Editor’s note: Domini Zopf is principal at Denver marketing research firm Core Solutions. Allise Garrison is research director, strategy and business development at Sun Life Financial, Kansas City, Mo.

Every company is looking to stay relevant and ahead of the curve in today’s ever-evolving world. Insights gained from marketing research impact the entire company, from product management to engineering, marketing and even finance. Having a broad understanding of individual needs across the entire company greatly improves the impact of marketing research learnings. This is why successful companies hire people from diverse backgrounds for research roles and needs.

But how do individuals from disciplines outside of marketing research enter the field? What does this transition look like? And – more importantly – why do individuals decide to switch career paths? How do they know the MR industry is a good fit for their talents?

While we are both seasoned marketing research executives, neither one of us came from traditional MR backgrounds. One of us (Allise Garrison) works on the client side, while the other (Domini Zopf) is on the supplier side. In the interest of learning more about the unconventional path to MR, we sat down over coffee to discuss our experiences switching career paths, sharing the details of our transitions.

What drew you into the marketing research industry?

Allise Garrison: I started my career in advertising as a copywriter. To do great creative, you have to be able to put yourself inside the head of the consumer you’re trying to reach. And that meant spending time with research – and with consumers to understand what makes them tick. More and more, what I really loved was digging for those insights – the magic, the spark. I moved into account planning, which was a great place for someone with a creative background, and I learned the research ropes from there.

Domini Zopf: A passion for knowledge and an obsession with what matters to consumers. I also love digging for insights. And marketing research is remarkably strategic. I’ve always craved strategic and stimulating work that makes a difference. While I spent the first half of my career in executive marketing/product marketing roles with an emphasis on the development and launching of new products and services, my current job in marketing research consulting is surprisingly similar. Both require deep critical thinking and insight discovery that have major implications for one’s company or client.

How has your career and role evolved?

Garrison: After my stint in advertising, I moved to the corporate world, into research roles on the client side. But in a lot of ways, it’s the same challenge. To be successful, we need a deep understanding of consumers and what motivates them. But now I can apply insight in a way that’s both deeper and wider. Deeper because I can really immerse myself in a single industry, looking at what people want and need in that category. Wider because now I can apply those insights to a whole range of challenges, not just creative development. Deep knowledge of our customers builds success in every area of the company, from marketing and distribution to strategic planning, product development and customer service.

Zopf: Funny, Allise, as our backgrounds seem like they’re in reverse! As I mentioned, I started out first on the client side and then moved to the supplier side. While marketing research was always a part of everything I did, the big difference was that marketing research was only part of what I did as an executive. Once I started consulting in product marketing, crazy as it sounds, my primary focus slid more and more into marketing research over time because of my clients. I’m passionate about uncovering viable solutions for innovation and market and product/service challenges through research. As time went on my clients wanted more research. One day I made the plunge and went to work full-time in research for a qualitative agency. I now have my own marketing research company and I’ve never looked back.

Garrison: What do you bring to the table with your non-traditional background?

Zopf: Before I answer that directly, I have to mention that the marketing research discipline is changing faster than ever before, driven both by technology and our greater understanding of human nature and the dynamics associated with human decision-making and thought processes. Thus, an openness to learn from other fields, disciplines and technologies has armed us with the ability to better comprehend consumer thinking and action. In answer to your question … my background in new product and service exploration equipped me to be able to observe and evaluate all the new marketing research options flooding the market. Plus, I’ve been in my client’s shoes. I know how to dig for the consumer intelligence that clients need to make more informed decisions

And, while this function like all others still needs classically trained researchers, fresh perspectives are also key for new ways of thinking about old problems.

Garrison: I’ve found that to be true as well. These days, I work in insurance – a very mature industry that’s ripe for disruption. In that environment, fresh perspectives aren’t just nice to have, they’re vital to our continued growth. We’re continually looking beyond the insurance industry to see how others are transforming themselves.

How do you know if marketing research is a good fit as a career direction?

Zopf: Regardless of one’s background a few characteristics seem to tie all good marketing researchers together. First, an insatiable curiosityDo you always want to know more, to understand the “why” behind the surface of understanding? The difference is having the curiosity to dig deeper. Second, a tendency toward being open-minded and flexible. Objectivity is key. Researchers must remain open-minded with a wiliness to reset expectations and change objectives. Finally, an analytical mind with critical thinking skills. Having the ability to see the forest through the trees, to spot trends and themes in the data, to see beyond the numbers.

If this sounds like you and you’re willing to work hard, marketing research may be a great fit.

What advice would you give to help professionals break into a marketing research-focused role?

Garrison: Be curious. Ask questions. You might even have researchers on staff at your current job. Seek them out and find out what they do. Ask if you can attend a focus group or observe an online community. Good researchers love to share what they’re learning.

Zopf: I completely agree. Also, use your experience to your advantage. Marketing research teams are stronger if they have a varied staff with different strengths. Take advantage of what you already know that is relevant and then be willing to put in extra time to get caught up. You’ll also need to dig into uncovering whether you have more of a qual or quant leaning as the skills required for each are quite different. Reach out to as many researchers as you can. This is your first big research assignment!