Ashby Research Service

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[media]The Ashby Research Service was Australia’s first independent market research firm, operating in Sydney from 1936 to 1974. Established by Sylvia Ashby and principally located in Bridge Street, the Ashby Research Service was best known for its use of Consumer Panels, a large, nation-wide network of consumers who provided regular reports on their consumption patterns and preferences. In addition to conducting at least 3573 pieces of market research for a diverse range of local, national, and international clients, the Ashby Research Service helped legitimise market research as a necessary business expense.[1]

Sylvia Ashby was born in the United Kingdom in 1908. Migrating with her family to Australia when she was five years old, Ashby grew up in Melbourne where she trained as a secretary before joining the Melbourne branch of the recently-arrived American advertising agency J. Walter Thompson in 1930.[2] When the Depression forced the Melbourne office to close in 1931, Ashby transferred to Sydney.

‘a business training is an indispensable stepping-stone to higher jobs’

Market research was a key part of J. Walter Thompson’s operations. Declaring that ‘J. Walter Thompson was the first organisation to recognise the need for exact knowledge in the preparation of advertising’, a 1931 advertisement for the agency went on to detail how the ‘study of each client’s problems, through the medium of market research’ would enable clients to produce more effective advertising.[3] Taking up a secretarial role in the research department, Ashby gained unique exposure to market research practices and methodologies. Her interest in the field was also spurred by positive and progressive mentors – first Rudolph Simmat (who authored the first overview of market research practice in Australia) and then William McNair (who would later establish McNair Survey Pty Ltd that became synonymous with audience ratings for radio and television).[4]

After three years at J. Walter Thompson, Ashby moved to London, where she worked at the Charles W. Hobson agency. Although she continued to perform administrative duties, the agency also actively supported Ashby in deepening her knowledge of market research methodologies. Attending seminars and events not only introduced her to new approaches and concepts, it enabled her to develop ‘useful contacts with English and American research and publishers’.[5] Travels to the European continent and to North America provided further learning and networking opportunities.[6] After three years in the UK, it was time to return to Australia. Ashby hinted at her next step, when she told the Australian Women’s Mirror that ‘a business training is an indispensable stepping-stone to higher jobs’.[7]

‘Women make much better investigators than men’

Arriving back in Australia in 1936, Ashby found an opening for her skills. Market research was only being conducted by two advertising agencies – J. Walter Thompson and Lintas. Moreover, Ashby found that ‘big business in Australia was pretty much run on hunches or past experiences’.[8] The Ashby Research Service was duly created in 1936 to capitalise on this gap in the market. Her entrepreneurialism was quickly rewarded. Within weeks of opining Ashby Research Service was commissioned by an advertising agency to undertake a three-month long survey of Melbourne’s leading evening newspaper. Attracting further commissions, however, would prove to be a more difficult task. Ashby would later describe these early years as ‘tough going’.[9] As the concept of market research was largely unknown, Ashby embarked on a slow but necessary campaign to introduce it to ‘unreceptive’ business leaders.[10]

In addition to the standard issues regularly encountered by new start-ups, Ashby faced some more entrenched challenges. ‘Many were the ideas and suggestions I put forward to business men’, she recalled, ‘but more often than not they were waived aside as being impractical or unnecessary; further, I was (still in my twenties) ‘you are too young for such work’; not only that, I was a woman!’[11] Such attitudes had no place in Ashby’s own business, which was primarily staffed with women. In a 1938 interview Ashby explained why she preferred women as interviewers: ‘Women make much better investigators than men … They work more conscientiously and efficiently than men in this particular profession’. Adding that ‘Women are much more patient with other women and understand them better than men. Women will talk to another woman more freely’, Ashby reveals that her stance was also informed by pragmatic business concerns.[12]

Ashby’s persistence and professionalism ultimately enabled her to overcome the obstacles in her way, and, by the time the Second World War broke out, she had established a viable business. The Ashby Research Service had conducted reports for an impressive range of national firms, including the National Bank of Australasia, Dunlop-Perdriau rubber goods, Bushells tea, the Australian Women’s Weekly, and various major advertising agencies. Staff numbers reflected this expansion, growing from seven in 1936 to fifteen in 1939 (along with 40 interviewers working in the field).[13];[14]

