Tribute for Judie Lannon, 2019

“She was fascinated by human beings (rather than consumers). She delighted in discovery – and the onward communication of discovery to others.” Jeremy’s tribute to a critical member of Stephen King’s team remembers the much-loved and much-admired head of creative research at JWT London, the first woman to be appointed to its board in 1976.


Image credit: Campaign/HAT

Judie Lannon tribute  

Forty-five years ago, Judie Lannon, then responsible for creative research at J Walter Thompson London, conducted a series of filmed interviews with half a dozen ordinary women. She wanted to discover – and reveal – just how these women felt about certain everyday household products: Camay, Tide, Persil, Knorr and so on. 

She asked each of these women a question that could have been thought to be utterly absurd or even insulting. Instead, it released an astonishing free-flow of associations. The question she put to them was this: ‘If Camay [for instance] was a person…what sort of person would it be?’ 

There were no hesitations. Brands were clearly either male or female; young or getting on a bit; good-natured or gruff; fastidious – ‘so a bit difficult to live next door to’; go-ahead or complacent. The women’s responses were immediate, amused, perceptive: they all enjoyed the exercise and none thought the question in any way odd. 

Luckily, a fifteen-minute selection of those interviews is available today for anyone to see. They form the centre section of Stephen King’s 1974 video, “What is a Brand?”.  

If you summon them up, as I hope you will, you’ll be captivated by the women’s easy, fluent responses; but I also urge you to listen out carefully for the respectful, unobtrusive, off-screen voice of Judie Lannon: posing the questions and interposing the gentlest of prompts whenever a gentle prompt seemed a good idea. 

So much of what made this remarkable woman remarkable is implicit in this tape. She was fascinated by human beings (rather than consumers). She delighted in discovery – and the onward communication of discovery to others. 

Over the years, some thousands of J Walter Thompson people from around the world will have benefited from her jargon-free tutoring of the nature of communications; yet, as with that off-screen voice on the tapes, she was never centre-stage. 

Because she helped them understand their own work, and therefore made the unusual seem less risky, she was respected – even loved – by creative people. When she reported the findings from focus groups, she told it straight but never brutally and nearly always with the hint of a solution. She formed an invaluable bridge between Stephen King’s properly rigorous planners and the creative people whose company she greatly enjoyed. In Digby Durrant, she married one – and his loss was a savage one. 

Yes: Judie Lannon was a brilliant commissioner and interpreter of qualitative research – but she wasn’t ‘soft’. No ‘soft’ researcher could have made such a success of Market Leader. Handsome, authoritative, intellectually inquisitive, and dismissive of the facile, those 17 years of her editorship remain as rock-like evidence of her commanding intelligence. (And yet, once again, as with that off-screen voice on the tapes, she never once used her editorship of Market Leader to take centre stage.) 

She was lovely and brave and funny. She could spot people’s frailties with wicked precision, yet possessed such boundless empathy that she found it impossible to be totally dismissive of anyone. None of us have known anyone like her.