John Downham 1924-2022

It is with great sadness that I heard the news that John Downham had died on January 15th, aged 97.
Date 27 January 2022
Author Peter Mouncey

Throughout his career and into retirement, John played a very significant role in the development of the market research sector after joining BMRB back in 1948 as a Research Officer.

Born in Kingston-upon-Thames, the family soon moved to Guildford. His father had served in the Royal Flying Corps in WW1 and ran a business in London, whilst his mother started a chicken farm after their move. This part of Surrey was his home for life. He attended the King Edward V1 Royal Grammar School in Guildford, still state-run at that time, where he rose to be House and School Captain and 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 RAF Short Course at University College Oxford reading Modern History. As a trainee pilot, he initially trained at St John's College Cambridge, one of the very few people to have studied arts and science at both these universities! He was commissioned as an air-crew navigator in 1945, latterly serving as an Operations Room Controller towards the end of World War 2.

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 risen to be joint Director along with John Treasure running BMRB, with John taking sole control as Managing Director in 1960 when John Treasure moved to JWT, who owned BMRB. At this time, BMRB was becoming much more independent, and less reliant on undertaking research for JWT clients, moving from JWT in Mayfair to their own offices in Ealing in 1960. This period also included his first experiences of international research, working on projects in Kenya, Ceylon and South Africa. Unilever, by then a major client of BMRB, requested help from BMRB in setting up their own in-house research international facility, with John moving there on a two year secondment. This turned into a permanent appointment, with John staying 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. Both of these later became independent agencies (Research International sold to Ogilvy & Mather in 1987, and Lintas now part of the Interpublic Group). John, therefore, 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.

However, that is only part of John's market research sector story. 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 and the initial thinking on a professional qualification. During his time as Chairman the MRS launched a journal in 1959, now the International Journal of Market Research. John described the reasons behind this decision in an article published in the issue commemorating the 50th anniversary of the journal (Downham, J, ‘How did the MRS journal start?', IJMR 50/1, pp 7-9). 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, continuing to provide advice on standards issues after retiring from this committee. This included work on the first guideline 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 serving until retiring in 2001. John was elected a Fellow of the MRS in 2000 and awarded the prestigious MRS Gold Medal in 2001.

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 serving as Vice Chairman, becoming a Fellow of the Royal Statistical Society after the two associations merged. 

Not surprisingly, John was a prolific author of papers, and books. He contributed many papers at market research conferences during his career, the earliest being in 1953. During his time at BMRB, a leading client the Readers Digest Association, commissioned him in 1953 to write a book '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, ‘BMRB International: The First Sixty Years', published in 1993 to celebrate their 60th anniversary. John also wrote a brief history of the MRBA to celebrate their 50th anniversary. For ESOMAR, John wrote the anniversary book celebrating ESOMAR's 50th , and along with Bob Worcester, John co-edited the first three editions of the ESOMAR Consumer Market Research Handbook, a standard text for many.

More recently, John was involved in the development of the market research Oral History project, and you can find the interview with John about his life and career in market research here. John was also one of the three visionary founders in 2014 of the Archive of Market and Social Research (AMSR), along with Liz Nelson and Geoffrey Roughton. Following an initial discussion in July about the need for an archive, they organised a meeting for 17 like-minded individuals at the Market Research Society on 23 November 2014, chaired by Ruth Betts, at which it was agreed, "….that it was worthwhile to initiate an MRS Archive along the lines discussed." 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. However, he continued to be a member of AMSR's Governance Committee until his death. He made a major contribution to AMSR in the early days, including drafting its first Business Plan. The success of AMSR is a very fitting tribute to John's commitment to the market research sector, covering over seven decades. 

John still had time for interests outside of market research. In 1981, the was appointed Marketing Director of County Sound, that successfully bid for the first commercial radio franchise outside of London, serving on the board until taken over in 1991. He was a Founding Committee member of the Guildford Concertgoers Society after the end of WW2, later Chairman and Honorary Vice President (and a member of other arts-related groups); Governor of Tillingbourne school (1987-2000) and on the Committee of the local Oxford Society.

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. 

I've personally known John for many years including working with him on MRS PSC projects. When I was appointed Editor in Chief of IJMR in 2004, I was acutely aware of how his vision as MRS Chair had led the MRS to introduce a journal back in 1959 (the year I started grammar school!), and the responsibility on me to ensure that this legacy was nurtured and protected. I feel very privileged to have known John, and in compiling this obituary, all those I've contacted have underlined my own personal view of John, demonstrating their tremendous respect for his long experience and knowledge of market research and the sector, and as a person was always charming, courteous, incredibly helpful and great company socially.

Peter Mouncey