Market Research Society 50th Anniversary speech, 1996

  • Date: 1996
  • Commissioned by: Market Research Society


The professional association for the market research industry asked Jeremy to consider its first 50 years and the value of market research to the advertising process. He also considers political opinion polls, in classic ‘don’t mention the war’ style.

“… a brief, quiet moment of non-triumphalist satisfaction”

It’s been a perfectly pleasant evening up till now, so I owe you an explanation. I’d like you all to know that this is not my fault.
Several months ago, I got a call from John R Goodyear. He said he was doing a survey into superannuated advertising executives and wanted me to be a respondent. Times were hard, he said, so he was doing the fieldwork himself.
Poor John, I thought. Down to his last eight companies ... probably hasn't had a decent glass of wine since lunchtime.
So we met. John had a clipboard. He read out some questions - and the first was:
"On which of the following days if any do you have an evening engagement: 15 September? 27 October? 5 November?" John told me that the point of this question was to establish whether or not superannuated advertising executives a) lived a hectic social life or b) never got out in the evenings at all.
The next question was: "On a ten-point scale, how do you rate a) roast pheasant b) Châteauneuf-du-Pape and c) fireworks?"
And the third and last question was:  "What is your attitude to friendship. Do you believe that you should try to help old friends a) less than everybody else
b) the same as everybody else or c) do you believe that if you do your very best to help old friends whenever they ask a small favour of you, you will not only be more at peace with yourself but also more likely to earn valuable brownie points in any after life you might later possibly encounter?" 
It was at this point that I said: "John - you're sugging."
And he was.
And it worked.
So the blame for the imminent decline of this evening lies not with me, but with him. And do not accuse me of making John R Goodyear a scapegoat. Those of you who use our language carefully will know that a scapegoat is someone who is unjustly asked to bear blame.
By the time I have finished - which may well be before midnight - you will feel the need to heap blame, obloquy and odium on someone. The very simple point I'm making is that the person on whom you should heap them is John R Goodyear.
John briefed me very carefully. He said he hoped I'd feel absolutely free to be disrespectful about market research.  He said all the members of the Market Research Society enjoyed a good-natured laugh at their own expense - and he, John, was no exception. At the same time, said John, he felt sure I wouldn't want to ignore the industry's contribution to the nation's invisible earnings and he handed me over many tables to that effect.
He said that it was no part of the purpose of this evening for market researchers to indulge in self-congratulation or salesmanship - though, that having been said, he'd recently run some numbers through his laptop and was astonished to find an uncanny correlation over the years between national economic growth and aggregate market research expenditure. He kindly gave me the numbers.
He also lent me an advance copy of the Colin McDonald, Stephen King book,
Sampling the Universe, and invited me to comment favourably on the title.

[An excellent title, I said: which of them thought of it? Neither, actually, said John, lowering his eyelashes.]

He said nothing was off limits, everything would be taken in good part - but he thought on the whole it would be better if I didn't mention opinion polls.
So that's it. Not only is my presence here the fault of John R Goodyear - but so, even, is the content of what I have to say.

[John R Goodyear ...] It must be a made-up name, isn't it? A name made up by an advertising agency- designed to convey rock-jawed, Anglo-Saxon integrity. A not very good advertising agency...

When it comes to the market research industry (and I probably will) advertising agencies have a lot to answer for. As the McDonald/King book reminds us, (it's an excellent book, incidentally, only slightly let down by its somewhat catch-penny title) it is advertising agencies who should take most of the blame for bringing market research to this country in the first place.  Some people in advertising have likened this to the National Union of Potatoes voluntarily importing large numbers of Colorado beetle.

Certainly - given the wonderful ambivalence that exists about market research in the minds of many advertising people - it was in retrospect a curious act for the advertising industry;- in the 1920s and the 1930s, quite deliberately and at some considerable cost to themselves, to bring into the world all those ungrateful progeny who were later to make their lives so difficult.

I remember quite vividly when I first met evidence of this ambivalence. (and I think I should come clean here and tell you that is only out of courtesy to you all this evening that I'm using the word ambivalence. The feelings, though certainly valent, are often not at all ambivalent. 

