Maggie Ireri is the newest face of opinion polls in Kenya. Being an election year, she knows that every time she releases the quarterly poll, she will make headlines in nine of 10 times. She started releasing polls after American consultant Dr Tom Wolf took a sabbatical.
“The company had to release the poll results and I had to do it.”
Maggie describes herself using three adjectives – a researcher, mentor and an ambitious woman.
She has 13 years experience in research under her belt and is currently the Managing Director of Ipsos Synovate (formally Steadman), a position she has held for over one year.
Steadman is a research company that was set up by Roger Steadman in 1982.
“At least he can now have his name back!” jokes Maggie as she tells me about the company’s recent acquisition by Ipsos.
In 2008, Steadman was acquired by American research firm Synovate.
“Over time as Steadman grew, two multi-nationals approached us for acquisitions and negotiations but we were hesitant because we felt they were not the right partners,” she explains.
Steadman (the company) knew that if they did not find a suitable partner, they would become irrelevant. Globally, the trend among research companies is acquisitions and mergers for organic growth and soon after Synovate (listed on the London Stock Exchange), acquired Steadman. A new partner called Ipsos came calling.
“Multi-nationals have tools, technology and models for research and they are global. When we met Synovate, we felt it was a good fit. They had the same culture and behaviour as Steadman. At some point Ipsos approached Synovate and now we are Ipsos Synovate.” The two founder members of Ipsos and Synovate are still alive. Mr Steadman is still part of the business.
Maggie notes that selling off a company is one principle of entrepreneurship.
What can local entrepreneurs learn from Steadman-Synovate-lpsos history?
“Build a company, build its financial value and strong corporate brand and one day investors will approach you to buy it,” she says, noting that setting up a new company is very hard. The first thing a multi-national will do is shop around.
Maggie the leader
As a leader of East Africa’s largest research firm, Maggie says her management style is empowering people.
“I am not on this job forever and I must ensure that the company can run whether I am here or not. When I am working with people, I delegate tasks gradually and over time my team has become more empowered. If I can get others to do what I do, it means I can look for more challenging things within the organisation.”
Maggie notes that over 50 per cent of employees at Ipsos Synovate are generation Y.
“I have had to think like them; I am very active on social media. Generation Y want to be engaged, you don’t tell them what to do, you engage them.”
The other thing that keeps her awake at night is; “Innovation or lack of it. I took over the company a year ago and I always ask myself what I will do to take it to the next level. What legacy will I leave?”
Maggie has advice for new CEOs and people recently promoted to senior leadership. “Get a coach!”
Maggie was the Business Development Director before replacing the then CEO George Waititu who retired. She says it was a whole different ball game for her.
“Being at the top is very lonely. You are the one who drives the vision of the company, motivates staff and pulls your team forward. When everyone in your team is demotivated, you are the one to lift them up,” she says adding that as a leader, one must never compromise and this involves making tough decisions.
Apart from having a coach, Maggie regularly seeks the counsel of other CEOs who have been on the job longer. She reads a lot to keep abreast with latest trends in research. Her role of releasing opinion polls has motivated her to read books about Kenyan history, autobiographies and understanding human behaviour.
The latter, she says, has taught her how to deal with people.
She admits that as CEO, her interaction with people has changed.
“People are more cautious when interacting with me. I also took time to adjust to the new personality and role. Socially, it can be a bit lonely because in the past, I would get regular calls from friends inviting me to social events. Now the calls are fewer because they see me on the media and assume I am very busy.”
Despite the new demanding status, Maggie loves the challenge. “In this job, there is never enough time so I wake up earlier (by 5am) and from 6.30 am, I start working from home. I get to the office at 8 am and leave at 5 pm. If I have a morning meeting, I compensate the time in the evening.”
At the office, Maggie operates an open door policy for her team to discuss and consult with her. She admits that she is a workaholic on Monday to Friday afternoon.
“During the weekend, it is very hard to get me working. I do not even read my emails on my Blackberry.”
Her Friday afternoons are dedicated to mentoring young people in various universities.
For a vibrant organisation like Ipsos Synovate where a lot is happening, Maggie manages expectations by communicating clearly and regularly to her team. She also has to contend with societal expectations. “People tell me I look young and I say I am 37!” However, she views being young as a good challenge because it helps her prepare thoroughly for all meetings and she ensures she has information at her finger tips.
“That is why I read a lot, wake up early and strive to perform tasks much faster. I must cut my own clothe and fit in my space!”
According to Maggie, it takes about three years before you can see the impact of a new leader.
Evolution of market research
“A brief would come from the global office then a staff from the global office would come down and brief us. Sometimes they would also invite a person from the Kenya office. After the research, we would send the report directly to the global team. We had very limited interaction with the local team. The global team would then communicate the findings to the local team.”
