Polling: The Numbers Man

Ever been interrupted just as you're sitting down to dinner by one of those telephone surveyors looking to pump you for information on what you are buying or how you plan to vote? Well, if veteran pollster Angus Reid has his way, those calls will soon be a thing of the past.

Late in the afternoon, when most office workers are getting ready to hit the road, Susan (“Don't use my real name”) Wells is just beginning her workday. Rushing around her basement apartment, she shouts last-minute cooking instructions at her 18-year-old son, whacks a brush through her hair, searches for her shoes, gulps down a glass of lemon water and throws her head back to issue a long and operatic gargle. “Must not drink milk,” she recites. “Must arrive at work with clean vocal cords.”

Heading toward downtown Winnipeg in her old Taurus, she arrives at work just as “the field”–a vast jungle of phone cubicles–is filling up with 400 low-paid office workers like herself. Wells works for a company called Ipsos–a Paris-based international firm that conducts market research by telephone. As she puts it, “Basically, my job is to phone people and ask them a bunch of dorky questions.”

After getting her assignment for the evening and logging onto her computer, Wells hits the auto-dialler and the spider jumps to life, scampering across a nationwide void webbed with thousands of randomly selected numbers. Somewhere in Comox, Brandon or Sudbury a telephone jangles. “Most of the time nobody answers,” she says. “Sometimes you hit an office number, a fax, or a copying machine.” If a living person picks up the phone, Wells deploys her voice. “You learn to speak like a Stepford wife,” she says. “Smooth and inhuman. Sometimes a supervisor will secretly monitor the conversation to make sure you're sticking to the approved tone. I was talking to this old lady one night and she was so nice I couldn't help but smile and say, 'God bless you.' Right away a message came up on my screen: Terminate this interview immediately.”

As a “Level 2 Interviewer,” Wells earns her money asking people questions. “I'm not selling anything, but a surprising number of people hang up, or get verbally abusive. I get told to fuck off a lot, and I'm fine with that. But some people get really angry. Last night I had this guy who sounded like Tony Soprano, screaming at me, calling me a douche bag. I don't know if I interrupted his dinner, but he sounded like he wanted to come through the phone line and strangle me.”

It seems that citizens are fed up with being asked how they are, and many simply hang up the phone when they hear that stereotypically cheery voice at the other end of the line. That is a far cry from the early days of public-opinion research, in the 1980s, when firms like Decima Research, Goldfarb Consultants and the Angus Reid Group made a fortune excavating public opinion, refining it, and selling the product to corporations, government agencies and political parties. It was then unusual to be called at home, and many were pleased to volunteer their opinion on everything from studded tires to capital punishment. But recently, phone surveyors have become one of our most loathed species of household pest. Most phone surveyors are, of course, decent folks–single parents, like Susan Wells, or students trying to scratch a living from the new economy. But many people are tired of being interrupted during dinner. (It's no accident that Wells and her co-workers begin pounding the phones just as most people are getting home from work.)

In the United States, public interest groups are fighting back, and have lobbied successfully to slap unsolicited callers with huge fines. In the Canadian polling business, what insiders call the “fuck-off rate” is climbing so high that public opinion surveys are losing credibility. After all, if someone is willing to spend 20 minutes talking to a phone surveyor, do we really want to know their opinion?

If this trend continues, Susan Wells and the hundreds of “phone drones” who work at monolithic call centres like Ipsos in downtown Winnipeg may soon find themselves in the jobless line. Angus Reid, the pioneer of Canadian phone surveying, knows the business better than anyone, and he bailed out in the year 2000. The smile that he wore as he walked away from the industry no doubt owed something to the sack of cash Ipsos paid for the Angus Reid Group ($100 million), but Reid is also convinced that the phone surveying empire he built over 20 years has reached its limits of growth and is now on the verge of collapse. “Things are getting more difficult with each passing year,” says Reid. “The market research industry has to call a hundred people to find eight who will co-operate. And there are legitimate concerns about the validity of some of these market surveys when so many people refuse to talk.”

Reid points out that phone technology is changing, too. Many young people don't use hard-wired phones at all, and the law prohibits phone surveyors from calling them on their cellphones. Is it possible that companies are therefore losing the ability to take the pulse of the youth market? “I think that's a valid question,” says Reid. “Surveyors are trying to come up with countermeasures for dealing with these challenges. They're using auto-diallers and other technologies, but at some point you have to recognize the inevitable: it's the end of an era.”

