Our Impact


Episode 06: Duane Varan (CEO MediaScience and series host)


To launch our second season, MediaScience EVP Phillip Lomax interviews Legends of Media Research series host, Dr. Duane Varan to introduce the audience to their host. The episode explores research revealing insights for neuromarketing, innovation, program context effects, attention, leadership and so much more. A special episode that will help you better contextualize Dr. Varan’s interviews with Legends while also sharing exciting and inspiring insights.


Duane: Legends of Media Research is a podcast series featuring interviews with the media industry’s leading researchers, where we go behind the scenes sharing stories from their greatest achievements and challenges. Brought to you by MediaScience, the leader in media and advertising innovation research.

This week, we have a special edition of Legends of Media Research featuring MediaScience’s EVP Philip Lomax, as our guest host.

Phillip: Welcome to season two of Legends of Media Research. I’m Phillip Lomax, Executive Vice President of Business Development at MediaScience. Normally these episodes are hosted by Dr. Daune Varan, CEO of MediaScience, but we thought it would be a great opportunity to introduce you to our host.

Dr. Varan has amazing industry stories in his own right. And throughout this season, you’ll continue to interview some of the brightest and most impactful individuals in this industry. But we wanted to give you the chance to learn a little bit about Duane’s story.

Dr. Varan ranks among the Top 10 in the world in the advertising field for academic publications. And he’s the only Industry Researcher in the top 10. He’s also probably the most innovative researcher in the TV advertising field. Pretty much every major innovation in the TV ad industry over the past decade was first tested by Duane and the MediaScience team. Probably the leading pioneer in neuromarketing research, certainly in terms of being transparent and bringing accountability to the field.

He’s an amazing leader and mentor. With truly inspiring approaches to research and management. And I could go on and on celebrating what an amazing leader he is, but you’ll discover all of that in today’s episode and learn a great deal about innovation, neuromarketing and so much more. So Dwayne, welcome to the episode.

Duane: [laughs] It’s a little bit weird being on the other side of the microphone, but thanks, Phillip. It’s fun to be here.

Phillip: Absolutely. Duane, let’s start out with: why did you create Legends of Media Research as a podcast series?

Duane: Oh, yeah. Thanks, Phillip. So, the background to this is that in my role at MediaScience, I have an amazing bounty – and that is that I’ve had the opportunity to regularly get together with this network that we’re calling, these legends, people like Dave Poltrack, people like Betsy people like Colleen Fahey rush, people like Artie. And you know, I would get together regularly.

So for example, Dave and I would have lunch certainly once every couple of months at Michael’s over there. We’d get together and in these lunches and in these breakfasts and meetings that I’d have, these legends would share their stories with me – and I loved their stories, and I’d always learned something in all of these stories. And, you know, this generation of legends is kind of like transitioning. It’s not just that they’re retiring in many cases. The shape of the research insights community is changing and moving to things like big data, which is bringing a new generation of researchers and new approaches to research to the forum.

But there’s something valuable that’s being lost in that transition, and that’s the context. These legends have such rich stories about the context of these media platforms and how they work, and how they operate. And I really felt that those stories were being lost in that transition. So the background to Legends was that I really wanted to bring those stories to the market so that people had the same kind of benefit that I had in those one-on-one lunches and breakfasts; that they would have the same kind of benefits around hearing that generation of Legends share their stories with everybody. So that was the background to it.

Phillip: And I feel that you’re educating the entire industry. I, as a listener, learn something new every single time that I listen to or re-listen to any of the series last season. Before we dive into some of your amazing achievements, Duane, I’d actually like to start out with your childhood.

Duane: [laughs] From the beginning, huh?[laughing]

Phillip: When you were a child, you were truly persecuted growing up.

Duane: That’s true.

Phillip: Tell us that’s true about that. And about the impact you think that it had on your career.

Duane: Yeah, it’s not something I normally talk about. You know, Phillip, you and I are close and so you know these stories a little bit better than most. When I was nine, my family decided to move to Iran.

And so I spent five years, actually, in Iran and the background to my persecution is that my religious background is Bahá’í. For people who don’t know, the Bahá’í Faith is a relatively young religion. It’s only about 200 years old. The main belief system is that all religions are equal. All religions come from the same God.

But the faith started in Iran before it kind of went global and in Iran, Bahá’ís have always been persecuted. Of course now, very heavily persecuted, but even during the time of the Shah, there was, kind of like persecution at the street level, if you will.

And I would go to school and on the first day of the school year, every year, the teacher would say: “okay, everybody, who’s not a Muslim, please stand up”. And a few kids would stand up in class. And by the way, I was in a British school, it wasn’t like I was even in a local school. I was actually in a British school, but we had, of course, Persian teachers.

And so this would still be that first day of class. And they’d say: “everybody’s not Muslim stand up”. And then a few of us would be standing and say: “okay, all the, Christians sit down, because the Quran mentions Christ, so it’s okay, you’re legit. So sit down all the Jews, you can sit down because the Quran mentions Moses, so you’re okay, you can sit down”.

I’d still be standing and they’d say: “son, what’s your religion?” And I’d say: “teacher, I am a Bahá’í”. And the teacher would turn to the class and they would say: “now, Bahá’í is not a religion; now class, be very careful, do not get too close when you’re standing, don’t get too close to Duane, he’s a Bahá’í and Bahá’ís give off little microscopic worms, and if you get too close to him, those worms will eat you from inside out”.

And so, you know, some kids just ignored it, but other kids avoided me because I was untouchable because I was a Bahá’í. And sometimes kids – lots of kids – would insult me. Sometimes kids would beat me up. I mean, that kind of persecution was actively promoted by the teachers. And it’s something that I grew up with. I’ve never harbored any resentment for it. You know, in some cases I had to defend myself. I remember one year, three teachers came to class to debate me –and I was 10 at the time– three teachers came to debate me about why my religion wasn’t a valid religion and to get me to abandon my ways.

And what that did for me, more than anything I think growing up, is it taught me to stand up for what I believed in. And that’s certainly has shaped my career. When I look at my career, with the benefit of hindsight, I’ve never allowed the odds, I’ve never allowed circumstances to define. I’ve always stood up for what I believe in and pursued what I believed to be right, or where I believed, you know, there was the best path forward, irrespective of circumstances. And I do think that a lot of that came from that persecution that I experienced in those years.

