The Profile: Blue 449 founder and CEO John Preston

Arvind Hickman
By Arvind Hickman | 19 April 2018
Blue 449 boss John Preston and his wife Dee.

John Preston is nowhere near done yet. The former marine biologist, with three decades of media experience, now runs successful media agency, Blue 449.

Two-and-a-half years after he sold his ‘baby’ — Match Media — to Publicis Media, Preston told AdNews he’s got a lot more to tick off on his bucket list.

In a one–on–one with AdNews, Preston said he still has plenty of fire in the belly to help drive the rebranded agency, in this market after 12 years of operating his own award–winning agency.

“I think there's still so much to do right now; the media industry is at a huge intersection of change and opportunities. It’s an exciting time," Preston revealed.

“For me in the next few years, it feels like it’s within the Publicis Groupe and Blue 449. I don't just want to leave and say, ‘Thank you, I’ve sold it, now I’m off’. I want to ensure the full transition to Publicis Media is a positive one.

“The reality is there’s enough to be done to make Blue 449 a great global brand, and work with the Publicis Media team, so it mentally broadens my horizon. As long as I am contributing, learning, and having fun, then I will stick around.”

Preston’s journey to the top has seen him work in some of this country’s most famous advertising shops alongside some of the brightest creative minds and leaders. And while he has built his media empire in Australia, Preston is very much a citizen of the world.

Scottish by heritage, he was born and raised in colonial Zambia up until the age of eight when his family relocated to Hampshire, a county on the southern coast of England . During his school days he formed a passion for biology and scuba diving and studied marine biology at Liverpool University.

“I spent my final year on a marine station in the Isle of Mann,” Preston said. “Studying and diving in the Irish Sea sends shivers down my spine when I think about how cold it was.”

john-preston-with-shark.jpgPreston is a keen scuba diver and is pictured here with a whale shark.

In his final year at university, Preston developed a way to reduce the mortality rate of farmed lobsters and nearly became a lobster farmer.

“They offered me a PhD to continue my studies, and no doubt make them more money. However, the prospect of a lifetime of beanies, wet weather gear, and freezing my nuts off in the Irish Sea somehow lost its appeal.”

Preston turned to media after a family friend, media director Nigel Sharrocks, convinced him to come in for a chat about the media and marketing industry at 'the university of advertising', J Walter Thompson (JWT) in London.

He started at JWT in 1985 where he learnt the basics of media before moving to Bartle, Bogle and Hegarty (BBH), where he picked up valuable lessons on how to run a business and manage people.

“The three owners of BBH were just amazing humans as well as fantastic business people,” Preston recalled. “How they treated their staff and how they developed their positioning was something I took away.”

One of these was Bartle’s practice of taking the final interview for every candidate for every role. Today, Preston either interviews or inducts each new member of the Blue 449 team.

jp-and-family.jpg

Preston and his family - Ruby, Jade, Jasper and his wife Dee

Preston came to Australia in 1989 and spent nearly 15 years working in media for advertising agencies Ogilvy & Mather, The Campaign Palace, Mojo and Whybin Lawrence. He had previously worked with Scott Whybin at Campaign Palace before reuniting to become “the media guy at TBWA”. He also paid tribute to the brilliant creative geniuses of Scott and Neil Lawrence.

Preston had a habit of working at agencies that were either new to the market or were setting up media teams, including establishing Optimedia in 1997.

“It was very organic and you felt very alive; conscious that I was contributing to building something from scratch, which was a rare opportunity,” he explained. “Yet, I seemed to always strike gold whenever I was looking for an opportunity.

“All those experiences of helping establish something new with someone else’s money became building blocks for doing my own business.”

The power of great creative

Preston is a staunch advocate that great creative and media should work hand-in-hand and he believes creative agencies are realising the value of media and channel planning as part of a successful creative process.

“If media and creative can work better together, that’s a great outcome,” he told AdNews. “So, for me, I feel Match, in its early days, and Blue449 have always been very creative–friendly media agencies. We weave into the creative agency’s process.”

That said, Preston believes the complexity and fragmentation of media makes it much more difficult to “squeeze the toothpaste back in the tube”.

“In the past there were only a few channels, all above the line, and it was a lot easier to plan and interact with the creative agency. Now, it’s so diverse. So much technology running behind the system and you need that high level of specialisation,” he said.

“The other factor I'd say is when I look at the creative agencies that have media in–house; it's never really gone gangbusters. It’s really hard to find an A–grade creative agency with an A–grade media agency inside the same shop.”

match-media-2010-high-res.jpgThe Match Media team in 2010.

After spending time as managing director of Whybin Lawrence (TBWA), it was time for Preston to move on, leading him to establish Match in February 2003.

“It was one of those massive crossroads in life. I was married with one child and had just turned 40 at the time,” he explained.

“Although it would have been easier to keep going down the corporate route, I thought, ‘I'm going to have a go at creating something of my own, because if I fail I can always get another job’.

