Martin Oxley of buzzback

Martin Oxley, Managing Director of buzzback, discusses the evolving landscape of consumer research. Martin talks about the importance of understanding emotions in decision-making, the role of AI in research, and global collaborations in the industry. He also shares his personal experiences working with clients such as BMW, L’Oreal, and Verizon. Stay tuned to hear how his playlist was inspired by Dolly Parton and the key lessons he has learned throughout his career in this field.

Episode Transcript

Adrian Tennant: Coming up in this episode of N CLEAR FOCUS. 

Martin Oxley: What we’re seeing is more of the creative agencies, really adopting research as a strategic input. I think there’s almost an expectation now on behalf of their clients that they’ll have done something to pressure test it with consumers before they may show it. 

Adrian Tennant: You are listening to IN CLEAR FOCUS, fresh perspectives on the business of advertising produced weekly by Bigeye: a strategy-led, full-service creative agency, growing brands for clients globally. Hello, I’m your host, Adrian Tennant, Chief Strategy Officer. Thank you for joining us. Globalization has had a significant impact on the way products are manufactured and marketed around the world, with digital marketplaces and global supply chains making it possible for companies to expand beyond their domestic borders. Corporations can more easily source raw materials, components, and labor from different countries, of course, but globalization often requires businesses to adapt their products and marketing strategies to ensure that they resonate with local consumers. To gain access to diverse perspectives, local resources, and insights about cultural norms, brands seeking to expand often collaborate with international consumer research partners. Our guest today understands the dynamics of such partnerships, the challenges and opportunities they present, and how consumer insights can help brands navigate the complexities of a global marketplace. Martin Oxley is a market research leader who, during his 30-year career, has held senior management positions at companies, including Ipsos, NFO Interactive, and TNS. Since 2007, Martin has been the managing director of BuzzBack Europe. A well-known figure in commercial research circles, Martin is also a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, a London-based organization committed to finding practical solutions to social challenges, and he recently became a trustee at Key Changes, a charity dedicated to unlocking potential through music therapy. To discuss his career, some of the tools and techniques of consumer research, and offer insights into where the industry may be headed, Martin is joining us today from his office in London, England. Martin, welcome to IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Martin Oxley: Hi, Adrian. Good to be here.

Adrian Tennant: Well, Martin, as I mentioned in the intro, you’ve worked in the market research industry for quite a while. At university, you studied econometrics and economics, but how did you enter the profession? 

Martin Oxley: Yes. Well, actually a little anecdote before we get going. My grandmother who, when she discovered I had a degree in econometrics, she honestly said to me, “Can you fix my kettle then?” And I said, “No, it’s not so useful. And also, you want an electrician, not an econometrician.” And it was too early for her to say, “Whatever,” but maybe that’s what she should have said to me. So, no, I suppose it’s not uncommon with most people I know that have worked in the research area that you kind of fall into it. I think it’s not due to a lack of interest, it’s just too a lack of understanding of really what the area was. And so I am eternally grateful for being a little unclear in terms of what I wanted to do, when I graduated. And so actually, econometrics and economics and so on sort of opened a few doors for me. Little did I know it was a door that would be open for 30-odd years. 

Adrian Tennant: What did your early career look like? What types of projects did you typically undertake?

Martin Oxley: Yeah, so my first sort of job I suppose, was working for a company that was called Infotech-Burke, which most people listening into this wouldn’t have heard of, although Burke as an organization still exists in the US, of course, in the Midwest. So I was working there when they had the license for the BASES product, which now is with Nielsen. So I worked principally in new product forecasting, using some of my numeracy and some of my modeling skills. Not as many as perhaps I would’ve liked, but then we were being directed by Lynn Lin, who’s one of the most brilliant minds I’ve ever encountered in any walk of life, let alone in research who invented BASES. So I was very privileged to be working a lot of innovation, NPD work, principally in packaged goods, but, you know, outside that, really with some great people. But, the one I will remember the most is Lynn Lin.

Adrian Tennant: And this was mainly quantitative, right? 