Of course, it’s so much worse now. I’ve had relatives who’ve been executed by the regime for their belief because they refuse to recant their faith. It’s been a hard experience for Bahá’ís ever since, but again, as a child, yes, I did experience it and I do think that it strengthened my resolve and my character, ultimately.

Phillip: Absolutely. And thank you so much Duane for being willing to share such a personal story with our audience. People don’t know this about you, but you once actually hosted your own TV show. What was that like?

Duane: [laughs] Well, I started college when I was really young. I started college when I was 16 and in my first semester, one of my classes was a TV production class and I loved it.

I mean, it was tons of fun. And the teacher was instrumental in getting me an internship at a local TV station. After one semester of doing the internship, I had experience and I managed to get a job as a film editor at another TV station. In those days being a film editor, it was actually on film. Like you actually cut up –most of it was pretty unglamorous, it was just making space for commercials and things like movies and stuff. But I wanted my own show and I would go on and beg everybody. I mean, you could imagine this little kid at the station who’s out there constantly like, whining and wanting his own TV show and people would just humor me and stuff.

But I knew that one day my opportunity would come. So what I began doing is I began cutting segments from my own show. And I began producing these segments and having them ready in the can. And one day the host for our local talk show –so this is a local station– the host for the local talk show had an accident on their way into work. And this was a relatively new station. They had no contingency plan for what to do, and so there was pandemonium in the building: “what do we do?”. I said: “I have a show ready to go”. [laughing] They looked at me and they were all surprised, they had no alternative, so they put me on air.

My first moments were catastrophic. I started off, I said: “Hi, welcome to Accent, my name’s Dwayne”, and I froze like a deer in the headlights. I had no idea what my next line was or what I was supposed to say. I just stared at the camera and I said: “we’ll be right back right after these commercials”, and nobody’s ready for the commercial break [Phillip laughs].

So it’s really bad. They’re struggling and I’m just staring at the camera. [laughs] It seemed like an eternity, but it was probably like 10 seconds. And then it was great. Like after the commercial break, it was polished. Now I had worked on these segments, so everybody was really impressed. So they said: “okay, well you can, sometimes. You’re definitely gonna be like, the fill-in host when our host needs to go on vacation or something”.

But I said: “look, I’ve got an idea for a show”. And this is before MTV. And I said: “people wanna see music on television; young people wanna see music on television. So I produced a show which is music on television”. And they all laughed at me. At the same time I was a student senator and one of my portfolios was the division of the university that dealt with concerts on campus.

So I had a path to talking to the managers of these acts. And so I would call people like, I remember one of the first people I called was the manager of Lionel Richie [laughs]. He was really big at the time and I talked to him and I’m like: [high pitched] Hi, my name is Duane and I wanna do a show”. He goes: “How old are you, kid?”, [high pitched] “I’m 16”. [laughs] “And you have your own show?!”, “yeah”.

So they thought it was really cute, and so I began producing these shows. And every month –once a month there would be this special issue of Accent where I did shows with Frank Zappa and you know, Lionel Richie.

Anyway, I would do all these shows, and the best show that I did actually was with John K. of Steppenwolf. This was an amazing episode. It was at the absolute bottom of his career. He was staying like, at a one star hotel. I brought him into the studio and the interview was unbelievable. It was the tell-all. He was at the bottom of, you know, his career and he just laid out all the dirt with details, with everybody’s name. “So and so did this, so and so…” It was an incredible interview and I thought: “Oh, I’m gonna win a Pulitzer prize for this. This is so good”. And then I took him back to the hotel and then the team told me: “Duane, we forgot to push the record button” [laughs].

Phillip: Oh, my goodness.

Duane: But anyway, I did host a show for a while and it was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed it. I mean, for me as a teenager, it was the best job in the world because they’d build me a –in the middle of the mosh pit, they’d build me a little stage. And so I could go stand up in the middle of the mosh pit, I could go on stage, I could go backstage, I’d meet with people backstage.

I mean, for a teenager, it was just the most incredible experience. And that was a really fun little gig that I had. I didn’t pay well, but it was tons of fun.

Phillip: It sounds like you were dancing on the ceiling in this [Duane laughs]. That experience actually led you to actually work in the advertising industry. Why don’t you share a little bit about that experience as well?

Duane: Well, it’s kind of funny because at around that time, I was also traveling. I learned to travel and I did it on a credit card, and very soon my credit card bill was unpayable. I was on minimum wage at the TV station, so I went to a headhunter and I said: “I need a job that pays lots of money”, and they said: “Look, there’s this job here for a copy editor at this ad agency”. Now, I didn’t know what a copy editor was. I honestly thought that the copy editor –that meant that there would be this room full of copy machines and there’d be the staff, and that I would be the chief of the staff and I would get to supervise the photocopying at the company.

[Phillip laughs]

And I thought that sounded great. I mean, the pay was pretty incredible. So I thought: “wow, that sounds good”. They knew my show, that was a huge advantage. I walked in and they said: “look, why don’t you –here’s a brief, why don’t you show us what you do with it?” And I came back and I got lucky as it happened. The approach that I had was almost identical to what they did, so they said: “you got the job”. So I turned up on Monday. I thought: “It’s my first day. I should probably turn up in a suit to make a good impression, but I’m sure I’ll be in a lab coat, but, you know, I’ll just turn up in a suit”.

So I turned up and I was greeted by my secretary. I thought: “Wow!!! I get a secretary?!” [laughs] And then they walked me in and they said: “this is your office”. I thought: “Wow!!! I get an office?!” And they said: “Would you like a tour?” And I said yes. And on the tour we walk by this little room that has one small little photocopy machine in it [laughs], and I’m looking at it thinking: “Whoa [laughs] this seems like a lot of fuss for a guy who’s gonna be running this one little machine”.

And it was then that I got introduced to the person I was replacing. And I said: “What do you do in this job? You know, tell me your day”. And it was only then that I realized that I would be, you know, riding all the commercials for this agency and supervising the creative team. But you know, it wasn’t a job that I was good at. I was 18. Creatively, I think I was fine, but I couldn’t supervise staff. I mean, I was a kid. And I’d go and even, you know –so eventually they found out what my age was and it was just untenable after that. [yells] “I need this by five o’clock today!” I mean, it was just a joke [laughs]. So I did that job for a while and I had to decide: did I want to finish my degree or did I wanna start work? And I decided I wanted to go back and do my degree. So, yeah, I left that job and I decided to pursue my time full time with my education.


