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William Allan McNair (1902–1979)

by Murray Goot

This article was published:

William Allan McNair (1902-1979), market researcher, was born on 10 January 1902 at Ponsonby, Auckland, New Zealand, eldest of six children of New Zealand-born parents William Peter McNair, farmer, and his wife Laura, née Mitcham. Educated locally, William won a scholarship to Auckland Grammar School. He worked for a major exporter of dairy-foods and for two importers while attending night-classes at Auckland University College (B.Com., N.Z., 1926; M.Com., 1928). From 1928 he taught at Takapuna Grammar School, but teaching was not his forte. At the Church of Christ, Auckland, on 27 March 1929 he married Elizabeth Wilson Feeney (d.1977), a 21-year-old saleswoman. McNair's studies led him 'to explore ways in which social and psychological research might be applied commercially'. He gained a diploma of social science from the university in 1930.

Early that year McNair visited Australia and talked to representatives of the American advertising agency, J. Walter Thompson Co. In May he accepted an invitation to join (as an accountant and research manager) their New Zealand branch to be opened in Wellington under Michael Stiver, an American. Although Thompson's major clients were large British and American companies, the sums spent on market research were small. Besides writing the questionnaires and survey reports, McNair selected the people to be interviewed and conducted the interviews. J.W.T. soon closed its Wellington branch. Stiver, put in charge of its Australian activities, invited McNair to join him as a director, accountant and research manager.

When McNair arrived in Sydney, at the end of 1931, economic conditions were still deteriorating. Within a year General Motors Corporation had faded as a client and in New York J.W.T. was discussing whether to pull out of Australia. Local support—from William Arnott Ltd, the Daily Telegraph and (from 1933) the Australian Women's Weekly—was not enough. The agency was saved by attracting new business, notably from Kellogg (Australia) Pty Ltd, and by the staff agreeing to salary cuts; none the less, McNair's assistant Sylvia Ashby resigned.

Although advertisers knew how many Australian homes had licensed receivers, they barely understood the nature of the growing radio audience in the early 1930s. Between 1934 and 1936 McNair attempted to establish—by age, sex and breadwinner's occupation—who was listening to what, each quarter-hour of every day, as well as their favourite artists, stations and types of programmes. First, he tried interviewing by telephone, but, whereas 50 per cent of Sydney households owned a wireless, only 15 per cent had telephones. Searching for an alternative method, he was allowed by the Department of Education to distribute questionnaires to Sydney schools so that the listening habits of 2500 primary school children might be documented. Subsequently, he conducted another large-scale telephone survey, distributed questionnaires to workers in various city offices and factories (most of whom failed to fill them out), and conducted a separate and much more successful survey using personal interviews and aided recall.

In 1937 McNair published Radio Advertising in Australia. It included the results of surveys of 'the radio audience', with his observations on 'the principles of advertising' and Australian 'broadcasting facilities and methods'. In his foreword A. H. Martin wrote that the book summed up Australian radio advertising 'better . . . than any other such work attempts to do for any other country'. Not only was this the first book about any aspect of Australian radio, for the next twenty years it was the only book. To McNair's disappointment, however, the examiners in England to whom the University of New Zealand submitted the manuscript did not recommend that it be awarded a doctorate.

World War II brought new challenges for McNair: surveys farther afield in Brisbane, Adelaide and Melbourne, recruitment for the Women's Auxiliary Australian Air Force, a study of the reasons for the United Australia Party's defeat, and, in 1944, the establishment of McNair Survey Pty Ltd. This new organization was designed to service a wider range of advertising agencies. In radio, McNair's biggest competitor was the Anderson Analysis of Broadcasting, established by G. H. Anderson that year. Previously, radio surveys had been conducted mostly ad hoc for single clients; now audiences were to be monitored by McNair every two months and the surveys syndicated. In 1947 Anderson switched from personal interviews to diaries, but McNair continued to use the assisted recall method—those being asked what they had listened to were shown the previous day's programmes. By the late 1940s staff of McNair Survey were interviewing in all mainland capitals. This work involved McNair himself in a good deal of travel to select and train interviewers, appoint supervisors to audit their work, and call on current and prospective clients around Australia and occasionally New Zealand.

In 1952 McNair Survey, with a full-time staff of thirteen, became an independent entity; McNair and Gwen Nelson were the directors and principal shareholders. The move away from J.W.T. was encouraged by the Australian Association of Advertising Agencies which largely underwrote the radio surveys. After 1956 television was added. There were also studies of newspaper and magazine readers. From 1958 a monthly McNair-Starch survey was conducted on the extent to which advertisements in the Women's Weekly were noticed.

Although McNair was best known for his radio and television work, his business encompassed surveys for individual manufacturers and advertisers, and research on public opinion. In 1954, when International Research Associates was formed in America to facilitate market research internationally, McNair was invited to represent Australia and New Zealand. I.N.R.A. brought business opportunities and international travel. For McNair, one member's motto had particular appeal: '1. Do a good job. 2. Have fun. 3. Make money. In that order'. In 1966 McNair and Nelson sold the goodwill and assets to Ian Muir, Ian Pilz and McNair's son Ian (who had joined the staff in 1953 and later become a director). William McNair stayed on as a consultant.

McNair had been a member (from the 1930s) of the Australian Institute of Political Science; he found that the institute's publications and speakers 'prompted many useful questions' for his public-opinion surveys. He also belonged to the Australian Institute of Industrial Psychology, Sydney, from which he learned about questionnaire design and personnel management; he edited (1944-46) its journal, People at Work. A member of the Constitutional Association of New South Wales and the Australian Institute of Sociology, he was a founding member (1955) of the Statistical Society of New South Wales.

In 1950 McNair published Starland of the South, a book on the night sky as seen from the southern hemisphere; it was 'highly commended' in 1951 by the State branch of the Children's Book Council of Australia and later reprinted. Rights to the main star charts were purchased in 1961 by Unity Life Assurance Ltd for use in a calendar. In retirement, McNair wrote a book, In Search of the Four Musketeers (1972), and his unpublished reminiscences. His other interests included photography, reading, gardening and the Presbyterian Church. He collapsed while playing bowls on 30 August 1979 and died that day in the Mater Misericordiae Hospital, North Sydney. Survived by his three sons, he was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • R. R. Walker, Communicators (Melb, 1967)
  • Newspapers News, 1 Aug 1944, 15 Dec 1945
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 14 Oct 1972, 1 Sept 1979
  • W. A. McNair (ed), Some Reflections on the First Fifty Years of Market Research in Australia 1928-1978 (typescript, copy held on ADB file)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Murray Goot, 'McNair, William Allan (1902–1979)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (Melbourne University Press), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 January, 1902
Auckland, New Zealand


30 August, 1979 (aged 77)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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