cook or grill or whatever.
 
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And so, in the end, most of the company ended up coming over to the house Chelsea & I were staying in, and everyone was cooking together in the kitchen or grilling something out on the deck, and it was just this cool moment where we all came together. And this was right when we had just acquired Knowble, so we're all getting to know all these new people, and I think there was a moment where everyone's wondering if we're all going to get along with one another. Of course, that entire team is just — it's like we'd all been working together for years. They're just such great people. So as fun as the whitewater rafting and ziplining and everything else we got to do on that trip, that night stands out. 
 
Malachi: Hira, thanks again for all you do for SimpsonScarborough. We're lucky to have you, and congratulations again on the promotion! 
 
Editor's note: A couple weeks ago, a bunch of the SimpScar team who call the DC/Nova area home were able to gather for dinner for the first time in a long time. That dinner was organized by none other than Hira. That's the type of person she is — always bringing people together, ensuring everyone feels valued and has a seat at the table. She gives more than she gets, and we're a better agency because of it. 
 
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