“The idea of Match was born, in part, by taking a leaf out of what Naked was doing in the UK at the time — creating a boutique communications agency that just focused on the strategy, not the implementation.”

Match’s foundation client was Ikea, which it held for 14 years and worked on with BMF.

Slowly, but surely, the agency grew to a size where it wanted to have a greater impact on the media scene. The ambition was to move from a boutique to a hot indie. Preston employed digital expert, James Simmons, who would become COO, and media strategy lead Ian Czencz.

An 8-year overnight success

In 2011, Match beat large holding group media agencies to pick up multinational pharma client Pfizer; a watershed moment for the agency that would herald years of consistent growth.

“We became an eight–year overnight success,” Preston said. “We’re now 125 people in Sydney and Melbourne. We’ve become a much bigger business, yet we've always been consistent with very steady momentum and not doing maybe what Bohemia did: if you climb too fast, without the right foundations, the quicker you may fall. For us, it was good steady, managed growth.”

Preston believes managing the speed of growth is vital to nurturing the right culture and ensuring your clients and staff don’t suffer.

“If you grow too fast or don't look after your missions, value and culture, what then happens is you end up creating a Frankenstein's monster where you lose control.”

In 2015, Match Media transitioned from award–winning independent to Publicis Media’s new kid on the block.

Preston and his business partner, James Simmons, built Match Media into one of the largest and most awarded, independent media agencies in Australia. But, as is so often the case, when an agency gets to a certain size, for it to grow even further often requires the resources that usually only a holding group can offer.

“The reason why we went with Publicis Media was, first of all, it had a strategy,” Preston said. “It actually wanted to do something with us, rather than just merge us with another entity”.

A perfect match

In particular, Preston was impressed by Publicis Media's plans to form a new global media network, which at the time was internally known as Project Blue.

He said it was important that Blue 449 shared the same entrepreneurial spirit that he had established at Match Media.

“I feel we’re on a bit of a step change into Blue 449, but the spirit of the agency hasn’t changed,” Preston explains.

“You also need to remember that Publicis Media bought Walker Media, then the largest independent agency in the UK, and Walker Media became the London HQ for Blue 449. So, they had ourselves [Match] and Walker Media and then they merged in the Optimedia brand. It’s now building momentum as its own agency brand.”

AdNews asked Preston about some of the challenges he faced when transitioning from an independent agency of his own design to working within the confines and pressures often associated with global holding groups, such as meeting tough revenue targets.

“The pressure is no different to when we were independent, it was just self–motivated. To be successful you have to demonstrate growth, whether that’s to your business partner, potential acquirer, or to your new owners — to me the pressure is the same” he explained.

“You just hope to hell that the business is flowing and the story continues to be positive, which it has. But, you have to do it with integrity and manage what's right for your people and your clients. I think when it’s at the expense of either of those two things, then that’s when the business will crumble.”

Avoiding growing pains

Preston said where there can be problems is when profit margins aren’t aligned with revenue growth and agencies are “just squeezing the juice and the heart out of the agency”. To date, Match Media, and its new incarnation Blue 449, hasn’t had to worry about growing pains.

The other challenge that often derails mergers or acquisitions is culture. Match Media and Blue 449 are a natural fit, according to Preston, as both position themselves as progressive challenger agencies.

“It’s a really strong people business; digitally–focused, data–led, does great work, with great clients, and I think we’re lucky that it [Publicis] doesn’t want to change us,” Preston explained.

“It’s not all roses in the partnership; there are changes out of your control in an acquisition, however, primarily around more stringent policies, financial backend processes and IT.”

For example, purchase orders must now go through a Publicis Media process rather than a quick trip to Harvey Norman or Officeworks.

“Those three things [policies, finance and IT], if not managed properly, can be a ball and chain in terms of slowing you down,” Preston admitted. “So, what we've learned is you just have to think ahead. Plan it a bit further in advance and go through the process to get the desk or the IT or whatever you need.”

That said, the delay between ordering and fulfilment is no more than 48 hours. Now at the end of earn out, what has changed and partly motivated the sale, is that Preston is able to devote much more time to his family (children Ruby, Jade and Jasper and his wife Dee) and significantly improve his work–life balance.

match-2016.jpgThe Match Media/Blue 449 team in 2016.

What's next?

The 54–year–old has devoted much of his life towards building a business and the wealth that now gives him the freedom to do more outside of work, such as his major passion, travel.

“I’m in a position where in say five to 10 years’ time I intend to spend half my life in the Mediterranean and half my life in Sydney during the summers,” he revealed.

“There are still lots of things I want to do with my career and Blue 449 is very much part of that now. But I think, for me, the legacy I would want to leave is more than just a great business.

“Something I'd really like to achieve, is to actually experience what it feels like to make a meaningful contribution to many people.”

Preston wouldn’t share any further details as to what that might involve except that it would be outside of an industry where this seasoned media man has little more to achieve.

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