Expert Profile: Priya Sivaraman - Strategy, Insights and Innovation Specialist
A senior insights, innovation and strategy specialist with 20+ years experience, Priya began her career agency-side before moving into a series of regional & global roles with Unilever and Nestle.
We talked to Priya about her freelance journey to date, key challenges in the insights and innovation space and her tips for any freelancers who are starting out. So let's dive in!
What’s your main strength - why do clients come to you?
I think it’s the fact that I’ve got such a breadth of experience: agency, client, quant, qual, global and local - I’ve done it all! Clients love that. Also, although freelancing’s pretty common for junior / mid-career people, there aren’t so many S&I independents at my level…
I’ve been freelancing for a few years now, and I’ve deliberately taken on a broad range of contracts - making sure I continue to work across the whole project lifespan. I’d say I’m particularly valuable at project-design stage - because I can see the long view, how a product will be commercialised and used; also at the end - because I understand operational and market feasibility, I can help to turn insights into commercially viable strategies.
Why did you decide to go into freelancing?
Well, I’d been with Nestle a long time - my last role there was a Regional Head of Insights role in the breakfast cereals division. It was great, really broad - consumer, category and market insights; innovation, positioning, packaging, testing… the full kaboodle! When I left, I wanted a bit of a break, which I took, and just as I was about to come back into the perm market, the pandemic hit...
So, I went out to my network, and just started talking to people…! I’ve been pretty lucky so far - most of my work has come through recommendations / word of mouth - and I’ve managed to strike a good balance of agency / client side projects, as well as longer part-time engagements which shorter projects can then sit alongside. I’ve been with a fantastic agency for about 3 years now - essentially helping them to build out their quant division - and I’ve done all sorts in parallel: recently I ran a brand positioning & target audience understanding project for a small upcoming tea brand. It was fascinating to explore such a mature staple category and identify opportunities for this new innovative brand.
Would you go back into a permanent role now?
Well…I do miss the end to end ownership that comes with a permanent role, also being part of a team. But freelancing is great - particularly in terms of pay and flexibility - so it’d have to be a very exciting perm opportunity!
What are the main challenges for you as a freelancer - and how you address them?
I miss having sounding boards / people to throw ideas around with - it’s trickier to do this kind of thing as freely with clients as you would with your permanent team. I’m actually starting to reach out to my network and my batchmates from university - there are quite a few of us in similar fields - with the view to create some kind of support / learning / idea thrashing community!
Then there’s progression - you need to create it for yourself. I’ve been giving that quite a lot of thought recently, and one of my plans is to focus on building skills in areas where I don’t have much hands-on experience, like social media listening and AI based data analytics.
The third thing would be - balance! I realised about 6 months into freelancing that I was working longer hours than I’d ever worked before and it just wasn’t sustainable. I made a conscious effort to find a better balance - spend more time with my kids, cook, sing… you know! You have to stay vigilant though - you have to make sure you’re maintaining the balance and not always saying yes to literally everything that comes your way - it’s easy to slip off!
What’s your ideal project?
I love working with small businesses! It’s super exciting, because it’s transformative - you’re creating a real step change… So I guess my ideal project would be an end-to-end strategy piece with a small business: helping them to understand the power of using insights really well, and work out where they want to land, and then working with them to set up all the systems and processes to get there!
How do you set up for success - what characterises your approach?
I’m very objective and calm. Logical, rational, analytical - I like to break a problem down and work through it systematically to get to a holistic solution.
What are common challenges you see clients having in the insights and innovation space?
Number one would be idea dilution. I think the most common challenge in innovation is that what starts at a really great idea gets diluted at every stage of the process. Compromises flood in as the commercial realities start coming into play and companies push to bring costs down - but the product is still expected to perform in the same way as it did at the top of the funnel! It doesn’t make sense. Honestly, companies would do well to model the opportunity costs of a compromise as well as cost reduction benefits.
Secondly, there are challenges around internal comms / team structures. Big businesses are sitting on so much internal data, and they haven’t always mined it before jumping into a project. A lot of the time they don’t really even know what they have - or if they know it’s there, they’re not aware of what it can do, because teams are siloed. So it’s super important to sort out internal team structures - make sure different groups are communicating - that there’s a dialogue between consumer, category and market insights. I’d recommend co-leadership on projects too - companies would get a lot more out of their data if this happened.
Finally I'd say 'bringing the new.' Innovation keeps getting harder. Most categories are mature, so bringing the ‘new’ is already tough, and in the current market, consumers aren’t willing to pay more - so who will bear the cost of doing something new?! I suspect we’ll have a bit of a stalemate the next couple of years until the economy has stabilised.
Has anything changed in the way companies use insights?
Data analytics is the biggest change - everyone has data teams now, and everyone uses data more intensively. The pandemic forced a lot of research online - blogs, online focus groups etc. - so we’re still waiting to see how that settles out. Some research is fine online, but sometimes the depth of insights is compromised - you can’t read body language cues - did they smile when they saw the concept? Did they make a face when they tasted the product? Did they struggle to open the pack? etc. Having said that, sometimes technology lets you access much deeper insights - I did some online sessions where runners ‘took us along on their runs.' It was fantastic - because we could literally see what they are wearing, where they run, and all the context around it. We couldn’t have done this without technology as there’s no way I would have kept up with them!
What’s your top tip for other freelancers in the insights and innovation space
If you’re starting out, use your network - you’ll be amazed what comes through. And initially, take on whatever work comes your way - assuming you can do it! You don’t need to do this forever (you will have zero work-life balance!!) - but it will help you to really stress-test what you do and don’t want to do. And leading on from that, you can then be really clear about your strengths / your USP - you’ll know where you can really add value.
The other thing is to keep an eye out for disconnects between what clients want to achieve and how they’re prepared to go about doing it. It’s not necessarily about walking away - but you need to meet disconnects like this head on. Have a conversation. Collaborate on a solution. I often find it useful to break the project into really clear phases with review points after each: let’s do phase one and then see where we are. Take the client on the journey!