Rationing and restrictions reduce the need for research

The Second World War severely disrupted the Ashby Research Service’s activities. Rationing and restrictions reduced the need for market research – consumers readily bought the few items that were made available to them. Wartime anxieties, coupled with a general ignorance of market research, created a further problem for the Ashby Research Service. Vigilant citizens contacted the authorities about strangers arriving on their doorstep to ask questions, meaning many interviewers were detained by police. The police also arrived at the Pitt Street head office of the Ashby Research Service, where Ashby found herself being ‘‘grilled’ … for one hour,’ ‘accused of disloyalty’ and threatened with arrest if she continued to survey the public about the nation’s war effort and the Prime Minister. Undaunted by this experience and the downturn in business, Ashby displayed her typical perseverance when she decided to shift the firm’s focus from consumption patterns to public opinion polling and measuring brand salience.[15] Wartime polls covered such issues as conscription, the war effort, conscription, and ‘war psychology’, as well as more political topics such as elections and ‘political knowledge.[16]

The war also brought about another unforeseen if significant development for the Ashby Research Service. Keith Murdoch, the managing director of the Herald & Weekly Times in Melbourne, had planned to establish a public opinion polling subsidiary and invited Ashby to join his team. However, this offer was countered by Frank Packer’s Australian Consolidated Press in Sydney, which had been regularly using the Ashby Research Service to survey readers of the Australian Women’s Weekly.[17] Ashby opted for the latter deal. Ashby Research Service consequently became a subsidiary of Australian Consolidated Press, and was renamed the Daily Telegraph Research Bureau for the period spanning 1942-1944. As it became evident that the Allies would win the war and that postwar marketers would be looking for an ‘independent’ market research, the Ashby Research Service was reinstated.

The Ashby Consumer Panels

The cessation of wartime conditions meant that marketers were eager to learn more about the new conditions, the consumers’ outlooks, and how they could best position themselves in it, and many looked to the Ashby Research Service for answers. However, Ashby appreciated that this demand could not be taken for granted – the war had vividly demonstrated the vulnerabilities of commissioned work. Reasoning that ‘continuous market research of a stabilised statistical sample of households’ offered a better picture of consumption patterns and consumer attitudes, as well as a consistent revenue source, Ashby looked to her international networks for a solution. She found it in a model developed by Bedford Attwood in the UK.[18] The resulting Ashby Consumer Panel was based on Atwood’s model, which collected continuous data from a statistically representative group of consumers. The data was tabulated and then sent to subscribers. Claiming that this approach increased ‘accuracy by eliminating the need to tax people’s memories with resultant faulty re-call of small but significant details of purchase’, the Ashby Research Service promised clients the most up-to-date and unparalleled insights into the consumer’s mind.[19] In addition to providing regular updates on consumer habits, the method also enabled subscribers and new clients to ask unique questions about specific marketing issues. The Ashby Consumer Panel was initially trialled in New South Wales in 1945 before being rolled out nationally in 1947.[20]

The Ashby Consumer Panels were based on families that documented their daily purchases in diaries. Collecting these diaries provided an opportunity for the firm to interview panellists and to ensure that all details were accurately recorded. Unscheduled visits were also conducted to ensure further accuracy and consistency.[21] Panellists were retained for three years only. They received no direct payment, but, in a clever case of cross-promotion, they were given subscriptions to ACP’s Australian Women’s Weekly.[22]

Booming economy

Over the 1950s and 1960s, Australia’s economy boomed, causing marketers to invest more into market research with the aim of gaining an advantage in a highly competitive market. The size of the Ashby Consumer Panel reflected this demand. Seeking to secure a sample that was ‘entirely representative of Australian Families’, the firm’s target was to reach ‘about every twelve-hundredth family’. [23] By the mid-1950s, the Ashby Research Service claimed that some 500 families were filling in diaries in Sydney, another 500 in Melbourne, and a further 450 in Brisbane. [24] Panels were also operating in Perth and Adelaide. Hoping to capitalise on the baby boom, a Baby Panel briefly operated from 1962. Over time, greater attention was paid to the composition of the panels to ensure that they provided an accurate reflection the cities’ respective demographics. This emphasis meant that the overall number of families on the panel had decreased by 1973 – Sydney and Melbourne were home to 480 members respectively, Brisbane, Adelaide, and Perth each had 330, and Hobart had 128. [25]

