Polling the pollsters

JOHN DeMONT August 29 1988

Polling the pollsters

JOHN DeMONT August 29 1988

Polling the pollsters



Her plan is daring. Within four years, Linda Dyer, who owns and runs Baseline Market Research Ltd., a public opinion polling company in Fredericton, wants to be as well-known as any of the national pollsters who have vaulted into prominence in Canada during the past decade. But only two years ago, Baseline’s 15 employees were working out of Dyer’s home—and even this year,

Baseline’s revenues will just top $500,000, a fraction of what the established pollsters will make. For Dyer, whose best-known client to date has been New Brunswick Premier Frank McKenna, breaking into the top ranks of this competitive and controversial field will demand precision, credibility—and, perhaps most of all, a strong public

profile. But gaining that exposure from Fredericton may be her biggest challenge.

Public opinion polling has taken on immense political importance in Canada. In fact, the business of taking the public pulse—which will heat up during the upcoming federal election—has grown into a highly competitive, $200-million industry fed by governments’ and businesses’ voracious appetites for information about what Canadians think. A number of aggressive new pollsters have been scrambling for a share of that increased spending, including such well-financed arrivals as Bell Canada Market Research—a division of Canada’s largest telephone company—which last year began selling the results of its research. Meanwhile, Canada’s established pollsters are expanding abroad to serve a growing roster of multinational clients.

Some national pollsters maintain that the key to commercial success is the ability to supply, quickly and accurately, sophisticated information and analysison the changing winds of

public opinion. But, as Dyer says that she has learned, catching public attention can be just as important for pollsters as it is for their political clients. Unlike the U.S. sector, the Canadian market is not large enough for pollsters to concentrate solely on politics. In fact, Canada’s largest market research firm, Markham,

Ont.-based A. C. Nielsen Co. of Canada Ltd., avoids politics altogether and primarily does research on television ratings and grocery products. For most Canadian pollsters, particularly those trying to break into the business, the major challenge is increasing their visibility by conducting highprofile polls for political parties, newspapers, magazines and television stations.

Those, in turn, attract

the corporate and government contracts, which account for the biggest share of their revenues. The highprofile work is so important that some pollsters are even willing to do it at bargain rates—and even at a loss—to obtain the exposure. Indeed, Decima Research Ltd. of Toronto is well-known as the Progressive Conservative party’s official polling firm (it also polls for Maclean's) but it makes most of its money working anonymously for such companies as Imperial Oil Ltd. and Air Canada. The Goldfarb Corp. of Willowdale, Ont., which acts as the Liberal party’s pollster, also depends on corporate clients, including Coca-Cola Ltd. and Ford Motor Co. of Canada Ltd., for its bread-and-butter revenues.

There are other methods that allow polling firms to heighten their public reputations. Winnipeg-based Angus Reid, after withdrawing as the Liberals’ pollster during the 1984 election campaign, has become well-known for its polls because they are published in 12 major daily newspapers across the country.

Partly as a result, since 1984,

Reid’s sales have increased to an expected $6.5 million this year from $2.9 million. Toronto-based Environics Research Group Ltd., which conducts polls for the Toronto Globe and Mail, is in a similar situation. Said vice-president Donna Dasko: “Political polls provide about five per cent of our revenues and 95 per cent of our public profile.”

Public opinion polling was once a minor business in Canada. George Gallup, the U.S. pioneer in the field, did not set up a Canadian operation until 1941, after surveys that he conducted for The Toronto Star and Southam convinced him that there was a market in Canada. But the real growth took place in the 1970s as federal and provincial governments began extensive testing of public opinion before crafting public policy. Meanwhile, after the 1981 recession, corporations also began seeking more reliable data on markets and customer intentions before making expensive investment decisions. Said Decima chairman Allan Gregg: “Companies suddenly realized that what Canadians thought and felt has an impact on whether they meet their corporate goals.”

The growth in polling has fuelled criticisms that pollsters wield too much influence with voters. In response, the federal government introduced a bill last June that will require all published polls to disclose not only the size of the sample but the identity of the pollster’s client and the date of the first and last in-

terviews. But the legislation may not pass before the upcoming election. Still, some pollsters say that they will closely monitor the bill’s status because it could severely hamper the reporting of polls by the media. Said Carleton University pollster Allan Frizzell: “There is no firm evi-

dence to suggest that polls influence voters.”

Hiring a research company to conduct a specific poll can cost from $2,000 to $250,000 per survey. But most of the bigger pollsters also conduct their own general surveys and sell the findings to subscribers for prices ranging from $3,000 to $25,000 annually. The biggest single customer is the federal government, which

spends an estimated $100 million a year on information-gathering, the majority of which is contracted out. But being the designated pollster of the party in power does not necessarily ensure getting a larger share of the government contracts. Environics’ Dasko says that companies might actually lose some government contracts in the long run because the government could be worried about patronage charges. Said Reid: “The days are over when the government of the day just goes out and gives all the polls to their own pollster.”

The pollsters use different interviewing techniques, sample sizes and methods of correlating their data to reach their conclusions. But many of them say that their most important asset is their credibility and

accuracy. Generally, pollsters claim that their polls have a four-per-cent margin of error. But, said Decima’s Gregg, “everybody is wrong sometimes.” And mistakes can be costly. In March, Angus Reid, Environics and Gallup Canada Inc. surveyed party preference among voters and came up with three different conclusions, which raised demands for overall scrutiny of opinion polls. Said Reid: “You can’t afford to be wrong too many times or you simply won’t be in business.”

Despite the dramatic growth of spending, the polling business is still not secure. Decima’s Gregg says that it is impossible to project revenues beyond the short term because most of the work is on a project-byproject basis. And, although getting into the business requires only telephone lines and desks, building a full-service, national research firm costs a minimum of $1 million for office space and the sophisticated computer systems needed to tabulate survey responses.

The established pollsters are now looking outside of Canada to expand. Two years ago, Martin Goldfarb raised enough money to open a New York City office by selling shares on the Toronto Stock Exchange, and now he says that he is also planning a London branch. Meanwhile, Decima has established a « joint venture with Israel’s largest advertising agency, 5 Gitam Image Systems, for 1 work in that country. Decima I is also active in the United States through Washington, D.C.-based Government Research Corp. And Environics is expanding into the United States through a joint venture with a large firm there, Yankelovich Group of New York.

But for Linda Dyer, who has the financial support of Sudbury, Ont.based Laurentian Publishing Ltd., owner of a string of Northern Ontario newspapers, the big challenge is still trying to raise her firm’s national profile. She says that her goal is to be in a position to do some of the political polling work during the next federal election. If that happens, she says that Baseline’s heightened profile will bring bigger revenues and move her firm into Canada’s select club of top pollsters. And then, Dyer will be as newsworthy as some of her political clients.