View from the Top: Interview with Joan Koh, MD Nielsen Malaysia and Singapore

Interview with Joan Koh, Managing Director, Nielsen Singapore and Malaysia, and newly elected president of the Market Research Society Singapore (MRSS)

Joan Koh has been MD of Nielsen Singapore and Malaysia since 2012 and is now leading a team of more than 800 associates from both countries. This year she was elected as president of the MRSS. “At the MRSS, I am privileged to be working alongside passionate volunteers to unite research practitioners and uphold the professionalism of the industry”, she says.

With 15 years in the research industry, not only with clients, but also with other research colleagues, Joan Koh has developed strong ties globally. Anyone who has had the chance to meet with her would agree that she is a leading market researcher and an outstanding professional, who can lead through changing needs in the industry.

Recently we took the chance to discuss with Joan Koh her new role as the president of the MRSS, her view on the research business in Singapore, and what changes we can expect within the next few years.

Asia Research: Thank you for taking the time for this interview and congratulations on your new role as president of the MRSS! What do you hope to accomplish during your term?

Joan Koh: Thank you, I am honoured to have been voted as the new President of MRSS. I hope that together, we can make a tremendous contribution to maintaining the professionalism of the research industry as a whole. We also hope to bring people from the industry further together and arrange activities for our members to further unite.

Asia Research: As the new MRSS president, what are your hopes and aspirations for your term in office?

Joan Koh: I feel very privileged to have this opportunity to lead the MRSS. Having been in the industry for close to 15 years in combination with a passion for the business, I hope to be able to make a difference to the future of the research industry. For example, I hope to further connect the younger generation to the industry by reaching out to university graduates. The next generation will help to shape the future of the industry.

Asia Research: How will that be compatible with your other obligation as MD of Nielsen Singapore and Malaysia?

Joan Koh: This really goes hand in hand; in both roles we aim to promote and safeguard the highest ethical and professional standards for researchers. We are a people-focused business – our people drive the intellectual capital and insights for our clients to connect with their consumers. Above all, we want to maintain the consumer’s trust.

Asia Research: What key changes have you experienced during your career in the research industry?

Joan Koh: In the past decade, a significant part of our methodologies centred on traditional “asking” techniques. Put simply, we engage with consumers to ask them what they think of, say, online shopping or promotional activities on mobile devices, and how they invest their spare cash, etc. Increasingly though, we are adding real-time “listening” techniques which observe consumers’ actual behaviour – with their consent, of course! Beyond speed, these methodologies strengthen the insights we are able to provide to clients.

Asia Research: Looking at Singapore, based on our own recent findings, there are more and more MR companies opening offices in Singapore; we see more Japanese players on the market; we see new entrants from Europe; and new entrants traditionally not known as MR companies. Why is the Singapore market so attractive?

Joan Koh: Our tiny city-state has a competitive, thriving economy and the highest per capita GDP in this region. It is considered a regional Asia-Pacific business hub as many companies’ headquarters are based here, and it’s one of the easiest places in the world to do business (openness to trade, ease of paying taxes, etc.). Singapore is also just a hop away for many of the markets in our region, so infrastructure and market access is fuss-free. Combined with a high quality of life, Singapore attracts many investors and expats.

Asia Research: What are the threats, and where do you see the role of the MRSS?

Joan Koh: I would say there are more opportunities than challenges. As you correctly said, there are more and more MR companies opening offices in Singapore. An important role of the MRSS here is to uphold the highest standards of research and business ethics of both new and existing MR companies in Singapore.

Asia Research: To what extent will the MRSS be able to adhere to professional standards that have evolved to meet changing needs in the industry, firstly in Singapore, and more so on a regional level?

Joan Koh: The MRSS keeps in close contact with ESOMAR to understand more about the changing needs in the industry. The MRSS is also an APRC member, which is the collaboration of 10 regional MRS bodies to work together to develop regional understanding, best practice, and share information.

Asia Research: What do you think are the opportunities for the research business in Singapore in the next five years?

Joan Koh: I see plenty of opportunities for research business in Singapore to expand business. Singapore is a hub, not just a market or country. This region has great potential for growth. Think about it. Over the next 20 years, about a billion consumers will join the ranks of the middle class in Asia. Many of these will be “first time” consumers, while others trade up to more premium products. They will be in the driving seat when it comes to deciding what, where, how, and when they consume media, and goods and services. The need to get closer and more connected to consumers requires research and insights.

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

Joan Koh: Businesses still require answers to their questions; hence research demand will still be there. What will evolve is the capabilities of MR companies to adopt and embrace new techniques to collect data, analyse them, and present insights. The increasing shift from traditional “asking” techniques to real-time “listening” and “observing” combined with transactional and interactional data. Demand for faster, cheaper, richer, and unique research insights will imply greater integration of data from multiple sources and stronger capabilities around “big data”. The range and variety of research suppliers for brands and clients will continue to expand, redefining the research industry landscape.

Asia Research: From your perspective as MD of Nielsen Singapore and Malaysia, how does a company such as Nielsen face changes?

Joan Koh: It is crucial to think ahead and embrace change. At Nielsen, we encourage our associates to constantly think about how they can do things differently or improve the way we do things. This really keeps our pipeline of new ideas fresh and full. Innovation is not just about mega investments in technology, but also about constant improvements to the way we deliver to clients, the speed at which we deliver, and how we integrate our information assets to produce new insights. Our starting point is always about giving our clients the added edge so they can connect in an even more compelling way with their consumers, who are fast evolving.

Asia Research: Finally, do you have any personal comment or favourite quote?

Joan Koh: My favourite quote is from Jack Welch: “Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” At the MRSS, we hope that we can play a role in developing and growing the next generation of research practitioners, who will help to shape the future of the industry.

Asia Research: Thank you very much for this interview.

For more information about the MRSS, visit

First published in Asia Research Magazine, Q4 2013.