This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993
Sylvia Rose Ashby (1908-1978), market researcher, was born on 4 June 1908 at New Sawley, Derbyshire, England, fourth child of Baptist parents Walter Bertrand Ashby, journeyman bricklayer, and his wife Bertha, née Powell. The family migrated to Melbourne about 1913 and settled at Hawthorn. Educated at Auburn, Hawthorn and Camberwell state schools, in 1923-24 Sylvia attended Zercho's Business College where her shorthand and typing were reported to be 'very weak indeed' and she was seen to have 'too many outside hobbies'. She was a keen athlete, and excelled in hockey and the javelin. To help with curvature of the spine, she was to exercise regularly at a gymnasium in her middle age.
In the late 1920s Sylvia was employed by J. Walter Thompson Australia Pty Ltd, a recently established branch of the American advertising agency. She enrolled at the University of Melbourne in 1930, but was moved to the firm's Sydney office; she worked in the market research and psychology departments in both Melbourne and Sydney under Rudolph Simmat and W. A. McNair before going abroad in 1933. Although she joined Charles Hobson's advertising agency in London, she spent much time reorganizing his library.
Back in Sydney by 1936, Sylvia set up the Ashby Research Service which she was to promote as the first, 'independent', market-research agency. Initially, business was slow: the ideas were new, budgets were tight, and executives knew little and cared less about market research. For some, she was either too young or 'a woman'. Moreover, she was attractive—slim, 'dark haired and softly spoken', with 'keen, dark eyes'. One of her first commissions was to study the local market for (Sir) Frank Packer's Australian Women's Weekly in 1937. It marked the start of a relationship which culminated in Packer's buying her out and subsequently selling the business back to her for the same price that he had paid for it.
Ashby's clients were diverse and included the National Bank of Australasia which was interested in the use of safe-deposit boxes, the Australian Gas Light Co. which was interested in its workforce as well as its clients, and the Pick-me-up Condiment Co. Ltd which was interested in baked beans. As investigators, she employed mainly married women whom she thought made the best interviewers. At busy times she hired John Stuart Lucy, a journalist from New Zealand, who contributed much to the business. She married him on 4 November 1939 at St Peter's Anglican Church, Watsons Bay.
In 1940 Sylvia was commissioned by Sir Keith Murdoch, director-general of information, to conduct a survey on the war effort, almost certainly the first Australia-wide survey of public opinion. When she turned down a later contract from the Herald and Weekly Times Ltd, Murdoch approached Roy Morgan to conduct the Australian Gallup Poll. Meanwhile Sylvia was sampling New South Wales opinion for the Sydney press and surveying commercial radio audiences. After the war she continued to take polls on referenda and on Federal elections.
Her most important postwar venture, however, was the Ashby Consumer Panel. Launched in 1945 in Sydney and then gradually extended, the panel tried to monitor what householders were buying (brand, type, size, variety, flavour and so on), where they shopped and how much each purchase cost. The panel comprised about three thousand households, each taking part for up to three years. A 'Baby Panel', to monitor purchases made for infants, was also established in 1962. In all her work Sylvia was 'something of a perfectionist' (a less meticulous researcher might have made more money), if she did sometimes succumb to the occupational hazard of blowing her own trumpet.
Busy and ambitious as she was, Sylvia did not neglect her two children. On weekends her time was devoted to them; school holidays were enjoyed together, sometimes at 'the farm', her husband's property at Narrabeen. At home there was always a maid or housekeeper; Susan was sent to Frensham and Richard to Geelong Church of England Grammar School. Sylvia collected antiques, especially on her regular visits overseas; deprived of dolls as a girl, she was to build up an impressive collection of antique ones.
Early in 1974, as her health began to fail, Sylvia sold the business to Beacon Research Co. Pty Ltd. Towards the end of her life she calculated that Ashby's had been involved in no fewer than 3573 pieces of market research. Confined to a wheelchair, she divided her time between her homes at Killara and Palm Beach. She died of cancer on 9 September 1978 at Palm Beach and was cremated; her husband, daughter and son survived her.
Murray Goot, 'Ashby, Sylvia Rose (1908–1978)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ashby-sylvia-rose-9390/text16499, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 20 April 2014.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993