Oneagency MD Profile

By The Drum | Administrator

April 29, 2002 | 10 min read

My Pretty Oneagency: John Young takes charge.

“This is how we grow. This is the way agencies evolve,” says John Young, the newly appointed managing director of Oneagency. “The agency isn’t repositioning itself or changing in any great way; perhaps adding on things that it didn’t have before, but new blood is essential for any agency to grow.”

John Young has been about a bit. In fact, at barely 35 years of age Young has the experience most in the industry can only dream of. But, ironically, despite this wealth of experience, he is again venturing into uncharted territory - his motherland.

“There are very few agencies in Scotland that I would have joined,” says Young. “My career’s been quite successful so far. I wasn’t about to come up to Scotland to retire and play golf.

“I’ve been playing away since I graduated. My travels have taken me to London, Liverpool, Europe, the States and, laterly, two years in China. It’s a bit bizarre that I have never been in Scotland until now,” says the man born and bred in Elgin.

“When I first came back from China I took the opportunity to clear my head out and see where I was going. I was 35 last week - I’m at that age,” he laughs.

“I was managing director of a top-five DM agency, I’d set up a very successful DM agency in China. What next?

“Was it time to go out alone? Was it time to return home to Scotland? I’ve never actually worked in Scotland. It might be nice. But I looked to career and opportunity first; sentiment had to take the back burner.

“John Denholm (chief executive of Silvermills Group – Oneagency and The Leith’s parent organisation) was very clear from day one what was happening at Oneagency. I was more than aware of the recent events and very early on John laid it on the line.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity. I’ve been brought up from London to grow The Leith Agency’s below-the-line shop. That is the brief. I’m sorry, but show me a better opportunity in the UK at the minute?”

Young’s first agency foray was at McCann-Erickson Manchester when he moved from Littlewoods.

He was then poached by Evans Hunt Scott to handle the Microsoft pan-European business, where he really cut his teeth: “I learnt very early on that, despite what it says in the creds, direct marketing adds to the bottom line, and that’s it. At the end of the day, clients like two things. They like the bottom-line results, and they like work that they can be proud of.”

Young was business director with Jones Mason Barton Antenen when the agency merged with Claydon Heeley in January 2000. He was then sent to China to launch the Beijing branch of the newly formed Claydon Heeley Jones Mason in May 2000, where he stayed until September last year. On his return to the UK he became joint MD of the London office, the UK’s fourth-biggest DM firm, handling clients that included British Airways, Bradford & Bingley, Esso, Royal Mail and Motorola.

“Coming to Oneagency will be easier than starting up in Beijing - certainly ‘cause at least I can communicate with the people around me,” smiles Young. “However, the challenges will be the same. I’ll take nothing for granted - you still need to strip back all the crap that surrounds the industry.

“I started Claydon Heeley in Beijing in the fiercest, craziest market on the other side of the planet, so nothing really scares me now.”

These days Young certainly won’t be expecting raids during important client meetings to have his visa checked by armed police - only one of the problems he faced in China.

In Beijing there was also the simpler challenges to face - the services that we might just take for granted: “We wanted to courier a package across Beijing when we were initially starting out. But they didn’t have such a thing as a courier. In the end, we had to buy off a taxi driver to take the package across the city for us. So, as well as starting up an ad agency, we probably started up the first courier firm in Beijing.”

Young has learnt from these experiences, but now he wants to refocus on the basics. And the foundations that have been laid by Dave and Sue Mullen, the agency’s previous directors, are the ideal base to work from: “I think that you will see Oneagency become much more strategic, but not to the detriment of the creativity. I think that the two go hand in hand. But also I think that you will see it forging a much closer relationship with Leith. The Leith is an absolutely key element and I’m shocked, stunned and a little bit amazed that Oneagency didn’t use its links more.

“We will push forward with a lot of relationship marketing, a lot of strategic knowledge and a lot of database stuff and combine all these hard-core DM skills with what Oneagency has already - great creative and the ability to understand a brand.

“Too many campaigns – below-the-line activity and relationship building - are preoccupied with the space that they occupy in the consumers’ minds.

