Why former Havas chief David Jones invested in Bafta-winning agency Gravity Road
David Jones, of brand-tech group You & Mr. Jones, saw a hole in the agency landscape. When the former global chief executive at Havas launched the entity in 2015, he had been hearing from clients that the business model needed to change. “‘It’s all changed,’ they’d tell me. ‘We need help.’ It used to be really easy to make a few TV commercials—job done. It’s now really complicated.”
“We’d go see the agency groups,” he says, “and as great as they are at advertising, they really don’t get technology. We then go to the tech platforms, and they have amazing technologies, but they’re much more interested in creating for their platforms than they are about brands.” What clients needed, he felt, “is someone who can combine a certain type of technology with branding expertise.”
He’d approached investors with this knowledge, as well as his idea for what would later be known as You & Mr Jones, and had them understand, “It’s not that we have some idea that no one else has. It’s an obvious idea, but most people who tackle these problems are isolated in one city or in one vertical.” They raised $350m to start, not as an ad-tech or mar-tech company, but a “brand-tech holding company.”
“We basically acquire or invest in technology companies or technology-enabled companies that help brands do marketing better, faster, cheaper.” Nearly three years later, You & Mr Jones has grabbed a stake in players looking to disrupt every bit of the emerging tech space, from Automat, a conversational marketing platform with an AI foundation, to Beeswax, a bidder-as-a-service entity that enables real-time bidding for programmatic media buys, to Amino, a company that provides transparency to brands via blockchain.
It’s most notable recent acquisitions and investments: a $20m investment in social plaform Pinterest, a stake in Niantic Labs (creators of Nintendo’s Pokemon Go augmented-reality game), and an investment in media outlet Mic, which reaches 66 million monthly readers.
Every investment Jones and team have made since opening up fits a series of four criteria: “Are they doing great business in a vertical we want to play in? Do we like the people? Do we think our brands and clients will be excited about working with them? And can we do a deal on financials that make most sense?” From there, You & Mr Jones enters a partnership with the company in question. “There’s this typical model where you go and buy a company, and a couple of years later, everyone has left.”
Instead, Jones purchases a 51% stake of its partner companies, letting the original owners retain their 49%. “We think we can make you a lot more successful than you’ve been without us,” he says, “but you continue to have much of the upside of that because in essence, you still have half of the business bill.”
The mindset is apparent in the group’s most recent investment, UK-based content innovation firm Gravity Road. Jones, and Gravity Road’s co-founders, Mark Eaves and Mark Boyd, met in the second half of 2016, where Jones says “the initial meeting wasn’t tied to a deal—they were looking to launch in the US. We thought it better to chat about that.”
But Jones and company really liked the company they were looking to keep. “We looked at the work they were doing and felt it was super-innovative.” You & Mr Jones already had a robust tech ecosystem built, “but actually having someone who could create and innovate ideas, who could be a catalyst for connecting all of these companies was a really great opportunities.” Gravity Road, he feels, could be the heart of the ecosystem, a “content and innovation engine.”
The only caveat Jones had, with any potential investment: “We’re not going to buy ad agencies, not traditional ad agencies. It’s not something we’re focused on.” What Gravity Road does differently, he feels, is how they’ve been able to blend entertainment, marketing, and technology. “A lot of the stuff they do is very advertising agency-like, but they’re much more about innovation and entertainment.” It does help that they’ve won a BAFTA for their work on Bombay Sapphire, a first for any agency in the space, as well as their ad shot through Snap Inc’s Spectacles and work with Usain Bolt and Kevin Hart on Facebook for Pokerstars.
It was relaxing to Jones and team finding an agency to bring all the pieces they’d assembled together. “Their role is to plug into our tech ecosystem, and create interconnectivity across that, rather than stick to the stand-alone agency-like objects.”
Mark Eaves, one of Gravity Road’s founding partners, believes more traditional agencies stand to be blindsided by the influx of technology advancements in the next five years. “I think we are undergoing a period of huge structural change and the role technology is playing in brand-building,” he says, “and I don't think the industry quite knows what's coming down the track. What we want to be is in the best space with the best people to ensure that technology is being used to make our creative ideas better and our work with brands better, too.” He’s excited for the opportunity to become part of the You & Mr. Jones network, specifically for the people that make up the holding group, as well as the wealth of opportunity they’ve been presented with. “I think what we're more excited about is being in this front-seat position of what's going to be pretty radical change over the next five years.”
Eaves’ cofounder, Mark Boyd adds, “The other thing that really motivates us is knowing [You and Mr. Jones] have a lot of money built in to invest and being involved in that process.” That, he feels, allows for a proactive stance where others have had to react inefficiently to ever-shifting platforms and technologies. “It makes us really excited to be running up and running at the future when we're going through such a period of change and transformation.”
Jones thinks this new addition will help fulfill the vision that he has for the You & Mr. Jones group, as it continues to globalize, set itself apart and address the needs of the modern-day brand. “We’re used to doing things that happened organically. But this time around,” he said, looking at how Gravity Road will play into the rest of the holding company, “we look forward to bringing in a capability that’s already actually has been stepping up every day, thinking about how we utilize all of these things.”