NEWS21 January 2022

Obituary: John Downham

News People UK

John Downham, who had been a member of the MRS since 1953, and who worked for BMRB as its first research officer before joining Unilever’s client-side operation, has died. He was 97.

Head shot of John Downham

Born in London, John attended the King Edward V1 Royal Grammar School in Guildford, where he rose to be house and school captain, leading the school’s officer training corps. He joined the local Home Guard when the war started, then the RAF in 1943 as an officer cadet on a six-month short course at University College Oxford, reading Modern History. He initially trained as a pilot at St John’s College Cambridge, making him one of the very few people to have studied arts and science at both these universities. 

Returning to Oxford after leaving the RAF in 1946, he switched to a PPE course, gaining a first in 1948. After leaving Oxford he joined BMRB as its first research officer in 1948. By the late 1950s John had become joint director along with John Treasure, with John taking sole control as managing director in 1960 when Treasure moved to JWT, which owned BMRB.

At that time, BMRB was becoming more independent and less reliant on undertaking research for JWT clients, moving from JWT’s site in Mayfair to its own offices in Ealing in 1960. This period also included John’s first experiences of international research, working on projects in Kenya, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and South Africa.  Unilever, by then a major client of BMRB, requested help in setting up its own in-house research international facility, with John moving there on a two-year secondment.

This turned into a permanent appointment and John was at Unilever when Eileen Cole set up the Research Bureau Ltd in 1962 as the UK arm of the European Market Research Group. That became part of Research International, Unilever’s international in-house research facility, alongside the long-established equivalent advertising facility, Lintas. John became responsible for the client-side operation within Unilever, with international responsibilities including training, quality standards and special projects, a post he held until retirement in 1988.

Having joined the embryonic UK Market Research Society in 1953, he became secretary/treasurer in 1956 and chairman 1959-60. In the 1960s, John served on exams and education committees, helping develop and run the MRS education and training programmes, including convening the summer school; he was also instrumental in the initial thinking behind developing a professional qualification.

During his time as chairman, the MRS launched a publication in 1959, now called the International Journal of Market Research. He served on the MRS Awards Committee in the early 1980s and was a long-serving member of the Professional Standards Committee until the late 1990s. This included work on the first guidelines to help members identify the nuances created by the collection and use of personal data in the emerging world of database marketing.

John was also a founder member of the Market Research Benevolent Association (MRBA) committee when it was launched in 1977, becoming president in 1987 and serving until his retirement in 2001. John was elected a Fellow of the MRS in 2000 and awarded the prestigious MRS Gold Medal the following year.

John was also extensively involved in ESOMAR, which he joined in 1957. In the 1970s, he was the first chair of the Professional Standards Committee, remaining a consultant on professional standards until 2004. He was responsible for drafting the first ICC/ESOMAR International Code of Practice, as well as many of the guidelines including one on International Research.

John also joined the Institute of Statisticians in the early 1950s, serving on the Council and later as vice-chairman, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society after the two associations merged. 

John was a prolific author of papers and books. During his time at BMRB, a leading client, the Readers Digest Association, commissioned him to write a book in 1953 called The Communication of Ideas, based on an in-depth study conducted in Derby. This was followed in 1956 by Readings in Market Research, co-authored with John Treasure and Eric Shanklemann.

John was also commissioned to write a definitive history of BMRB, entitled BMRB International: The First Sixty Years, which was published in 1993 to celebrate its 60th anniversary. In a similar vein, John wrote a brief history of the MRBA to celebrate its 50th anniversary. 

For ESOMAR, John wrote the anniversary book celebrating its first 50 years of existence and, along with Bob Worcester, he co-edited the initial three editions of its consumer market research handbook, a standard text for many.

More recently, John was involved in the development of the market research oral history project; he was also one of the three visionary founders of the Archive of Market and Social Research (AMSR), set up in in 2014, along with Liz Nelson and Geoffrey Roughton. AMSR was established as a charity on 1 April 2016, with John as vice-chairman, a position he held until the end of 2018 when he retired as a trustee.

I feel very privileged to have known John; he was widely respected for his long experience in and extensive knowledge of market research and was always charming, courteous, incredibly helpful and great company socially.

John married June in 1949 and they had four children. June died in 2011. John is survived by his children, plus seven grandchildren and two great grandchildren.

2 Comments

5 months ago

John Downham along with Robert Worcester edited the first few editions of the Esomar Consumer Market Research Handbook. As young researchers, the Handbook was our bible : comprehensive, sound, well reasoned points of view and lucidly written for practioners. In my view , the subsequent editions covered more contemporary topics, but the basics were best spelt out in the early editions. I never had the privilege of meeting John Downham, but I am indebted to him for the knowedge imparted from just one book.

Like Report

4 months ago

Excellent obituary article, Peter. It really gives us a flavour of just what a massive contribution John Downham made to the market research industry and society in general.

Like Report