Phillip: Well, I think all of us are grateful that you took that…

[Duane laughs]


Duane: Cause the ads weren’t that great. That’s true.


Phillip: Well, you’ve now come to a place where you’re helping everyone make better advertising, but before we get to that, I want to… I wanna actually talk a bit about your PhD research on the introduction of television in the Cook Islands. A fascinating study. One of my favorite stories that you shared with me when I first joined MediaScience. Please tell us about that experience and how that impacted your career.

Duane: Yeah. So I spent a year sailing in the Pacific and I built a lot of friendships in that time. This was between my Master’s and my PhD degree. I took some time off and I spent one year sailing the Pacific and another year traveling down the Amazon. And then when I came back, the beauty of it was I had this network of friends in the Pacific, who told me about things. And I discovered through that network that in the Cook Islands, television was going to get –they didn’t have television when I traveled, and the government had decided that they were going to introduce television and they were gonna phase it in, island by island. As soon as I heard that, I thought: “Oh my God, this is the perfect study”. I could go in, measure islands before they get television, then one will get it, the other won’t, and then eventually both will.

So I will have the perfect natural experiment on the introduction of television. And there had been a number of attempts to do this, and they all had one problem or another that didn’t really pull it off, so this was a very exciting and unique opportunity. And so that’s what I did, I set up the perfect natural experiment with these two islands, both of which at baseline have no TV, then one gets at it and then eventually both get it. And it was an amazing education for me on a lot of levels. One, it’s really the reason why everything I do today is based on experimental design. I really developed a passion for the power of experimental design in that study; the ability to tease out variables.

It was a very unique study because, of course, it’s done at ‘whole of population’ level. I mean, I’m studying entire populations and there are all kinds of effects that you can see at ‘whole of population’ level that you couldn’t see at the individual kind of like normal testing level. For example, one of the really interesting patterns I discovered was –prior to my research, the assumption was always that people were attracted by the big city lights, and so that if people got TV, that migration patterns would be impacted. So people would be far more likely to want to immigrate to a place like the United States, if they were getting American television. What I discovered was exactly the opposite.

The America that people imagined prior to getting television –because they see tourists coming on their island; tourists who are relatively wealthier and you know, who are nicer and all that. That’s the reality they think of when they think of America pre-TV. Once they get television, what do they think America is? They think America is, you know, CSI. They think it’s like, violent and there’s murder around every street and so they’re actually less likely to want to travel to America, not more likely.

And what was beautiful about this was I was actually measuring real migration figures. How many people were migrating coming in and out of the island, you know, and all that. So it was just fascinating, and a lot of that work dealt with the cultural impact of television. And out of that came a whole theory, which is a subject for a different day, which is my model of cultural erosion, which talked about different kinds of effects that happen when television is introduced to a population.

But the most important thing in terms of the lasting impact that that research had on my career was that passion and that appreciation for the power of experimental design, which really grew out of that research.


Phillip: There’s one insight that I’d actually would love for you to talk a bit more so on, which is the impact of television on local cultures and their desire to have a deeper connection with their own individual culture.

Duane: Sure, sure. So, at the time, the dominant paradigm in this kind of transcultural effect stuff was a cultural imperialism model and it’s a poor fit when you look at real data.

The assumption is that if people watch more American television, they become more American and the data just doesn’t support that framework. So what I did in my research is I used the metaphor of soil erosion to talk about four different types of cultural effects that happened with the introduction of television.

‘Abrasion’, which is ‘conflicting cultural values’. The assumption is that one starts to prevail over the other. That’s kind of like the dominant assumption in the market around people’s encounters with other cultures is that they become more American or like the other culture. And what I’ve found in the research is that’s actually very rare and it’s not the predominant cultural impact that happens.

It does happen, but it only happens with very rare parts of a cultural encounter. More common is what we call ‘deflation’, and in soil erosion, deflation is that you’ve got really hard rock and you’ve got soft sand and what’s vulnerable is the soft sand, not the hard rock. Where you see most of the effect is actually aspects of a culture that are not actively being reinforced. So in some cultures they’re actively reinforcing their dress code, for example, and so that’s not as vulnerable to the foreign influence, but if you’re not actively reinforcing it, then people may start to dress more like people in the culture they see on television. So that’s ‘deflation’.

‘Deposition’ is the third effect and that is where a culture lacks certain strategies for dealing with the problems they encounter. In my research, for example, there’s a lot of urban migration that happens; people go from outer islands, which are remote, to main islands, which are more urban. And in the course of doing that, they’re encountering things which they don’t have solutions for, and so they’re going to search for solutions. If it’s not on their own cultural system, they will often find those solutions in the media. They’ll find people in shows, for example, grappling with similar problems and they’ll turn to those strategies. So it’s filling a void that they perceive in their own life.

And then finally the most interesting is ‘saltation’. What saltation is, it’s like –if you think of a particle traveling in the air or a particle in the water traveling through, eventually the force of gravity will bring that down. And when it impacts on the ground, it uplifts some of the soil around it. Then that is further transported onward. So it’s this awakening, if you will, in cultural terms. It’s an awakening of local culture that happens through the power of the contrast with the foreign exposure. In my research, what I demonstrated is that there are many areas of local culture, which became stronger as a result of the encounter with foreign television; that’s also a big part of what happens.

So all of those are happening simultaneously. There are parts of a culture which are being threatened. There are parts of it which are adopting new practices and there are parts which are actually awakening their own cultural identity. And what was great about the research was really kind of like finding evidence for all of those things, kind of happening at the same time.


Phillip: Fascinating insights, Duane. Thank you so much for sharing that with our audience, and it’s topical today. As all of us become more and more interconnected on a global basis, these types of insights I think are needed across the board. So your real career then started after your PhD. Your academic career was amazing. You won the Australian Prime Minister’s Award for University Professor of the year. You built an amazing research center, generating millions of dollars in research grants. What was the secret to your academic success?

Duane: [laughs] I had a fun academic career. Yes, absolutely. The background to this is that when you become a professor, nobody ever teaches you how to teach a class. There’s not a single unit. There’s not even a single lecture that you get that says: “this is what you’re –you know, this is how you teach. This is how you teach a class” [laughs] It’s all about your research. And then you’re kind of just thrown in the deep end.

