Don’t let them grind you down – Wendy Gordon

Don’t let them grind you down – Wendy Gordon

It is with great sadness that we recently heard the news of Wendy Gordon’s death. She led the way on so many fronts and was a true inspiration in the world of research and good thinking. Giles Lury had the privilege of interviewing her for the Wonder Women in Marketing book and writing up her story. We have pleasure in sharing it with you.

Wendy Gordon

Wendy majored in psychology and social anthropology in her native South Africa and got a job working for a management consultancy. They wanted to set up a market research arm, and she recalls that somehow, she was selected to join the new team and got to work.

“I knew fuck all about [market research]. Somehow, I got through some sort of selection criteria – to my amazement. The first year I was setting up a whole market research unit. Recruiting black interviewers who were schoolteachers across the country, teaching them how to do a questionnaire, how to ask questions. It was fascinating. I did that for three years.”

Unfortunately, an embarrassing turn led her to leave. “My boss at the time got drunk one Christmas party and told the whole company that he was in love with me.” He was sacked but, feeling somewhat awkward, she decided to move on. So, she joined an established research agency where she learned the basics of quant research.

Her next move was prompted by a wish for new challenges and a desire to do both quality and quantity research. She decided to move overseas and came to the UK. She took her time and spoke to a number of the leading agencies of the time finally choosing to join Schlackman.

Looking back, she says, “I chose [to join] Bill. I don’t know why. There was something about the way he interacted with me. I liked Bill and his quirky ways, and that’s how I really got into qualitative research.”

It was here that she met and started working with Colleen Ryan, and together they would transform the standard approach to qualitative research. They had a feeling that qualitative research needed to evolve. At that time, most quality research projects took six to eight weeks to complete. Speaking to advertising planners, such as Judy Lannon at J. Walter Thompson, they soon realized they had been right and there was a demand for much faster turn-around times. They decided that by working together things could be done much quicker and, ultimately, they could help advertising agencies and their clients make their decisions on campaigns much faster.

“We’d do projects together – we’d do the first groups together, then I’d go north and do two groups, she’d do two groups somewhere else – then we’d get together and figure out what was going on. We would work out which route they should go with, which advertising execution – what was it communicating, what did they like.” 

The prevailing attitudes of the time weren’t done with Wendy yet. Having left Shlackman’s again, she was contacted by a couple of advertising agencies, as there were strong links between research and planners and experience as a researcher was a frequent path into planning. One agency she spoke to was Allen Brady and Marsh. She had three interviews and all seemed to be going really well, but then she had to meet Peter Marsh.

As their interview was drawing to a close, Peter asked, “Come on, Wendy, what would you do in this scenario – we have a pitch over the weekend and your daughter is in hospital, where would you be?” Wendy immediately replied, “In hospital, of course.” As Wendy says, looking back, “That was it. This [attitude and expectation] was just endemic at that time.”

In the end, Wendy and Colleen decided the best thing was to do it for themselves, and they created The Research Business.

It was huge success, doing really, really well – making money, delivering what their clients wanted and building their team. “We couldn’t believe how much money we were making,” Wendy says, smiling

The smile fades as she then recalls, “At the MRS conference that year, John Goodyear (the MD of another major research agency) said, “Are you and Coleen having a lovely time making up your transcripts in the park?” The top ten market research companies were run by men. We were purely qualitative, and we had 120 people working for us. They said these things, like The Research Business wasn’t credible and genuine. They somehow thought we had got there by cheating, making up interviews; that was hard trying to hold your own. And we weren’t alone – [other women faced] those snide, snarky, aggressive comments, getting a pat on the head.”

However, for Wendy and Colleen, it didn’t knock them off their stride; it just made them want to carry on.

And that’s what they did. The business was hugely successfully. When Wendy realized that she was spending too much time running the business, not doing it, and Colleen decided she wanted to sail around the world, they sold the business and moved on.

Asked to look back on the experience, Wendy not surprisingly and quite rightly sees it as an achievement.

“What I’m proud about is that we created an amazing company that was really successful, a good place to work, enabling of women, women who wanted to have children, women who were pregnant – I’m immensely proud.”

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