Dan Clay is Managing Partner of Basis Social and a Trustee of the SRA
As a child what did you want to be when you grew up?
Variously Batman, badass ninja, fireman/policeman (interchangeably), a model and a footballer. Though not necessarily in that order.
When did you first turn towards a social research career?
While at Sussex University studying for my undergraduate degree in Social Psychology. I ran (and published) a fascinating, if troubling experiment on body dysmorphia. I knew then I wanted a career exploring how people think and make decisions.
What was your first professional job? And first project there?
My first job was as a field researcher for the Medical Research Council gathering ‘data’ from schoolchildren for the ESRC-funded ‘Determinants of Adolescent Social Well-being and Health’ project. For ‘data’ read saliva and sweat samples…
Where did your career go next? What motivated that/those moves?
I moved on to Barnardo’s where I worked in their Policy and Research Unit under the excellent Sara Scott and Di McNeish. Since then, I’ve worked at the Tavistock Institute, EdComs, Kantar Public, Newgate Communications and now Basis Social.
Sitting behind every career decision has been the desire to challenge myself through both diversifying and specialising in different types of research, through developing expertise across multiple policy areas, and through applying skills in allied disciplines such as communications, public affairs, programme and service design. On top of this has been the desire to constantly expand the range of people I work with. Social research is complex by virtue of what we are trying to understand, and therefore best addressed through bringing together smart people irrespective of where they ‘sit’.
What has been your best professional moment?
Without doubt the best moment was establishing Basis Social alongside ex-Kantar Insights CEO Darren Bhattachary at the beginning of January this year. Having worked in both market and social research we are bringing the best of both worlds together: rigour, innovation, speed and a steely focus on outcomes. Basis Social is fundamentally about leaving siloes behind and bringing the best people from a wealth of backgrounds together to work creatively - not only to deliver excellent research, but also to help organisations make their use of insight transformative. This is really exciting and ultimately it puts clients (and society) first, which is what we need right now.
Qualitative fieldwork is always fun and offers plenty of room for howlers on all fronts. One occasion that stands out to me is when I’d travelled to the outskirts of Manchester from London to do some creative testing at a viewing studio I’d never been to previously. There were several clients attending so I’d got an early train. Now you have to bear in mind that these were the days when smartphones were only just starting to get smart and I hadn’t properly looked at where the viewing studio was. Turns out it was nowhere near the train station, so I ended up ambling awkwardly with a huge folder full of stimulus alongside an A-road long enough to get blisters. The client came out in their car to look for me and I arrived 30 minutes late and sodden… and then ran two back-to-back focus groups. Needless to say, lessons learnt on that trip.
Do you have a social research hero/heroine?
My research heroine is a serial former colleague and employer, Desiree Lopez (now CEO of Flamingo). She showed me that it is possible to not just be successful but to excel across multiple domains including academic, social and market research. There is huge value to be gained from greater interdisciplinarity in the profession of understanding people.
Do you have a favourite quote?
‘Logic always gets you to the same place as your competitors’ (Rory Sutherland). To both be successful in agency research and to tackle complex social issues it pays to think differently. It also keeps things interesting.
What would you say to encourage a young person today considering a social research career?
Your country needs you! This is a unique profession that is both personally and socially rewarding. And get in touch - developing your networks and building relationships is something you should do from the very start.