Only a few generations ago, the body politic was a monster, a great incomprehensible beast with simmering rages and mood swings only the wiliest corporate promoter or politician could understand. Early opinion surveys, or “straw polls,” consisted of ballots that newspapers or magazines mailed out to their readers. During the early 20th century, an American magazine called The Literary Digest conducted widely respected straw polls, the most famous being a presidential poll it launched in 1936. In accordance with the social science of the day, the editors of the Digest believed that the larger the sample, the more credible the results. After tabulating the opinions of more than two million respondents, the Digest announced that the Democratic candidate Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be trounced in the upcoming presidential election. Roosevelt instead swept 46 of 48 states–one of the greatest bloodbaths in electoral history.

It seemed that the Digest (which was destroyed by the poll, and went out of business soon after) built its mailing list with names drawn from telephone books and motor-vehicle registries, overlooking the millions of Roosevelt's Depression-era supporters who were too poor to own either. One polling agency, however, had conducted a survey that forecast the election results with uncanny accuracy, even predicting the Digest would self-destruct with its flawed methodology. The upstart company had an impressive name: The American Institute of Public Opinion. Its sole owner and manager was a former advertising researcher named George Gallup.

For his startlingly accurate forecast of the presidential race, Gallup had surveyed only 3,000 eligible voters a week during the campaign, a tiny sample compared to the two-million-plus people polled by The Literary Digest. But Gallup used new techniques to ensure that his group precisely reflected the economic and cultural diversity of American society. His surveyors gathered information on foot, doing face-to-face interviews, and because it was such a rarity to be stopped by a pollster, the average citizen was proud to take part. In those days, being raised on a farm in the American Midwest meant that you probably gravitated to the left side of the political spectrum (how times have changed), and Gallup, who grew up on a farm in Iowa, liked to conduct opinion surveys on issues like women's rights, education and social programs. Gallup didn't make much money on these opinion surveys. Then, as now, the real action was in the consumer marketplace. Gallup may have made his name as a pollster. But he made his bread and butter conducting surveys of consumer opinion on less controversial matters, such as cars and cigarettes and laundry soap.

By the 1960s, Gallup had become a well-recognized household name, and polling had entered the field as a proven social science. Around that same time, Angus Reid was growing up a skinny teenager in Winnipeg, attending Catholic school and working for $37 a week at a Safeway supermarket in his south-end neighbourhood. Even then, Reid was an inquisitive kid with a habit of sticking his nose into other people's business. “There was a real pecking order at Safeway,” Reid recalls. “I mopped the floors, so I was the lowest of the low–expected to push my mop and keep my mouth shut. One night this shelf stocker grabbed me by the throat and threw me up against the wall and said, 'You ask too many questions, kid.'”

Surviving adolescence, Reid went on to the University of Manitoba, where he enjoyed studying the science of what makes people tick. “I loved sociology,” he says. “I was a keen student, so my professor entrusted me with managing a George Gallup-style, door-to-door survey of health and housing conditions in northern Manitoba. It was a big adventure; we went up to Churchill and got caught in a blizzard. We even got interviewed on the local radio station by this aspiring journalist who announced flights at the airport named, Peter Mansbridge.”

After earning his PhD in sociology, Reid married a sheet-metal worker's daughter, had two kids and settled down to teach sociology at the University of Manitoba. He was watching TV one night in the late 1970s when the doorbell rang. It was David Walker, a professor who was managing the electoral campaign of a Winnipeg academic and then provincial MLA named Lloyd Axworthy. The Liberals wanted Axworthy to take a run at Winnipeg-Fort Garry (formerly Winnipeg-South), a federal riding held by James Richardson, the former minister of defence, who was considering standing for re-election as an independent candidate. Richardson looked like a shoe-in–at least according to polling data. “They showed me this poll that Martin Goldfarb had done for Richardson. I looked it over and it was complete bullshit. Goldfarb at the time was the No. 1 pollster in Canada. I phoned him up. I said, 'Marty, this poll is a piece of crap.' He said, 'Who are you? Some guy from Winnipeg? Just leave it to the experts, buddy.' This, of course, was the wrong thing to say.”

