Editor’s note: Simon Chadwick is managing partner of Cambiar, a Durham, N.C., consulting firm.
It is with extreme sadness that I must report the death of one of the market research industry’s most famous and beloved icons, William “Jay” Wilson.
Many people in today’s industry will perhaps remember Jay as the chairman and CEO of Roper Starch Worldwide, a company that, under his inspired management, rose to become the 15th largest in the world before its sale to NOP World and the absorption of that company into GfK. Others will remember him as the highly effective and passionate chair of both CASRO and CMOR. Yet others will remember his work at the Roper Center for Public Opinion. Some, maybe, will remember him as a co-founder of the consulting company, Cambiar.
Whichever incarnation of Jay you relate to, it is almost certain that you, like me, would be amazed at the sheer breadth of his contribution to the market research industry over the last 50 years and the impact that he had on its development.
Jay Wilson was part of only three father-and-son pairings to have been elected to the MRC Hall of Fame, along with his father Elmo C. “Budd” Wilson. The others were Elmo and Bud Roper and the Arthur Nielsens (Sr. and Jr.). Jay was early to enter the industry, working as a coding assistant in Audits and Surveys as a summer job, in the 1950s while still in high school.
From there he took a break, graduating from Yale and then traveling to Europe to take a position with Reader’s Digest as their international advertising development manager. While living in the leafy London suburb of Wimbledon, the thought struck him that he would love to do a post-graduate degree at the University of Cambridge. Being Jay Wilson, he attacked this initiative with gusto, writing to all the colleges at Cambridge, unaware that many of them were for women only. In later years, he would delight in showing friends his rejection letters from these establishments. But go to Cambridge he did, graduating with a master’s in historical studies from Corpus Christi College. He was also to study at the University of Vienna, his field of inquiry there being European economic and political institutions. His choices of these fields of study were no coincidence: Jay was always intensely curious about the development of the world around him, its historical roots and, tellingly, how human beings functioned in their everyday, economic, social and political lives.
In 1948, Jay’s father, Budd, had founded International Research Associates (INRA) and had grown this into the first truly global group of market research companies. Returning from Europe in 1967, Jay joined the organization as an executive vice president. This did not impress the mailroom clerk, who called him “the kid.” Upon his father’s death a year later, Jay jointly assumed the leadership of INRA alongside George Gaither and Helen Dinnerman and was to remain in this position for the next three years.
INRA fed one of Wilson’s abiding passions: exploring and understanding life in different and far-flung parts of the world. His next move, however, was to feed another of his passions: marketing and advertising. In 1971, he was invited to become president and CEO of the venerable advertising research firm, Daniel Starch and Staff. Starch was one of the first commercial research companies, founded in 1923 and its founder, Daniel Starch, was still active (though not the CEO) when Jay took the helm at his company. All was not well at the firm, however. It was losing money at a terrific rate and had delisted from the Stock Exchange in April 1970. It was taken private by Loeb Rhodes, the investment bank that had invested in Starch and helped take it public, and it was up to the young Wilson to turn it around. To hear Jay tell it, there were times when the company was not sure it could make payroll and creditors were literally pounding at the door. At one point, personnel from the phone company arrived to cut the lines. Jay threw them the keys to the front door, saying, “Here, it’s all yours. No phones, no business. No business, no payment.” The lines remained uncut.
Over the next two to three years, Wilson nursed the business back to robust health, so much so that he was able to acquire INRA in 1974, thus uniting his present employer with the firm that his father had started over 30 years prior. In the early 1980s he then moved to acquire the Roper Organization, the firm that had given Budd Wilson his start in the business, thus squaring the circle of his family’s involvement in the development of the research industry. In 1993, the firm changed its name to Roper Starch Worldwide and grew steadily, both organically and via multiple acquisitions (including those of Friedman Marketing Services Inc. and Response Analysis Corp.), to become the 15th largest research company in the world.
Jay always used to be highly self-deprecating about his abilities as a researcher. He was, he would say, a businessman in the world of market research. Indeed, long before selling was an acceptable part of life in commercial MR companies, Wilson had a sign on his desk that read, “Nothing happens until someone sells something.” Nevertheless, while it is true that he brought a businessman’s instincts to what could be an overly academic and insular profession, it is also equally as true that he was indeed a great researcher. It was Wilson who, in the early 1970s, led methodological research into alternative questioning procedures for estimating magazine audiences; and it was he who, in the mid-1970s, led a major piece of research on the topic of purchase influence and introduced the concept of “interspousal influence” to the world of advertising. This was not too long after David Ogilvy had famously opined that “the consumer is not a moron, she is your wife.” Jay put that concept on a more modern footing. In those days he was, as Phil Dougherty, the ad columnist of the New York Times, put it, “Mr. Wonderful.” Continue reading