Reports completed by the Ashby Research Service over this period varied in size, scope, and purpose. Australian Consolidated Press provided regular commissions, notably for its key publications, the Australian Women’s Weekly and the Daily Telegraph. Such surveys principally examined the popularity of different sections in the publications, but also included studies of competing titles and the memorability of covers.[26] The reports also reveal the changing media landscape – particularly the impact of television on radio and print.[27] Subscribers like Arnotts were interested in the overall patterns of consumption in their field, the perception of their brand and that of their competitors, as well as the attitudes of specific demographics to different lines within their brand.[28] Advertisers and their agencies were similarly interested in brand image and the effectiveness of a particular advertisement or campaign. Other surveys simply sought to identify the client’s market. Luna Park, for example, commissioned Ashby Research Service in 1959 to ‘analyse the ‘market’ in respect to … attendances; and determine ways in which Luna Park can attract new patrons’.[29] The firm also conducted periodic surveys of public opinion on such issues as the extension of trading hours for NSW pubs, compulsory unionism, and the popularity of Princess Margaret.[30]

Enduring legacy

By 1974, Ashby and her boss, Sir Frank Packer, were looking to retire. In a magnanimous gesture that revealed his respect and appreciation for Ashby’s years of service, Packer sold Ashby Research Service back to Ashby for the same price that he bought it. Ashby then sold the Ashby Consumer Panels to Beacon Research Company Pty Ltd, an international market research firm, that same year. While the sale saw the Ashby name recede from view in business circles, Sylvia Ashby nevertheless left an enduring legacy as a pioneering market researcher and businesswoman, who also gave a voice to consumers and empowered women in the workplace.

 

Notes

[1] Sylvia Ashby, ‘The Seventies’, in Some Reflections on the First Fifty Years of Market Research in Australia 1928-1978, ed. W.A. McNair (Sydney: Market Research Society of Australia, NSW Division, c.1979) p 117

[2] Murray Goot, ‘Ashby, Sylvia Rose (1908–1978)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, 1993, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ashby-sylvia-rose-9390 viewed 24 July 2018

[3] Newspaper News, April 1931, p 3

[4] Sylvia Ashby, ‘The Twenties and Thirties’, in Some Reflections on the First Fifty Years of Market Research in Australia 1928-1978, ed. W.A. McNair (Sydney: Market Research Society of Australia, NSW Division, c.1979) pp 8-9

[5] Sylvia Ashby, ‘The Twenties and Thirties’, in Some Reflections on the First Fifty Years of Market Research in Australia 1928-1978, ed. W.A. McNair (Sydney: Market Research Society of Australia, NSW Division, c.1979), p 9

[6] Public Relations, Daily Examiner (Grafton), 9 September 1939, p 4

[7] Women Vocations, The Australian Woman’s Mirror, 28 January 1936, p 8

[8] Sylvia Ashby, ‘The Twenties and Thirties’, in Some Reflections on the First Fifty Years of Market Research in Australia 1928-1978, ed. W.A. McNair (Sydney: Market Research Society of Australia, NSW Division, c.1979), p 8

[9] Hugh Stuart, ‘Market Research Pioneer’, n.d., Box 42, Ashby Research Service records, c1937-c1972, MLMSS 8907, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

[10] Sylvia Ashby, ‘The Twenties and Thirties’, in Some Reflections on the First Fifty Years of Market Research in Australia 1928-1978, ed. W.A. McNair (Sydney: Market Research Society of Australia, NSW Division, c.1979) p 12

[11] Sylvia Ashby, ‘The Twenties and Thirties’, in Some Reflections on the First Fifty Years of Market Research in Australia 1928-1978, ed. W.A. McNair (Sydney: Market Research Society of Australia, NSW Division, c.1979), p 9

[12] Women will talk to Women, Sydney Morning Herald, 17 November 1938, p 22

[13] Hugh Stuart, ‘Market Research Pioneer’, n.d., Box 42, Ashby Research Service records, c1937-c1972, MLMSS 8907, State Library of New South Wales.

