2008 Year End Staff Satisfaction Survey

At the close of 2008, Asia Research undertook a survey of staff working in the market research industry in Asia.  The objectives of the survey were to measure staff satisfaction with their employers and salaries paid across various management levels.  It also dontevaluated the general dynamics of the research job market such as staff mobility, the motives underlying why people would switch jobs or stay, and also the job scope of market researchers in Asia today.

This survey was administered on-line and attracted 368 participants to the self-complete survey across 15 Asian markets.  Although many research firms conduct their own internal staff surveys, the Asia Research survey was one of the first cross-industry surveys undertaken that allowed results to be compared between the various types of employer in the industry.  It also included people working client-side, e.g. market research managers within organizations that commission and use research.

The survey attracted participants across all management levels, and also those within support functions such as field, data processing, HR, IT, etc.

The key findings from the survey revealed:

  • A very sharp contrast in satisfaction between senior and junior management levels
  • Lower satisfaction levels and higher likelihood to leave employment among those working for the largest agencies
  • Under-representation of women at senior management levels, and higher likelihood of women to shift jobs, many attracted to client-side positions
  • A dearth of local research talent at middle management levels, many of which are filled by expatriates

The Research Business:

Market researchers are involved in a range of duties from project and field management, client servicing, analysis and reporting, and general management responsibility such as HR and profit centre management at the more senior levels.

Furthermore, many researchers are actively involved in sales and marketing.  At middle management levels and above, over half of researchers are involved in this activity taking up nearly a third of their time.  Even though the research business is quite young in Asia, and growing faster than other regions, the results indicate that the business is becoming highly competitive with many companies expecting staff at middle and even junior levels to sell.

Even though companies are asking their staff to both sell and deliver on projects, most maintain demarcations between their quantitative and qualitative research functions.  Only about a third (35%) of quantitative researchers are also involved in qualitative research and even fewer undertake depth interviewing or group moderation.  This lack of job variety can potentially frustrate researchers, but could also prevent them from cross-selling research services to clients effectively, or selling a more holistic research solution to fit clients’ overall research-based business objectives.

Furthermore, more than half of researchers below the level of Project Director are denied direct contact with clients.  Anecdotal evidence suggests that some of the larger companies are raising this bar such that client contact might only be ‘allowed’ at Associate Director or above.  Although there is some argument for this policy, this does not give junior or middle management researchers the opportunity to develop their client servicing skills let alone their salesmanship.

Staff Churn:

The survey exposed a significant shortage of researchers at middle management level.  This is revealed by more expatriate employees encountered from levels of Project Manager to Associate Director – typically people with 5-10 years experience.  Employment of expatriates is both expensive and occasionally problematic, some of these issues having been explored in earlier editions of Asia Research.  What underlies this is the loss of mainly female agency-side researchers half way through their career.  Women are in the majority at junior management levels, but then are ‘lost’ at middle to senior levels.

From the survey itself, there is no obvious reason why women should be more vulnerable to leaving their employers than men since their satisfaction ratings overall are actually higher.  Their satisfaction is also higher than men on specifics such as job security, promotion prospects, working environment, relationship with line manager, and leadership of their organization.

However among women there is a strong draw to working client-side and in fact most (72%) of client-side researchers are women.  This does raise several questions as to why women do not continue careers agency-side, and their preference for client-side roles.  Theories are sometimes controversial, with some suggesting that male dominated senior management encountered in agencies might discriminate against women.  Others have suggested that agency-side work does not fit well with women who have children due to long hours and some lack of flexibility among research companies, e.g. not allowing them to return to work on a part time basis after maternity leave.  Indeed only a third of women in senior management roles in agencies have any children at all, and only a quarter of female Managing Directors.

Notably people working client-side are more satisfied with their working hours, so this provides a good indicator of the family friendliness of client-side research positions over agency-side.

However, it should be remembered that a baby break for women can simply act as a ‘trigger’ to a career change.  Whether by intention to start a family or other, the survey showed that fewer women are fully committed to their employer than men with only about 40% expecting to be with their company in 2 years time compared to 50% of men.  The client-side draw is there, but so too is the option of going freelance with all the flexibility of being your own boss.

Big 5 Blues:

Job satisfaction builds with seniority, a pattern often seen in careers as dissatisfied employees simply leave the industry.  However, the disparity in satisfaction between junior and senior management is quite noticeable and is higher than surveys conducted in other service industries such as accounting.

The survey also revealed that those working for one of the Big 5 agencies (Nielsen, Synovate, TNS, Research International, or Millward Brown) have lower satisfaction compared to those working for other types of agency.  Only 27% were satisfied compared to about 40% for other agencies.  Those working for the Big 5 also show the least commitment to their employer with a third of staff expecting to leave their employer in the next 2 years.

