Malaysia: The Insider View


Recently we took the chance to discuss with Datin Kala Sethu her new role as the president of the Market Research Society of Malaysia (MRSM), her view on the research business in Malaysia, and what changes we can expect within the next few years.

Asia Research: What do you think is the most important role of the MRSM in the industry?

Datin Kala: The most appropriate answer to this is to quote the vision of MRSM: “We want to provide a stimulus to encourage, support and foster change and growth in the marketing research industry and amongst its practitioners, achieving the highest possible standards of professionalism and practice in Malaysia.”

Asia Research: What is the biggest change you have witnessed so far in the industry in Malaysia?

Datin Kala: I consider myself lucky as I have had witnessed the evolution of the marketing research industry from the 80s up till now. To better answer this question, let me give you a perspective: The marketing research profession serves marketers by bridging the insights gap between them and their consumers and shoppers.

As the marketers’ world changed over the last two three decades, so did the marketing research industry, from consumer to retailer to shopper type of research.

But today, we are seeing a new change; a digital world which is accelerated by cost-effective Internet media and ever-advancing mobile technology. This is the biggest change as it affects everyone.

Asia Research: New entrants are entering the market as we speak; what do you think makes the Malaysian market so attractive?

Datin Kala: There will always be newer players in the marketing research industries. But what we are seeing today is the entry of a different mix of players – online database and technology-based service (device and software) providers.

Being virtual-based services, these companies are already in Malaysia and elsewhere. They have databases of Malaysian consumers and that is market entry to me. It need not be a physical office opening in Malaysia.

As Malaysian-based companies are still at the infancy stage of analytics, we can expect more regional technology-led players coming in to provide their services.

Asia Research: What are some major threats facing the industry today?

Datin Kala: I can easily cite five main challenges of the marketing research industry today. Firstly, the digital world has not only challenged marketers but also marketing researchers. We are pressed to do quicker, real-time and lower cost research than ever before.Secondly, there is a problem in the drain of talent pool in the marketing research industry. With cost pressures, recruitment of quality staff becomes tougher. It’s a chicken-and-egg situation. Thirdly, procurement departments (that know nothing about marketing research) look at costs to decide a ‘vendor’ when marketing researchers are ‘partners of marketers’. Fourthly, IT companies are offering social media based analytics. And lastly, clients are doing their own research, either using free online tools (e.g. SurveyMonkey, Google Analytics) or offline tools (e.g. own corridor research, student fieldwork).

Asia Research: What are your hopes and aspirations for the MRSM during your term as president?

Datin Kala: More than before, we are seeing quantum leap in changes to socio-politics, and the economy and technology are changing the way businesses are run today.

Holding on tightly to the highly relevant vision of MRSM and support of new MRSM Exco, I hope to see the marketing research industry embracing the inevitable changes and grow in tandem with the New World.

Asia Research: What key developments do you see in the research business in Malaysia over the next five years?

Datin Kala: One key development that may occur is MNC agencies securing MNC clients for multi-country projects with heavy focus on cost- based buying. Another major development is medium sized boutique agencies focusing on specialised research (e.g. consumer connection, observatory work, secondary research) and consulting practices (e.g. workshops, brainstorming).

Also, traditional business practices may collaborate with technology partners in the hope to provide much needed ‘fast and cheap’ research. Other developments include chunky reports being replaced with big aha! insights and making better sense of behavioural data… connecting the data dots!


Datin Kala Sethu (pictured) founded Compass Insights in 2008 after spearheading various leading roles in MNC’s such as Colgate-Palmolive, ACNielsen, and Research International.

Having worked with national and international well-known corporates, she has been trusted as one of the best minds in the market research industry in Malaysia and Singapore.

Besides being president of MRSM, Datin Kala is Council Member of the Association for Promotion of Higher Education in Malaysia (APHEM) and at the Education Welfare Research Foundation (EWRF). As part of her dream to give back to society, she shares insights about personal and business growth through talk shows on Astro & RTM, and  speaks at various forums.