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Digging beneath the surface of Neil Higgs

Published: 3 February 2010

Neil Higgs is Director of Innovation and Development at TNS Research Surveys. He has been in research for 34 years, and at TNS for 24 years. His roles are technical innovation; trouble-shooting; and public relations.

Digging beneath the surface of Neil Higgs

Neil Higgs is Director of Innovation and Development at TNS Research Surveys. He has been in research for 34 years, and at TNS for 24 years. His roles are technical innovation; trouble-shooting; and public relations. He has presented twelve papers at the annual SAMRA convention, winning eight awards, and has presented overseas to The Institute of Statisticians; the Market Research Society in the UK; and the US Academy of Marketing Science. He has been published in The Statistician and The Journal of Social Indicators and was an invited speaker at the 57th Session of the International Statistical Institute, 2009.

1. What was your first job/ where did you start?
I started at Unilever in what was then Salisbury in Zimbabwe. I had a shiny new B.Sc in Maths and Stats and joined then Economics and Stats Dept under a very enlightened boss, Mel Brooks. He was a great mentor. After two years as a specialist, there I moved into research.

2. What made you want to build a career in your profession?
Like many people, I got into research almost by accident – I originally did Stats as a way to get into IT. But, in those days, IT was in its infancy and I became more fascinated in the application of Stats in industry. After a while, I found this a bit dry. The research element brought people into the equation and I found a new life-long fascination (that has become ever stronger) with the Human Condition, with demographics and human dynamics and how this worked in the real world of brands and products and ads and policy. There is so much new thinking now around how people think; make decisions; and process ads; that research is a truly exciting place to be now.

3. Describe a day in your life at present.
I have a really eclectic mix of activities. I am chief trouble-shooter, so whenever anything a little out of the ordinary crops up, I am there. I also do most of our PR. This has opened up a whole new world to me – quite a scary one when I realise how much people accept what is in the media, but it also opens up huge opportunities to make a difference. I am also involved in innovation and new thinking in the research world, so a typical day might involve a presentation on a critical piece of research for a client where a key decision will result; a couple of radio interviews; meeting with a client team on a knotty piece of research design; or an interesting analysis and, if I have time left over, some delving into recent papers and research-into-research.

4. How do you unwind behind the scenes? List your favourite song; movie; and book.
My family is a very important part of what my life is all about. So I get involved in my wife’s NPO – Africa Food for Thought – which helps feeds 10 000 children a day, plus delivers food parcels to 53 very disadvantaged households (I am in charge of communications and marketing, and get quite involved in field work). I have a passion for aeroplanes (especially old ones), shared with my son (who is in fourth-year aero engineering at Wits). We fly model-aircraft together and go to airshows when they are on. The whole family is into the bush and birding and hiking so we do that when we can. Then there is relaxing on my deck; playing backgammon or crib with my wife, Debbie; and a nice whisky, glass of wine or a beer. We love travel (when we can afford it) too.
Favourite song: I love Petula Clark (“Downtown” and “The Wedding Song” – played at our wedding) but Billy Joel (“Piano Man”) is also a favourite. “Stranger in Paradise”. Anything by Beethoven or Haydn. Favourite movie: Love movies - no real favourite but go for dramas, romantic comedies, anything with aeroplanes or spacecraft in it! Like something that deals with issues.
Favourite book: anything by Isaac Asimov.

5. Who would you most like to meet – dead or alive, and why?
Nelson Mandela – to understand true forgiveness.

6. What has been one of the most important lessons you have learnt?
The harder one works, the luckier one gets. One’s personal reputation is a critical success factor and needs to be built on honesty; integrity; and humour – and then jealously guarded. It takes years to build and can be quickly destroyed but it is a huge asset. Also, trust in God.

7. What is your secret indulgence and your three ‘can’t live without’ items?
I suppose I cannot put my wife and son down here! I do like a good malt whisky and a good draft beer. Three key items: books; access to information about the world; my cell phone.

8. Who do you think is getting it right in the industry?
Lots of people – TNS here in SA gets it right. Matthew Bull of Lowe Bull gets it right. Andy Rice gets it right, as does Jeremy Maggs. KFC and Nicky Rule are above average. Kulula gets it, too.

9. Which person in the industry do you think is making waves?
See above! Will give this a bit more thought.

10: Who is your alter-ego?
Tom Hanks!

11. What is your favorite perfume?
Whatever my wife is wearing as I love choosing and giving her perfume – Oscar de la Renta in one of my favourites on her.

12. Which car would best personify you, and why?
My 10-year-old Suzuki Grand Vitara – agile, reliable and takes me to interesting places without fuss or ostentation. But I do also have a secret hankering for a DB 9 (Aston Martin).

13. What is your favorite reality TV series?
Idols SA.

14. Who is someone you truly look up to, and which qualities do you most admire about them?
I admire anyone who stands up for the underdog and I have a particular passion for upliftment of the poor. People who steal from the poor via corruption and the gravy train really get my goat! Will think of some names.

15. What’s your stance on social media?
They are the new wave. They do scare me a touch, only because I already spend so much time on my computer! But they are an immense force (for both good and evil!). To ignore them is to be a luddite. But I do worry about how much they expose about oneself. I tend to listen more than put myself out there. From an industry point of view, any company who is not on either Twitter or Facebook is being silly. But it needs to be done with care and with a clear idea of what one is doing.

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