David Jones and his ‘£220m war chest’ – why the former Havas chief has brand tech in his sights

13th July 2015

Over the past few months we’ve found ourselves talking a lot about what’s known as ‘content’ – storytelling, which is after all at the very heart of marketing communications. A great story is still the most effective way of cutting though media clutter, and it’s been clear for some time that video marketing is a storytelling format/channel whose time is ‘now’, particularly with the increasing use of mobile devices.

An interesting player in the content business is Mofilm – set up in 2006 by marketers Jeffrey Merrihue, Andy Baker and Ralph Cochrane as a content-sourcing company. Based in London, with offices worldwide, it specialises in finding film and video makers to create short-form content for brands and – occasionally – social causes; in effect, a kind of crowdsourcing.

It’s a good way of keeping costs down and maintaining creativity, and as a business model it has proved pretty successful (many similar endeavours have struggled and fallen by the wayside, so Mofilm must have been doing something right). Someone was bound to come with a wad of cash to get in on the game at some point, and so it proved a few weeks ago. However, the buyer was not a big group like WPP or Publicis; it was a startup.The startup in question is You & Mr Jones, set up a couple of months ago by former Havas chief and David Cameron adviser David Jones. Jones used his clout and connections to raise over £220m ($350m – a staggering sum which will allow it to compete with the big boys) from PE and institutional investors, and he’s wasted no time in investing himself, taking stakes in tech site Mashable and ‘visual marketing’ firm Pixlee (which trawls the net for photos of people with brands, and secures the rights to them so they can be used for marketing purposes). Then he took a big stake in Mofilm.

Jones wanted to launch an investment and development firm that would “bridge the gap between brands and technology”. Y&MJ is taking a very focused approach to acquisition – it will use all that money to “acquire companies that create user- and machine-generated content” which focus on brand and content strategy, social media marketing, programmatic media buying, multi-channel networks, and real-time measurement analytics. In other words, the hot, buzzy areas in marketing.

The FT reported that he has thus far only spent 10 per cent of that $350m war chest, so expect to see plenty of acquisition activity in the coming months. Interestingly, Jones has already gone on record as saying he’s not interested in buying creative agencies.

“There’s been a revolution in the world, but not yet in how we build brands,” said Jones last month when his new venture launched.

He describes his business as a ‘brandtech’ group which will be headquartered out of New York with a presence in 10 cities around the world.

He could be onto something. Technology now enables every part of the brand-building process to be done faster and cheaper (and hopefully better) – from creating content, to producing it, to sharing it, to the all-important targeting and measuring. He also potentially has at his disposal the marcomms world’s biggest creative department – thousands, if not millions, of hungry creative looking for exposure for their ideas as well as a payday.

And although tech giants are good at sharing or distributing content, they’re not great at creating it. If he can get it right, Jones and his team might on the verge of doing something revolutionary. What he wants to do is pretty simple, but it’s also difficult to execute: the marriage of tech and marketing creativity is rather more tricky to put into practice.

But Jones has already got the approval of one of the world’s most powerful marketers, Unilever CMO Keith Weed, who controls an annual budget of billions of dollars.

“The mobile revolution has transformed the way the world communicates, but this has posed a challenge for brands,” Weed told The Guardian recently. “We are extremely excited about You & Mr Jones, a group we feel has the talent, ambition and technical knowhow to help fill this gap.”

Mofilm is a very good place in which to start. And for the company that he’s taken a stake in, well, Mofilm’s financial future should be secure for years to come. This is good news for the crowdsourced video community, many of whom have never got their ‘prize money’ as many crowdsourcers have gone under. But Mofilm has always had a good reputation, and now it’s better-funded, it may well drive standards up, as well as the rewards for successful content creators.

Finally, Y&MJ’s business model – a lean back office with most of the heavy lifting outsourced to highly motivated freelancers – not only makes investors happy, it also chimes with today’s decentralised world of branding and marketing.

Jones sees the big traditional agency groups as protecting their legacy infrastructure in TV and traditional media production/buying, and his assertion that the ‘hours per head’ billing model is outdated and unsustainable in a fast-moving digital world is probably correct.

And, being the motivated chap that he is, he will have another reason for wanting to succeed: one of the biggest, and first-to-launch, ‘crowdsourcing agencies’, Victors & Spoils of Boulder, Colorado, was acquired by his old employer, Havas, back in 2012. He has a point to prove – and he may just do it.