There are two doorbells outside the door to Stephan Shakespeare’s flat and neither works. A contingency rap on the net-curtained door pane is, though, promptly answered.

“Come in,” says Shakespeare, co-founder and chief executive of YouGov, the market research firm perhaps best known for its — sometimes headline-grabbing — political polling. Leading the way across a small, dark hallway and into a high-ceilinged study, the 57-year-old extends an arm towards a three-seater sofa, while taking what looks like a familiar spot on a stylish leather couch opposite.

Casual in jeans and an open-necked cotton shirt, he wonders whether the photographer will find the place, tucked as it is off a raised walkway in London’s Brutalist and, to the uninitiated, seemingly labyrinthine Barbican complex. The 40-acre site in the City of London, developed in the 1970s into 2,000-odd apartments plus a now world-renowned arts centre, may have Grade II-listed status, but navigability is not a key feature. Shakespeare’s four-bedroom flat was once a doctors’ surgery. Pity the poor patients trying to make their appointments on time.

This medical legacy, Shakespeare explains, gives and takes. On one hand, the two-storey apartment is broader than its neighbours: “This kind of space is unique in the Barbican. There are good sized rooms [elsewhere], but no one has a decent dining room apart from us.” On the other, hefty walls which partitioned the surgery are not for moving. “If we could, we’d have one big, open-plan living area upstairs but you can’t because the walls are really heavy and probably hold up everything else.”

Still, there is much to enjoy about Shakespeare’s home of 10 years, which he shares with his wife Rosamund and their two adult daughters, when they are not studying at Oxford. Wall space in the study is occupied by floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, custom-built by Shakespeare’s uncle, a cabinet maker. “We slightly tidied the bookshelves, but we couldn’t get round to the final corner,” he says, indicating a unit laden with volumes on art, travel and politics — and, on an uppermost shelf, the novels of Jeffrey Archer.

In the late 1990s, Shakespeare resigned as head of special needs at a south London comprehensive school to run as the Conservative candidate for Colchester in the 1997 general election. After losing to the Liberal Democrats, he persuaded Tory peer Lord Archer to hire him to manage his campaign for London mayor. The role was halted abruptly when historic allegations concerning Archer’s private life resurfaced ahead of the 2000 poll, ultimately leading to the peer serving time for perjury and perverting the course of justice.

Shakespeare is grudge-free. “I went to his Christmas party two days ago — always a lot of champagne and good people, so it was fun. I see him two or three times a year. He’s a friend.”

Dining room with table and Eames chairs
Dining room with table and Eames chairs

Indeed, he credits Archer’s downfall with prompting the creation of YouGov, based “11 minutes’ walk” away, close to Old Street’s Silicon Roundabout. “Obviously nobody wants to find themselves in a campaign that dies in that way, but as someone interested in public relations and campaigning it was a stormy and exciting period as well. And that was what propelled me into starting YouGov.”

It was a new millennium and, disappointed by an existing polling firm (“slow, expensive and it didn’t really tell you very much”), Shakespeare saw an opportunity in the burgeoning internet. “Not only could you do surveys online which would be cheaper, faster and more flexible [than conducting them in person], but if you recruited a panel of people that would take many surveys you could actually change the whole idea of how market research is conducted by building up layers and layers of information,” he says.

Today 3m people belong to YouGov’s online panels globally, 600,000 in the UK. Each can enter up to 110,000 bits of data about themselves. Their information populates YouGov’s new “Profiles” tool, which helps marketers identify where to advertise and received favourable analyst reaction following its launch in November.

While Shakespeare describes the AIM-listed firm as “an internet company”, his flat is relatively tech-free. An iMac on a desk in the study is discreet, the television is tucked into the fourth bedroom-cum-den and the living area’s only mains-powered sundry is an electronic keyboard hidden behind a sofa. (“I mess around [on it], but I’m hopeless,” says its owner.)

Though YouGov’s data products are now as profitable as its custom research (each making £5.5m in the year to July 2014), it is the latter category that garners most attention, as demonstrated in Scotland’s recent referendum on independence. Twelve days before the vote, a YouGov poll put the Yes campaign ahead of the unionist No camp for the first time. Cue a panicked dash north by Westminster leaders promising Scotland increased powers which, having eventually won with 55 per cent of the vote, they must now deliver.

“That poll had a huge effect, there’s no question,” says Shakespeare, noting a subsequent Spectator interview in which the former Scottish Nationalist leader, Alex Salmond, blamed his side’s defeat squarely on “the YouGov poll and the reaction to it”.

The forthcoming general election in May offers pollsters an arguably even greater stage. “You think you’ve seen a lot of polling,” says Shakespeare. “We’re going to have wall-to-wall, continuous polling . . . a data-rich election.” YouGov plans to allow “a peek through the curtains” at its election wares later this month. “We’re going to have polling 20 minutes after something’s happened, results 20 minutes after something’s happened. We’re going to have morning and evening polls, we’re going to have a constant flow of comments that people are making so we can tell you what they’re noticing, what they’re not noticing.”

Shakespeare has much to gain from YouGov’s success. By hitting targets over the next five years, he can earn bonuses worth up to 11 times his basic salary (£226,639 in the last financial year). Doing so would certainly help satisfy his passion for art.

This enthusiasm is apparent throughout the flat. In the master bedroom hangs “Susanna and the Elders”, an imposing, oil-on-canvas by Flemish baroque artist Abraham Janssens. Shakespeare, a trustee of the National Portrait Gallery, regrets that the room’s single ceiling light renders the early-17th-century work rather murky. “Sometimes we put lamps around it to have a proper look.”

Living area with brown-leather Conran chair and Andy Warhol ‘Cow’ prints
Living area with brown-leather Conran chair and Andy Warhol ‘Cow’ prints

Visibility is better in the upstairs living area. French windows, which open on to a terrace, occupy the length of one external wall, while a glass-panelled roof admits light to the 10-seat dining room running the length of the flat’s southern side. Up here, original Warhol prints (“Liz”, as in Taylor, and the iconic “Cow”) hang alongside gentler works, including several by Carel Weight, a minor English artist and teacher whose pupils included David Hockney. “I buy mainly at auction,” says Shakespeare. “London or New York, Paris sometimes.”

Shakespeare himself was a teen artist, exhibiting two shows of Fluxus works — “a minor undercurrent of pop art” — before heading to Oxford to study English in 1976. He has recently begun painting in oils in a studio at the family’s weekend house on the Essex-Suffolk border.

Yet he would not be without the buzz of his Barbican home. “I love the increasing density of the City and the buildings that have cropped up,” he says. “You’ve got more people living here now in these new blocks and it’s just become fantastic to live right in the City.”

Photographs and slideshow photographs: Chris Winter

Get alerts on Life & Arts when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2021. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article