“There are very few agencies in the United Kingdom that can really understand a brand and deploy that understanding to generate a response.

“I’ve worked with clients big and small, global and national and I always ask them, hand on heart, ‘Can you really tell me the last time that you got a direct campaign or an integrated campaign that had the brand at the heart of the campaign?’ Very few clients can do that. Very few below-the-line agencies out there understand what brands really are.

“Oneagency is a response agency – really, all we do is try and make consumers react. It is not about making consumers feel something. But, in saying that, if you’ve got an established brand that occupies a space in the consumer’s mind, and you want to talk to them on a one-to-one basis, with a piece of mail or on the phone or with a highly targeted poster outside the place they work, why would you not want to reflect the core brand values within that communication?

“So much great branding work is done to build up consumer perceptions, then you’ll get a direct mail shot that just destroys everything that has been done before.

“ITV Digital is a perfect example. It takes more than just slapping a monkey on your direct mail packs to make something work. I mean, hello? The proof is in the pudding. ITV Digital was a great brand. It had a high recognition and people loved its fantastic, charming ads - really good ads. But what happened when they went on the road and tried to get people to sign up, the DM bit, the response, the sales, the one-to-one interaction? It just didn’t convey the brand’s values. There was a whole load of other problems. I’m not saying that was the only one, but you have to question it.”

But for every question Young raises, he is quick with an answer:

“Far too often the DM industry thinks of itself as being quite nimble and agile and able to deliver a quick fix. But that often collapses into a sweat-shop mentality, pumping out piece after piece of direct mail.”

One of the biggest problems faced by DM shops, says Young, is planning and the role of planning. Traditionally, you’ve got smart, savvy, capable account handlers who do it. But Young sees a role for specific DM planning: “You very rarely see strategists in below-the-line agencies. Direct marketing agencies traditionally ask, ‘Where are they?’ and that governs the strategy for getting hold of the customer. They haven’t thought about what the consumer is thinking while they are there and how they feel about the brand. It should really be about taking the above-the-line quality and depth of thinking and applying it to get someone to call a number, fill in a form, return it, get on the internet, log on and part with information.

“It is very easy to find people, very easy to find their address and it is very easy to find out that they are 34, they have a kid and they like skiing. The trick is to discover what they are thinking, how they are feeling and what they are doing wherever they are? That is where the smart thinking is. Sometimes DM almost seems devoid of emotion. If an agency understands what gives its clients sleepless nights then it will build a good relationship.”

However, before a relationship can be struck, certain perceptions need to be changed. Direct marketing is not just about posting information to customers. Its value is often lost: “In many ways DM doesn’t get the credit that it deserves, but that is only at a very personal level. If I go up to Elgin and see my mum and dad - my mum and dad know that I work in advertising, but that’s about as far as their knowledge goes - they ask what have I done, what am I working on? And I almost apologetically pull out this little mailer we did and hand it over. On that personal, feel-good-about-my-job level, yeah, DM is undervalued. That almost puts us in the same bracket as 99 per cent of the UK’s population - accountants and bankers. The industry is kind of glamorous, yet you have very little to show for it.

“But, actually, in terms of making a difference to a brand or a product, then it has a lot of respect. If you have executed a successful campaign for a client, then that commands a great deal of respect.

“For example, we launched Hotmail for Microsoft five years ago, before there were any personal e-mails that you could get access to anywhere in the world. That got the credit that it deserved. We broke some moulds and won five golds that year for effectiveness. Great. But I think that the biggest problem is that clients don’t know how to use DM agencies effectively. It’s always: ‘We need to post this out’ or ‘We have to get this out’. It’s never: ‘Is this an effective way to solve this problem?’ Not enough people see DM as an effective way to solve a problem.”

Problem solving, however, is one of Young’s specialities. As Dave and Sue Mullen launch Story, Young is ready to open a new chapter of his own at Oneagency.

Despite the recent departure of best-selling First Direct and Ardbeg, he is already penning a plot that will see a happy sequel to the story that has unravelled so far.

So bookmark this page and be sure to watch Oneagency’s books grow. Young has, arguably, faced tougher challenges than this before. Let’s hope that his plot is as gripping as his biog.


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