About the only thing Zahawi has in common with the stereotype of his profession are his signature specs. Actually, even those are a slightly misleading cue. For a start, their style, far from being document-grubbing dull, often tends to mimick the flamboyant wraparound frames found in our more fashionable ski-resorts. And more importantly, they give the wrong impression about the kind of person Zahawi is. The very last thing you could accuse him of being, in his life or career, is short-sighted.
He’s a vision rather than a detail man; entrepreneurial rather than strictly methodical. The fact that he arrived in market research at all seems to have been an accident. A keen amateur showjumper in his youth who went all the way to Hickstead, Zahawi seemed cut out for a career in politics after graduating from London University. The early excursion into marketing was just a ramp to get Zahawi – in an echo of John Major – into local politics as a prelude to the ‘real’ thing. Disappointment followed, with his rejection at Erith in the general election of 1997 (or, as the eternally upbeat Zahawi put it, “I forced the Liberals into third place.”) Then came political disaster: he volunteered to be Jeffrey Archer’s campaign manager in the 1999 Mayoral election. Fun it may have been, but Archer was already tarnished goods and shortly to do time for perjury and obstructing the course of justice.
Anyone else might have slunk off into the wilderness to lick his wounds. Not Zahawi. No, here in the jaws of disaster was opportunity staring him in the face. Mix a passionate interest in politics and marketing savvy together, and what do you get? A polling organisation. A third vital ingredient, Stephan Shakespeare – his key collaborator in the Archer campaign – was what turned that combination into a winning number. Shakespeare was the bit of serendipity that Zahawi needed. He was – and is – the ultimately complementary business partner: measured and thoughtful where Zahawi is flamboyant and enthusiastic; cerebral where Zahawi is dynamic. YouGov was born in 2000.
YouGov’s subsequent success is often attributed to a series of stunningly accurate poll predictions – starting with the 2001 general election result. But it’s a bit deeper than that. Polling is the cream on the cake of market research. It can make you famous (if you get it right) but rarely brings in the money. YouGov’s true significance is that it was the first market research operation to fully grasp the implications of the internet and export them globally. It started in the right place – Britain is seen as a centre of methodological excellence – and at the right time. No need for the expensive bureaucracy, the delayed feedback panels and telephone teams that encumbered traditional market research brands. This was a new, legacy-free, overhead-light, lightning-swift, margin-rich operation that soon captivated the City and was catapulted onto the world stage.
Once again, Zahawi’s excellent sense of timing has come to the fore in guiding him to a safe Conservative seat in the coming election. The rest of the market research world is catching up with the YouGov business model. Time to move on, perhaps. Commercial life, even life as exciting as the YouGov adventure, has been no more than an entertaining and temporary diversion from his destiny. Or so it seems.