Reid, who happened to be passionate about the history and techniques of public polling, alleges that Goldfarb had made a methodological error similar to the one The Literary Digest made in 1936. “Sampling is everything,” Reid says. “It all depends on who you ask. In the typical poll you might build an algorithm by dropping a grid onto a map of the riding. Then you randomly select 25 to 30 street corners and knock on five doors within half a block of that corner. The trouble is, all street corners are not equal. In Winnipeg, your denser neighbourhoods tend to vote left, while your less dense, wealthier streets swing right. Dense neighbourhoods obviously have more voters, but Goldfarb didn't weight the street corners. It was a classic error. I don't know if it was because he didn't know Winnipeg, or whether he just couldn't be bothered. But I did my own quick poll for Axworthy and told him to go for it. And, of course, he won handily.”

Reid got a lot of satisfaction out of calling that one accurately–and he wanted to try it again. He was growing restless with academic life (which he calls “welfare with dignity”), so he quit his tenured job at the university, rented a little office above a 7-Eleven on Academy Road, and tried to drum up more opinion surveying work. Like George Gallup, he hoped to pay the bills with commercial work, although the more lucrative contracts tended to go to well-established easterners with name recognition from political polling. And he had just a few small polls on his resumé. “The whole thing was a real gamble, and I have to hand it to my wife, Margaret,” Reid says. “Lots of times I was sweating the rent, which was $150 a month.”

One summer day, he was boating on Lake of the Woods with his brother-in-law John Reid, who was then the MP for Kenora-Rainy River, when they spotted John Turner sitting on the dock at his cottage. There was a lot of buzz at the time that Turner would inherit the Prime Minister's Office from Pierre Trudeau, and he was considering his polling options. They all had a brief chat, and Turner told Angus to come and see him in his Toronto office some time. “So I go to see Turner,” recalls Reid. “He had this oven timer on his desk and he'd wind it up when you walked in. You had to talk fast because after a few minutes it would go bing, and you were out of there. Anyway, I ended up working for Turner, along with my old pal Martin Goldfarb. I'd tell Turner one thing, and Marty would tell him the opposite. Turner could never decide whether to take Goldfarb's advice or mine, so he was always vacillating and ended up, of course, blowing his brains out.”

Reid says his brief, one-year tour of federal politics taught him a lot about influence, money, and how decisions are made. “Ottawa and Toronto was a big private club,” he says. “I was dismissed as this cowboy from out West who didn't know the secret rules of the game. It was 1984, and if you recall, all these patronage appointments were in the news. Goldfarb kept advising Turner to forget about it. It's nothing, it'll blow over. I kept telling Turner, 'The voters are angry. You have to show your mettle here. You have to fire some people.' Turner took the wrong advice on the patronage issue, and it contributed to his undoing as prime minister.”

After his falling out with the Liberals, Reid once again found himself looking for work. The Canadian polling field was dominated by three firms: Decima Research (run by Allan Gregg), Goldfarb Consultants, and Gallup, and there didn't seem to be room for another player. “I looked at all three dominant pollsters, and thought, forget about knocking Goldfarb out. He's got Toronto sewed up. And there's no way I'm getting between Allan Gregg and the Tories. That left old Gallup sitting there. They were turning into a kind of creaky organization that took weeks, in some cases, to bring out results. So we adopted telephones, and introduced the concept of the fast, reliable 'overnight poll.'”

In 1985, a provincial election campaign was gearing up in Ontario. The country's leading pollsters predicted that Liberal candidate David Peterson was a long shot. Reid elbowed his way into the field and managed to persuade The Windsor Star to spend $500 on one of his overnight polls. He had by now designed innovative “sequencing” techniques (“sequencing,” says Reid, “refers to the timing and order of certain key questions”), and the results were startling. “We realized, 'Holy shit, Peterson is going to win.'”