Martin Oxley: Yes, of course. Yes. So it was principally quantitative and quite hardcore quantitative really, which was taking a number of different inputs, marketing inputs, consumer survey data, and sort of taking this input, and predicting the likely sales volumes, in years 1, 2, 3, predicting concept and product performance and diagnosing it. And I think that’s perhaps where I started to develop my interest in more qualitative areas, when we often didn’t quite know why something hadn’t performed well or indeed why it had performed well. And so those why questions weren’t as strong as I would’ve liked.

Adrian Tennant: Over the course of your career, you’ve held a number of leadership roles in large commercial research firms. Looking back, Martin, do you think your background in econometrics influenced your approach to research and business strategy?

Martin Oxley: Yes, I think it really did. And I suppose in many ways for all of us perhaps listening into this, sometimes we make positive choices and sometimes sort of negative choices in terms of what we do want to do and what we don’t want to do. I realized in the early days of being in client service and doing little of the hardcore analysis that I wanted to be more client-facing than I wanted to be an analyst. And that, thankfully, wasn’t due to a lack of ability, it was more where my interests laid. And also I think being able to present and tell stories to clients and shape a presentation to try and, I suppose, motivate people to accept some of the results. And so, coming from a principally quantitative background, I think those areas were more of an interest to me. But, also it helped me that I could have conversations with people on a technical level and understand their conversations. So it gave me a little bit of credibility with the data analysts and the statisticians that I dealt with. It was often fun when they just thought I was some kind-of  client service guy, when suddenly I could talk about stochastic processes and their faces would drop to say, “Oh wow, we can’t bull shine this guy.”

Adrian Tennant: That’s nice. Was there a specific project or experience that now looking back, you think was pivotal in your career?

Martin Oxley: That’s a great question, really. And, I look back. In fact, I bumped into an old client the other day at a Quirks event in London and he was a client at Rover Group, who owned the brands Land Rover and Rover, which were very big in the UK, which were subsequently bought by BMW. And so later, I started to focus in other areas and that was a really pivotal area working with that group, with BMW, Land Rover, and Rover on some automotive brand work and they were just really good times. It’s when the clients had lots of money to spend on research, which was always good. But also some of the cultural work we did, some of the understanding of what brands represent, some of the just great fun that we had, presenting and sharing our work and the influence of the work that we did on, trying to position brands and track their performance, working with the advertising agency. I look back really very fondly on that. And, I think it was because we had a really deep relationship with a client that was over years rather than an individual project. So, I suppose in that, what was particularly appealing was having that deep relationship to focus on what it means, rather than the process of getting there. Because I think for those listening into this that are involved in tracking projects, they can be a little process driven. They can be a little bit focused on how you do it rather than what it means. And also then inevitably when things change, when you don’t expect them to change, a lot of focus on data integrity. So for me that was a really pivotal time. Met some great people, had an opportunity to travel, and learned a lot about what drives brands, hands on. Which was pivotal, I would say.

Adrian Tennant: For the past 16 years, you’ve been managing director of BuzzBack Europe with clients including Nestle, Verizon, Mondelez, L’Oreal, Johnson and Johnson, and many other international brands. Martin, could you tell us a bit about BuzzBack and the range of services that the firm offers? 

Martin Oxley: Yes, absolutely. And, just to say, we are a team and so many of us have different roles in managing those clients and some of them are in the US, some in Europe, and some very much global. So as a business, if you know anyone on this podcast wants to look at the website, you’ll get a sense of how we’re trying to describe ourselves to the world. Where we focus a lot is in the innovation space, which is maybe about exploratory studies to understand a situation you may demand spaces, maybe Q&A type studies to understand where brands are, where categories are, what those drivers are, what are those considerations and trigger points, and so on. A lot in that explore area, if you like. And that’s quantitative. It’s qualitative. It’s using social listening. It’s using a number of different tools because it’s not really the tool that’s of interest. It’s what we’re exploring, what we’re trying to find out. We’ve developed a series of tools ourselves to work in that space and also we use others capabilities, so that’s exploratory research. And then with some clients, we also work in evaluative research. So, this may be looking at evaluation of a new concept or a piece of copy or some comms or packaging. It’s where a client may come to us or we go to them and say, “Look, we can help you evaluate your ideas as expressed in different ways,” so we can help them understand it, and also, explore those opportunities. So, with some it’s exploratory. With some, it’s principally evaluative, and some it’s both. On the latter where it’s both, sometimes people will say to us, “It’s hard to evaluate an idea when you’ve been part of the process to generate the idea. Who polices the police?” So that’s why often we’re working in one of the two camps rather than both. But with some, we indeed are working in those areas. I think last year we worked in 37 countries around the world, the US being the dominant one. But, more or less, anywhere our clients asked us to go, we’ve been able to support them. 

