Advancing communications measurement and evaluation

Khali Sakkas Interview: Her Passion For Her Work, Her Secret to Great Presentations, and Her Favorite Podcasts

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This month The Measurement Life Interview is pleased to welcome Khali Sakkas, Chief Executive, Insights and Research, at Isentia. From Melbourne, Australia, Khali directs Isentia’s insights services in 11 countries and 15 markets across the Asia Pacific. She is an AMEC Board member and Chair of the AMEC APAC Chapter. Passionate about insights, Khali has presented at a range of conferences, providing strategic advice on demonstrating success, reputation management, and the impact of integration. In her 14 years’ experience in communications research, Khali has worked as an academic researcher for Monash University and also as a researcher for Indonesia’s national newspaper, Kompas.

—The Measurement Standard: Hi Khali, welcome to our Measurement Life interview.

—Khali Sakkas: Hi, Bill. Thanks for having me.

—TMS: First, let’s learn a little about you: What’s on your iPod, turntable, or Pandora channel right now?

—KS: I’ve always loved radio for news, documentaries, and debate, and this has evolved into an obsession with podcasts. My favourite podcasts at the moment are from The Economist Radio and the BBC World Service. I also lost many hours of sleep addicted to Serial from This American Life.

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Khali Sakkas (fourth from left) with others from Isentia with their 2016 AMEC awards. More details here.

—TMS: Your title is “Chief Executive, Insights and Research.” What does your job entail?

—KS: I’m ultimately responsible for the performance of over 150 analysts in the Insights Team here at Isentia. My goals are to evolve our product offering, increase organic revenue in every market, and to develop the team so that they are highly skilled analysts and leaders.

—TMS: Isentia covers a huge territory, right? Do you have to travel a lot?

—KS: The Isentia headquarters is in Sydney, but we have offices in Vietnam, New Zealand, Australia, South Korea, Indonesia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Beijing, Shanghai, Thailand, and the Philippines. We try and use technology as much as possible to save on time and travel. Nothing can replace face-to-face, so this means I do end up traveling a lot.

—TMS: How did you become interested in measurement and evaluation?

—KS: Media analysis and research was a component of my communications degree and a major part of my master’s. In my thesis I examined the militarization of the media during military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, using qualitative and quantitative media analysis. I was particularly interested in the impact of embedding journalists within military units and the implications of media restrictions. At that time, no Australian journalists were permitted to interview or engage with Australian troops, and these limitations had a significant impact on the news we received and the focus of individual journalists.

I absolutely loved completing this research, but at that point I had no idea that media research actually existed as a profession outside of academia. In the week I submitted my thesis, I saw a newspaper advertisement for a media analyst role and I could not believe it! You could actually do research and get paid! Fortunately, I got the job and I’ve been here ever since.

Khali-Sakkas-AMEC-Summit-2015—TMS: What course of study did you follow?

—KS: I did a B.A. in communications and then went back five years later to do my master’s in applied communication. Going back to study at that particular point was really important for me because so much had changed in five years. Google had come along, e-commerce was emerging, and traditional publishing models were being challenged. Globalisation on a new scale was causing significant changes in the way we communicate. I felt it was important to be on top of these technologies and the changes they were bringing. A master’s by coursework was a valuable way to do this. Studying while working was incredibly engaging, because I could apply industry experience to the theory.

—TMS: And for today’s students?

—KS: In terms of tertiary qualifications, a communications degree is a great base because it can set you up for a wide variety of careers in media. I’d also encourage people to look at data science and behavioural science because they will be in hot demand in our industry in the next few years. With that training you will add a lot of value to any organisation.

For industry training, AMEC College is an absolute must! It provides a great framework and the opportunity to network and share knowledge with people from all over the world. I would also recommend as much on-the-job training as possible, as well as seeking out mentors.

“Make sure you’re doing what you love with people who support you in an environment where you can thrive. If you have these three covered, you’ll be unstoppable.”

—TMS: What’s so special about measurement and evaluation? Why does it interest you? What is it about the work that you find compelling?

—KS: There is something very special about the process of investigation and the search for truth. Communications research allows you to examine issues in depth, and I’ve always found that satisfying. The data tells a story and it is always interesting to dive deeper and explore underlying themes and emerging trends. Many people talk about the “a-ha! moments,” and I agree that these are motivating and memorable. But for me, seeing our team members evolve and building relationships within the industry are the big reasons I love what I do.

—TMS: What advice do you have for young people who are considering entering the field?

—KS: It is a cliché but my advice is to be passionate about what you do. Make sure you’re doing what you love with people who support you in an environment where you can thrive. If you have these three covered, you’ll be unstoppable.