[14] Public Relations, Daily Examiner (Grafton), 9 September 1939, p 4

[15] Sylvia Ashby, ‘The Forties,’ in Some Reflections on the First Fifty Years of Market Research in Australia 1928-1978, ed. W.A. McNair (Sydney: Market Research Society of Australia, NSW Division, c.1979), p 28

[16] ‘War Effort’, ‘Conscription, 1941’, ‘2nd Conscription Survey, February 1942’, ‘War Psychology, September 1942’, ‘Election Survey, May’ 1943’, ‘Wartime and Political Knowledge, December 1942’, Box 78, Ashby Research Service records, c1937-c1972 MLMSS 8907, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

[17] Sylvia Ashby, ‘The Twenties and Thirties’, in Some Reflections on the First Fifty Years of Market Research in Australia 1928-1978, ed. W.A. McNair (Sydney: Market Research Society of Australia, NSW Division, c.1979), p 11

[18] Stefan Schwarzkopf, ‘Transatlantic Invasions or Common Culture? Modes of Cultural and Economic Exchange between the American and the British Advertising Industries, 1945-2000,’ in Anglo-American Media Interactions, 1850-2000, eds J. Winer & M. Hampton (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007), p 272

[19] Misc Publicity Materials, nd, Box 43, Ashby Research Service records, c1937-c1972 MLMSS 8907, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

[20] Murray Goot, ‘Ashby, Sylvia Rose (1908–1978)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, 1993, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ashby-sylvia-rose-9390, viewed 24 July 2018

[21] ‘Tea Council of Australia – Market Research Proposal’, p.16, Box 4, Ashby Research Service records, ca. 1937-ca. 1972 MLMSS 8907, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

[22] ‘Template Letter’, Box 57, Ashby Research Service records, c1937-c1972, MLMSS 8907, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

[23] ‘Statistics on the Ashby Research Service,’ c1956, Box 63, Ashby Research Service records, ca1937-ca1972 MLMSS 8907, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

[24] ‘Statistics on the Ashby Research Service’, Box 63, MLMSS 8907, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

[25] ‘Memo Miss Ashby – Perth Cost Comparison – Interviewing,’ Box 62, Ashby Research Service records, c1937-c1972, MLMSS 8907, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

[26] See ‘Women’s Magazines, August 1958,’ Box 22; ‘Novels Survey Women's Weekly, May 1952,’ Box 33’ ‘Enquiry among women regarding for 10 specific Women's Weekly covers, June 1951,’ Box 34; ‘Housewives & Women's Weekly features, November 1947 (Consumer Panel)’, Box 35; ‘Daily Telegraph Comics, June 1961,’ Box 87, Ashby Research Service records, c1937-c1972, MLMSS 8907, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

[27] ‘Women’s Magazines, August 1958’, Box 22, ‘TCN9 Tonight show & readership of Daily Telegraph, October 1966,’ Box 89, Ashby Research Service records, c1937-c1972, MLMSS 8907, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

[28] ‘Purchases of Arnott's Milk arrowroot biscuit & Sao, October 1961 for Arnotts,’ Box 23; ‘Various biscuit surveys - ' Specialling', teenage, Women's Day ad, 'Popro ',’ Box 28; ‘Arnotts biscuits - repeat purchase study & more Arnotts, 1968-1969,’ Box 56, Ashby Research Service records, c1937-c1972 MLMSS 8907, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.

[29] ‘Luna Park, July 1959,’ Box 25, Ashby Research Service records, c1937-c1972 MLMSS 8907, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

[30] ‘Public reaction to late closing, March 1955 plus Pre-Liquor Poll Hotel closing hours, February 1955’; ‘Compulsory Unionism, June 1953 & December 1953 for DT’; ‘Princess Margaret, June 1953’, Box 27, Ashby Research Service records, c1937-c1972, MLMSS 8907, Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales.