The night prior to my meeting with Johnny Hornby, The&Partnership – the group of agencies of which he is chief executive and co-founder – had its annual Who’s Who of London media.
In a loose green polo at his dimly-lit office on Charlotte Street, Hornby chuckles the question: “Do I look hungover?” before slumping into a leather settee.
He doesn’t look hungover. In fact, he’s rather chirpy. But given the year The&Partnership has had, perhaps he should be.
It’s fair to say 2017 has been rough for Adland. At a macro level, UK advertising spend has suffered at the hands of Brexit uncertainty and a plunging pound, topped by the misplaced ads scandal and a two-pronged attack from Facebook and Google’s duopoly. But The&Partnership group of companies is bucking the trend, thriving.
“What would have previously been barriers to entry for a smaller challenger has become a huge advantage,” says Hornby. “And a lot of the things that our competitors have that used to be advantages – loads of buildings in every city – are now hindering them.”
Born from the needs of a thrifty RBS during the financial crisis, The&Partnership’s new model defies the siloed, fragmented, hotchpotch approach Hornby insists is holding his competitors back. With a full-service of skills at his disposal – from media buying to traditional advertising, digital or analytics – smaller teams are formed, such as “&Toyota”, which often sit inside clients’ offices, working alongside the client, with a single bottom line.
“We did it out of… desperation is too strong a word, necessity perhaps. It was a radically different scenario where we had to think outside the box. That sort of situation is the mother of invention. And when we did it, we thought, this might not work – it was a bit of a gamble, I have to say.”
The gamble has certainly paid off, especially so this year. Since June 2016, Brexit has been the word rolling off tongues in boardrooms up and down the country. And while no cheerleader for the UK’s vote to Leave the European Union (“the most ridiculous, terrible decision that seems to me to get worse every day”), the fallout has been good for business.
“It’s not an environment I wanted for the country, but because of it, I think it creates a lot of people having to look for solutions different to the status quo, and that’s useful for us. If you have a new model, which we do, that we think has huge benefits in efficiency, modernity, use of data and digital, we can make people savings – not by dropping their trousers – but by doing it differently and better.”
It’s a model which he thinks others, including WPP, which owns 49 per cent of The&Partnership should consider. Martin Sorrell’s group has lost a third of its share price this year, leading a few to question his future. Hornby has been touted as a potential successor to Sorrell, a suggestion he deflects with a wry smile.
“Think of it like this. Alex Ferguson very rarely lost a game, but as soon he wasn’t beating everyone 5-0, suddenly everyone suggested it was all going horribly wrong.
“There are few people in the world who have done extraordinary things in business – you’d put Rupert Murdoch and Martin Sorrell at the top of the list, wouldn’t you? I wouldn’t underestimate his ability to deal with it, but he and the other holding companies have a big challenge now.”
Declining ad revenues are often seen as a precursor to financial crises, as firms try to free up capital to stay afloat. But Hornby, well-versed in adverse market conditions, doesn’t yet think we’re in trouble, despite his Brexit concerns. Even so, if the worst happens, it’s an opportunity for firms that take a risk. Those who continue to advertise through a downturn will thrive.
When everyone shits themselves and says we might shut up shop, that’s an amazing time to really push your message
“People probably aren’t going to buy it when it comes from my industry because we have a vested interest, but it’s utterly proven. The smartest time to invest is when no one else is. Because then your share of voice is huge. When everyone shits themselves and says we might shut up shop, that’s an amazing time to really push your message.”
One message Hornby has been pushing this year was in response to the misplaced ads scandal, in which ads placed on YouTube were inadvertently appearing on questionable content, and funding questionable groups.
He was one of the first to go on national television and call for a YouTube boycott. But does it still stand?
“At the time I felt we had a duty of care in our role as a media agency to create the right communications for our clients, and put it in the right environment. If I put a poster up in the traditional world, and somebody called me up and said there’s swastikas graffitied all over the side of the poster site, I would very quickly ask for it to be pulled down, or ask for the contractor to respray it by the afternoon. We can’t treat digital differently.”
Since calling for a boycott though, he’s been impressed with the response from the platform. Independent third party verification, broadening definitions of inappropriate content, and offering better controls over placement have brought him back on board. There’s always more that can be done, though.
“I understand the scale of the challenge they’ve got. But I have to say, if you want to take advertising money, you have to find brand safe environments. Rather than enabling the software to put advertising everywhere and finding the bad stuff retrospectively, I think you need to come at it the other way round and only offer a brand safe environment in the first place.”
Having seen changes at Google (and to a lesser extent Facebook), Hornby has a new gripe. Stop Funding Hate, a group of Twitter trolls which, through virulent waves of seething tweets, pressures advertisers, most recently Paperchase, to cut ties with newspapers it disagrees with, is on his hit list.
The Mail doesn’t sit well with my personal politics, but I’m a big fan of us having a free, open media that’s regulated in the way that it is
“It utterly winds me up. The Mail doesn’t sit well with my personal politics, but I’m a big fan of us having a free, open media that’s regulated in the way that it is. Especially when we have a free press that is so challenged to make ends meet, where quality journalists are losing their jobs and the gap is being filled by people making up crap and distributing it on the internet. We absolutely need to stand up for our free press.”
On the subject of idiots on the internet, I ask whether Hornby, who was instrumental in New Labour’s advertising campaigns (it was he who put Thatcher’s hair on William Hague’s head for an ad) is a fan of Jeremy Corbyn? “Ooh Jeremy Corbyn,” he replies, laughing, I think, at the absurdity of my question.
“God no, it’s a tragedy.”