Angus Reid created the largest market research company in
Canada, the Angus Reid Group, used by governments and corporations
for everything from election polls to consumer studies.
Though the company started above a Winnipeg 7-Eleven, Reid
hit the big time when Liberal leadership candidate John Turner
made him his official pollster in 1984. Sixteen years later, Reid sold his company
to Paris-based Ipsos for $100 million and has since gone on to
serve as CEO for both Vision Critical and Angus Reid Strategies.
At that point, I needed a job. Unfortunately, I wasn’t entirely sure what to do. Soon after finishing, I met David Fish, a sociologist teaching at the university’s faculty of medicine. The federal government had sponsored him to do a major survey of dental students. I know this may sound humorous now, but the faculty had some flaky idea that if they understood dental socialization, they could pick the right people to be dentists in rural areas. I didn’t care about any of that shit. To me, it was just a job. I was twenty-two years old and working on a national survey.
In the meantime, I applied for a Canada Council Doctoral Fellowship and got accepted to Carleton University. The University of Manitoba had been a practical and down-to-earth place; it was hardly an intellectual powerhouse. Carleton, on the other hand, was more of a “big thinker” institution. They had more students going into sociological theory, phenomenology, and the philosophy of science. When I arrived, I had to quickly adjust to the environment and the approach.
It was intellectually challenging, but I did everything I could to get through the program as quickly as possible. I don’t really like being a student. One of the guys from the dental study committee ended up being my thesis advisor. He was a very practical sociologist named Bruce McFarlane. As had been the case for my master’s, I was shamelessly pragmatic. “Aha!” I said. “I’ve got a data set here based on a national study of dental students. I could use this data to write my dissertation. Then I can get out into the world and earn a living.” That’s precisely what I did. I finished my doctorate in two and a half years.
By that time, it was clear I didn’t really mesh with academic sociology. Nevertheless, a good friend encouraged me to apply for a National Research Scholar Award, which the government was offering to recent PhD graduates, funding the first five years of their careers. I knew I didn’t love the academic life, but something made me apply anyway.
When I got the award, I entered what I call the “lost years” of my career. For five years, I was an academic at the University of Manitoba — an assistant and then an associate professor with tenure, funded by the feds. I was bored out of my skull. Everything at university works at a glacial pace. You have something you want to study, but you spend a year writing proposals and another two waiting for a response.
In 1976–77, I wrote a proposal for a study on the impact of a new system for funding Medicare in Canada. I thought it was a strategic and necessary investigation that cut straight to the heart of the larger issue of health financing. They looked at the proposal and said, “This is really good. We encourage you to reapply. We’ll come back to it in six months.” I thought that was bullshit. Besides, who wants to spend their life writing journal articles for a bunch of other academics to read?
Around that time I read John Kenneth Galbraith’s autobiography, A Life in Our Time. Here was a guy who moved back and forth between academia and the world of action. He was writing papers one moment and advising American presidents the next. That really inspired me. How could I call myself a sociologist if all I had done was hang around other academics?
“Kickstart: How Successful Canadians Got Started”, © 2008 by Alexander Herman, Paul Matthews and Andrew Feindel. Published by Dundurn Press, www.dundurn.com