“I promise you, on my first day in advertising, there was a copywriter bemoaning the end of kerning in typesetting - which is where you’d literally decide, manually, how to space the letters. I just remember going, this machine’s going to be better, you know? I think it’s funny how humans are not great at learning the lessons of history. It’s like it in every sector - technology just makes things much better and more efficient…. Oh, but of course it couldn’t possibly when it comes to the creative person. Because I’m special and unique.”
As long as David Jones has been in the advertising world, the tension between the ‘way things have always been done’ and the promise of technology and disruption has always loomed. From day one to the heady heights of CEO of Havas, where he found some of his efforts to get the network ready for the future (such as the acquisition of crowdsourcing Victor & Spoils) undermined by people working against it.
Rather than hang around for more of the same, David swapped advertising for brandtech - a phrase he coined (and trademarked) for the practice of helping businesses market their brands more effectively and efficiently using technology. In 2015 he raised $350 million and he founded You & Mr Jones, with a clever intertwining strategy of acquiring businesses in the fastest-growing areas of marketing (for example, in-housing specialists OLIVER, digital innovation company Gravity Road, data specialists like 55 and Brazil’s DP6) and investing in pioneering technology companies.
It’s been a model that’s paid off and the past two years have seen the group’s growth trajectory go vertical. Its revenues in 2021 exceeded $500m and by the third quarter of 2021, its organic revenue growth on the year to date was over 50%.
David has two almost opposite reactions to the boom of the past two years. “It’s funny because 50% of my reaction is: ‘well of course, because that’s exactly why I set the business up and it’s not a surprise at all that it’s doing so well. And 50% of my reaction is: ‘oh my gosh, it’s crazy!’.”
David describes what he calls a ‘tectonic shift’, one that was rumbling along before he left Havas and was causing clients frustration - and which has, since the Covid-19 pandemic struck, erupted as a full-on volcanic explosion. But for clients navigating the rush to ecommerce, the increasing complexity of data, the possibilities of Web 3, there are few places to turn to find expertise in both brand marketing and tech, and where one can have privileged access to tech brands without bias.
“[Clients were saying] We go see the agencies, they are great at brand and advertising but they don’t get tech and they don’t want to because it will totally disrupt their business model.Since we launched that has obviously now happened. We go to the tech platforms and they have great tech platforms… but they’re never going to be objective. Each tech platform will only recommend their tech platform. We don’t have the expertise and branding. What we need is somebody who is an expert in both branding and technology. And that’s what I called it. I called the company You & Mr. Jones at launch but I described it as a brandtech group.”
That ‘brandtech’ descriptor has now become the business’ name - this month, they have rebranded as The Brandtech Group. It’s a name that perfectly encapsulates what they do - and hints towards David’s belief that the future of building businesses and brands doesn’t lie in advertising as we know it. “What we were setting out to do back then was to help clients do their marketing better, faster and cheaper using technology and [we had a ] fundamental belief that advertising would become a less and less relevant way of connecting brands and people, hence we didn’t call it ‘ad tech’ or ‘martech’, we called it ‘brand tech’. And I think that vision has just completely played out. It’s pretty crazy if you look at what has happened over such a short space of time.”
One fascinating aspect of the business model is the venture capitalism component. All in all, The Brandtech Group has made 34 investments in 23 companies and has brought David deeper into the heart of Silicon Valley which, in turn, allows clients an unprecedented degree of insight and access. One of the group’s big success stories is Niantic - they were an early investor into the tech business behind the augmented reality gaming sensation Pokemon Go. In 2017, they invested $20m into Pinterest. That relationship with pioneering business in areas like blockchain tech, the metaverse, artificial intelligence has, says David, a knock-on effect for clients.
“It’s been an incredibly interesting and important part of our journey. We’ve made a lot of money. Let’s just say I think we do it for strategic reasons because we want to give our clients privileged access to the most technology and technology companies out there,” he says, admitting that they’ve had their fair share of knocks and bumps along the way with less successful investments. “We’ve got the scars to prove that we were early, we’re not jumping onto the bandwagon. When you’ve lost a few million investing in it five years ago, you can say you were early into the metaverse!”
