Market research is today a £4bn industry in the UK. A new book taps the recollections of those who have worked in it since it took off in the 1970s.

Reading a potted history of social and market research over the past 40-50 years*, what’s striking is how little has changed. 

The qual/quant divide is still there. Agency concern over the encroachment of management consultants into their territory is not wholly new, nor is an agency desire to push beyond research and into more of a partnership/advisory role. Digs at procurement have a long history and cultural differences within business persist: 

“... while survey researchers are careful to define each item on a table [of figures], but recognise that their results must be subject to sampling error, accountants are used to creating balance sheets in which the figures are precise, but the definitions of each item may be less so.”

Then there is the warning that “one should always be on guard against studies which are commissioned by the [advertising] agencies simply to justify their advertising plans”.

And, for all the technological innovations of the past half century, “the art of good questionnaire design has always been and will remain a vital skill for every researcher”.

Technology has, of course, been the biggest driver of changes in the market research industry, Hard to imagine now, but telephone research wasn’t regarded as a proper data collection method back in the late 1970s. The Market Research Society had to adapt its Code of Conduct which had originally been drawn up with face-to-face interviews in mind. 

Twenty years later, everything was beginning to change again as online surveys became a thing although these are plagued by low response rates and sampling issues. Now tools like Survey Monkey enable clients to bypass agencies completely. “Surveys which are not constrained by the need for a high level of accuracy have greatly increased over the years,” the author notes drily. 

Computers have replaced slide rules, but the data quality debate is ongoing. And today’s terrible twins of time and money pressures mean that even the professionals may be forced into taking shortcuts and perhaps applying less rigour than was the case in a more leisurely period.

This isn’t a book about “dry technical developments”, however, but rather about the people, places and situations encountered during a life in research. Packed with anecdotes (and timeless cartoons), it’s the Mad Men-style excesses and Spinal Tap-type misunderstandings of the recent past that entertain most. And reading about conference escapades is a sad reminder that it’ll be a while before anyone can add to their existing stock of tales. 

It also has to be said that the casual sexism of the past is occasionally evident and jars with today’s sensibilities (although the #MeToo movement shows those views haven’t entirely dissipated) in an industry where 52% of MRS members are women.

But whatever those previous shortcomings - and market research is hardly unique in that respect - the author reminds us that a career in this sector can be “varied, challenging, enjoyable, ethically beneficial, and worthwhile”. And, as a read of this book will show, it’s not populated by nerds and introverts as some people still imagine. 

* The Life in Research, collected and edited by Peter Bartram, Grosvenor House Publishing. Proceeds from sales donated to the Archive of Market & Social Research.