I was a good teacher. It’s not that I was bad. I mean, I was always a good teacher, but I was always searching for a guiding light to help me understand how to be better and to have a cohesive thought about really, you know, what my approach to teaching should be like. And I found it in a very unlikely source. It was reading a statement of the Baha’í world community to a United Nations conference, dealing with poverty.

It was talking about social economic development, and in that context, there was a single sentence that I read that was dealing with poverty again, and it was talking –it was defining development and it defined development, social and economic development; it defined development in these words: “Cultivating environments conducive to releasing the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness”.

When I read that sentence [laughs] –that sentence left out of that statement because I found my creed in teaching in that one sentence, “cultivating environments conducive to releasing the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness”. And there’s so much in that sentence that was empowering for me as a teacher.

One was the recognition that it was not about what I could do as a teacher. It was about creating the environment, the culture in the classroom such that it empowered people –empowered the students to be able to achieve their fullest potential. So for example, one of the things that I did to create that culture is you always have a TA, a teaching assistant, and it’s a big deal who that teaching assistant is for students. It’s a big deal. And usually it’s a grad student, it’s a Master’s or PhD, usually a PhD student who’s that TA. One of the things I did that was very unconventional is I told the class that next semester’s TA would come from that group, and it would be the person who did the most to help the other students.

Just that one simple twist totally changes the dynamic of the classroom. Now everybody is bending over themselves to help each other. It was so cool to see. And the other thing that I did is I made it clear to them that I don’t grade on a curve. I view grading on a curve as an evil of the education system. I said: “you are not competing with each other, you’re competing with yourselves, and my job is to do everything I can to help you succeed”. So we created that kind of culture and what these students would go on to achieve was surreal. Was absolutely unbelievable.

This philosophy started with the Script Writing class that I taught, and at the time the writing standard was 20 pages for a semester, which was what was considered appropriate for a three point credit. I took it over and I said: “you’re gonna do 120 pages”. And of course, the semester –they didn’t break a sweat. So the following year, in addition to 120 pages, the final 21 days, they had to write a full 120 page screenplay in the course of those 21 days. And what I discovered is that people could do that. I didn’t know if it was really even possible [laughs]. it took support, but they all did it.

And then of course, when I moved to Australia, I brought that same philosophy with me. We started with working with industry partners. We worked with a local ice cream store that had one store and aspired to having a franchise. The class took that on as a class project. Today that store has franchises throughout Australia, throughout Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia.

The work the students did was phenomenal and that continued to be the pattern. So the students went on to work with companies like Nike, like the BBC. And the deal was that the partner had to pay to fly these students. So for example, when the BBC –when we did our project with the BBC, the BBC flew my entire class of 16 to London for the opportunity to work with them.

And so the work they did just got better and better every semester. That’s what led to the prize. And that was the beginning of what led to the research center. These students then would go on and become honor students, and I’d supervise their research. And we would build these incredible research projects, which were way ahead of their time.

I mean, even today –you know, some 20 years later when I look back at the topics that those students did. It would still be as applicable to today’s industry as it was back then. We were asking questions around addressability. We were asking questions around customization. We were asking questions around mobile. I mean, these were all things that were happening way before they even existed in the real world, so to speak. And we built a successful research center. We discovered a great funding model for it, which was to get industry to pay and in return, see the results of the research that we did before it was published.

And that led to building up the research center. It led to winning lots of grants. Eventually I had my own building on campus. I had my own dedicated staff, so I didn’t have to rely on faculty from different schools. We could do the research that we needed to do without being reliant on somebody kind of like doing it as a hobby. So that’s how we became, at the time, the preeminent research center and the media sphere looking at advertising –new advertising solutions.


Phillip: An incredible academic career. Then…

Duane: Lots of fun.

Phillip: One day, suddenly you transitioned to industry. How did that happen, Duane?

Duane: [laughs] It’s true. It was literally like four days to be technically precise. [Phillip laughs] But what happened was, of course, I had built up this research center; we had our own flagship center, our own building, and we were doing all this work for all this research, which was being funded by industry. Again for the looking rights. And some of those sponsors were Disney affiliated companies like ABC and ESPN and they –everybody loved it. Everybody was like: “Oh my God, this is the kind of research that we need in our day to day operation”.

Disney decided that they should build the lab. That was like the lab I built using the kind of methods that I was using doing the kind of research that I was doing. And they literally couldn’t find anybody that they thought could pull it off. So they looked for a year. In fact, they were looking at vendors in the market who could do the kind of research that we’re doing.

And they eventually reached the conclusion that there wasn’t anybody today in the space, at the time in the space that could do it. So they called me up one day, out of the blue, and they said: “Duane, in four days, it’s our upfront, and we’re going to announce a lab that is just like yours, doing research just like yours, for our day to day business. And we’ve decided that you’re the only one who can do it. So we need you to come on board and lead this for us”.

And I said: “look, I can’t. I don’t wanna leave academia. I don’t wanna leave Australia. I can’t be your employee. It has to be independent research. The only way I could do it would be if it was an independent business. But I don’t have the money. I’m just a poor college professor. I couldn’t do that”.

So for four days we negotiated. They said: “Look, we have four days to negotiate”. I said: “I don’t even have a lawyer”. They said: “Well, you better get a lawyer”. So I had to find a lawyer and we negotiated.

I made a long list of demands, and they only had one demand. They said: “That’s all fine, it can be your business. We’ll fund it. We’ll pay for it. We’ll do everything you want. You can have your own building, your own lab, all of that. But there’s one condition: you have to be exclusive to Disney commercially. You can do all your academic research, but commercially you have to be exclusive to Disney”. And out of that was born the Disney Media and Advertising Lab.

And so for the first five years as a company, MediaScience was the Disney Lab and we were exclusive to Disney. And then after five years, we came out of our exclusivity window and we grew beyond, and eventually, in 2015, MediaScience became too big for me to do both, so I had to decide, and of course I decided to leave academia.

I officially retired from academic life and threw my lot fully into industry, so to speak. Yes, it all goes back to those four days in 2008, leading up to Mother’s Day in 2008 before the upfront, when the good folks at Disney persuaded me to step across and move fully into industry, I guess.


Phillip: Not many companies can say that they were incubated by Disney.

