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Research and development

Published on Friday, 16 Nov 2012
Ipsos staff (from left to right) Ting Chin, Sarah Li, Darlene Lee and Hiroe Li have to think logically to fulfil client requests.
Photo: Berton Chang

After 20 years of working in Asia, followed by seven years in the US, Darlene Lee returned to Asia last year to head up the Hong Kong office of Ipsos. As manager director of the market research giant, she talks to Classified Post about the business, her hiring plans and what she looks for in job candidates.

What does Ipsos do?
As a methodology, we do primary data collection. But in terms of what we provide for our clients, we do data synthesising. The advice we give is based on what consumers think, feel, do, want to do, or even don’t want to do.

There are two main sides to this business. There is the syndicated-research side, where huge surveys are conducted and clients buy access to those surveys without being able to say how the research is done.

Then there’s custom or ad hoc research. These surveys are proprietary to the client that designs and pays for them. That changes the kind of person that needs to be involved in executing the survey.

Somebody whose job it is to keep things going the same way year after year, where minute incremental changes will cause disruption to the data, has to have a certain kind of discipline, focus and commitment to process. That is very different from the type of person that we hire, who could be working on 10 different projects for 10 different clients at once.

Agency life is hard work. It’s almost never nine to five, and we have deadlines all days long.

What sort of research do you currently focus on?
In Hong Kong, because it’s a very mature market, there’s a lot more focus on satisfaction, point of sale and delivery of the service experience. Clients often want to know if their staff are happy, if their clients are happy, if their guests are happy, and if they’re seen to have done what they said they would do.

Those areas are bigger in Hong Kong than in most other markets. If you compare and contrast with China, for example, there isn’t as much product testing.

Here it’s not so much about new launches or new product concepts, but more about how you can improve things, how you can improve against your competitors, how you can get consumers to switch to your brand and how you can get consumers to stay with your brand.

What areas of research will grow in the medium term?
I don’t know if we think that much in the medium term. I run a business that runs on 90-day windows, because we’re a publicly listed company.

What formal education do you look for in job candidates?
I don’t actually believe in hiring on degrees. I think that lots of people do the same degree for lots of different reasons.

What’s more important are the skills and aptitudes you have. Those things are going to determine how easy it is for you to be competent in this field, regardless of where it’s going. Research is not going to change. It’s been done the same way since the advent of market research in the 1800s.

It’s important for me to find people who can logically work out answers to management-consultant case-study questions, like: how many car tyres there are in Hong Kong? They have to know how to break it down. I’m looking for staff who think this is an entertaining exercise. If someone is going to find that arduous or impossible, they’re not going to enjoy their day-to-day life here.

We need people to think about things. We need people who continually think about how to improve things, people who can figure out how to get the number they’re looking for. People that can figure out what else they should look at to figure out why a number might be unexpectedly high or unexpectedly low. It’s like sleuthing – you have to figure out.

Are you hiring at the moment?
We’re always hiring. I’m always doing interviews just to meet people, even if I don’t have an immediate position for them.

What’s a typical career path for new entry-level hires?
We have a specific progress framework that we give to all staff members. At a junior level what’s important is being able to manage details, deliver projects on time and manage communications. You need to show the ability to manage the tactical aspects of a project from start to finish.

Then you have to transition from managing projects to managing accounts. This transition is something on which we’ve only recently started to train people. An account manager needs to have a much broader view of things. They don’t only manage projects, they build relationship networks, keep updated about developments in the client’s industry, and look around for new solutions and ideas.

Once you’ve gone through that phase, you move on to actually managing a business.

What training do you offer?
We do a lot of technical training for the research specialisations in which we have global representatives. There’s also technical training from members of the team here. So whether training is needed for analytics or questionnaire design or statistical analysis, there’s always someone in-house who can deliver it. 

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