The Association for Qualitative Research
The Hub of Qualitative Thinking

At the feet of the master

It's not every day that you get the chance to fly to Florida to meet a guru. Simon Patterson set off to track down and film the "father of UK qualitative research".

Bill Schlackman is the link between Ernest Dichter, "the father of motivational research", and a whole generation of qualitative researchers who came out of the Schlackman stable. The ensuing list reads like a sort of "Who's Who of UK qualitative research", if anyone were brave enough to compile one, giving rise to something that resembles one of those rock "n" roll family trees.

I had met Bill just once before, very briefly, at the 1986 MRS Conference in Brighton. He was presenting his paper "The Application of Projective Tests to Psychographic Analysis of Markets" and I was a young CRAM research exec, at the beginning of my career. Even then, though, he made an impact.

Man of insight

I remember him insisting on presenting "live" with marker pen and overhead projector. It was literally like attending one of his lectures and I remember being struck by what an insightful and powerful man he was.

Recently, while researching the early years of the late Peter Cooper (CRAM's founder and my former business partner), I realised I didn't really know that much about Bill. Peter had worked as a freelancer for him between 1960 and 1965, and I was keen to find out more about the man termed "the father of qualitative research" in the UK.

After a tip off from John Griffiths I got Bill's contact details from Wendy Gordon and decided that there was no time like the present. I called Bill, introduced myself, told him of Peter's passing and boldly asked him if I might come to Florida to film an interview with him. He was very friendly, seemed almost flattered and, to my surprise, immediately agreed. He misses England, the old days, and the people, but I'm sure he doesn't miss the weather.

Two for the road

Bill told me that Lawrence Bailey had also been trying to interview him, via Skype, but that they hadn't managed to get a suitable connection. He urged me to talk to him and consider doing an interview together. I called Lawrence, who has been working on his Oral History of Market Research on behalf of the Research Network, and it turned out Bill was the only remaining interview of his targeted dozen.

I told him I was flying to Florida and convinced him that we should go together. It was a mad plan but it had to be done. I pledged that QRi would sponsor his airfare jointly and this set the ball rolling. We soon gained further sponsorship from the Research Network, The Market Research Society and AQR.

Bill seemed very excited on the phone, as were we, and in no time at all Lawrence and I were flying to Tampa, Florida, in early May, armed with a new HD Camcorder and long list of questions. And yes, the weather was beautiful.

Bill is now 83, and lives with his wife Joan in Fort Myers, some three hours drive South of Tampa and about 15 minutes from the Coast. They recently celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary. Lawrence and I spent two days with them and shot nearly five hours of film during the time that we were over there.

The couple met in New York in 1958 when Bill was working for Dichter at his "Institute of Motivational Research". He married Joan, who is half British, in 1959. Dichter, originally from Vienna, was keen to open offices in Europe and, knowing of Bill's link with the UK through Joan, offered him the chance to work in London. First came the "Motivational and Social Research Centre", a joint venture with David Collins (where he first meet Peter Cooper), before Bill was invited to open Ernest Dichter Associates in London.

Self reflection enthusiast

A clinical psychologist, fascinated by psychoanalysis and free association, Bill is still very keen on self reflection, something he has always advocated since his early days of practicing in Brooklyn, New York in the mid-1950s. Indeed, perhaps surprisingly, he comes across as rather self-deprecating and humble.

He says he doesn't really understand what all the fuss is all about and that he didn't really do anything special. But when he and his new wife came to the UK he was definitely in the right place, at the right time, and was largely responsible for bringing the secrets of Madison Avenue to London.

Listening to Bill talk about his early experiences in New York, and then how he helped create a new industry in the UK that would become known as qualitative research, was simultaneously fascinating, humbling and inspiring.

Bill is the sage archetype personified, both wise and very paternalistic, especially towards the people who worked for him. He talked of them as a father might talk about his children, not in a patronising way, but in the sense of a teacher, nurturing and with pride. Indeed, the way he welcomed Lawrence like a long-lost son, and talked about "Coop" (Peter Cooper), Wendy Gordon, and many others was quite touching.

Fourfold piece of advice

When I asked what his advice was to young quallies today his answer was fourfold. Firstly; self reflection: "Get yourself analysed and learn to go into yourself". This he sees as key: "Learn to truly understand yourself, before you go out and try to understand others".

Secondly; get what he calls a "good grounding in a broad spectrum of clinical psychology: study Carl Rogers and Fritz Perls, psychographics and motivation"". Thirdly; "Familiarise yourself with marketing and advertising so that you can help with its practical application". Finally, he stressed to both Lawrence and I the importance of education and training.

We are now in the process of editing the five hours of film, which will take some time. It will also be part of Lawrence's Research Network Oral History Collection, and we will be putting an edited version of it on the AQR website as part of our collective history. Indeed, Bill spoke at the first official AQR (or AQRP as it was called in those days) meeting in 1981, and again at its AGM eleven years later. Too bad we won't be seeing him at a future one.

 

Simon Patterson
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2013