It was about fifteen years after the formation of the Market Research Society: say about 1960.

The occasion was a meeting of the Advertising Creative Circle. Members were exclusively drawn from the creative departments of advertising agencies, and they always met for dinner and they almost invariably invited a guest speaker to speak on a suitably creative subject.

On this occasion, however, they had asked a member of the Market Research Society, possibly even a founder member. I am reasonably certain it was Harry Henry. It always did seem to be Harry Henry.

And he spoke with great good humour and great knowledge and great clarity about the value of market research to the advertising process. He told us some real stories: how consumers had been found to have invented far more compelling reasons for consuming products than their manufacturers had ever thought up for themselves; how some advertising campaigns had been found to be totally mis-directed; how knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of product distribution could make communication infinitely more effective and so on. It was an enlightening and engrossing half hour - but there was a strange and growing tension in the air that I was hard put to identify.

It all became clear at question time.

A senior and respected member of the Advertising Creative Circle half leapt, half lurched to his feet: bow-tie perpendicular, panatella in one hand, brandy balloon in the other.

"You know what you're doing, don't you?" he cried. "You're snatching the bread from our children's mouths!"
The man spoke for many. Harry Henry got the sort of reception that Alexander Fleming might have encountered from an audience of witch doctors.

It was, I think, the first time that I realised just how greatly confused we all get between the nature of knowledge and the nature of ideas.

The senior member of the Advertising Creative Circle was very confused indeed - and he wasn't alone.

He believed that that which had once been an art would shortly be a science: and that therefore there would be no further use for him.

I had never previously thought of Harry Henry as Galileo: but perhaps the 17th century church of Rome felt much the same way about Galileo as the Creative Circle felt about Harry. This is all very serious, they think. If we do not force Harry Henry and the Market Research Society to renounce these heretical beliefs, there will be no place for us and our children will starve.

Do any of you remember the despair that overcame marketing directors and advertising agencies in 1957?  That was the year that the Consumers' Association announced their intention of publishing full, named, ranked product assessments, including a Best Buy, every month in Which?

Marketing Directors and advertising agencies looked at each other, bought each other another drink, and said: "Well, that's it, Nigel. The game's up. After all these years. Still, we've had a fair run, I suppose. What's yours?" Had they been in a position to force the Consumers' Association to renounce their heretical beliefs, they would undoubtedly have done so.

In fairness, however, it should be said that advertising and marketing people are not the only ones to believe that market research possesses far greater power than it actually does.  Some market research people believe it, too.

I learned to use it rather than fear it largely through the guidance of one of the authors of the excellent book that's just been written. The agency had a paint client who was based in Hull. The client from Hull, we used to call him.

He'd never used market research in his life and had been ferociously resistant to the thought. Eventually he'd agreed, and Stephen went up with the first results. When he came back, he told me what had happened.

It was a simple usage survey, nothing fancy, and Stephen went through it, table by table, using a flip chart.  And the client, alternately, said, either: "I could 'ave told you that for nothing' or That's a load of bloody rubbish for a start.'
Stephen waited for me to laugh. “What's wrong with that, Stephen?” I asked him.
He told me.
I thought he was being over rigorous. To this day I believe we should be at least as free to interpret research results selectively as we do the ten commandments.
John suggested that I should say a few words about the qualities of market research people and I'm very happy to do so.  The ones he suggested himself are as follows: integrity, moral courage, rigor, modesty and charm.

There you are, John: a few words about market research people.

If I was compiling my own list, however, and was asked to put research person's characteristics in rank order, I do not believe that I would allocate first position to sensitivity - and I will tell you why.

There was another client, much later, who was fiercely resistant to the use of television. Over time, we persuaded him. It meant a media entry fee of at least 5 million pounds and a commercial whose production estimate was not quite half that. The client did not like television, did not like spending 5 million pounds and did not like the script we presented him with.

We reminded him loftily that we were the experts ... that he had never used television before ... that we understood his target audience far more thoroughly than he did ... and we implied that to reject the proposal at this stage would be an act of gutlessness which could severely impair his career prospects.

