Three years ago John Dawson had no idea what a media agency was. He was just about to graduate from the University of Sydney with a Bachelor of Arts degree, majoring in Spanish and politics, with little idea about what he wanted to do.
Fast forward to last month and Dawson is accepting the Grand Prix in this year's MFA awards. At 25, he's now a strategy executive at Mindshare and one of the most awarded young guns in Australia.
In those three years, Dawson has gone from being an intern writing an AdNews blog called Bottom's Up, offering a view of the industry from the bottom looking up, to being active on the NGEN scene, winning the MFA NGEN category twice (an event which saw him and partner in crime Mark Golafshan prove their youth by taking a selfie on stage when collecting their award).
Dawson has won Australian Cannes Young Lions and awards or recognition on shortlists at the Cristal Festival; Asia Marketing Effectiveness Awards; the Festival of Media Asia Pacific, and Global; and Spikes Asia.
Last month, he was also a finalist in the ADMA Young Marketer category at the AC&E awards. The MFA Grand Prix for the #laceitup campaign was the culmination of all that. Dawson and Golafshan turned their award-winning NGEN work into a functioning campaign – as a side project to their day jobs.
Even Dawson is a little unsure how this chain of events unfolded, but he puts it down to never knocking back an opportunity. “It's really odd,” he says.
“I've rarely said ‘no’ in the last three years and I’ve been able to learn from a whole bunch of really supportive people, from current Mindshare CEO Katie Rigg-Smith, to passing any work around with my peers at Mindshare to get feedback on it.
“Without that I wouldn't have progressed as much or been able to have that success. As much as it's been me, it's been the people at Mindshare pushing me to enter and better my work.” The first opportunity Dawson accepted wholeheartedly was an internship offer from GroupM's business development and marketing officer, Greg Graham (known to all as Sparrow), after meeting him at a media event sponsored by GroupM.
Dawson spent three months learning the ropes and after that took a full-time role at Mindshare starting in digital. “I started at Mindshare still with relatively no idea what a media agency did,” he admits and he’s humble about how much he still has to learn.
“Everyday I’m learning about things I have no idea about. It’s this continual process of learning about what I don’t know; I’m fortunate that the role I have at Mindshare helps me to keep finding those areas out."
So, what is the future of media agencies from the perspective of this young strategist just starting out but already making inroads? As he sees it, while paid budgets will continue to dwindle, it doesn't mean agencies can’t provide immense value for clients.
“One of the benefits of working for a media agency isthat you can enjoy a certain level of uncertainty on what the agency is going to look like in five to 10 years. In my three years at Mindshare, it has already changed immensely,” Dawson says.
“If I were to hazard a guess as to how the future is going to develop, media agencies are going to move into a more consulting role, not just across paid media but also around how brands optimise consumer experience, and owning more of that consumer journey,” he says.
“I definitely see media agencies stepping out of the proverbial shadows and owning more areas like content and innovation and really coming on board as trusted business partners for clients, with a point of view across affiliates, a brand’s own digital media and really having a strong business point of view on how to invest in media.”
For Dawson, his future is definitely within media agencies and definitely with Mindshare. Rigg-Smith is a big inspiration. "I definitely see the value of people like Katie who have really become leaders in their field and that’s what I want to strive to be like,” he says.
“As far as what my career plans look like, I’m going to change as the agency evolves. That means broadening my sources of inspiration and growing my commercial knowledge.”
The last year has seen a lot of discussion from the top tiers of agencies on topics such as media transparency, procurement and the future of agencies. Less has been reported about what the next generation thinks.
“All the conversation about transparency has been a surprise to me, Dawson says. “I say this because since my first day, everyone I’ve worked with has always instilled in me the absolute focus we must have in putting the needs of the client first.
"I’ve never seen anything that has made me stop and challenge what was happening on an ethics level. I think if more people spent time with people in media agencies they’d come to the same conclusion as I have: that everyone’s working to advance their client’s business.
“There’s a lot of noise around moving back to a full-service model. While I can understand the relevance of this set-up for some clients, I’m sceptical that we’ll see an industry-wide shift to bring media back into the big advertising agencies.
"Though clearly this conversation wouldn’t be happening if agencies were collaborating perfectly – so that’s something we all need to work on.”
Dawson also believes that agencies should continue to take on young people who may be in the dark about what they do, simply because as media continues to change, having a generation that has grown up with technology can only help a business, not hinder it.
“Consumers are more connected to media now than they ever have been and media plays a more pivotal role in how they interact, how they communicate, and how they learn - not just about brands but the world around them,” he says.
“Having people of my generation, their connection to media is just constant, through social networks, through news organisations, through technology companies. And, that’s what’s so exciting because understanding those connections has never been more exciting for clients.
"As much as I’m not necessarily right at the bottom any more, I’m still very much on the bottom rungs of the ladder".
For now perhaps, but probably not for long.
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