The low-key tech pioneer

As Next Fifteen attempts to bounce back from a tough financial year, Clare O'Connor catches up with its young but savvy CEO

Tim Dyson
Tim Dyson

Upon meeting Tim Dyson, the first impression one gets is that he is a good-natured sort of guy. This
is just as well, because PRWeek has inadvertently chosen the ugliest room in the most brash west London hotel to interview the San Francisco-based chief of Next Fifteen Communications. Brushing aside the apologies for an 8am meeting in what looks like Liberace's boudoir, Dyson is unflinchingly polite, pretending not to notice the surroundings.

He is jet-lagged but you would not know it from his calm, cheerful demeanour. Indeed, over the course of almost a quarter century in PR, Dyson has built a reputation for cool-headedness.

That said, according to those that know him best, he is no pushover - his protégée Clive Armitage, the head of Next Fifteen-owned Bite Communications, calls Dyson ‘the most fiercely competitive person I've ever met'. This could be the result of entering tech PR when the sector was tiny. As Dyson himself admits, it was tough for a PR agency to find its feet when the rise of the home computer meant the creation of an entirely new industry overnight. In 1984, the year Dyson started at Text 100, PROs had to learn a whole language based around products they did not necessarily understand - a far cry from today's young tech PROs, many of whom grew up with laptops and the internet in their bedrooms.

‘We were doing PR for the technology industry - an industry that didn't follow the normal rules,' he recalls. ‘It was a completely new era. How much you needed to know about the product you were
promoting before that - a car, or shampoo - was debatable. But in the tech industry, products were launched every few months. The products were complicated and the people explaining them didn't do so in plain English. It was a novel challenge.'

He remembers realising that Text 100 would need to grow as fast as the technology market it served in order to stay in business during such a volatile time. ‘This era was the first time companies were going global at a very young age,' he says. ‘Tech companies would grow up in the US or Japan, then find themselves catapulted worldwide. We quickly realised we had to become a global player to survive.'

Next Fifteen, Text 100's parent company, is certainly now a global player, with four other subsidiary PR companies: Bite, Inferno, OutCast and Lexis. It is AIM-listed and its 2008 net revenue was £30.4m. But shares in marcoms groups have been sluggish, and a week into a new financial year, there are rumours of diversification at Next Fifteen.

His former boss Mark Adams, co-founder of Next Fifteen and now a specialist in management buyouts at investment firm Pembridge Partners, remembers interviewing Dyson back in 1984. ‘Tim turned up one day for an interview in his mum's brown Ford Fiesta,' he recalls. ‘He looked like he'd just stepped out of school, not university. He came along at a good time and progressed all the way up, from trainee to CEO in eight years. He was always very pro-technology - it was clear there wasn't a lot of training required. He worked on acc¬ounts such as Microsoft, and he mastered the technicalities really well.'

With more than two decades of experience, Dyson is now seen as a mentor to younger tech PROs - many of whom have now risen up the ranks right behind him. Bite MD Armitage has known Dyson for 18 years, during which time he too has rapidly progressed up the tech PR ladder. ‘I've known Tim since 1990, which makes me feel old,' laughs Armitage. ‘I was a trainee account executive right out of university, and I think Tim was a director at the age of 25. For the first two years I wasn't important enough for him to talk to me. Now, when I'm involved in client engagement with Tim, I see he's a master of his craft. Clients instinctively listen to what he says.'

These clients, such as Cisco's SVP of corporate comms Blair Christie, also see Dyson as someone to watch and emulate. ‘When I started creating Cisco's corporate comms structure a few years ago, I sat down with Tim,' she says. ‘Having a comms background, I could do it myself, but frankly I was looking for someone who'd seen it all. Tim has this balance of creativity and focus. We comms types sometimes get ahead of ourselves - he keeps us consistent.'

Above all, Christie sees him as an accomplished PRO, and a good egg - the sort of person who, naturally, does not complain that his PRWeek photo shoot is staged in a velvet throne room.

‘He's a family man, so he can relate to me when I talk about my two-year-old, but also when I talk about my $160bn company,' says Christie. ‘That's very rare.'

Dyson's turning points

What was your biggest career break?

The chance to work on the Microsoft account in the 1980s. The huge growth of the company coupled with its focus on PR was a great opportunity.

What advice would you give someone climbing the career ladder?
Travel. It wasn't until I started working internationally that I realised how little I really knew about PR. Working with clients that have global programmes is a great way to get some exposure but there is no substitute for relocating to another country. I'd choose China or India.

Who was your most notable mentor?
I learned a lot from the founders of Text 100 - Mark Adams and Tom Lewis. Mark is great at challenging people to be creative and add value to the work you do for a client. Tom taught me about the importance of building a strong team around you.

What do you prize most in new recruits?
A new perspective on a firm, its services and its clients.

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