At a specially called ‘damage control’ press conference in Mumbai, Speak Asia officials refuse to divulge any details unless journalists sign a non-disclosure agreement with them. The officials also apologise for mentioning the names of ICICI Bank, Bata, Nestle and Bharti Airtel as their clients
Speak Asia (SpeakAsiaonline.com), the online survey company engaged in multi-level marketing (MLM) to spread its network across the country, on Monday said that it could not disclose specific information regarding its business. The company's top officials told a press conference in Mumbai, the first time the company has called such a media meet, that unless the journalists present sign a non-disclosure agreement with them, Speak Asia could not divulge details like the names of its clients and financials. (View the video of the press conference at 01.07.56, at the end of this report.)
Manoj Kumar, the company's chief executive for India, apologised for naming ICICI Bank, Bata, Nestle, Bharti Airtel and ING Vyasa Bank as Speak Asia's clients. "Taking the names of these organisations was a factual error on the part of our chief marketing officer Vivek Gautam and I apologise on behalf of Speak Asia," Mr Kumar said. He, however, said that during the initial period of operations, Speak Asia had worked on these brands, although the service was not commissioned by these institutions.
Throughout the press conference, all the company's officials, including Mr Kumar, president for emerging markets, Narayanan Rajagopalan and chief marketing officer Vivek Gautam, refused to answer any of the questions put by journalists in a simple 'yes' or 'no' manner. Mr Kumar repeatedly diverted the focus of the specific questions that led the media people to ask him to answer with a simple 'yes' or 'no'.
To date, Speak Asia does not have any registered office or registration of any kind in India. Today, the officials also failed to clarify the authority under which the company operates. All they pointed to were some generic documents and circulars of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) and other authorities. Mr Rajagopalan said, "We are setting up a permanent establishment in India from 1st August and set up five offices across the country by the end of 2011."
Denying that Speak Asia is an MLM operator, he said that the company is neither a survey company nor a marketing company in the broad sense, but it was a 'precision' marketing services (panel) provider. While Mr Rajagopan insisted on the word 'precision', he failed to explain the rational of allowing its customers (again no agent, panellist or subscribers) to buy 21 pins or IDs to buy its e-zine, "Surveys Today".
Talking about market research, the official said that currently the cost of undertaking such activity was very high and there was inflated cost of ownership for it. "Therefore, Speak Asia, provides an opportunity for companies to do market surveys in a cost-effective manner from its number of panelists," he said. Speak Asia pays Rs500 for every survey filled by its panelist. However, according to market sources, the cost of conducting a survey in India is not so high and companies pay about Rs10 to Rs60 per person covered in a survey.
Mr Rajagopalan also claimed that in the US companies paid $12 to $100 for every online survey and yet the rate of responses there was just 0.5%. However, a simple web search shows that in the US companies pay $1 to $30 per online survey completed.
On the company's revenue stream, Mr Rajagopalan said, Speak Asia earned money by providing its panels to marketing research organisations (the company is not one of them) for online surveys, commission earned by selling products and revenues from displaying ads. The company started operations in January 2010, but its official launch happened only in May 2010. Since then, Speak Asia has remitted about Rs325 crore from India and distributed around Rs250 crore to its panelists, sorry...customers. The company spent about Rs50 crore-Rs60 crore on advertising, public relations agency fees and brand building, and earned a net profit of Rs15 crore, to date, Mr Kumar, the CEO for India informed.
Speak Asia claimed to have paid Rs68 crore as service tax through its collection agents, but preferred to keep mum on the question of any tax deduction at source (TDS), or income tax deducted from payments to its agents.
In a statement distributed today, Speak Asia said, "At the end of its first phase, Speak Asia Online Pte Ltd (SAOL) has clocked a revenue turnover of USD80.5 million over the last three quarters. 1.2 million panellists have received monies over USD52 million over this period through bank transfers via RBI authorized forex channels. This income has been generated by filling up of surveys, giving online opinion on advertisements watched, and income accrued from referring other panellists. The company has till date invested over USD9 million for various marketing, training and business development programmes. The company in line with other overseas online businesses has a collection representative, which pays all applicable service tax in India; they have paid a total of INR68 crores as service tax to the government of India, up to April 30, 2011."
To date, the company has avoided replying to e-mail messages by Moneylife about its registration and jurisdiction. However, in the statement, the company said SAOL is committed to transparency and corporate governance in all aspects of its operations across function areas.
Interestingly, company officials continued to play goof-up on the question about its operations. They said, Speak Asia operates in India, but has neither any operation nor any business in Bangladesh. Mr Kumar responded in the negative when asked at least two or three times about the company's operations in Bangladesh.
However, a letter from the company's owner Haren (Harender Kaur of Singapore) put up on the Speak Asia website mentions its ongoing operations in Bangladesh. According to Mr Kumar, Ms Kaur and her family owns SAOL. The letter which is not dated, says, "I am pleased to announce that Bangladesh has really done well in the Speak Asia way of operations and the rate of growth has been tremendous. The master distributor for Bangladesh has been finalised and shall be in working condition by the 20th of April. Their location shall be in Chittagong. All the new members joining Speak Asia shall have an option of paying in Bangladesh Takas only w.e.f 20th April 2011. Henceforth all the panel income (binary commissions) shall be remitted locally in BDT by direct bank transfers to the panelist accounts. This shall be completed by the end of April 2011. All the existing payouts shall be organised by the master distributor via bank transfers."
An interesting aspect is that the company, which up to yesterday said it was 'Asia's largest online survey company', today changed its tagline, choosing to be called 'Asia's leading integrated market services agency'.
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See the webcast of the press conference...