The quiz master

Tracking your views on everything from the latest gadgets to international politics, opinion polls are testing the Middle East. Tamara Walid meets an industry pioneer.

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By  Tamara Walid Published  October 1, 2006

|~|2-200.jpg|~|POLL POWER: John Zogby has developed a series of strategic consulting and polling services for different markets.|~|Tracking your views on everything from the latest gadgets to international politics, opinion polls are testing the Middle East. Tamara Walid meets an industry pioneer. It is becoming a new phenomenon in the Middle East. You are walking down the street when a complete stranger approaches you, and begins rattling off a series of specific questions: Do you watch cable TV? Do you eat ice cream? What kind of car do you drive? What mobile phone do you use? No, this isn’t an intrusion into your private life - it is the arrival of Western styled opinion pollsters in the region. Last year, British based YouGov entered the market with considerable success, and others have now been tempted to follow. The latest arrival is US owned Zogby International. For the right price, it will tell you exactly what the people are thinking. For up to US$18,000, the company is even offering to carry out the first ever lifestyle survey in Iraq. “It is still something new here, but our polls are pretty scientific. We can tell you exactly what is happening on the ground within a few percentage points,” says Zogby founder John Zogby. Like YouGov and most other pollsters, success is easy to measure: did they get the “big one” right. YouGov predicted the result of the 1992 British general election perfectly - telling the country that John Major would become prime minister - against all other predictions. It proved correct, and YouGov’s reputation was made. Likewise, Zogby got the 1994 US elections just right. “We were polling the US elections and that in itself was enough to create some very good branding for us for the fact that our call in the election was with pinpoint precision and the other major polling firms were so far wrong developed a cache that continued for us,” says Zogby. Since then Zogby International has been polling for international names like Reuters, the largest news agency and financial news agency in the world, as well as NBC News, Fox News, the Wall Street Journal, and some of the largest news agencies in the United States. The company has been on a considerable projector of growth ever since the late nineties, taking on projects in Europe, the Middle East region, Latin America and selected parts of Asia. Currently making annual revenues of US$5m, the company’s strategic plan calls for it to make US$20m by the year 2010. Zogby believes the form is not far from achieving that, especially with its recent full-fledged Middle East branch opening in Dubai. “We’ve developed a very good brand and now is the time to take advantage of the branding,” says Zogby. “Opening an office in Dubai will only facilitate the company’s operations in the region as its been doing a considerable amount of business here already in the last seven years. With the entire Middle Eastern region ‘booming’ and the gulf region in particular going through a ‘spectacular expansion’, having a regional office to manage existing projects makes perfect sense," explains Zogby. The formal launch took place over two weeks ago at the Dubai School of Government, where the company is now temporarily based, until an office is available at Dubai Media City. Most of the surveys done in the region are face-to-face. Although the UAE in particular and Gulf countries in general have substantial telephone penetration, Zogby believes it is nonetheless ‘not quite yet the culture of the telephone’ as in the United States and other western countries. “We do some telephone, depending on the topic, and kind of project but face-to-face allows us to build a bond,” says Zogby. The process, explains Zogby “involves first choosing the people to be surveyed, getting a sampling of them and then getting company partners in the specified area to conduct the field research and send over the results." The final survey outcome, Zogby claims, “is very accurate, even more so now than it ever has been." “Since 1999, we have increased the level of sophistication not only for our work but I think for opinion research. Thinking back, the questions that we asked in 1999 and 2000 were very basic and each subsequent project after that we’ve pushed the envelope further and further,” he says. Zogby believes, at the present, bolder questions are being asked about politics, the role of the clergy in public life and religion. He says he recognises accuracy in a poll when the results are evident all over. “If I were to see a pattern in the results of any poll where all the response patterns are the same, then I am suspect, but when you see 42% agree with this, 51% agree with that, 2% with that, then I know that I’m getting an honest substantial response,” he explains. “So far, in the Middle East, the company had polled Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Iraq. It has not yet polled Syria, Northern Africa including Algeria, Tunis, Libya and Oman, as the demand in those areas has not yet arisen. There had been however, talks with Syria for a while as well as Algeria, Yemen and Oman," says Zogby. Although most of the company’s work is corporate, the most visible is the political, consisting 25% of its entire operations. The remaining 75% includes corporate, NGO and private work. Operations in Dubai and the region, due to the ongoing business boom, will mainly revolve around the latter focusing on market and opinion research, product development, image consulting, and strategic consulting. It will also include work for the public sector and government agencies. In addition to polling services in different parts of the globe, Zogby International has also been involved in strategic consulting. It has gathered over the years an enormous amount of information that no one else has. Examining the work it has done in the region alone, the company has polled tens of thousands of Arabs in seven countries since 1999. There is also a huge amount of data that can be analysed and turned into private reports which helps companies project where the Arab opinion is headed, what the needs of Arabs are, as well as a classification of different type of consumer groups and employee groups. All this is done under the umbrella of strategic consulting. “I love taking a look at data that no one else has ever seen and being the first to know something. On the election side of things, knowing 10:00 o’clock the night before when it is revealed to the entire world who won the election, that is such an incredible high,” he says. Confident as he now is, success hasn’t come easy for John Zogby. It has been more than 20 years since he left a career as university professor and political activist to start his international polling and market research company. Now an international multi-million dollar firm spanning over three continents and recently officially launching in the Middle East with Dubai for headquarters, Zogby reveals there was a price for getting here. Ten years before the US 1994 elections, the company started off as Zogby and Associates with just a small group of people. It began with a number of politics-related projects and several various political consulting jobs, an opportunity that had arisen from John Zogby’s involvement in politics. At first the motto was more or less: anything goes. “As the business developed in the first few years, we had to do pretty much everything and anything we could do to survive,” says Zogby. The company took on retail advertising, grand openings, public relations, fund raising and the like. Back then, says Zogby, the demand for opinion research wasn’t as mature as it is today. This, however, didn’t stop the company from ‘plotting’ its own paths in the years that followed, as it aimed at working in areas that some of the biggest polling companies neglected. “We went to the smaller towns and smaller clients and built our reputation from the bottom up,” says Zogby. After over six years the company started to reap benefits and witnessed its takeoff in the early 1990s. Just how far the company can expand in the Middle East remains to be seen. So far, the omens are good.||**||

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