Adrian Tennant: In addition to international brands, BuzzBack’s clients include, of course, creative agencies and research agencies. What are some of the differences you see between the approaches or types of projects agencies commission, compared to in-house brand marketing teams? 

Martin Oxley: Yeah, that’s a great question. And, it does vary very much. I think, perhaps, if you’re not working with creative agencies regularly, you might anticipate you’d be doing one kind of piece of work. But in fact, what we found is there’s almost as much variety within the agencies as we are seeing with clients. We don’t do as much work with creative agencies as we do with end clients, but with some, the creative agency themselves have got a trusted strategic relationship with the client. And so often then, those projects are much more like our regular projects with an end client. They’re strategic, they’re deep, they’re big, they’re often very expensive. Good value for money, of course, I would add. But then, often we might be doing much more tactical evaluative pieces where agencies, in this instance, are maybe doing agile development sprints. Where they’re looking at ideas and evaluating them, improving them, testing them again. I think what’s been very exciting is now we’ve developed a series of very fast turnaround products under an umbrella that we call Express. We will manage that on behalf of the creative agencies if they haven’t got the bandwidth or they may manage it themselves. What we’ve tried to develop is a suite of capabilities to address agencies in different points of either their pitch process or indeed their ongoing development. So really, one size doesn’t fit all, Adrian. We’re seeing a lot of variation. But, certainly over the years what we’re seeing is more of the creative agencies, and this goes into packaging agencies, design agencies. Really adopting research as a strategic input. There’s almost an expectation now on behalf of their clients that they’ll have done something to test it, to pressure test it with consumers before they may show it. And certainly when I started in research many years ago, there was more antipathy to research agencies who were trying to evaluate creativity as it was seen. I don’t see that quite as much. I think agencies now are adopting it themselves because they need to be part of that process of evaluation and modification.

Adrian Tennant: You mentioned a moment ago how BuzzBack presents itself to the world. I noticed one of your taglines is “Agile customer-centric insights for brand growth.” Martin, how do you define agile? 

Martin Oxley: It’s funny when you read that out, it seems such a familiar expression. It’s like, who doesn’t say something like that Adrian? In fact, sometimes when we have vendors approach us and say, “Look, we can do this and we can do that for you,” I will not be the smart ass that it sometimes comes across. But just say, “Show me. Show me how it works, don’t tell me that it does.” So for us, agility is certainly not about speed or speed alone. I think it’s one of my regrets in research that sometimes ideas are adopted and we have this remarkable self-destruct capacity to make it cheap as fast as possible, and then think secondarily that the outcome or output is what’s really key. So we think of agility in its true sense, which is often working in fast-moving environments. I remember a professor of econometric theory, if anyone is still awake listening to this, let’s send you to sleep talking about econometric theory. But, he would often talk about a dynamic equilibrium as opposed to a static equilibrium. And what he meant was, if you imagine a dynamic equilibrium, it would be like staying stationary on a waterfall. So you are in a sense moving, but you’re not going anywhere. But boy, are you working hard. And then you had a static equilibrium, which was maybe floating on a lake. Agile is very much being in that waterfall. Having to move and adjust and change in a pivot. All of those words that we’ve heard a lot out of Silicon Valley. But for me, that agile, that Scrum mindset of working with clients and having a trusted relationship where often we will do projects and we’re not really responding to a formal brief. And for me, some of the most exciting things can be some of the simplest things. Where a client may do a workshop, we may be involved, we may not be involved. But then we contest and evaluate those ideas; the next day the client can have the responses from consumers, some diagnostics in terms of what’s working, what isn’t. They can then improve those concepts or we can do it for them. Increasingly, we do based on the research input, and then we can test them again. So, many years ago, we used to call this sequential recycling where you’d constantly keep moving and iterating. But now, technology allows us to be agile in its true sense, and actually improve things as well as just research them. I find that personally really exciting. That out of a week sprint, you can come up with better ideas, more ideas that have been evaluated and improved.