Duane: [laughs] It was a great transition. I was very lucky in that sense. It was a great transition.

Phillip: Incredible origin story for MediaScience as a company. Now, MediaScience sits between academia and industry. And what we perform for the industry is what’s commonly known as ‘neuromarketing’, right?

And neuromarketing has been a big part of your career. Your career’s been centered around neuromarketing. Tell us why.

Duane: It’s not intentional. It’s not that I have any particular commitment to any one method. The background is that really, since the dawn of my professional research, what I’ve always been most interested in is human emotion and the relationship between emotion and media and advertising encounters.

You have to say that emotion is at the center of any media or advertising research. It’s just impossible to think of any question where you wouldn’t really be intersecting with emotion in the context of really trying to address your question. The problem that we have is that people lack access to their own emotional journeys.

And so if you ask a person, whether at a focus group or in a survey, a question about that emotional journey, about their emotional encounter with the media content, the problem is that you’re getting –I wouldn’t say it’s a fake response, but you’re getting a rational response. You’re getting the rational interpretation of what they think they must be experiencing, which is very far removed from what they’re actually experiencing emotionally.

Of course, this was always going to be a focus for my career methodologically. Maybe about 20 years ago, I began working with psychologists to bring a lot of the tools that were available to psychology into the media sphere. That was galvanic skin response, eye tracking, heart rate, EEG, facial expression analysis.

Those kinds of measures allow us to directly measure human emotion rather than be reliant on what people tell us. And so out of that came this passion for neuromarketing, not because I care about the methodology, but because I care about the research questions. And so I’m prepared to turn to a range of tools, whatever tools I can, to help me address the questions that I’m interested in.

That’s kind of the background in terms of how –I mean, first me and my research center, and then of course, eventually MediaScience– why neuromarketing has been so central. Because you just really can’t get at those questions any other way.


Phillip: These measures: accessing the nuance. This has been controversial in some ways. I know that you’ve made a big push, throughout your career, but also about a decade ago to bring transparency and accountability to the neuromarketing industry. Leading in part to the ARF, the Advertising Research Foundation’s Neuro-standards Initiative.

What motivated that for you, Duane?

Duane: In my role as Chief Research Officer at the Disney Media and Advertising Lab, again, which was MediaScience before, when we were exclusive to Disney. In that role, I was hungry and eager to find suppliers in the market that could deliver a range of measures, including of course, the neuromarketing measures.

Vendors would come to me all the time and, of course, vendors are going to others in the industry as well. Generally they don’t have the background in the neuromarketing industry to be able to properly evaluate what they’re being told, but I would have these neuromarketing vendors approach me and I was shocked by the snake oil they were selling [laughs].

To be blunt, they would say and do things that was just remarkably –I mean, it was pop science. Just because you use a scientific tool, doesn’t make what you do science. And the bigger problem with it was that almost everybody was paddling something that was black box.

So I would say: “okay, well, you’re saying that this is ‘engagement’. How are you measuring for ‘engagement’?” And it’s like: “I can’t tell you, it’s black box, it’s proprietary. Even under NDA, we can’t tell you because you could reverse engineer”, and all that kind of stuff.

It’s very hard to sing the song of science on the one hand and then not be held accountable and not have it replicable and not be willing to open the door for transparency. This was a real problem for the industry, I think, because I felt that this would bite the industry, ultimately, because people would have experience with snake oil and they might not know at the time, but eventually they would know. Eventually they would see: “wait a minute, these guys are telling us this is great, but the sales weren’t that great. What happened?” I really felt that this was a problem for the industry, and what made it even bigger was the fact that it was dealing with things that people didn’t know anything about.

It was a disadvantage. It was an asymmetrical knowledge kind of problem. So I gave a keynote at one of the ARF conferences and I called for what became the NeuroStandards Project. And then I approached the ARF and I said: “look, I’m willing to help make this happen”, and the ARF was very gracious and they allowed me to spearhead it and we got horse to run the project. The way that we did it was we got neuro vendors to do tests on the same eight ads and then submit their results for peer review. And if they wanted to be black box, they could do that, but they’d still have to submit it for peer review.

Eventually I would publish an article many years later, which looked at that data and which demonstrates that there was no point in time when any two vendors agree on what’s going on. So what we say is there is no common truth. So how you do the research is actually incredibly important and incredibly instrumental to what the results are, and if you’re not willing to be transparent about that, then a client should not work with you. That is my position today.

If a vendor is in the market with black box technology, a client should not work with them because you have no idea what you’re potentially dealing with. We felt it would be important to have that validated, and I think NeuroStandards 1.0, as it came to be called, was truly landmark. It was a really important study. A number of vendors fell out of the market. They ran out. They were out of business because of that study. It was really a landmark. And I think for a while, it did a good job in improving the grade.

Unfortunately, I think we’re back a little bit to the wild, wild west these days. And I think the same could be true also with machine learning and AI. I think there’s a need for a similar kind of venture again. Neuromarketing and AI machine learning are both incredible tools, very powerful. There’s a lot they can do, but they can also easily be misused. Now, none of that should detract from the potential and the opportunities such technologies represent.

I mean, we did a study for example, in collaboration with the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute for MarS, where we demonstrated that survey based measures gave you about 54% accuracy in terms of correctly identifying market success, and that was boosted up to 78% with neuro measures. But I mean, that’s when it’s done properly.

If you don’t command the knowledge to know the difference, then you’re at a disadvantage. And so that’s the reason why industry initiatives like the NeuroStandards initiative are so important. Because they fill an important gap that individual companies can’t easily do or easily fund on their own.


Phillip: I think despite all of your accomplishments, your greatest legacy is probably in the median advertising innovation domain. As I said, at the start of this episode, every major innovation in the TV advertising industry was first tested by you and your team. I mean, everything from video ads on mobile phones to picture and picture ads, to limited interruption, to interactive video ads, to addressability, to social media ads, branded apps, brand integrations.

I mean, it’s absolutely remarkable. How do you do it? How are you always a step ahead? What’s the secret to your approach to innovation?

Duane: Well, I don’t know that there’s so much a secret, but you know, some of the ingredients that come together for us, of course, first and foremost, we have an amazing group of clients. Clients with interesting questions, interesting and exciting solutions, a hunger for innovation, a commitment to truth, and of course, as you build a reputation in an area, you attract more people looking to do research in that area.

