When Freddy Tse left school in 1997, the local economy was heading down the drain. His master's qualification in China studies should have helped him find a real niche but dozens of job applications failed to trigger any response. The situation did not leave him disillusioned though. Rather, it spurred him on. So, when Asian marketing and research consultancy firm Acorn offered him the job of research executive, he took it.
"During the interview, our group director sat with me for two hours, explaining details of the job. Initially, he got me interested," says Mr Tse, who is now an Acorn research director. "I thought I'd give myself a couple of years to learn the trade and move on, but before long I found my place in the company and my interest in marketing and research grew."
In fact, the nature of the job put him right into the frame of a familiar academic milieu. In particular, he was acquainted with the breadth and depth of research methodologies during his study; and soon after signing on with Acorn he was spending some two thirds of his time travelling to and from mainland China. There was even an opportunity to relocate to the company's newly established mainland office earlier in 2002, but this offer he gratefully declined. "All things considered, family first," says Mr Tse.
Starting a career in the fast-paced, multifaceted market research industry can be tough but confident go-getters like Mr Tse take hardship in their stride, eventually reaping the rewards.
He cautions however that new joiners must come prepared: "Expect to run quite a lot of errands to start with," he says. These may include following up quotations, project coordination and internal liaison, among other duties.
"As soon as you get the hang of all these, there'll be reports to compile, focus groups to lead and debriefings to conduct," he adds. "There'll be times you find yourself arriving in the office at 10 o'clock in the morning and having supper around midnight, still in the office."
Early exposure to client servicing makes up part of the training for which Mr Tse is particularly thankful. "We are meeting clients with a manager during the initial year to learn about client servicing, giving presentations and debriefing. No fledglings can do without such pragmatic learning experience."
These activities constituted the early build-up of professional skills that Mr Tse is able to demonstrate today. "We build all-rounders here," he stresses. "And it takes time for one to accrue the industry know-how and mature."
"It takes time for one to accrue the industry know-how and mature"
A competent researcher is often considered a trusted business consultant who possesses a wealth of expertise especially in areas like brand positioning and marketing. "We take an active stance in advising clients on the most appropriate research methodologies. We also provide training to client companies' new recruits," he adds.
Reading helps boost cognitive skills and Mr Tse feeds his business genie off best sellers like Blink, The Tipping Point, Secrets of the Millionaire Mind, Six Thinking Hats, The Five People You Meet in Heaven and Blue Ocean Strategy. "Business highflyers read these to probe into the clients' minds," he remarks. "Although you will also find the gossip columns strangely edifying at times."
He points out that researchers must also make it a habit to decipher the key messages from a piece of seemingly straightforward information and identify any hidden agenda or implications.
Acorn's flat organisational hierarchy allows Mr Tse a high level of autonomy and ample opportunities to get involved. "I love getting hands-on," he emphasises. "This keeps my finger on the pulse."
Every Acorn research director manages a business portfolio comprising around 20 major clients. Maintaining constructive, long-term relationships with clients is central to the job. "The bulk of what we do comes down to protecting our clients' best interests. For instance, we never advise them to go over the top with their research," Mr Tse notes.
He adds that Acorn's emphasis on developing deep generalists makes every research director a multidimensional operator. "Our client portfolio covers an array of industries, ranging from consumer products such as soft drinks to fast-food restaurants and exclusive products targeting affluent customers — that's basically any industry you can think of," he says.
Such diversity in the clientele plus experience in market research leads to many possibilities. "People crave cross-industry exposure. Our role as intelligent workers implies that the more resourceful you are, the more valuable you become," Mr Tse explains. "You may one day find yourself faced with a myriad of options like marketing, brand management, business development and even general management."