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Alumni Q&A: Carl Davidson

17 July 2023

Carl Davidson is one of New Zealand's best-known social scientists, with over 30 years of experience in the insights industry. His busy schedule includes being the founding partner of Research First, Senior Adjunct Fellow here at the University of Canterbury, and author of 10 books and has recently been selected as a 2023 Insight250 winner, acknowledging him as a leader in market research, data-driven marketing and insights.


Can you speak to your career journey since completing your studies at UC? Has it evolved the way you expected?

It feels like my time at UC didn’t launch my career so much as shoot me out of a cannon! My first job was at a social science research unit on Creyke Road, which was close enough to the campus to feel more like a finishing school than a new chapter in my life. But after that, my career took me to Auckland to teach at a university, then to Wellington for a senior policy role, before coming back to Christchurch to start Research First. Along the way, I wrote some books and talked at a lot of conferences and seminars. Like everyone, my career has been the result of the collision of circumstances and ability, of just being in the right place with the right attitude. I know I’m a sample of one but it seems to me that while career planning might be ordered by rules, it’s not governed by them. I think that is what Thoreau meant when he said “go confidently in the direction of your dreams”

Alongside Research First, you’ve got your plate full with your relationship with the UC Business School – how did that come about?

In many ways, it felt like I never really left UC. I have lots of friends who teach there, and half of the staff at Research First are UC grads. UC is an essential source of talent for our business (which is why, among other things, we sponsor the wonderful 3MT celebration). But UC is such an important part of the local economy that we’re always running into UC representatives at different events. And like UC, Research First is ambitious for the future of Christchurch. To steal Sir Paul Callaghan’s line, we want to see Christchurch become the place where talent wants to live. So it feels like we’re on the same side too.

Against that background, UC Business School has been doing some amazing work over the last few years. It’s seriously committed to becoming ‘the most impactful’ business school in the country and it has doubled down on its links with industry. I’m a huge fan of what the Business School is doing with its Executive Education programme, with UCE, and with its revamped MBA. I sit on the business school industry advisory board, but I also teach critical thinking skills and business research methods to MBA students. But to be honest, I’m such a fan of the Business School, I’d turn up just to teach the fire drill if they let me.

Is there something you to forward to every work week?

Research First is an insights company with a social science heart. What that means is that we bring a social science perspective to solve business and policy problems. This makes much more sense when you realise that just about everything in business is really applied social science. But it also means that the work we do is endlessly fascinating. I love the challenges this creates for our company, and the way our team comes together to solve those challenges. But it also means I’m always learning, and always looking for ways to make the company a little better every day.

What you consider to have been your biggest challenge faced in your career so far?

Running a company is incredibly rewarding but it’s also tough on the nerves. The challenges of making payroll and ensuring we delight our customers never stop. The thing they don’t teach you in the MBA is that owning a company is never easy. Doing it through the pandemic was particularly challenging. Outside of that, my time at the Families Commission showed me just how hard it is to get bipartisan political support for anything – even something as seemingly uncontroversial as reducing family violence. And, of course, there is never enough time to read. As my friend (and great UC alum) Sean Barnes says, “so many books, so little time”. But in general I like to think of challenges as the things that make life interesting. I’m a firm believer that the universe loves adverbs.

Are there any goals you hope to achieve in the next few years?

Well, our mission statement at Research First is to become the best little insights agency in the world, which should be more than enough to be getting on with. But I’ve been doing a lot of critical thinking teaching in the last couple of years and I can’t help thinking that would make an excellent book. During the lockdown I started writing a book about tips from the social sciences for a more fulfilling life called Why You Should Never Finish Dessert that I’d like to finish. But, if the past is any guide, there will be some amazing opportunities hiding in plain sight in those coming years too. It’s never too late to be what you might be!

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