The Talent Gap in Asia-Pac….The Noose Tightens.

It wasn’t just the rapid economic growth in Asia-Pacific’s research industry’s first 20 years which caused demand to outstrip the supply of trained researchers. Three other key elements interacted to keep downward pressure on the depth of expertise available, namely:-

  1. Rationalisation and polarisation due to successive waves of merger and acquisition, where 6-7 companies now cover half the industry’s revenue.
  2. The increasing complexity of the services from agencies and the skills needed to deliver them
  3. The trend within the client (researcher buyer) community over the past 15-20 years to move from local, to regional, to global decision-making in the marketing function.

    Plenty of Consumers, but where's the Market Researchers? (c) A.Gordon 2007.

The implications of these “big-picture” structural changes are not as obvious as the “demand/supply” issue, but they have had an equally dramatic effect, so it’s worth looking at each of these in turn:-

Nowadays, those who work for large research agencies rarely work with a director early in their career but more likely with a manager who will not be as experienced or expert. By contrast, many of the leading researchers in Europe learnt their skills when companies were smaller so received good training from directors directly. At the other end of the spectrum in Asia today, those working with the smaller, usually more specialist or ‘niche’ agencies, will work direct with a senior, even the proprietor. They get the higher level of mentoring but often over a spectrum too narrow on which to build a long term career.

The increasing complexity has extended the skill set needed. Historically, a quantitative researcher skills involved questionnaire design, understanding basic stats, and assembling a reasonable set of presentation charts. They would have had 2-3 years to learn these ‘craft skills’, before moving on to writing proposals, selling, and business development. Today, the entrant need these craft skills just to get started then has to understand them in the context of the operations and marketing of their agency’s advanced analysis techniques and product portfolio (whether it be the Conversion Model, Snapshot, Winning Brands, the Link Test etc.). In other words, today market research is a much bigger learning task.

Research buyers’ habits have impacted expertise and the exposure a typical market research industry entrant will receive in their first 3-5 years. Until regionalisation and then globalisation, clients in Asia generally bought research on a national basis. Country managers or marketing directors chose their agency roster and specified their demands for the research they needed. Thus, client research heads were well versed in research fundamentals, not only to brief and choose agencies, but to guide the brand managers on how to use their budgets. Also, agencies pitched to any client on any area of marketing if they felt they could win the business. With the advent of clients’ global rosters and pre-selected methodologies (e.g. ASI for ad testing, BASES for concept screening etc) the need to learn the broader gamut of approaches declined at the client side and the opportunity to design ‘original’ research from first principles fell on the agency side.

Yet, while the opportunities for exposure to a broad understanding of market research methods and processes has declined for many young Asian researchers, there has not been a concomitant increase in opportunities to acquire in-depth, specialist knowledge of “niche research” areas. While there are exceptions, the mid-level “specialist” research companies which are such an important feature of the European and US scene are yet to achieve significant penetration in most Asian markets.  All this simply makes it harder to build a “rounded” research career.

In fact it can be argued that Asia-Pacific has gone from a region where you had the opportunity to build your research career on broad based experience and exposure to one where in many places the opportunities have been reduced. This is compounded as fewer overseas experts are sent out from head offices with a brief to fast-track high level local senior managers in favour of those whose role is more strongly linked to servicing global clients rather than skills development.

Even those developed markets whose history in research is longer are not immune to the trends that can erode the core of expertise. The impact of out-sourcing from high cost to lower cost, high quality locations has yet to crystallise. However, a great many of the functions on which trainee researchers would once have been employed (questionnaire design, table specifications, presentation preparation etc) have been shipped from markets like Australia and Japan to India and the Philippines. Will this reduce the demand for trainees in economically developed markets and so cut off the supply of future managers and research leaders resulting in the same challenges the rest of Asia has today?

So, what are the next steps and how do we address the issues to get ahead of the curve instead of chasing the tail? In the next blog we advocate the roles that the agencies, major, minor, niche or whatever, the industry bodies, both national and international, and the major users can play to raise the game, the standard, and the value of market research in the region that played a major role in fending off the worst of the GFC and which will drive economic growth and development globally for years to come.

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