As we’ve done this innovation research, it’s attracted more innovation research. You have a real positive iterative cycle that gets set in motion. And of course, you know, we invest heavily in our infrastructure, both equipment and people, with software engineers and creative designers, so that you can do the rapid prototyping. We’re always on the hunt for new methods. And in fact, we have a commitment to doing that rather than just kind of like taking a product off the shelf and trying to force-fit the question to a product we already have.

There’s a commitment to Research and Design , we’re always doing experiments with new approaches and validating them. And as we find them to be effective and to work and to kind of like add to our toolbox, we’re then able to apply them to other studies. I mean, we have a real culture that embraces innovation.

We’re fearless in tackling new ground. It’s an exciting confluence of strengths that comes together in kind of like, well, positioning us for this kind of innovation research. I have to tell you, it’s truly a great blessing because it makes our work so exciting and truly exhilarating. We all feel like we’re part of a movement and not just part of a company.


Phillip: One of the current topics that we face today, which you’ve been studying for a while now, has been around media context effects, and you’ve done a lot of work in that space. What have you learned about how the media environments affect advertising?

Duane: Well, it’s a great –you’re right. It is a really important topic.

It’s even more important today than I think it’s ever been because the media industry is bifurcating in terms of –buying of media is bifurcating around kind of like, programmatic buying, which is just automated, and premium buys. And if you say that something is premium, you have to demonstrate why it’s premium and it’s often premium because of the context, because of the environment that it’s in.

So there’s a greater need for research now that demonstrates that premium proposition, which all comes down to again, researching context. We have done a lot of work over the years, in many different kinds of genres. I think the most important mistake that industry makes is the industry is far too simplistic, the way that it thinks of or frames context.

Usually when we take context, we’re thinking about one kind of effect, which is congruity. And so we’re saying, you know: “oh, it’s a funny show, therefore, it would be really well suited for a funny ad”. And that’s true. Congruity is an effect. It’s one of the ways that context works, i’s one of the benefits that context delivers, but it also leads to erroneous thinking like then suddenly you think: “oh, I shouldn’t buy news because news is negative, and therefore, if I want a positive kind of like mood in my ad, now I have a problem because it’s not gonna flow through”. And that assumption is actually –we’ve demonstrated consistently that that assumption is actually mistaken.

What we have to understand is that context does not work one way, it works many ways. In fact, we’ve documented and demonstrated 10 different ways in which context works. So for example, sports works, but it doesn’t work because it’s a congruity. It makes you excited, but it’s not that you go into an ad that’s an exciting ad, necessarily. In fact, all ads benefit from being in sports. So how is that?

What we’ve demonstrated is that that is what we call an excitation transfer effect. What it is is you go into the ad break in an excited mood, and that excitement gets transferred to the brand. You perceive the brand in a more favorable light as a result of being excited. So therefore, because you perceive the brand in that more favorable light, the ad is more effective and it delivers on a whole range of different kinds of effects.

That’s the reason why sports work so well. News, which is very different, works with a cognitive activation effect. The way that news is working is: news is inherently very cognitively engaging. You are getting your brain basically warmed up and in gear as you’re processing these stories; then what happens is you go into the ad break, you have better pathways to your memory structures as a result of the activation of your cognitive resources. So your ads in the news environment will deliver superior memory effects because of that. That’s an example of why ads can work better in news, contrary to the assumption that they might be at a disadvantage because the content is often negative. We have consistently found that ads do better in news on average.

So these are just examples and there’s a need for lots of research to better understand those types of contextual effects because they’re very complex in terms of all the different types of effects that are at work at the same time.


Phillip: So as an advertiser or an agency, you need to find the right environments on the right platforms to feature your advertisements. But I’d love for you to speak a little bit about now the execution, the creative execution strategy of brands today: because we see brands, you know, doing many different things to interact with audiences today, but I’d love for you to speak a little bit now about the role of advertising at a brand level.

Duane: If I were to say what I think the biggest sin is, which a brand is committing today… We live in an age of incrementalism, and what I mean by that is people are deploying things and responding to things like clicks. And they’re saying: “let’s run two different things and, oh, we see people responded more here, so let’s run more of these”.

What this means is that you’re seeing lots of funny things when you’re on social media platforms and all of this is being driven, but in all of this what’s being lost is strategy. What’s being lost is branding. What’s being lost is the larger objectives of creating the right memory structures around a brand, and this is hugely problematic because it’s a long term effect, not a short term effect.

Brands are kind of like almost blind to the consequences of their actions and a lot of it is about inconsistency. You have a TV campaign that looks one way, you’ve got a Twitter campaign, which looks totally different, which is very different to what you’re doing in Snap.

You just have no consistency in who your brand is. And it’s because you followed this trail of incrementalism, which is destructive in many ways to the positioning of the brand long term. So I think that for brands, its ‘go back to basics’. For the positioning of the brand there has to be a communication strategy. You have to have very clear objectives, communication objectives, and you have to have clear measures associated with each of those objectives so that you can align whether or not you’re delivering against the strategy and consequently, whether your strategy is actually effective. So there’s a lot of work to do, I think.

It’s easy to get distracted by the opportunities of the age and lose some are like the core fundamentals.


Phillip: And of course, attention will be critical to any ad execution. What has your research taught you about attention?

Duane: Well, recently we did some seminal work, again collaborating with the Ehrenberg-Bass Institute. This was a landmark project that we did for Google, and the challenge was to look at the academic literature, find every possible way, at least in the published literature, around measuring for attention to see which measure is best suited for measuring ads.

What we discovered in that research was that, in fact, the industry is misguided when we think more attention is better. It’s not that more attention is better, it’s that attention requires a minimum threshold after which it’s other variables that matter. So as an industry, we should not be talking about attention, we should be talking about inattention. And in fact, we should be thinking of attention as the absence of inattention.

And the good news there is that there are lots of very reliable measures of inattention. And so we have something that we can really work with as a scalable measure. In fact, one of the things that was really surprising in the research was one of the best measures for inattention was heart rate, which was as good as EEG in terms of measuring for this kind of inattention; and better than measuring for visual attention, which of course is a massive blind spot because it doesn’t pick up moments when people are paying attention, just not looking at screen, which is surprisingly frequent.
It’s an exciting agenda, particularly as we’re looking at, classifying and dissecting all these different dimensions of attention.


