Travelling around Southeast Asia doing multi-market research may sound like a dream job, but you need a sense of adventure - and a sense of humour - to make it as an InsightAsia International Researcher.
Our reporter Robert Good finds out what it takes to live life on the road from InsightAsia Account Manager Marjolein Winkelman.
Marjolein Winkelman makes it all sound so easy: travelling around SE Asia seems to come as second nature to her. This week Thailand, next week Vietnam, the week after Myanmar - no problem! For many people, for whom 'travel' may simply mean a few miles in the car to the local supermarket, the prospect of jetting around the world sounds rather glamorous. But what is the reality like?
"I'm really fortunate to be able to travel so much," Marjolein says. "It beats sitting in an office all day!"
I'm talking to Marjolein over Skype at her home in the Netherlands, where she is from and has now returned to, having lived in Indonesia for many years. It is clear that she has a genuine curiosity for other cultures and gets a real buzz from making connections with others - something that stems from her degree in anthropology.
So, whether it's finding out how people use new apps (or why they don't), exploring possibilities for a new entry into an already competitive herbal market, or testing an online bulletin board for skincare products, finding out what makes people tick is at the heart of Marjolein's work.
"It is such a privilege to meet people in parts of the country that most people don't get to see. I love to get off the beaten track and into the suburbs and countryside. A lot of rural life is still very grounded, with villagers making their living directly from the land and farmyards noisy with chickens, dogs and all manner of animals.
“I've had some magical journeys - through rice fields, across the river on a ferryboat and to market on a trishaw. But then you're invited into someone's home and you see their TV, internet and mobile phones and you realise that we really are all in a global village now,” she adds.
Learning local intricacies
Marjolein clearly loves adventure, but as with so much of her work, local knowledge is essential too.
"One of my favourite assignments was a long journey travelling through Myanmar,” she explains. “We ended up in what seemed like the middle of nowhere, visiting people whose houses are on poles in the middle of an enormous swamp. I looked out of the window to see HUGE snake swimming towards me! 'Oh don't worry', said my host. 'If you see one of those, it means good luck.'"
The purpose of that assignment was to observe the residents in their kitchens - how they cook, how they use their kitchen utensils and how they reacted to a new cooking product being developed. "That was great fun - I love cooking and love to see new ingredients and new dishes," Marjolein adds. "And if I'm lucky, I get to try them too!"
Perhaps the life of an InsightAsia researcher really is a piece of cake after all, but Marjolein is very modest about the work involved in making things go so swimmingly. As with most things in life, good preparation is key to a successful outcome, and Marjolein puts in a lot of work up front to get everyone aligned - moderators, translators, researchers and clients all need to be synced on the research design, client objectives and project logistics.
Conducting research across Asia
Marjolein explains the InsightAsia approach to me:
"When doing multiple country studies there are so many people needed to make the research project a success. It is essential to provide one key contact for the client who has entire project oversight and is responsible for ensuring quality standards and addressing any issues as they emerge. This is my role.
“So I will liaise with the local teams in each market to ensure everyone is up to speed regarding the specific research needs. My role before the project commences is to pin down the schedule with the local research teams, double check that the recruitment screeners are correct and finalised and organise any stimulus requirements.
“Once recruitment kicks off, I will send regular recruitment updates to the client, finalise the discussion guides for each market and arrange a Skype or Google Hangout briefing with the local moderators and translators to ensure they have fully understood the research needs and the delivery expectations."
Finally, the team can head out into the field to conduct their research. Marjolein's eyes light up at the prospect: "Some clients also require my continuing support once the project is in field, which is great! When this is required I will often travel to market, observe the research and ‘roll up my sleeves’ to help ensure everything runs smoothly.
"I love this part of the job the most, especially where there is an opportunity to lead download sessions with our clients as the fieldwork progresses. We'll exchange working thoughts on the emerging learning, and this really helps get our analysis rolling and ensures the research team fully appreciate the client’s business needs, priorities and constraints."
After the excitement of the fieldwork, it's time for further analysis and reporting. "I find it helpful to provide the local teams with a reporting template - so that we can compile all the findings into one multi-country international report that combines and builds on all the learnings from the different markets.
"Getting the local nuances and contextual understanding from my locally-based research colleagues is critical since they live and breathe their market. My role is to add the regional perspective to the local findings and bring it all together, so we are able to deliver both a macro and micro perspective, so to speak."
It's starting to sound like Marjolein is the conductor of a rather fine orchestra.
But the work doesn't stop there! Marjolein continues: "There's a lot to keep on top of and the reality is that teams have many different projects happening at the same time, so I think it's important to schedule in a face to face briefing session before the start of the fieldwork in each market. This is so that clients, researchers, translators and moderators are all together, get to know each other and are aligned on the different objectives, the cultural context and any possible difficulties."
I'm intrigued by the cultural briefing. "This could be as simple as giving a heads up regarding the bad traffic conditions in Jakarta, but there are so many little insights that can help to make an assignment go smoothly," says Marjolein.
"For example, if you are offered a drink, it's always good to accept and take a sip, even if you may not drink it all. That's probably just good manners, but some are less obvious. You may not be prepared to sit cross-legged on the floor for a couple of hours, and you may not know that it is impolite to point your feet at the Buddha. Observing the politenesses of local customs can make a big difference."
Of course, things can go wrong too. Like the time that the simultaneous translator didn't show up, and Marjolein had to take on the job and translate from Indonesian (her third language) into English (her second language) for clients. You sense that a calm head is sometimes needed for this job!
I wonder if there are any downsides to Marjolein's work? "Well, living out of a suitcase is definitely not for everyone and jet lag can be quite tiring, but my colleague Rita in Singapore suggested I carry vitamin C pills with me to keep me pepped up and that works really well," she says.
"And the big cities such as Bangkok, Jakarta and Ho Chi Minh can sometimes feel quite anonymous and homogenised - you have to work a bit harder to find their soul. The paperwork needed for a visa can be pretty mind-boggling too!"
This is making me start to feel travel-weary already, and when Marjolein reminds me that global interconnectedness also means getting up for 3am conference calls, I reluctantly admit to myself that perhaps I don't have what it takes. But would Marjolein trade her job for something more nine-to-five?
"Oh no," says Marjolein, "I wouldn't swap it for the world."