He agreed to make the commercial ... it was made ... it went into research ... and we went with the client to the de-brief.  The researcher, as is so often the case, was called Nick - and he greeted us with happy, shining eyes.
“Fantastic!” he kept saying. “Never seen anything like it in my life!”

I shot a small smirk in the direction of the client and looked back at Nick.
“They quite liked it, then?” I said modestly.
“They bloody hated it,” he shouted in great excitement. “Didn't understand a bloody word!”

Market research people are not sensitive.

Perhaps the biggest single difference between agency people and research people is that agency people sometimes find it difficult to accept that truth is beautiful.
You may remember that John advised me not to mention the opinion polls.
You will also know by now that I have good reason to feel vengeful about John.

So I thought I'd say a word or two about opinion polls.
Starting at about midnight on Thursday 9 April 1992, every serious political commentator in this country began to look extremely silly. And serious political commentators do not enjoy looking silly (unlike serious researchers, of course, who revel in it).
By midday, Friday 10 April, every serious political commentator, every editor, every newspaper proprietor in the country had reached the same conclusion: that their only hope of restoring self-esteem, the respect of their family, membership of the Garrick and future lucrative television engagements was to shoot the messenger. And out came the Kalashnikovs.

I'm sorry to open old wounds - but there was blood all over the place, and most of it was yours.

For the very first time in my life, and probably the last, I felt a huge surge of sympathy - almost of love - for market research practitioners.
Because, of course - which you could not say yourselves and did not say yourselves - it was the commentators who had chosen to mislead themselves.

Since accepting this brief from Mr. Goodyear, I have kept a new book by my bedside. It is Volume One of The Gallup International Public Opinion Polls, Great Britain, 1937-1975- and it is almost as good a read as Sampling the Universe - (and has a far better title.)

Founder members of the MRS will remember that the result of the 1945 General Election left every single serious political commentator in the country looking extremely silly. In that instance, however, there was nowhere to hide - there was no messenger to shoot.
Except, as I have recently discovered and as you undoubtedly know already, there was a messenger - but he was ignored.

This is a question that was asked of the British electorate in early June 1945. "If there were a General Election tomorrow, how would you vote?"
And 33 per cent said Conservative and 45 per cent said Labour.
And a few days later, 39.8 per cent of people voted Conservative and 47.8 per cent of people voted Labour and every single serious political commentator in the country professed themselves utterly astonished.
They do seem to astonish themselves a lot, these people.
I'm glad I didn't mention the polls. I just think you've been a bit too hard on yourselves, that's all. Sentimental old fool that I am.

Gallup Volume One also told me that in 1940, 48 per cent of the British population disapproved of women wearing trousers in public.
There are 784 pages, every one a winner, and if I run out of other things to say and I still want to punish Goodyear, I thought I might just read the first half out loud, quite slowly.
What I want to do first, however, is say something about this Society.

I hope that those twenty-three people who met for lunch at the London Press Exchange on 5 November 1946 - wherever they may be now - are as pleased with their creation as they deserve to be.

Like most people, I've been part of, and on the fringe of, professional bodies and societies and trade associations. I've seen them start out with good intentions and falter. I've seen them succumb to in-fighting and myopia and boredom. I've seen them come to believe that their only function is their own survival.

And then I look at your society and I marvel: I really do.  And luckily, it's all been scrupulously chronicled and recorded so I know it's true.

In the setting and maintenance of professional standards ... in the education and encouragement of the young ... in the recognition of outstanding and original contributions to the world of research ... you have shown extraordinarily high standards and an extraordinary consistency.  People even speak highly of your conferences.

I won't go on.  I don't want to embarrass you.  I don't want to embarrass myself. But I do think you should, once, briefly, every fifty years, allow yourselves a brief, quiet moment of non-triumphalist satisfaction. I promise not to tell anyone if you do.

I have greatly enjoyed my research project and being with you tonight.  I'm sorry that, despite his assurances, John R Goodyear showed so little control over the weather. And I sincerely hope that the Society's highest authority will remember what I had to say about the sugging and take the appropriate disciplinary action.