“My strategy for tricky audiences and projects is preparation. I never “wing” presentations no matter how small. I make sure I have complete confidence in my material and I spend time going the extra distance with background research.”

—TMS: Would you advise our early-career readers to move between companies to advance their careers?

—KS: I think this is something that younger people are doing naturally anyway. For my own career, staying in the same organisation and moving within it to develop different skills really helped me progress. It is whatever works for the individual.

—TMS: When a client (or your boss) asks you to do measurement or evaluation in a way that you know to be misguided, how do you handle it?

—KS: It can be difficult to navigate at times. Our Insights team were fortunate enough to be trained by Professor Jim Macnamara (Ed’s note: see his Measurement Life interview) and this early training fostered our commitment to best practice. We are always grateful for this foundation and his guidance. It gives us confidence to push back on misguided requests and point our clients in the right direction.

Khali-Sakkas-AMEC-Summit-presentation—TMS: Suppose you have to address a tough audience about a tricky project. What A-game presentation techniques will you bring to the meeting?

—KS: I often think I was much better when I was younger because I was fearless and didn’t over-think presentations. My strategy for tricky audiences and projects is preparation. I never “wing” presentations no matter how small. I make sure I have complete confidence in my material and I spend time going the extra distance with background research. It’s also important to be yourself in front of your audience. Authenticity is key.

—TMS: What are your favorite measurement tools or projects?

—KS: The most exciting projects I’ve been involved with have used data to make a difference in our community or help our clients do so. For example, our research on the coverage of sport showed that only nine percent of all sports coverage featured female athletes. The research was the first of its kind and was a call to action for the media, sporting organisations, and athletes to address under-resourcing and under-representation of women in sport.

Our latest project (written by one of my colleagues, Dr. Kate Greenwood) examines the role of women in news media. Our comprehensive analysis showed that women are underrepresented as journalists, and that there is significant disparity between the number of male and female sources and experts in the news. Overall, women represented just 22.6 percent of all sources quoted in the news, while men made up 77.4 percent. This important research is being used by the Women in Media organisation to campaign for action on the gender pay gap, improved procedures to deal with social media harassment, and anti-discrimination policies to be put into practice. (Click here to look at the research report.)

—TMS: Tell us a story of when you used measurement or evaluation to significantly improve a client’s program. Yes, when you were the hero; go ahead and brag.

—KS: I’m very proud to be part of a team who produce work that helps to inform strategy and create positive change. Our long-standing relationship with the Australian Paralympic Committee is a great example of how measurement and evaluation can help to demonstrate success as well as provide the right data to confidently change media strategy. For more details on this case study, see: How the APC used data to change its media strategy for Rio.

—TMS: Where are measurement and evaluation going? What great strides do you see in your crystal ball?

—KS: I see integration as the major driver of change in our industry. I believe the businesses that help clients thrive in an integrated landscape will lead the way in the next five years. Communications and marketing will become increasingly connected, campaigns are already running over many different media types and platforms, and measurement will need to report seamlessly across paid, owned, earned and shared. The AMEC Integrated Evaluation Framework is a great stride, and I hope we can make it an industry standard.

—TMS: And how about you: what’s the next step in your career? Where would you like to be 5 or 10 years from now? What efforts will you have to make to get there?

Ohhhh, I love this question! But I do have to be careful because my CEO is an avid reader of The Measurement Standard and may be intimidated by my ambition. Seriously though, my five-year plan is to grow into my current role and transform our Insights Team and our services. We have developed a 2020 plan and I’m thoroughly engaged in delivering all of the initiates we’ve mapped out. My ten-year plan may include more study, perhaps an MBA?

— TMS: If you could invent one magical measurement or evaluation tool to accomplish anything, what would it be?

—KS:  If I had one wish, it would be that no one invents one magical tool. It would take all of the fun out of it! Although… now I’m thinking about it… I’d love to be able to clone media analysts and data analysts and have an “outcomes” button on my keyboard (the big one next to outputs).

—TMS: Thanks for the interview, Khali, all the best.

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Bill Paarlberg
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Bill Paarlberg

Bill Paarlberg co-founded The Measurement Standard in 2002 and has been the editor ever since. He has been writing about public relations measurement for 25 years. He is editor of the award-winning "Measuring the Networked Nonprofit" by Beth Kanter and Katie Paine, and editor of two other books on measurement by Katie Paine, "Measure What Matters" and "Measuring Public Relationships." Visit Bill Paarlberg's page on LinkedIn.
Bill Paarlberg
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