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Saturday July 21, 2012

KL office to play a bigger role in the enlarged Ipsos network

IPSOS Malaysia managing director Steve Murphy thinks what has happened to him over the last year was “slightly strange.”

“It is like I bought a new house but then moved back to the old house,” he tells StarBizWeek in an interview.

The Brit came to Malaysia in 2001 as managing director of research agency Synovate. He left Synovate in 2010 after some disagreement on Synovate’s global philosophy and set up the new Kuala Lumpur office for rival international research firm Ipsos, which he says allows “reasonable” autonomy for their chiefs in the respective countries.

Murphy: ‘Malaysia has become a focal point for the regional and global activities.’

Last year, Paris-listed Ipsos bought Synovate for US$761mil to create the world’s third largest market research company, and Murphy found himself back at his old office in Menara IGB, Mid Valley!

Murphy takes everything in stride. He has spent the first half of this year inculcating the Ipsos business model among the staff of 275 (there was little duplication of work from the merger so most of the former Synovate staff were maintained) and making sure that the clients do not experience any service disruption. Ipsos stands out among other research companies by having a model based on research specialisation. The traditional model is to base account servicing on sectors such as banking and fast-moving consumer goods.

Would the clients see different teams servicing their accounts now under the specialist model? “We try to keep some senior people working on the accounts whom the clients like, irrespective of specialisation, to ensure continuity and the same (high-level) support. Hopefully, as long as the people are good and very responsive from one research unit to another, clients won’t see that (being serviced by different teams) as a negative, as they begin to interact with people who are specialists rather than generalists,” he says.

He adds that he hopes to deepen Ipsos’ relationships with its core top 20 clients.

Ipsos’ original focus was the main business and Malaysian clients. But now that Ipsos Malaysia is no longer only 20 people and has absorbed Synovate’s units, Murphy is also promoting Malaysia as a regional and even global hub for the Ipsos network.

He says that about 100 of its staff are part of the KL Offshore Global Hub, which comprises different units serving different parts of the global network.

About half of them are doing data processing for various countries around the region. Among them are people involved in online project management or programming for different markets in the region such as Hong Kong, Australia and Japan. Another group is doing programming on an interactive voice response (IVR) platform for data collection, which covers mobile phones. The final group is specialising in analytics for the healthcare sector globally, including the UK and the United States, and for innovation forecasting.

“Therefore, Malaysia has become a focal point for the regional and global activities, and that is good because Malaysia is a great place for language and cost of living is not high,” Murphy says. “Factor favourable to Malaysia include the economy is relatively stable, inflation is predictable from year to year, and we can get strong, fairly-driven people.”

Murphy wants to expand the hub in Malaysia to become an increasingly important part of the Ipsos’ global operating philosophy and approach, saying that the KL office has a strong role to play for the overall network.

“It is not the easiest times in Europe and the United States now, so as time goes by, Ipsos’ offices there will need efficiencies in cost or manpower. They can in-source to places like Malaysia where the relative cost is lower and the quality is high,” he says.

He also highlights the “massive potential” of doing more online work for Japan and South Korea by becoming an extension of the Ipsos teams there.

He notes that the core of Ipsos Malaysia’s business is still locally-driven with its diverse domestic client base. “The key focus is still Malaysian-commissioned projects.”

In the next two years, Murphy also wants to build the company’s communications research sector, grouping people involved in advertising pre-testing and post-testing. Murphy wants to leverage new technological solutions. Surveys in Malaysia are still mostly done by relatively traditional means such as pen-and-paper and fixed-line telephone. Ipsos is moving towards computer-assisted personal interviewing or CAPI – ie interviewers use portable devices - and mobile phone interviews.

“I’d love it to be fully CAPI for face-to-face interviews by end of next year,” he says.

On his top challenge in the merger transition period, Murphy says it was transferring the internal system. “The main challenge for me was to make sure that it didn’t impact the external view and our clients didn’t see any negativity associated with the integration.”

The revenue of the combined companies in Malaysia rose in the first half of the year. “Normally what happens with acquisitions is that the revenues go down because there can be distractions. Ipsos’ business in many markets in Asia-Pacific was also showing net gain versus 2011,” he says.

According to him, the research industry in Malaysia is typically robust with an annual growth of 4% to 6%.

His target for Ipsos Malaysia’s external clients is to grow its total revenue by 5% to 10% by year-end to about RM45mil. For the internal/hub business (ie business from other Ipsos offices), it would be 15% to 20% higher to RM7mil-RM8mil.

On his vision after the merger, Murphy says the mandate is still to be the best, with the right quality of system in place and people with the right and pro-active attitude for clients.

He reiterates essentially what he had told this reporter in an interview last year before the Ipsos-Synovate merger: “Being the biggest is not the objective, but if we become the biggest by being the best, then all the better.”

He wants to see a strong, positive internal culture. As a physical embodiment of the culture, he has even transferred the large picture of a zebra that used to be on the wall of the previous Ipsos office to the reception area of the current office.

“It symbolises, in my mind, being a bit different and standing out from the crowd by our internal culture – being responsive to clients and being very involved in their business.” Murphy says.