The Sell: John Preston

By AdNews | 20 April 2012

John Preston is the product of the multinational creative and agency sector but is challenging the global move to media consolidation with the rise of his indie shop, Match Media. He talks to Paul McIntyre about how and why he’s comfortable batting against the big guns.

John Preston is not your classic agency guy. He’s not aggressive or punchy. If anything, he’s thoughtful, considered and perhaps even too bloody nice.

There are hints of John Bevins in Preston, the renowned long-copy advertising writer and founder of the agency John Bevins, which produced some classy work in its prime during the late 1980s. Bevins was bursting with a message of integrity and ethics when there wasn’t much of it around and Preston has a similar way about him.

At the moment it’s working quite swimmingly. His Surry Hills media shop – it combines mainstream media planning with digital strategy and buying – is on a roll. So much so, Preston struck a deal with his latest multinational client, Pfizer, that he would shut the doors for six months to any new business to bed down the $25 million account. He also had other new business wins to deal with including Pepsi, Hayman Island and Gatorade.

The fact that Preston won Pfizer at all is good news for the independent agency sector, which is under increasing pressure. Match Media was up against 11 competitors on the long list trying to win the consolidated Pfizer account. In the end, it won all but the mainstream media buying contract, which the company doesn’t do.

The bigger picture is that with the Pepsi, Gatorade and Pfizer wins, Preston sees dissatisfaction with the multinational offerings. Not all, but some.

“The overriding theme here is that we are giving marketers a choice,” he says. “If everyone consolidates and aggregates then everyone potentially becomes vanilla again. If you look at when the industry unbundled, it was about who was going to be the biggest. We ended up commoditising the process of buying and really there isn’t much difference between the big buying shops these days. If you do the same thing with planning and aggregate all these other businesses on top, it’s a toss of a coin as to which group you go with. There will only be a nuance.”

Preston says there is some uncertainty among the big international groups and frustration among local players about media agency partners, which is fuelling the growth of Match. He started the company nine years ago as a “lifestyle choice” but in 2008 took a punt and invested heavily in digital and strategic capabilities. There is certainly something going on with Preston and his crew.

Companies such as Ikea, RAMS and Cerebos have been with Match from the start and others like Ateco Motors, which has car brands including Citroen, Maserati and Great Wall, have opted for a local player over the might of the multis. “The growth of Match will continue because there is a level of uncertainty in the market where people are questioning things,” Preston says.

“There are questions around the lack of interaction between digital and mainstream media thinking and around buying capabilities being the driving force of the media choice rather than strategy. All the way through the past nine years we have seen clients, big names like Ikea and Pfizer, who you would traditionally expect to sit in a multinational company, come to us because they are looking for something different.”

Preston holds up Ikon and BMF as his start-up benchmarks and inevitably the conversation has to lead to longer-term plans for a sale. Before starting Match, Preston spent his whole career inside large multinational networks, both creative and media.

He hates international reporting lines and global interference and is obsessed with keeping his culture feeling small. He admits it’s going to get harder – the clients under Match management now have billings of about $140 million, although it does not handle media buying. A bit over 40% of Match’s revenues are from its digital activities.

“We don’t want to be the biggest, by any stretch of the imagination,” Preston says. “I would hate to be. The thing I love the most is to be that independent where we can make decisions ourselves and for our clients and not be dictated to by someone in Hong Kong or Singapore. The thing I would struggle with the most is the loss of independence. There is a tension there, a healthy tension I guess. Scale doesn’t excite me. To have the regard and reputation of an Ikon or BMF would be fantastic. A sale is so far off to the side I can’t tell you.”

Cashflow and integrity means growth

It’s been “torture” but John Preston is just a few months away from being allowed to contemplate new business. After winning the consolidated Pfizer media account late last year, Preston pledged in his contract with Pfizer not to take on any new business until June.

“I don’t think there would be any chief executive of any media agency in Australia that would say no,” he says. “It’s been hard. We got calls and we had to say we’re not taking calls. Whether we would have won the business or not, we would have let go of around $20 million in opportunities in that six-month period. We didn’t actively solicit anything. That hurt but it was also critical to the business.”

Although Preston is not a fan of the red tape that comes with working for international agency networks, he does credit his stint as a founding partner with Whybin TBWA in the late 1990s and his later elevation to managing director of the Sydney office for the financial discipline he has deployed at Match since staring in 2003.

“I learned how to run a business there,” he says. “I guess I learnt on someone else’s money. A very good bit of advice I got from a colleague when I started up was to always maintain your cashflow and your integrity and everything else will look after itself. It’s proven to be very true.”

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2012 edition of AdNews.

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