Adrian Tennant: Let’s take a short break. We’ll be right back after these messages. 

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Adrian Tennant: Welcome back. I’m talking with Martin Oxley, managing director of BuzzBack Europe. Well, moving into the show-and-tell portion. Since this is a podcast, we can’t show, but you can certainly tell, Martin, could you share one or two case studies where BuzzBack’s approach made a significant impact on the client’s business strategy? 

Martin Oxley: I think for many people listening into this, they will recognize it’s very hard for agencies to speak about specific examples. Sometimes when you’re speaking about examples where you’ve helped in a process rather than being the only agency involved, it’s being part of a team. It’s like, I know we all celebrate people that score goals if you are taking a football or soccer analogy, people always talk about the scoring rather than the stopping. But one of the ones that we’re very proud of and is on our website so people can take a look at, is some work that we did for L’Oreal a few years ago now. We worked on a naming study. They were wanting to launch a product that existed very successfully in one market and launch it into the UK. And so, they’d gone through a series of qualitative exercises that had not proven rigorous enough. Would you build a big building on top of a relatively weak foundation? Maybe not. Then they did quant research, and that was a little bit insensitive to actually demonstrate some of these dimensions of the name of the product. So we used our hybrid approaches where we use many qualitative techniques embedded in quant, and we were able to evaluate a number of different areas for this particular name and actually demonstrate and show to the client that some had real risks associated with them, and some had real opportunities. Thankfully, they went with our recommendations and the following year, when introduced to the UK market, it was the third best-selling product in its category. For an NPD to launch into a category and to become so successful, for us it was huge. It was covered in the Grocer magazine. We were really, really proud of that. It was in a way, quite a straightforward project, but it was wrapped with complexity that you can only really get in global businesses where you’ve got politics involved, you’ve got cultural sensitivities, you’ve got all kinds of things. I do wonder sometimes whether research is more of a provider and a moderator of different views with evidence to support your point of view. So that was one example. And again, on our website if people care to go, our biggest client has been Verizon over the last few years. We do such varied work with them, it’s really hard for me to summarize. I think the fact that we have a regular and frequent relationship with them is evidence of our capability of delivering against their needs, but also building this trusted relationship so that we can be more agile because we don’t have to keep learning on each project. We are building on that tribal knowledge. So, those are a couple of examples, Adrian, and I’m sure there are many more that I’ve forgotten. If any of my colleagues listen to this, they’ll no doubt be emailing me saying, “What about this project?”

Adrian Tennant: Well, luckily, we have a transcript that goes along with this and show notes, so if we have any late additions, we can certainly put them on the transcript. 

Martin Oxley: Perfect.

Adrian Tennant: New artificial intelligence-based tools are popping up in numerous industry sectors. How, if at all, do you foresee AI playing a greater role in research?

Martin Oxley: Well, we’re immersed in this with chatGPT and interestingly, the very much it seems a second to ChatGPT, Bard. Who’d have thought that Google would be second in anything related to technology? But, we seem to be talking about ChatGPT, rather than Bard. I must admit when I first came across it and I was first exposed to it, I struggled to get out of my seat. Not through tiredness, but through fear and trepidation and, “Oh, my word, what is this going to do to the world that I’ve lived in?” But, since I’ve settled a little bit more about it, I realized that it can be a huge asset and a huge opportunity for us in the world of asking questions to convert asking questions into asking good prompts. And I’ve even seen now there are jobs out there for prompt writers, which in market research terms is question writers. We’re really good, and should be really good, at asking questions. Instead of asking consumers, we’re asking the digital masters that are ChatGPT, and asking them for their views and summarized views. So, we should be really good at it. We should be really good at iterating our questions. You ask the prompt and then you keep prompting until you get a fine tuned perspective that then you can go on to test with consumers. But the other reason I’m very excited, what’s completely missing from the whole AI conversation, is the lack of emotion and the lack of ambition. The machine itself doesn’t have emotions, it simply doesn’t care. It doesn’t have any ambition, other than what you tell it to do. And, if I’ve learned anything in the increasing number of decades I’ve been in research, is if you don’t understand emotions, and you don’t understand motivations, and you don’t understand ambition, you rarely understand anything. And this is for me, a really key point, which is there is a huge opportunity for us to use this as a tool. Just as the people in the pre-industrial revolution in the UK used to smash up the threshing machines because they thought it would take their work, when in fact, the machines generated more work. Yet to see that, but I’m quietly confident that once we get our head around it will use this as a real help for us to do our agile research. So don’t fear it, understand it. As someone said on LinkedIn the other day, I’m sure you’ve seen this quote, which is, “You shouldn’t fear AI. You should fear someone who knows how to use AI.” 

Adrian Tennant: I mentioned in the introduction that you are well known in international research circles. When you decided to run for a seat on the ESOMAR council a second time, you created a Spotify playlist of music suitable for the research industry. Well, Martin, you know, I love the idea. What criteria did you consider when selecting the songs for your playlist?

Martin Oxley: That’s funny, I suppose it was two things. One is that I’d run for the first time unsuccessfully, and then there were some shenanigans at ESOMAR, which I will leave the listener to go and explore. But anyway, they had to rerun it again, and I never really knew where my votes put me, but it certainly wasn’t close enough to the top. I thought, “Well, if I’m going to run again, I’m going to go out there with something a little bit fun. Something hopefully a little bit creative, but also links to my love of music.” I think the idea came from seeing something about Dolly Parton, who genuinely I love. People have said to me, “You can’t love her. You’re being sarcastic.” And I genuinely love her. Not so much her music ironically, but her as a person, she is just incredible. Some of the best quotes ever are from Dolly, and I can’t quite remember what it was, and I just thought, “Oh wow, why don’t I do a playlist of songs that are appropriate for insights and marketing and somehow incorporate Dolly because she’s great?” And so that was really the inspiration, and then I could ask people to add their own songs. I got quite a lot of people emailing me trying to add their own songs. Some I had to cut because they were entirely inappropriate, with F-bombs from some different parts of my history. But, that was the inspiration. Really the choice was trying to have a little bit of fun, but also if anyone’s interested, and Adrian, if maybe you do put it in the show notes, it’s still there. If anyone’s interested, there is some thinking behind them. I did threaten that, if I was successful, I would play it at the next ESOMAR Congress, to play the whole list. I was unsuccessful. So I’m going to pretend that the reason I was unsuccessful is that they didn’t like my musical choice, rather than the fact that they didn’t like my description of how I saw the future of research.

Adrian Tennant: Mm. Well, I’m curious, Martin, are there specific songs or genres that you personally find motivational? 

Martin Oxley: Well, If you were a behavioral scientist, you’d be saying about the “say-do” gap. So, you can listen to what I say here, Adrian, but I think if I were to give you access to my Spotify playlist, you’d probably think no. You listen to a lot of this, you never listen to that. Since, you’re trying to pretend to be cerebral when in fact you listen to a lot of nonsense. But during lockdown, I rediscovered audio books. I never really understood what audio books were for, particularly. I would read a book and then I discovered I could do exercise, okay. It’s not hardcore exercise, walking, but also listening to books at the same time. So one of the things I realize now is that I can sort of curate my walks, curate my days around music, and deliberately, impact my own mood. So I will listen to ambient music when I’m working. I will listen to David Bowie, who is my all time hero, ever, about anything. I will listen to him when I’m feeling a little bit- I want to be upbeat, but in a sort of sad way just cause I miss him. You can modify your own mindset with music. This is something that I’m really fascinated by, rather than the individual artists themselves. Although they can be very critical to me, it’s more about manipulating your own mood. So sometimes, I don’t know, listening to Prodigy or something when I’m about to go on stage to a presentation just to get the heart racing. 

Adrian Tennant: Martin, in your LinkedIn bio, you write and I quote, “Despite being really interested in methodology and technology, I’ve always felt that telling an engaging story is the best way of generating impact. As the old saying goes, ’emotions lead to action, reason leads to conclusions.'” Martin, can you unpack this for us?

Martin Oxley: Absolutely. I think one of the things that- especially coming from a sort of economics background, which has I think been set up as a straw man of economic man, or rational economicus, or where someone described it, which is: all of our behaviors are purely rational. We do this sort of utilitarian cost benefit analysis in our head and say, “look, we’ll choose A, or we’ll choose B.” I think all of us working in marketing know that that isn’t the case and has never really been the case, but it’s nice to set up your full guy and describe it in that way so you can smash it and say, “No, emotions are really important.” But I think it’s absolutely true. People will rationalize a decision that they’ve made and make it sound very convincing, but actually the decision is being driven emotionally. So I think for me, this whole thing has been born of this interest increasingly in behavioral science, behavioral economics, which is, there’s nothing new under the sun. It’s been around for a long time, but has huge popularity. But one of the things the behavioral scientists struggle to do is explain why. And the why is often embedded within emotions rather than rationality. For me, that’s why that strap line is so key. I know many others use similar kinds of ideas because it’s inherently true. But now we’re getting better techniques so that we can access those emotions. We can access the stories that people tell themselves, rather than that sort of rational response. And that’s why you should never ask questions that are direct, “how would you improve this?” Because often you’ll say, “Well, make it cheaper.” And so you don’t wanna misdirect someone just because you’ve asked bad questions that are purely a rational response. That’s why emotions are so critical, and that’s why, as a business, we do as much as we can to try and look at those underlying drivers of consideration. What are the things that you are not really prepared to say, but you’re thinking? And in those emotions, hopefully we can find an opportunity for our clients. Because they’re there, you just need better techniques, often, to access them.

Adrian Tennant: If anyone listening is considering a career in market research or is just entering the industry, what advice would you give them? 

Martin Oxley: I think if you are considering it, you’ve got to be curious. You’ve got to be interested. If you get in a taxi or an Uber, you should be interested in the person that you are getting in the car with because I don’t think you can fake it. You can’t pretend to be interested in people. I think you kind of are or you are not. I mean, you can train yourself, but if you get through that and you are interested in what makes people tick and you’re interested in some of the social sciences and so on, I think that’s a good way to fuel your curiosity. But I think if you get in and you start developing your career, the key thing is you find a person in your company in the industry somewhere who you can sort of look up to, someone that you can say, “Wow, I either wanna be like that person or I trust that person.” Because I think if you can find that you can, you know, lose a few thousands in salary, we can maybe work for a lesser brand. But if you find someone who will connect with you and guide you and be your champion in a way that is encouraging and supportive, that is worth so much. And there’s a guy who’s been very important to my career to me, who passed away sadly a few years ago, a guy called Ken Parker. He did all of those things. He was perhaps not the world’s best researcher I’ve met, but he was one of the best people. And so I think if you can find a mentor, someone that will look out for you, that’s going to help you enormously. It’s not easy, but choose your manager rather than the team is what I would say.

Adrian Tennant: Great advice, thank you. If IN CLEAR FOCUS listeners would like to know more about you or BuzzBack services, what’s the best way to connect with you? 

Martin Oxley: Well, they can send me an email is probably the easiest thing, so at least I’ll know where you’ve come from. So I’ll know what you’ve been listening to. So if you want to send an email directly to me, that would probably be a good way and then we can take it from there.

Adrian Tennant: And we’ll be sure to include links in the transcript for this episode, including that Spotify playlist. Martin, thank you very much for being our guest this week on IN CLEAR FOCUS.

Martin Oxley: Thank you.

Adrian Tennant: Thanks to my guest this week, Martin Oxley, managing director of BuzzBack Europe. You’ll find a transcript of this episode with links to the resources we discussed today on the IN CLEAR FOCUS page at Just select ‘podcast’ from the menu. If you enjoyed this episode, please follow us wherever you listen to podcasts. Thank you for joining us for IN CLEAR FOCUS, produced by Bigeye. I’ve been your host, Adrian Tennant. Until next week, goodbye.

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