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Research Heroes: Lawrence Bailey

28-03-2014
Lawrence Bailey is a Chartered Psychologist and MRS Fellow. His market research career began at the Schlackman Organisation in 1977. During 33 years in the industry he worked on pre-launch research for Time-Life Music, The Softback Preview and the British Telecom voicemail service; the key expansion phase of American Express Card in the UK (in the 1970s), several magazine launches and the world's first group discussions among listeners to digital radio. On the quantitative side, he ran the UK's first e-mail survey, in 1984. Lawrence has published papers on research methodology, spoken at the MRS and Radio Academy Conferences, chaired Academy of Marketing Conference sessions, and taught Behavioural Aspects of Market Research for the MRS Diploma course. At the end of an overlapping late-career phase at Leeds Business School, Lawrence gave a Market Research Valedictory Lecture, Market Segmentation, Qualitative Research and Conversations across the Garden Wall, which has become Leeds Metropolitan University's most widely-viewed publicly-available lecture.

I wish someone had told me at the beginning of my career what amazing experiences were ahead! Most were fun, many were extraordinary for all sorts of reasons, and in almost every project I learnt something new about people. I’ve done qualitative research from Aberdeenshire in the North to Guernsey in the South, and still find people fascinating. Trouble is, time whizzes by, and it’s important to seize and savour the experiences and the memories while they’re there.

I most admire within Market Research, Bill Schlackman. Bill and I worked together for just under 3 years, and in retrospect, I wish it had been more. There were several occasions when just the two of us would sit and share ideas. Since I was very much the junior, I admired Bill’s egalitarian approach, as well as his creativity and analytical ability.

The best research project I have worked on during my career… I have been extraordinarily fortunate in working on several influential projects; I’m spoilt for choice. Among the ‘firsts’ I’d have to nominate the pre-launch work for Time-Life Music. They had decided to launch with a ‘continuity’ series called The Rock ’n’ Roll Era. I found myself interviewing mad enthusiasts who knew which club to go to to hear the 43rd out-take of Reet Petite, and such like. Then I was invited to the launch party, where I chatted to Alan Freeman, and Screaming Lord Such invited me to be a candidate for the Monster Raving Loony Party (I declined). Finally, they gave me a near-complete set of the CDs and box-set LPs. Bliss! Yet, in a strange way, the ‘best’ project was for a magazine re-launch, where the brief was broad enough to allow the researchers to get into real psychological depth. I’ll never forget how it felt to be told, by more than one respondent, that I had helped them to know themselves better.

The worst research project I have worked on during my career was probably an early project on deodorants where a seemingly clever method didn’t really work. The findings were not complimentary to the client, and at the presentation the small audience had enjoyed a very liquid lunch. Then the projector broke down…

The most amazing or memorable experience when I was doing research… It was definitely memorable when Time-Life sent over a Senior Vice-President to see some group discussions on a book series. Several important client representatives were behind the two-way mirror when a respondent announced that she’d lost her contact lens. There followed a phase of several minutes during which I felt paralysed by a lack of control and the entire group began crawling over the floor, looking for the missing lens.

The one story I always wanted to tell but never had a chance… I guess there’s always a chance to tell, but I’ve never believed that I would be able to tell the story of sending my first e-mail in such a way that would convey the wonder of it all. It was February 1977: I was sitting alone, late in the day, in a basement office in Hallam Street. I typed an urgent message to my boss, who was in California on business. Email is so ubiquitous nowadays that it is hard to imagine the feeling of awe when I pressed the ‘send’ button, knowing that the message would immediately be with the recipient. I realised I was glimpsing the future.

A research project I wish I had done… Probably some really fundamental work on what people need in London transport. The tube system is fascinating, wonderful, infuriating and a magical space-time warper. And I’ve never actually done any research on it.

If I wasn’t doing this, I would be… Leaving aside other applications of psychology, I have a small range of alternative, fantasy occupations that might have been. Given that my secret specialist subject is probably ‘popular music from 1955-87’, the top fantasy would be to be a record producer. Music is wonderful stuff, but the only instrument I can play is the hi-fi. It would be terrific to create amazing sounds in a recording studio. Have you heard Phil Spector’s productions of He’s A Rebel, Baby I Love You or River Deep-Mountain High? What care! What inventive effect!

The biggest challenge for our field in the next 10 years is to establish universal respect for professional market and social research. This is especially important for qualitative research. Over 26 years have passed since I asked ‘what determines quality in qualitative research?’, in the MRS Newsletter. Researchers should know their answer, and have the integrity to stand by it, against pressures to ‘dumb down’ and do something cheap.

My advice for young researchers at the start of their career is Know Thyself. Socrates had a point. Know if you’re fundamentally nosey (ideal for Market Research); know if you tend towards qual or quant; know if you’re happy to work hard for long hours; know if you’re fascinated by choice-behaviour; know if you’re good with clients…

Lawrence will present his final lecture to the MR sector, entitles Past, present and future: What determines quality in qualitative research? at Kings College London on 6 May. Further information and booking details can be found here.

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