Once they had passed judgment on their peers our respondents were asked to step out of the role of industry expert and assume the guise of generalist: which British companies did they most admire, regardless of size, ownership or sector, on the basis of the same nine characteristics? The result, if not wholly unexpected, was overwhelming. Marks & Spencer, poll winner in 1992, triumphed yet again with a greatly increased margin - almost 18% of the overall vote, a six-point extension of its previous lead. In contrast the rest of the field, led by Hanson with 5.9%, straggled far behind.
There were some surprises. British Airways, apparently unsullied by last year's revelations of dirty tricks, nearly doubled its share of the vote and moved up to ninth place. Ironically, its evident zeal in the characteristic for which it was most admired - 'quality of marketing' - was also the cause of its public shame. Virgin, meanwhile, though failing to reach the final list, may take comfort from the fact that in the one category it did appear - 'capacity to innovate' - it received four times the number of BA's votes.
Others are notably absent this year - ICI, for example, which prior to its de-merger ranked fourth, and Guinness, previously in sixth place.
A comparison of the 'free vote' with the ranking produced by peer evaluation proves particularly instructive. Some form of consensus appears to emerge; M&S, Unilever, Glaxo and Shell, for example, are common to the upper reaches of both lists. Further, all 10 of the free-vote nominees appear within the top 100 of the main list. More intriguing, however, is the odd disparity. Hanson, for example, ranks second in the free vote but 98th in the full 260. The clear inference - which may cause Hanson either relief or concern - is that it gains far greater respect outside of its sector than within it.
Such findings beg other questions. How important is size? All four of the paragons cited above are among Britain's largest companies by market value. And to what extent is admiration based on perception and received wisdom (skewed, as they are, by public relations, advertising, and simple day-to-day familiarity) as opposed to first-hand knowledge? Few, for example, would challenge M&S's status as an 'excellent' company - indeed, its standing as such has become something of a shibboleth. Earlier this year, using a different methodology, a survey by the Financial Times and Price Waterhouse found M&S to be 'the most respected company in Europe' (followed, among others, by Shell, BA and Unilever). Similarly, a glance at the findings of Presswatch, which monitors press mentions of companies according to their favourability, shows M&S to receive the most consistently positive coverage of any British company. In this respect it appears the beneficiary of the ultimate 'virtuous circle', caught in an upward spiral of admiration in which reputation, presentation and perception act only to enhance each other.
But where does this leave Rentokil? It did make one appearance - for its 'value as a long term investment' - but critically failed to register in any of the other eight categories. Its size and relative invisibility must, on the above criteria, surely weigh against it.
But for how long can it be feted by its peers without finding favour elsewhere?
THE FREE VOTE
1994 1992 %
1 1 Marks & Spencer 17.7
2 3 Hanson 5.9
3 5 Unilever 4.8
4 2 Glaxo 4.2
=5 8 Shell Transport & Trading 3.5
=5 10 BT 3.5
7 =6 J Sainsbury 3.4
8 16 GEC 3.3
9 15 British Airways 3.0
10 9 British Petroleum 2.7.