Secrets of my Success: Richard Webber, Founder of geodemographics

In my experience the most exciting careers happen to people who combine two areas of expertise or knowledge. Half the time I think of myself as a marketing person and the other half as a geographer. In retrospect, being both has enabled me to have something unique to say. If I had just one expertise, I'd have had to work decades at a profession before achieving credibility.

You make your own luck but only if you spot the opportunity - you won't if you're wearing blinkers. It's hard to believe now, but the discipline marketers refer to as geodemographics was originally developed for government.

I created Acorn, the first neighbourhood classification system, while working at the government's Centre for Environmental Studies in the 1970s.

People ask how it came to be a commercial application. I had organised a seminar for local authorities to show how neighbourhood data could identify areas of deprivation. Quite by chance, it attracted Ken Baker, a sampling specialist from BMRB. He was a lateral thinker and he came up with the idea that the Acorn tool would be useful for market research sampling.

I meanwhile had realised that Acorn could help predict the households most likely to respond to direct mail and door drops.

CACI requested a meeting with me, interested in this new idea. It was soon clear that the use of Acorn in combination with Census data would make CACI services much easier for their clients to use.

I went to work for CACI in 1979, the month Mrs Thatcher won her first election. My move was well timed. The new prime minister and her government soon closed the Centre for Environ-mental Studies and created a diaspora of academics who went on to contribute greatly to the growth of many marketing consultancies.

The lesson I learnt from this time is that while you may encounter an inhospitable reaction to your ideas in one environment, it's possible that they will prove attractive in another.

Eventually the world does turn full circle. Now we have a political regime that is much more interested in government applications for geodemographics, for areas such as the Health Service and the Police, applications I now enjoy working on at the University of London.

After CACI came Experian, where I founded and managed the micromarketing division. Experian is a company that encourages product specialists to build businesses. So it was an ideal base from which I developed Mosaic, the other key geodemographic classification system, and its applications around the world.

I now do a lot of lecturing in universities. The key theme in my lectures to aspirant marketers is to avoid believing there is a single best practice in segmentation. It's critical to understand for what types of businesses different segmentation tools are developed.

Perhaps the biggest change I've noticed over the years is how segmentation is used, not just in traditional direct marketing channels such as mail or telephone, but in deciding how to manage communications with customers in branches and call centres.

Looking back, is there anything I would do differently? Nothing! I often suspect there are many people for whom there is a specific calling or career which they have to find. Giving these people rational career advice is often very damaging. I see this with my children. It's best for them to follow their own inclinations however unproductive they may initially seem.

On the other hand there are undoubtedly people who have no specific destiny.

For them, working in an organisation whose values they share may be far more important than the specific job they do.

Richard Webber was interviewed by Noelle McElhatton


Starting out

Researcher for the Centre for Environment Studies in London

First DM job

Geodemographic analyst, rising to vice president for the European market

analysis operation at CACI

Climbing the ladder

- Fifteen years at Experian, founding the micromarketing division and

becoming its MD

- Visiting Professor at several universities and geodemographic

consultant operating in Australasia and Hong Kong Secrets

1. Make your own luck

2. Find a hospitable environment in which to release your ideas

3. Give creative thinkers space to develop ideas

4. Follow your heart in your choice of career