The eternal optimism of David Jones

David Jones launched You & Mr Jones in 2015

You & Mr Jones is brimming with a suite of new acquisitions, steady investments and an office in 14 cities across the globe. Founder David Jones is practically evangelical about his belief in ‘brand tech’. What could possibly go wrong?

David Jones is a master of analogies.

He launched the ‘brand tech’ group You & Mr Jones in 2015 as the holding companies were too busy playing golf (that is, above-the-line advertising) when they should have been practicing their tennis serve (aka technology and digital).

The ad industry once was Kodak – more focused on selling its outdated stock than transforming digitally – and now is “the CD-rom” or “fixed line telephony”. It’s “radio or Yahoo – it's not going to disappear, but it's just not important or relevant anymore”.

These soundbites slip effortlessly into Jones’ conversation, but he’s practiced them all with journalists and investors many times before in his quest to build and promote a client-friendly stack of tech, content, data and mobile companies. It sounds like the lines have worked: the company does not disclose financials other than pegging revenues in the ‘multiple hundreds of millions of dollars’, but the business growth figures he reels off are in the 30, 40, 50 and 60 percentiles.

Jones may have raised his initial $350m from prophesying the decline of the network agency model. But much of his sustained success could be linked to treating his clients as partners – not idiots.

A large proportion of the industry laments advertisers’ failure to take risks, understand the modern media landscape and stay in the job for more than a few years, yet Jones believes it’s the brands that have “completely embraced creativity” while the agencies remain "uneducated".

“Clients sit there going, I know that technology can drive growth in my business I want to talk to people who can do that," he says. "That's why the new model businesses and companies don't find it very hard to grow dramatically, because clients are like, ‘we need help’.”

The latest chapter in Jones’ client rescue mission is the acquisition of the Inside Ideas Group, the parent company of in-house agency builder du jour Oliver. It was a two-year process to court chief executive Simon Martin, “a fantastic guy and a great operator” who could have “sold to pretty much anybody he wanted to”.

“In the end I just went to him and said, look, maybe you could get more money if you end up in a bidding war, but ... this way you can actually focus on joining our group and taking it to the next level rather than spending a year being wined and dined by lots of people who want to buy your business,” recalls Jones. “And so, in the end, that's what he did.”

The financial details of the transaction were not disclosed.

The acquisition of Oliver slots straight into Jones’ vision to build a group that offers clients marketing that is “better, faster, cheaper” – a line, he wryly notes, Sir Martin Sorrell has been known to borrow to promote his own new model network, S4 Capital.

You & Mr Jones is leapfrogging the holding companies and building chatbots, brokering app sponsorships and installing in-house programmatic media buying for clients directly. Now, with Oliver, it can provide them with a safety net over which to trial in-housing.

Buying up an in-housing agency was always part of Jones’ initial pitch deck, yet he admits he became somewhat distracted by investing in technology in the first few years of operation. Arguably, that strategy paid off: he invested heavily in Niantic as perceptions of its Pokémon Go product shifted from ‘fad’ to ‘bankable social platform’ and claimed a data company – 55 – even before IPG and Dentsu Aegis Network snapped up Acxiom and Merkle respectively.

Jones states the company is looking to make acquisitions to “strengthen and reinforce” the data arm of You & Mr Jones, much like he’s looking to “deploy more capital” into people-powered marketing (such as Mofilm and VidMob) and mobile.

“Would we acquire more in-house businesses and fold them in under Oliver? Absolutely,” he says.

“If you look at what we're going to do over the over the coming years, it's really going to be about moving and scaling those capabilities rather than doing something [that makes people say] ‘Oh my God, they did this?’”

There was, perhaps, no better confirmation that things are all going to plan at You & Mr Jones when the first lady of Unilever, Aline Santos, described its Oliver buy-out as a “perfect marriage”. But surely something must have gone wrong at some point?

Jones struggles – “at a macro level, there's probably very little” – but eventually admits he regrets not putting more money into Niantic. He adds that the company’s exit from funding Mashable “wasn’t great” too, "but would I do that again? Yes. Because we learned a ton."

This attitude could come across as insufferably optimistic, but Jones appears sincerely thrilled to find himself as one of the few former network heads making it as an entrepreneur. He asks outright, “what have I done to deserve this?" and pinpoints much of his success to timing: being old enough to understand the mechanisms of business yet young enough to truly value the power of technology.

It’s his energy that keeps Kate Robertson, co-founder of his not-for-profit, One Young World, calling the fifty-something-year-old a “young man”.

“But I’ve told her she’s got to stop that,” he contends.

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