He may hate the word, but David Jones has led his semi-eponymous “brand tech” group to unicorn status. His clients seem happy and most of his deals have paid off. So, what happens next in the investment game plan of You & Mr Jones?
When The Wall Street Journal ran a story on You & Mr Jones’ recent $200m funding round, the picture desk used a photo of the Mr David Jones in question. He’d have preferred it if they’d used a group shot – one of him and his partners, his team.
That's because David Jones has not built a company worth $1.3bn by himself. When asked exactly how he did it – how his five-year-old company is breaking ground when the holding companies of his past life begin to stall – he credits two main things: an ability to really listen to what marketers were asking for and the team he’s built around him.
“We lost money in year one – that's the only time we lost money,” he says. “We did it very deliberately because I went off and I hired a lot of exceptionally smart, senior talented people to build this company with me.”
The big names who have joined You & Mr Jones since he first had the idea to build a “brand tech” company in 2014 include the former chief executive of BBH New York, Emma Cookson, the founder of Nuance Communications, Ron Croen and R/GA vets George Prest & Drew Burdon. By virtue of the company’s name, as well as Jones’ charisma, these make up the highly strategic group that sometimes disappears into the background.
Jones has also made a point of dodging VC cash and gone straight to “big, long-term, highly prestigious” investors who have proven themselves in the tech world with high-profile punts on the likes of Netflix, Amazon and Alibaba. And he also surrounds himself with the people running his investments.
“We probably see 20 companies a week and I pick the brains of our clever, smart founders who we are invested in,” says Jones.
“So I'll ask John [Hanke, chief executive] at Niantic what he's seeing, I'll ask Lars [Buttler, chief executive] at the AI Foundation what he's saying, I'll chat to the guys at Pinterest ... we’re all just sharing and learning and really having a perspective on where the future is going, because you're seeing it through the lens of what companies are trying to do now.”
Initiating 'phase two'
It’s this entourage that will tide You & Mr Jones over into the next “phase” of operation. The first was the strategic acquisition of companies such as Oliver, Gravity Road and Mofilm, the hard-fought argument that the marketing sector needs its own version of Uber and last week’s investment that proves that the brand tech thesis is “the real thing”.
Phase two will be a “$20bn market cap being built by the new players” who are not aligned with the legacy holding companies. According to Jones, these currently include Sir Martin Sorrell’s S4 Capital and Rob Pierre’s Jellyfish; he believes there’s room for five-10 “big players” in the category.
“We've always said we didn't think, ‘oh my God, we've got a completely unique idea no one else can have and we'll be the only company in this category’,” says Jones. “But I also think we've got a five-year head start on everyone else. So, there’s no massive pressure on us to go off and acquire and do things, but I do think there's some really exciting opportunities now.”
So, what’s next? From an organic perspective, in-housing agency Oliver is a sure bet that Jones has his eye on scaling. 55, You & Mr Jones’, data company has also been pegged as a business to grow, while the founder has the APAC market now firmly in his sights.
“It’s currently only 8% of our business but ... China, in particular, is very tech-savvy and sophisticated, and incredibly advanced in areas like payments and facial recognition,” says Jones. “It's a very big deal for our clients. So, doing things in that part of the world would be really strategically interesting.”
The next mass platforms
Much further ahead, however, Jones is most excited by the promise of truly disruptive technology. The company recently invested in Evrythng – an internet of things platform that works with consumer brands such as Ralph Lauren – and has been a vocal supporter and stakeholder in the augmented reality company Niantic.
It’s also invested in Buttler’s AI Foundation, which both develops AI technology and creates tech to make sure it’s used in the right way.
“It’s something that we're very excited about, but not in a bullshitty, press release way,” says Jones. He’s now turning attentions to how such tech could be used in creativity as an adamant believer that tech can and will replace humans in the process, and as such is looking at his next stage of M&A through the lens of a well-informed futurist – not an ad man.
“The reason that I'm interested and excited by these [technologies] ... isn't because I think they’re cool little things happening in isolation,” says Jones. “These are going to become mass platforms.
“At the start of this decade, we weren't talking about mobile video and look at how prevalent is today. The same is going to be true of things like AR and AI, and I think that's incredibly exciting."