Traditional creative and media agencies hold little interest from an acquisition perspective. He feels they’ve become so invested in protecting current revenue streams over getting ready for the new areas of growth that they’ve almost allowed themselves to be disrupted.
“The reason you get disrupted and end up failing is because you’re really successful. It’s not because you’re shit. You’re doing something that’s really successful, you make a lot of money at it… why would you possibly turn your attention to this little thing that’s new and doesn’t make any money and not many of your clients are asking for it yet. Then, obviously, what happens is there’s a tipping point where suddenly that’s the thing that everybody wants and now it’s too late,” he says, pointing to Kodak as the ultimate example. Although it pioneered digital photography, it remained focused on its revenue-generating film business and others moved in when digital took off.
And if you’re sitting in a high craft, creative part of the industry, thinking that disruption won’t come, David says think again. Creativity, he says, is more important than ever where attention is so short and stretched - but that doesn’t mean we’ll do it the same way we always have and that technology can’t help us generate ideas, or that content creation doesn’t have the potential for automation.
“Creative Genius is important but technology will be doing more and more creation and creativity. It’s just that people don’t like to hear that actually, machines can be better than humans,” he says, which brings us back to that early experience with the typographical purist. Digital graphic design and automated typesetting are now so much of the norm that it almost feels redundant to point it out.
Instead of clinging nostalgically to labour-intensive skills or lionising the creative rockstar, David is looking to the future of creativity. “I think it’s going to be incredibly exciting, the next three, four, five years as AI is increasingly used in the creative process and the creation of content. I still think most of what’s happening today, which has been called AI, is actually algorithmic rather than real AI.
“Our belief is that creativity is even more important today than it’s ever been… but that doesn’t just have to be done by people.”
With such a keen eye for emerging technology and disruptive ideas, how will David avoid the same calcification he’s seen elsewhere? “That is a brilliant question, and it is the thing that I am completely obsessive about. I honestly don’t think there’s any danger of that in the next five to ten years. Long term that is absolutely the thing you need to avoid. And the answer is by just being obsessively curious and interested in what’s next,” he says, warning that leaders can easily get so wrapped up in ‘the now’ that they lose sight of their responsibility to keep the business alive and relevant tomorrow.
But clearly, the successful decisions have vastly outweighed the missteps. David also says the group’s broad scope and geographical spread has also been a factor behind its popularity.
“The thing that’s really unique about us and what is driving our growth (as much as I would like to say, ‘we’re the only people in the world who understand brands and technology’ - that’s not true) is that most people who do get brand and technology are in one city or one vertical. So they’re either a great social media agency globally, but that’s all they do. Or they’re a great influencer agency globally, but that’s all they do. Or you’ve got companies that built end-to-end capability but they’ve done that in London or Brooklyn or Paris or Shanghai and they’re only able to deliver in one location or vertical. So you’re as much a part of the problem as the solution. The reason I originally raised $350 million to go build the business was a belief that we needed to be able to do that globally. So that’s the thing that sets us apart.”
And with such a phenomenal run over the past two years, David and the leadership team at The Brandtech Group are focused on making sure that 2022 builds on that success. In 2021, they brought in Nick Emery, former global CEO of Mindshare, and Virginie Douin, who headed up Global Agency Partnerships at Amazon, hinting that media and ecommerce will be key areas of focus for the group. They’re also looking to beef up their global reach - currently, around 10-15% of revenue comes from Latin America and Asia Pacific. Recent acquisition of data specialists DP6 in Brazil, the launch of 55 in Shenzhen, Taipei and Shanghai and the opening of mobile specialists Mobkoi in Tokyo shows growing momentum in those regions.
But whatever 2022 holds for The Brandtech Group, it won’t be a copy and paste of 2021. After all, as David says, “If you don’t disrupt your own business, someone else will.”