Josephine Shaw is a qualitative researcher and facilitator. Her background includes Account Planning roles at major ad agencies and working as a Senior Director at Flamingo and C Space. She has run The Josephine Shaw Partnership since 2015 and recently completed a Masters degree in Digital Culture and Society at King’s College, London. Jo has been active in trans rights for a decade and was a co-founder of advocacy group Trans Media Watch.

Jo spoke at MRSpride’s second event in October 2019, presenting a project conducted for On Road Media about transforming perceptions of the trans community alongside Magenta Research.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career to follow my heart. It’s important to work out what really motivates you, what brings meaning to your work and chart a course towards it. As the saying goes, ‘If you’re going to climb up the ladder of success, make sure it’s leaning against the right wall’. It’s never too soon to start thinking about that.

I most admire my children. They have taught me so much, during some very tough times. In this industry? Roy Langmaid - whose ideas profoundly shaped mine and David Cowan who taught me how to become a decent Account Planner when I was at Lowe Howard-Spink a thousand years ago.

A future-fit research world is one that stops talking about ‘consumers’ and talks about people, with humanity, decency, and real, authentic lives. I have no time for an industry that signs up to human beings as little more than data points that exist to be isolated and managed, simply to create profit for huge, exploitative businesses.

My resilience tip for when times get tough is: Do your best with what you have, you cannot do any more and no-one can ask more of you. At the end of the day, loved ones and friends are what matter. Don’t neglect them. Also – walk in the woods on your own.

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research was the workshops which led to the ‘Protect The Human’ strategy for Amnesty UK. Proudest career moment ever was seeing it etched into the glass above the entrance at their new head office.

Or the after show party for the tenth year of Disney’s stage version of The Lion King (on which I had been working for years). It became the most successful stage musical in history. Dancing amongst all the little Simbas (and they really could dance. Obviously.)

Or sitting in the slums of Bangkok and later in Soweto listening to people talk about the meaning of ‘happiness’ for a detergent brand (seriously), or watching a group of observant Muslim mums talk about their babies in Istanbul and understanding that human truths and bonds are universal.

Or doing the first ever research project into transgender people’s experience of the media, bringing several dozen trans people into Channel 4 and running a day long workshop with their Commissioning teams, when I was at Flamingo.

Or arriving for a project in Sydney at about 3am off a London flight, getting to my hotel, opening my bedroom curtains and being confronted with a totally unexpected 180 degree floodlit panorama of the Opera House and the Harbour Bridge right in front of me. Awesome. 

Plenty of these. I have been so lucky.

The one story I’ve always wanted to tell but never had a chance is that one about when I was working on a project for Ford in Detroit when I was in advertising, and the account man got arrested and put in jail and the FBI and the British Consulate and The Foreign Office got involved and I had to stay behind and get him out? My lips are sealed. What happens in Vegas etc. Or Detroit.

I have loads of time for those who find a way to use research to help marginalised or disadvantaged people get a fairer chance in life. Anything from the UNHCR down to your local care home, hospice, homeless shelter or food bank. I don’t do ‘research envy’ much though.

To me, great leadership looks like…

Do everything to help people be the best they can be.

Open doors for them.

Deliberately hire people better than you are.

Look for talent bursting to come out.

Keep learning.

Remember that you are dealing with people, with feelings and lives and families, not simply staff.

Identify what you are trying to do as an organisation, clearly and simply and help everyone really understand it. The ‘Vision thing' is much debated, but it really is important. People need a North Star, clearly visible.

The main challenge in building a more inclusive world is the way in which power is being performed in the world. The division and segregation of people into ever more deeply nuanced and surveilled groups (techniques accelerated by the digital and taught to politicians by first the ad industry and now by market researchers) is becoming the antithesis of inclusion. These practices promote, exploit and monetise difference. They lock people into airtight silos. Populist politicians are all over these approaches – because they allow the creation of enemies and scapegoats, promoting exploitable fears and hatred.

We have a responsibility to bring people’s stories to light (especially the unheard and forgotten), to respect and communicate their uniqueness, but critically also to root what we do in the common humanity of us all, the things we all share. That is being forgotten in our society – we need it back, fast.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be Poet Laureate.


Get the latest MRS news

Our newsletters cover the latest MRS events, policy updates and research news.