FEATURE13 March 2018

Deltapoll – there’s a new kid on the polling block

Brexit Features New business People UK

Two of the biggest names in political polling have switched from competitors to collaborators, so what made ICM’s Martin Boon and YouGov’s Joe Twyman decide to join forces with Paul Flatters and strike out alone? Jane Bainbridge talks to the co-founders of Deltapoll.

So why launch an agency now?

Joe Twyman: “It’s in the name – Deltapoll – we wanted to emphasis that this is a change. If you work in research you know about the term delta, and for us this was an opportunity to bring about – and make the most of – the kind of changes we’d seen in the research industry over the past few years.

We think of it in three terms. The first is methodologically. Particularly in the world of politics, but, in the world of research more generally, it’s not just about head anymore, it’s about heart as well. Collectively we’re all very interested in the idea of exploring emotional responses to things. From my world of political research, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that politics is becoming more emotional – whether it’s screaming at Donald Trump or chanting ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’ at Glastonbury. And we know that people’s responses to questions are informed by the head and the heart and so methodologically we wanted to explore that.

“The second point where we’re bringing about change, is technology. We want to use new techniques, like MRP (Multilevel Regression and Post-stratification) which was so successful for YouGov at the general election. But to say we use MRP is to say we use weighting, it’s how you then think about it that’s important. We also want to incorporate techniques such as IRT (implicit response testing) to measure emotional response and bring these new techniques to bear, to get a greater understanding to people’s responses.

“Then the last thing is structurally, we all independently looked at the research industry and saw something that was moving in two different directions. You have some agencies increasingly looking to establish themselves as data companies churning out data in a commoditised, commercialised, standardised fashion. The other side is towards increasingly bespoke offerings to clients.”

Martin Boon: “Both Joe and I are known for bringing innovation to the political polling world; it seemed a natural fit to bring together our thoughts into one sophisticated polling entity – we’ve got the experience, we’ve got the profile and reputation to hopefully be difference-makers and not just in the social and political world but extending what we know to the more commercial components of what we do.

“So, realising there is this fork in the road with technology one side and proper thought on the other, we’ve both absolutely taking that thought branch – we want to bring new ways of thinking, harnessing new technologies into the world we know and beyond.”

What will your methodology be?

JT: “We are looking at different options, but the cornerstone will be a combination of MRP and IRT.”

MB: “We do have some people, who are minor shareholders in the business – high profile academics, political journalists and data scientists who will be completing our over-arching offer. We have the full analytical suite of intellectual and data science excellence behind us.”

What will your job titles and roles be?

Paul Flatters: “We’re all directors and co-founders.”

MB: “Joe will continue as a high profile political pollster, and I’ll fade into the background on that to some extent. I will pick up social research and focus on that primarily. We’ve been working with some thinktanks and charities but we are very much in the early days of developing the client offer.”

How has the set-up of the new business gone?

JT: “Operationally, the difference to setting up YouGov all those years ago was then it was three of us in a shed in Westminster – when we started we had no clients, we had no technology and we had no panel. The world has changed so much since then. Now we can use WeWork office space. It meant we could hit the ground running on the work. The panel providers are out there, the tech is available to us – we can deliver to clients from the off.”

How did the three of you come together?

JT: “It was fortuitous for Martin and me. We were both thinking about this independently in a guarded fashion and when it became clear our thoughts were pretty close to one another it seemed the obvious thing to do.”

MB: “This is an entity that would best allow us to continue the political and social work that we’ve laid markers down for, but have fun doing so.”

PF: “My skills are very complementary to these two. Many years ago, I was responsible for political research at BBC News and that’s how I first met Martin. So political research is an itch I’ve been wanting to scratch since leaving the BBC 15 years ago. Some of the things we do at Trajectory, some of the modelling and forecasting techniques we use, will be relevant to the new business. And I’ve also set up a new business before.

“I’m not leaving Trajectory. It’s a separate business though there will be opportunities for the businesses to work together and we’ll be in the same building.”

Isn’t it risky to launch in the polling arena?

MB: “It’s the only part of the market research world that’s exposed to risk. There’s no other part of market research where your work is judged to be right or wrong the next morning.”

“If you think about the history of opinion polling since the 1992 debacle, it’s been characterised by fundamental change. And now the academic influence and the availability of new tools allows us to take another step along that evolutionary road. And who better than two pollsters who both experienced the joys of accuracy and the misery of inaccuracy to come together and work out what we like, and what we don’t like about the methods we’ve previously employed and to frame them in the context of the new techniques that are now available to us.

“We’d like to think that we can come up with something that might move things along in the direction the whole research industry wants to see. Everyone still looks to pollsters as a marker for the efficacy of market research more generally and that’s a privilege and a scary thought. We want to make Deltapoll the primary, go-to place for accuracy and new techniques in the world of politics.”

“The new government framework is very helpful in that it has made itself accessible to micro businesses and we plan to be a part of that moving forward.”

So, if a general election is called this year…?

JT: “It would be a great thing. We would be ready.”

What will success look like?

PF: “Accurately predicting the next general election.”

MB: “Or to be rich, or both.”

PF: “Demonstrating the efficacy of our new techniques.”

JT: “When we go to the party conferences in September, people will say ‘ah, yes Deltapoll’.”