Employees of the Big 5 are more dissatisfied with promotion prospects, leadership, working environment, and in particular working hours.  Some have commented that the pressure on large agencies to increase revenue has resulted in them chasing every bit of work, reducing margins on projects to win these, and consequently staff having to deliver these in overtime for which they are not compensated for.

Perhaps surprisingly those working for the Big 5 agencies are also more dissatisfied with basic salary and bonuses, and unlike independent firms cannot be retained through the potential opportunity of being given equity in their company.

Although large agencies might dismiss these differences as being the halo effect of small, fun, independent agencies, the worry for the Big 5 is that their nearest competitors (being other large groups of other multi-national research agencies) scored some of the highest satisfaction ratings in the survey.  Hence two groups of companies with similar infrastructure and similar positioning in the market are delivering quite different staff satisfaction results.

With independent agencies, the picture is somewhat reversed although less severe, with local agencies scoring better than international independent agencies.  The local agencies perform better on independence / autonomy, job flexibility, leadership, training, bonuses, and equity potential.

Despite the implications of these findings, the Big 5 agencies can still rely on a supply of candidates for employment, particularly at more junior levels.  The survey revealed that many people joined a Big 5 agency because of their training programs.  Despite this, satisfaction with training in the Big 5 is not any higher than among employees of the other agencies.

Even though young researchers can get ‘burnt out’ quickly in their relatively short careers in the Big 5 agencies, there are still people who will to come in at middle or senior levels who simply prefer ‘big company’ working cultures.  Even among those working client-side, the preferred destination (if they were to move back into agency-side research) would be one of the larger research firms as opposed to a smaller independent firm.

The Rewards:

The Asia Research staff survey also set about recording salaries and benefits at different management levels across Asia.  One of the challenges of this survey was to try and establish common job titles across companies and markets.  In Australia, for example, a Project Manager’s salary ranged from AU$ 2,000-2,999 per month to AU$6,000-6,999 per month (about USD 1,400-2,100 to USD 4,200- 4,900 per month).  Furthermore in some countries like India, a Senior Researcher appeared more senior than a Project Manager, whereas in most SE Asian markets the ‘Manager’ would be more senior than the ‘Researcher’.

We also see some major outliers and differences in salary levels for those holding more senior titles.  It should be noted that these outliers can be due to expatriates on high salaries at Associate Director or Director level.  We also see Managing Directors of start-up companies or very small local companies drawing a modest salary, but perhaps on high commission or otherwise compensated with equity and dividend payments.

The survey revealed large disparities in salaries across markets for junior levels, and then some convergence at middle and senior levels.  For many emerging markets (where employment opportunities for graduates can be limited), salaries can be very low.  Ironically though, these emerging markets had some of the highest salaries for the most senior staff, which exceed those in Western markets!

This was one of the most significant findings from the survey.  Even in markets where there are still generally good employment prospects like Singapore and Malaysia, someone who sticks at the career and reaches the level of Director can earn eight to ten times that of someone at entry level.

They don’t even need to wait that long for the rewards either – let’s compare two research markets: the UK and Singapore.  The UK is the largest research market by GDP in the world.  The unit costs of research in the UK are perhaps 1.5 to 2 times that of Singapore.  In Singapore, an entry level researcher earns less than their counterparts in the UK at about S$25,000 to S$30,000 a year or about £11,400 to £13,600 a year, actually not that much lower in light of Sterling’s recent fall in value!

But the researcher in Singapore can expect to double their salary in 5 years upon reaching the level of Project Manager, and double it again in another 5 years upon reaching the level of Associate Director.  If they show talent they could expect to reach the level of Director within another 5 years and see their salary double yet again.  Compare this to the UK where similar jumps in management level would be rewarded with only half this pay rise, meaning Directors in Singapore earn more than their counterparts in the UK.

More significantly Directors in even lower cost research markets such as Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines can earn as many £ Sterling as a Director in London.  Take into consideration the much higher costs and personal taxation of the UK, it is not surprising that expatriates are flocking to Asia to fill those gaps left by people departing middle market positions.

China and Singapore have some of the highest proportions of expatriates.  In China this is partly due to the rate of growth of the research market which cannot be met by the supply of local staff.  Singapore is attractive for low taxation, expatriate friendly environment, and its developed economy.  The Philippines and Korea did not have any expatriates in our survey and these locations are still generally considered to be hard-ship assignments.  However, with the soaring crime rate in London even Manila might become an attractive option!