She is appreciative of such clients who are still their clients to-date for teaching the Steadman team the nuts and bolts of market research.
Back then, nobody knew how to conduct research in East Africa, International companies would travel to Kenya with prepared questionnaires and take the local research company through the research process.
“Market research was more of a global decision that was meant to add value to global brands and global managers.”
Maggie says there is no school that teaches practical research. “It was more of a collaborative relationship. There were times we would collect the data and they taught us how to analyse, write reports then over time we became better. She notes that research theory and practice are very different.
“When you get to the ground and have a practical experience, that is when you realise that whatever you learnt in class or read is actually very different. For example, there are text books that say if you achieve a minimum sample size of 10 per cent of your population you are okay. Using this guide, if you are to sample Kenyans and take 10 per cent of the population it means you interview four million respondents and that would be costly!”
Indeed as Maggie confirms, one of the things that has led to a vibrant research industry in Kenya is the presence of multi-nationals.
“Multi-nationals have good brands and when they want to localise their brands, they use research.”
Even for local companies launching in the market, they are increasingly seeing the value of research.The uptake of research among local companies has grown. Whereas before a company would conduct one research in a year, and recycle and discuss the results for the whole year, they got to a point where they realised that there are several decisions that would be informed by research.
“For example if they wanted to launch a new product and wanted to know the right pricing, they would come to us to help them conduct a pricing study. If they want to launch a product, they would ask us to do a product assessment study.”
Compared to other countries in East Africa, Maggie notes that Kenya is more advanced in terms of market research.
According to her, Uganda is catching up. Most organisations that do research in Uganda are NGOs and donors and Kenyan companies based there.
“They are coming from a global environment, investing in Uganda and insist on finding out how their money is being spent and the impact it is having through research. The donor world has pushed the use and acceptability of research in Uganda.”
As I conclude the interview, I ask Maggie about the mood of the country as we prepare for an election. “Businesses are trying to make money between now and November (assuming elections will be held at the end of the year).
Prodding her further, I inquire about sample size used by the company and whether it is really representative of the Kenyan population. Using an analogy, she compares sampling to going to a doctor to test for malaria.
“A doctor then takes a blood sample which they use to test if you have malaria in your body. For national surveys in Kenya, a sample of 2,000 is adequate so long as it is distributed proportionate to population size across the various provinces and districts. The margin error is +/-2.3 percent.
She cites France with a population of approximately 63 million where pollsters use a sample size of 1,000. “During the last election in the US, they used a sample size of 1,000 to represent over 250 million people. What matters is the distribution. It is a probability issue!”
How research can inform your BUSINESS DECISIONS
Maggie: Product (prototype testing) is done before the launch of a new product into the market. This is very popular with multi-nationals who invest a lot in testing the acceptability of products.
What does product testing involve?
It involves testing a new product against competing brands in the market. We do blind tests and ask respondents to rate products based on attributes like taste, smell, colour, texture etc. From the feedback, manufacturers go back and tweak product attributes and bring it back for us to test it again. The principle is that the product at its test phase should rank better or almost at par with the leading brands.
Who do you test the product on?
We look for category users. For example, if we are testing a non-alcoholic beverage, we look for people who are regular consumers of non-alcoholic beverages. To get ideal respondents, we have a screening questionnaire that we develop with the company based on age, gender and social class. Respondents are invited to come to a central place and each one of them tastes the products prototype and competing brands in the market at the same condition – temperature, quantity etc then fill separate questionnaires and give ratings for individual products. The reason we conduct blind tests (product without branding) is because branding influences preferences and ratings.
For entrepreneurs, people who validate their business ideas are bankers. As a researcher, what are your thoughts?
Some of the questions entrepreneurs are asked by potential financiers can be answered through research. For example, how much are people willing to pay for a new product or service? That can be answered through a pricing research. The bankers ask the right questions and it is the entrepreneur to decide whether to invest in research in order to generate data that will strengthen their case.
What mistakes do organisations make with research data?
We give research results to a company and they take it in black and white without contextualising it. For instance, we conducted a study on a certain product that had been in existence for over 15 years and the survey found out that the younger generation had a problem with the brand. A brand manager can decide to kill the product because a large percentage of the emerging consumers don’t like it. The research guides you to a decision but anyone commissioning research you should apply that information strategically. In this case, the brand manager would have explored the option of introducing a brand extension and have both brands in the market simultaneuosly and then later make a decision whether to remove the older brand or keep both.
By: CAROLE KIMUTAI
Photos: EMMANUEL JAMBO
Courtesy: Management Magazine May 2012