FEATURE10 August 2010

Synovate’s Ben Llewellyn maps out the Malaysian market

Features People

The average researcher won’t have to plot a journey down rivers and through jungles to carry out a mystery shopping visit, but that is exactly the sort of challenge that working in Malaysia presents. Research spoke to Synovate’s new managing director for the country, Ben Llewellyn, to find out more about the Malaysian market, the challenges it faces and what the future holds.

Llewellyn joined Synovate in 2003 following spells in the UK with TNS and Mori. He was made Malaysian MD last month.

How did you end up in Malaysia and what is it that has kept you there?
I felt a change was needed. I was working in the UK in what was a very saturated employment market at the time and I felt that Asia in general was where the action would be. I also wanted to experience new ways of working and different perspectives both in and out of the workplace. I’m now in my seventh year and enjoy it as much as I did in my first year – I’d have absolutely no hesitation in recommending it as a place to live both from a working and personal perspective.

Describe the research industry there…
The research industry has matured considerably over the past five years but there is still some way to go in terms of building the talent base of researchers on both the agency and client side. Few clients have specific research functions therefore a lot of time is spent educating on best practice with respect to the whole research process. 

How did the recession affect Malaysia?
Like everywhere globally, we were not untouched, but my feeling is that Malaysia was not affected as badly as many others. Certainly some sectors were hit harder than others and many clients were more cautious with budgets, especially in the early part of 2009. However, indications are that the country has recovered in a positive manner and we are optimistic going forwards.

What are the unique challenges in the Malaysian research industry?
Malaysia has a very diverse cultural base that includes Malays, Chinese and Indians. This means everything we do is done in multiples. For example, you have to write three questionnaires (one for each language) and you have to track three versions of the same ad (all the same ad but different copy). Furthermore, the dos and don’ts with each ethnic group in terms of what you can and can’t talk about make it a very interesting and sometimes challenging place to do work. For example, don’t expect in the state of Kuantan to be able to mix Malay males and females in focus groups, this just won’t work for cultural reasons.  Do make sure that when you are speaking to Chinese respondents you are aware of the numerous different dialects that they may wish to converse in, such as Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien and so on… All of this calls for a lot of extra planning. 

Geography is also a challenge as we do work in East Malaysia (part of Borneo) which can involve five hour journeys through jungle and rivers to do one mystery shop.

What are the big issues facing the Malaysian industry?
As with many less developed markets in Asia, the one recurring question is ‘What are we going to do about online?’ While all the major agencies have the capabilities there is still only a very small proportion of data collection done this way.  At the moment, because of low online penetration (approx 30%), the majority of data collection is done the traditional way with an equal split of telephone and face to face interviews. With the government’s stated goal of widespread internet availability, I would expect this mix to change over the next few years.

I also think industry awareness and understanding is a big issue. Many have no idea what market research is or its purpose. We (and I mean all research agencies) need to take on more responsibility to build this.

Do clients have a different attitude to research or have different expectations from their agency?
Clients are increasingly seeing research as an integral piece of their marketing plans and therefore their demands are simultaneously increasing in terms of their requirements for insights at breakneck speed accompanied by competitive costs. That in itself is no different to most markets, but in Malaysia it is requiring the agencies to adopt and review their mindsets.

Is there much competition between local firms and global agencies?
In Malaysia, market share is dominated by the global agencies but we are finding that local boutique agencies are becoming more prevalent and confident in their offerings.  I think this trend will only grow in the coming years.

Many global companies also have a presence in Malaysia with some of them even establishing regional research hubs in Kuala Lumpur.  A relatively low-cost labour hub coupled with strong IT infrastructure is making Malaysia an attractive business destination.  We are certainly seeing many more ‘multi-country studies’ where Malaysia acts as the coordinating base.

Are more ‘outside’ agencies looking to take a foothold in the country?
Yes, in the last couple of years we have had two large global agencies set-up a presence in Malaysia and there are still one or two others that are not present. I’m sure it won’t be long before we have the full set.

Which methodologies are proving popular with clients and in which sectors?
We are finding that qualitative is growing very fast and this is down to two factors in my opinion. Firstly, your qual team is only as good as the researchers that are in it. We have a very strong team who are consistently producing great work. Secondly, clients are slowly becoming brave enough to move away from what I would call ‘safety in numbers’: i.e. quantitative. No doubt quant work remains very important, but the full benefits of qual are now being fully embraced.

Where do you think the industry in Malaysia will be in the next five years?
I think the industry will have moved on considerably by 2015. If I look at the steps that the research industry and more pertinently, Malaysia as a whole has taken over the last decade, I see no reason why it can’t position itself as one of the strongest research markets in the region.

1 Comment

10 years ago

Interesting article

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