Phillip: Well, Duane, we’ve talked about platforms, we’ve talked about media context, such as programming, and we’ve also talked about advertising, right? Hopefully, we’ve given some ingredients for our listeners to go out and create an amazing recipe in which their ingredients are speaking to each other in the pot, let’s say.

Let’s pivot now to one of my personal favorite topics, which is the topic of leadership. How do you approach your role as CEO at MediaScience? And how would you define your approach to leadership?

Well, Duane, we’ve talked about platforms, we’ve talked about media context, such as programming, and we’ve also talked about advertising, right? Hopefully, we’ve given some ingredients for our listeners to go out and create an amazing recipe in which their ingredients are speaking to each other in the pot, let’s say.

Let’s pivot now to one of my personal favorite topics, which is the topic of leadership. How do you approach your role as CEO at MediaScience? And how would you define your approach to leadership?


Duane: Mm, that’s a great question, Philip. You know, in the same way that I was never taught to be a teacher, I was also never taught to be a manager.

I mean, I started my research center and nobody ever even gave me a single lecture or a seminar on how to manage my center. And so in the same way, I began searching for a philosophy ,for an approach. Of course, I started with the same philosophy that I had for effective teaching. In the same way that I talked about that previously as being ‘good teaching’, now it became ‘good management’.

Is about “cultivating environments conducive to releasing the limitless potentialities latent in human consciousness”. In other words, my job as a manager was to create the right environment in the workplace to empower people, to achieve their fullest potential. And I think that it had some missing elements and I was in desperate search for those elements, dealing with things like, what do you do when you have problems with HR and all that kind of stuff.

I began searching the management literature as an academic would and the management literature is incredibly disappointing. I’m shocked actually, when you take a bird’s eye view of the management literature, my main criticism would be that the management literature is entirely situational.

It’s about somebody having an approach to management, which works under a very specific set of circumstances. What I could not find was good books based on empirical evidence. Don’t just give me your opinion. Don’t just tell me stories. Show me data that tells me that this approach to management is effective.

And a good example of that might be a book called “Good to Great”. It’s okay but it’s dealing with companies at the organization level, not with managers at the kind of like ‘manager level’. And I didn’t like that about the book. I didn’t like the fact that it was kind of like at ‘aggregate level’. So I eventually found a book, which I loved, and I highly recommend this book. This book is part of the core reading material for management at MediaScience, and the book is called “First, Break All The Rules”.

It’s by researchers at the Gallup Organization. It’s based on survey data on a million employees, focused interviews with 60,000 of their managers with access to their performance files and records. An amazing body of research. The mistake that the authors make is they pick the wrong title for this book, because if you are attracted by that title, “First, Break All The Rules”, you’re gonna be incredibly disappointed by the book.

‘Cause this is not about a book about breaking rules [laughs], and likewise, if you’re the type of person who’s really attracted by kind of like systematic data-driven research on what management should be, you’re not gonna be attracted by that title.

So they really got the title wrong, but it’s a great book. And it’s the only book that I could find that I think was truly based on good empirical data and it articulates 12 key principles and those principles have also been guiding lights for us at MediaScience. So for example, one of those which fits very well with the earlier philosophy that I espouse, is that you should have a best friend at work.

And so we do things as a company to make sure that we have the kind of environment where people are friends with one another. We have a very collaborative culture where that’s a big part of what we do. And a lot of it also deals with hiring the right people. And that’s a big part of what we do.

As a company, we hire not only people who are skilled and qualified, but we hire what we call ‘good people’. And these are people that you would love to have on your team that you love collaborating with. You love working with. And it’s a big part of what we do as a culture, as an organization, is put as much attention to the person as we put to the objective.

And a lot of it is about making sure that you hire the right people for the tasks that you need, rather than just going against some generic criteria around, people with good grades or something. And all of this has translated into what is an absolutely amazing team. I mean, the team at MediaScience is really second to none in the industry.

We’re all really great friends. There’s an energy and a buzz. There’s an intellectual curiosity, there’s a drive for innovation. I mean, it is just phenomenal. It’s a great team. And there’s so many people who’ve been instrumental in pulling this off. I mean, there’s yourself, Phillip, there’s Dr. Amy Rask who really runs our operations, Elissa Moses, who heads our qual division, Daniel Bulgrin, Anthony Almong, Eric Johnson. I mean, it goes on and on across all aspects of our business. They’re world class researchers, world class software engineers, world class project managers. I mean, just across the board.

We looked for a word that captured our philosophy – our creed and our approach in one word, and we tried a lot of things as we did that, like ‘coaching for success’, et cetera. And we discovered that word eventually, and the word is ‘nurture’. We view our job in management as nurturing talent within our organization. And I think that’s a big part of the kind of company that we’ve been in.

We don’t do it perfectly all the time. We don’t do it well at all levels, but certainly I think that’s what we strive towards –is to be nurturing and empowering people to achieve their fullest potential. And because so much of our focus is around innovation, that’s a very good fit to our culture as well, because if you’re about innovation, you have to be about empowering your team to achieve their fullest potential. So that’s worked well.

Now for me as CEO of the company, there’s one more ingredient, which is really critical and that’s the ability to bring vision to fruition, to translate a vision into reality. So I see my primary job as CEO being about articulating a vision and figuring out how to help the company get to that vision.

And that’s a large part of what we do. What I’m really proud of as a company in our culture is we tackle the impossible every day. We’re always looking at something which, when we look at it, when we start the project, looks absolutely impossible. And yet we’ve never faced a challenge that we haven’t been able to deliver to.

And that’s a part of the culture. We don’t have the kind of culture where our staff look at something and think: “can we do that?” That’s never in our DNA. We look at a problem, we don’t know how we’re gonna get there, but we know we will get there. We will conquer whatever it is that we’re tackling.

And it’s exciting in a way, because when we face big challenges, we’re excited because we know that we’re gonna grow as a company. So we’re very excited. We truly welcome the unknown. It’s an exciting part of how we work. So I think that’s what we’ve been able to achieve in our particular approach, if you will, to management.


Phillip: I think that’s an amazing segue: tackling the unknown towards product innovation. What are some of the unique product innovations that MediaScience brings to the table? What differentiates MediaScience within this industry?

Duane: Well, I think it’s three things.

First, it’s just the sheer experience that MediaScience has particularly around questions of innovation.

