Dr Liz Nelson OBE FMRS confirmed her front row seat in the development of the global research industry as the N in TNS when she co-founded Taylor Nelson in 1965. As the organisation grew into the second largest market research company in the world, she became involved in green issues (and was awarded an OBE for services to eco-labelling in 1992) and has since worked as chairman of an NHS trust and been CEO of three charities. She has stayed closely involved in research innovation and industry governance through her roles on the MRS Main Board and Awards Panel, as well as being Chairman of FlyResearch.
I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career that the success of the market research industry depended on providing insight, not just data, and that a researcher must become a consultant.
I most admire… Can I have two? Two graduates of LSE. Harry Henry, like so many of the other founders of market research in the UK, studied at LSE before and after WWII. He was unique in so far as he used market research as a stepping stone to become the CEO of the huge organisation, Thompson Newspapers. His colleague at LSE, Sir Claus Moser was a brilliant statistician, became head of the Central Statistical Office and still at 90+ plays Mozart Piano Concertos beautifully.
The best research project I have worked on during my career was for the Central Office of Information with Pam Mills and Ivor McGloughlin. We wrote a paper on how “Save It” (the energy saving advertising campaign) persuaded consumers to change their behaviour and to use many of the ways that they could save energy, and at the same time, save money.
The worst research project I have worked on during my career was so unnecessary. Why did Mars spend several thousand pounds carrying out an extensive survey about Spangles boiled sweets which had cellophane wrappers? They did many hundreds of interviews among cinema goers to prove that others in the audience who unwrapped Spangles during a dramatic moment in the film caused fury. Wax wrappers were substituted and the sales of Spangles in cinemas increased significantly.
The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research was immediately after I gave a paper at the MRS Annual Conference in Birmingham. This was after I had left market research and was working in the public sector. John Samuels came up and said “I see you haven’t lost your touch”. It made me realise that once a market researcher, always a market researcher.
The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance is why the firm was called Taylor Nelson.
A research project I wish I had done would have been a non-traditional imaginative opinion poll in the 1992 election when all the UK polls made a hash of predicting the results.
If I wasn’t doing this, I would be a clinical psychologist.
The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years is to explain to the world what market research is, namely only those studies which abide by a professional code of standards.
My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is to argue for professionalism and never be shy about declaring that proper market research abides by certain standards and is constantly open to developments in psychology, ethnography, statistics, technology and neuroscience.
Liz will be judging the MRS Awards 2013. For more information about the Awards and details of how to enter, click here.