Though he ended up forming a minority government, Peterson scored a major upset, and the overnight poll gave Reid overnight credibility. “Up until then it had invoked howls of laughter that I was trying to run a national market-surveying company out of Winnipeg,” he says. “But that didn't bother me. In fact, the more that people urged me to move to Toronto, the more I was determined to stay in Winnipeg. Being out in the boonies forced us to build our company from the ground up. Those guys down East would subcontract a lot of their work. But we did everything in-house, using polling widgets we designed ourselves. Our system was very accurate and very fast. After Peterson's big win in 1985, we predicted his shocking defeat in 1990, and that the NDP would win. Over the next few years, we predicted the results of 17 elections, and were right 17 times. You can't buy advertising like that.”

Reid's polling “widgets” were modernized versions of the fine-tuned demographic techniques George Gallup designed in the 1930s. Along with sampling and sequencing, one of Reid's techniques was “psychographic segmentation”–a complex analytical formula that describes not only what people think about a given topic but takes into account their range of opinions and their motivations for those opinions. “It's not just numbers,” Reid says. “Polling is a tricky business, involving a blend of technical skill and intuition. In fact, our corporate motto was 'Matching science with insight.'”

Reid wanted to call his company “National Survey Research,” but a corporate image consultant from the University of Manitoba told him it lacked zip. “He told me I had a funny name and should take advantage of it.” Throughout the early 1990s, the Angus Reid Group grew from a Winnipeg-based cottage industry into a hydra-headed beast with offices in major cities across Canada and the United States. By the mid-1990s, Reid had become Canada's leading pollster, and as he shuttled back and forth between the United States, Europe and Asia, he frequently ran into fellow Canadians who couldn't believe that there was actually a real person named Angus Reid, who was actually sitting beside them in the airplane. “Most people expected that Angus Reid would be some crusty old academic with a tweed jacket and a pipe.”

In fact, he was a fortyish go-getter with a taste for parties, booze and loud music. With his company's rising fortunes, Reid moved to West Vancouver and bought a big house overlooking the ocean. His employees called the company “Rock 'n' Roll Research.” They wore shorts and sandals to work, and offhandedly addressed their boss as “Angy.” (Even his kids tend to call him by his first name.) “I like to work in a happy shop,” Reid says. “I believe that happiness breeds success, not that success breeds happiness. My principal skill is hiring good people, organizing them, and letting them throw themselves at what they're good at.”

As the millennium approached, the rocket that Reid had ridden to the top of his profession began slowing. The Professional Marketing Research Society, a group that represented the polling industry at the time, conducted a study that found that refusal rates had been climbing steadily for a decade. “When you take into account refusal rates, people who aren't at home, and calls to fax machines and so on, a pollster has to make about 10,000 phone calls to complete 1,000 interviews,” says Reid. “Which means it's becoming very expensive and very problematic to gather information. The big media organizations are getting tighter with their money, and they won't pay for quality polls. So it's a many-sided problem. Pollsters are working on a shoestring, and they're interviewing people who may not represent the general public. It's the dark secret of the industry, and people have a right to be skeptical about some of the polls that are coming out nowadays.”

In the spring of 2000, Reid decided the glory days were over, and he sold his company to Ipsos SA, which dubbed the new firm Ipsos Reid. “I got into the polling business at the right time and bailed out at the right time,” says Reid. “I made a lot of money, and my employee shareholders did even better.”

Reid settled into a life of plush retirement, maintained a chalet in Whistler, B.C., a cottage near Kenora, Ont., and a big white cabin cruiser on Lake of the Woods. He threw himself into boating with characteristic energy, studying maps of the lake and doing his own electrical upgrades, but he discovered that yachting also has a dark secret. “After a while it gets boring,” he says. “Yachts go too slow. It takes all goddamn afternoon to go from A to B. Slow boats just don't match my personality.”

Reid also came face to face with the old ironic lesson that money doesn't buy peace of mind. “Most people go their whole lives thinking they'll be happy if they can just attain financial security,” he says. “But when you attain financial security, you find out that that's all bullshit. The fact is, you worry when you don't have money, and you worry when you have it. It's just a different set of worries. When you have money, you worry about the effect it has on your kids and your friends. You worry about your own values and your responsibilities to the community. Maybe it's my Catholic upbringing, but I spent a lot of nights lying awake staring at the ceiling.”

