After eight years of living in the US, return trips to Britain are no longer a homecoming for Tim Dyson. ‘I’m feeling less and less British the more I come back,’ observes the chief executive of the Next Fifteen Communications Group. Dyson admits that five years in Seattle and three in California have given him an ‘embarrassing’ accent for which even his mum chastises him.
He has come a long way since leaving Loughborough University in 1984 and joining Text 100 as a graduate trainee. Within eight years he was the CEO of that side of the business, gradually taking on wider group roles. He is now in charge of Next Fifteen – the same company with a different name. Under its previous brand, One Monday, the firm managed to earn £3m by selling its name to the demerging consulting arm of professional services powerhouse PricewaterhouseCoopers.
Typical of its genre, the then Text rode the tech wave, growing at a rapid rate and launching spin-offs – Bite Communications to handle the Apple business when Text had nailed its colours to the Microsoft mast, and later August.One Communications, Joe Public Relations and the ill-fated start-up adviser Evus.
Dyson arrived in California to see the dotcom dream turn to dust. And on a tech-focused company, it had a major impact. Having gone from a market that was growing at 20 to 50 per cent a year – ‘really if you could keep up with the market you could grow quite quickly’ – there were tough lessons. ‘It became a question of how to sustain the business that you have and effectively grow to stand still,’ he says.
A key challenge was learning to manage people’s careers after years in which growth had driven their development: ‘In a people-based industry growth is such an inherent part of running a successful business,’ he says. ‘It’s essentially a fashion industry. People want to work with companies that are adding new clients, doing new things.’
Staff numbers are now around 600 worldwide, down 12 per cent from their peak. Like all listed marketing services companies, its share price has also suffered, hovering just above the 30p mark as PRWeek went to press.
This, despite the fillip Next Fifteen received from the name sale That boost to the bottom line briefly cheered investors, but as with its peers, the share price remains an issue: ‘Is the share price an accurate reflection of the value of the business? No, double the current market cap is not an unrealistic valuation,’ Dyson says.
Fortunately, the market is looking better, with North America showing improvement in the last six months. ‘We are seeing some growth in revenues. With the prospect of recovery, Dyson’s thoughts are turning to wider issues. The downturn, he says, should act as a catalyst for improvement and innovation. ‘Good industries reinvent themselves during periods of downturn, and there’s a question as to whether ours has learnt any valuable lessons. It’ll be a searing indictment of our industry if you look and say we are still doing the same stuff that we were doing before we got into this mess.’
One innovation he is firmly against is the arrival of payment by results. It is, he says, the ‘dumbest solution to the problem’ of proving value to clients: ‘People are too focused on the plans and campaigns and not focusing the campaigns back into the goals that the company originally had. Payment by results gets agencies to do what they are good at and not what businesses need – that’s lunacy.’
Of Dyson’s qualities, former OneMonday director Sandeep Kalsi picks out giving people space as the most important: ‘He steps in if you need direction, guidance or support, but at the same time he steps out and lets you be the boss.’
Kalsi says Dyson was always driven: ‘We were young guys taking on big agencies and eating their lunch,’ he recalls. ‘He wants to win.’
Tech sector praise for Dyson is widespread. Lewis PR CEO Chris Lewis says the time he’s spent in a position of leadership marks him out – over a decade and showing no sign of flagging. ‘That makes him the most experienced and complete practitioner in the field,’ he says. He’s also shown loyalty to the cause since joining Text 100 in 1984. ‘If I was in a position of being a major shareholder in Next Fifteen I would feel indebted and grateful for such long-term commitment,’ says Lewis.
Dyson says a couple of years of growth should get the group back on track. Nevertheless the lessons of the last few years have been taken on board. ‘We still want to open offices and we will look at new brands – whether we do it exactly the way we’ve done it before is open to debate.’ After a horrific spell for tech, the firm wouldn’t want anyone else in charge.