Second, it’s the infrastructure. I think even our competitors would acknowledge that MediaScience has the best audience research labs in the world. That’s a heavy investment that we’ve made. We make sure that we have the tools that we need to be able to execute well. And we have the human infrastructure, the software engineers, the creative teams to support that kind of research.

And finally, I think it’s the credibility we command. MediaScience is a hybrid kind of like between an academic and industry; we’re somewhat unique in the extent to which we subject a lot of our research to the scrutiny of peer review. And we publish, in fact, if MediaScience were a university, it would rank 25th in the world in terms of its publication outputs in the advertising discipline.

I mean, that’s remarkable, beating a lot of elite universities in that process. And that means that clients can be confident that the findings are well validated. That they’re well grounded, that they’re based on very sound methodologies and the market, I think, appreciates and understands that.

I think those are the kinds of things that differentiate us in terms of how that’s translated into products, if you will, that we offer the market. The most important product I think we offer is the custom research. The ability to listen to a client, understand their challenges, understand their questions, their problems, and search in the world to find the best in class approaches to addressing those.

I think that’s where our greatest reputation has been built, but we also have a range of very specific products. For example, we have StreamPulse, which is our own private OTT channel, like our own Netflix channel, if you will. What’s so exciting about that is that allows us to test questions in home.

We have variance of that. We have, for example, an in-home neuro metric panel, where we collect galvanic skin response and heart rate data in home on our StreamPulse channel. We have an in-home dial product that allows us to do dial testing at home. We have our own brand integration research tool, which we call BrandPulse.

Effectively, what we do is we take the integration as it airs, and we create a control version where we digitally remove the integration. So for example, if a truck pulls up and it has the name of a company on the side of the truck, we remove the branding and we retest the episode now without the integration. And in this way, we’re able to isolate the integration and measure for its impact, both in the program and in an adjoining ad.
And of course we have social media ad insertion and content insertion products, so we can insert content in people’s own feeds, whether that’s in Instagram, Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, TikTok, any of the major social media channels. And then of course, we now have our Qual product, which is Hark Connect.

HeartConnect is a tool that’s available to anybody in the market. And it’s for focus groups and interviews and qual research. It’s the most advanced platform of its kind. Not only does it have really powerful, real time tools for things like automatic translation and transcription, sentiment analysis, automated tagging, et cetera, but it’s also got really incredible post-session editing tools to help make the process of extracting insights so much faster than are possible with existing tools.

And of course there’s a whole array of other tools. I mean, this just gives you a sample of the kinds of tools that we use at MediaScience.


Phillip: So as we continue on Duane, what is next for MediaScience?

Duane: Well, you know, in the immediate future, it’s really more international and global expansion. You know, every major U.S. TV network is or has been a client.

Same with all the dominant social media platforms, a lot of the global brands. We’ve done really well in terms of growing in the United States. We have labs now in Chicago, Austin, and New York, but we recently just opened an office in Australia. And that’s the start, if you will, of our global expansion.

We’ve always done projects in other countries, but this is now kind of like operating a proper lab and an ongoing continuous operation. And this year we’ll be opening a lab in London. That’s a really exciting step for us at MediaScience. And at the same time on our StreamPulse At Home Network, this year we will also be expanding our U.S. panel of 500 homes to a global panel.

We’re estimating that that global panel will ultimately be about 3,000 households. We will start to deploy in Canada, in Australia and the UK and globally as client demand kind of grows. So we’ll be going through a lot of that kind of global expansion. That’s one exciting thing in terms of where MediaScience is going, really moving to a lot more global expansion.

And then of course, in all of the domains that I talked about, there’s an amazing array of innovation coming. So I talked about the heart qualitative platform, already that’s the most advanced qual platform in the world, but that’s gonna get a lot more advanced this year because we are now integrating neuro metrics into that at home qual platform that we’re using.

And that’s going to be a really big chapter. And there’s also some really exciting, new editing tools that we’re bringing in. So, you know, it’s just a lot of innovation around all of the things that we do as a company. So it’s an exciting time. Of course, we’ve come through the pandemic. I’m really proud of the way that MediaScience responded to the pandemic at a time when most of our competitors withdrew and really some people left the industry altogether.

Many just scaled back their operations drastically. We doubled down and we made big investments. And I think that we are seeing the fruits of that in terms of –certainly today,I think we are a stronger organization than we were pre pandemic, so it has worked for us.

Even though it was a very painful experience and it was very tough on the team, I think we did an amazing job in kind of plowing through and getting through it.


Phillip: Now, I know that you always ask this of your guests on Legends of Media Research, so it’s only fair that I ask you. What advice do you have for young researchers in the field?

Duane: Well, that’s a great question. The thing is that the industry used to be a very different industry. It used to be an industry where tomorrow looked like yesterday.

And if tomorrow looks like yesterday, the name of the game is efficiency. Just get better and better at what you do today because tomorrow will look like today. And so if you’re better at what you do today, then that’s gonna be good. So I think that’s where the need was. I think going into the future increasingly –tomorrow does not look like yesterday and it doesn’t look like today, so if you’re just getting better at what you do today, that’s not gonna cut it.

So I think that this generation of researchers needs to have an appetite for change, needs to have an appetite for innovation. You have to be hungry, to look and asking yourself how you can do whatever it is you do better, how you can move into new arenas.

So I would sum it up really with that idea of that hunger for innovation. You know, if the industry is about change, research will play a critical role in navigating through that new landscape. And so that’s going to happen to the extent that people embrace that kind of innovation.

So I would say that’s the single skill that becomes most valuable with researchers going forward.


Phillip: Well, I wanted to thank you, Dr. Varan, for being my guest on today’s episode of Legends of Media Research.

Duane: Oh, thank you. Thank you, Phillip, for the interview. It was a lot of fun. It was a great journey.

Phillip: Absolutely. On today’s episode, we covered several topics. We talked about innovation, context effects, neuro measures, leadership, and a host of other topics.

And I would also like to thank you, our audience, for listening to today’s episode of Legends of Media Research. What a great way to start season two. And now you’ve learned a lot more about our host, Dr. Duane Varan, who will be interviewing other Legends of Media Research this season and learning how they impacted the media and advertising industry.

I’m Philip Lomax, Senior Vice President of Business Development at MediaScience. Join us again next time for Legends of Media Research.