Reid got involved with philanthropic work through the board of Rick Hansen's Man in Motion Foundation, and launched his own charity, the Angus Reid Foundation. But he was restless, and he missed the polling business. “When I got started in the business, there was this sense that public opinion was something to be feared,” he says. “You always heard academics and intellectuals joking about the ignorant masses, as though the members of the privileged elite are wiser and stronger than the rest of us. I've never believed in that. I like the idea of the wisdom of crowds. I think there's a basic goodness out there in the public, and public-opinion work gives expression to that.”

After a few years of casting around, Reid began providing consulting services to his son Andy, who was running a small software firm in Vancouver. Andy's business, Vision Critical, got its start in 2000, when dot-com stocks were burning up the stock market. In 2003, as Angus climbed aboard, those same Internet startups were falling out of the sky. Andy Reid's background was in advertising and multimedia, and his company was eking out a living designing websites and market-research software. Vision Critical was caught in a dilemma shared by many small service companies–the firm was running as hard as it could to stay in place, while its focus on short-term cash flow prevented it from getting ahead.

“We couldn't say no to clients who were coming in the door with one-off projects,” says Andy, now 29. “But they were tying us up with piecework and crisis deadlines. Then Angus came in and gave us a shakeup. He pointed out that it's easier to make money selling a product than providing a service. With his help, we basically scrapped our entire game plan and started over.”

With Angus (who is now 57) at the helm, Vision Critical began producing what he calls “widgets” instead of services. The widgets are essentially tools that allow businesses to gather the same kind of information the Angus Reid Group did in the 1990s on their own. But it was Angus Reid's notion that Vision Critical would break new ground by using the Internet as a research and delivery system, selling access to information that was cheaper, faster and more accurate than other polling companies were manufacturing with armies of low-paid phone drones. “I think what we're doing is quite radical,” says Reid. “We're right at the cutting edge of a whole new approach to surveying. It was Bill Gates's brilliant idea to to take the modern office–the secretary, the filing cabinet, the typewriter–and put it all inside a desktop computer. We're trying to do the same thing with market research. Instead of baking bread and selling it to the customer, we're building them their very own home bread-making machine. Or, if you prefer, we're selling them a box with their own market-research company inside it.”

The box contains, among other useful things, the software to enable companies to build their own panel of anonymous respondents who represent a demographically correct cross-section of customers. If Susan Wells, for example, was working on a Vision Critical panel, instead of bothering people with dorky questions, she would answer dorky questions herself. She and a whole range of people like her would regularly give feedback to clients on any number of issues. W Network, the women's television channel, uses a Vision Critical-designed panel of TV-watching females to provide feedback on matters of taste, programming and content. Another client–a huge American supermarket chain–has built a virtual store through which panelists browse their way on their home computers, making decisions about which products catch their eye and which don't. “A few years ago, a supermarket company would have to spend a fortune to do this kind of consumer testing,” says Reid. “They would build an actual experimental store and stock the shelves, then tear it all apart and try another configuration. Now, they can send hundreds of typical shoppers up and down the aisles with the click of a mouse.”

In return for their feedback, which takes about 10 minutes, twice a month, panelists usually receive an incentive of some kind–perhaps a chance to win a vacation or a block of airline points. One retailer in the U.S. provides a panel of 1,000 teenagers with free clothes in return for critical reaction from their friends at school. Some panelists might participate just to sound off on a subject they feel strongly about, like government policy. “This is going to open up government tremendously,” says Reid. “In the old days, if the government was going to spend $10 billion on day care, they'd travel the country, hold meetings in school gyms, and end up with the opinions of maybe 1,200 citizens. With this technology, government can expand the tent, put two million Canadians on that panel at an added cost of zero. Over in the U.K., they're doing it now with the People's Panel. Our own governments haven't really cottoned on to this yet, but they will. This is the biggest revolution in polling since Gallup.”

Reid has been the CEO of Vision Critical for a year, and under his guidance the company has grown from four employees to 45, and now has offices in Vancouver and Toronto. Reid is eyeing the market in the United States (estimated to be worth about $8 billion), where about 60% of polling and research is still done by telephone. “Telephone polling is yesterday's technology,” says Reid. “I've been around long enough to spot the trends. The telephone may still be the principal medium, but 70% of North Americans are hooked up to the Internet, and in a few years, your phone won't be ringing anymore during dinner. All these big telephone market research companies are dead; they just don't know it yet.”