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Tim Dyson



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“Venture capitalists put talent ahead of strategy every time.”


This is an interview with Tim Dyson, CEO of communications and marketing group Next15. Tim joined Next15 in 1984 straight from Loughborough University and became its global CEO in 1992. Tim has been named an Emerging Power Player by PR Week US. In 2013, Tim was recognised on the Holmes Report’s In2’s Innovator 25, which recognises individuals who have contributed ideas that set the bar for the industry. In this interview Tim discusses what HR can learn from venture capitalists on talent management and why creativity shouldn’t be overvalued nowadays.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: You have a theory around learning from VCs to get better talent. Can you outline the theory please?

Tim Dyson: VCs put talent ahead of strategy every time. They essentially trust talent to figure out the right way forward, to create the right solution and build the right products. They take the concept of empowerment and put it on steroids, and create as little friction as possible within the business when it comes to getting things done. VCs remove almost every vestige of hierarchy and focus on getting the tools employees need to build and grow the business in the hands of the right people.  

They [venture capitalists] essentially trust talent to figure out the right way forward, to create the right solution and build the right products.

In our business that means no grand corner offices and it means making the job fit the person, rather than the other way around. It also means access to the data that matters and the freedom to think. Ironically this doesn’t mean putting all the focus on keeping a client ‘happy’. Instead, the focus needs be on doing work that matters and will greatly impact a client’s business.

This is what keeps clients happy. It allows people to spend far less time being a butler and far more time being consultants.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: I’ve read recently a CEO saying that creativity is a requirement of employees nowadays rather than something that typically takes place in the discretionary effort realm. Do you agree?

Tim Dyson: Creativity isn’t everything anymore. Don’t get me wrong, it has enormous value, but so does the ability to interpret complex data or to find new ways of using technology to solve a marketing problem. That said, we do expect everyone to ideate and innovate regardless of their role. While we still have creative directors, their roles are no longer the sole source of creative thought for clients.  

In our experience, the best ideas come from the coalface where they are very often already client tested. Our job as a management team is then to find the right people and develop their ideas, rather than develop ideas first, for which we then have to find the right people.

From my perspective on the West Coast of the US, and with a background in technology, I have seen how this works at close quarters. Some of the more successful VC groups concentrate on a single industry in a state of flux with opportunities for growth.

They back people with ideas and then build a portfolio of investments at various stages of development. If those investments can learn and do business with each other, perhaps with common customers, then so much the better. This is our model applied to marketing services.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: You’re on the board of a number of tech companies. Are boards talking about talent in commercial terms or has the talent agenda not really permeated the boardroom yet?

Tim Dyson: Boards talk about talent at every meeting. The focus is on retaining great people and attracting more great talent. In technology you are only as good as your last piece of code, so if you lose talent you know someone will overtake you. It’s no different to any other business in that regard. It’s just more intense in tech companies because the stakes are so high. 

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: What do you see talent attraction and retention looking like in 2020?

Tim Dyson: I don’t see the fundamentals changing, such as focusing on putting people in roles that take advantage of their skills, giving them the resources they need etc. However, I do think that recruiting people will be very, very different largely thanks to technology. We will be able to track talent much more easily and have greater transparency on people’s achievements and capabilities.  

This has the potential to be quite scary, like anything that involves technology, but it also has the opportunity to deliver careers that we can’t even imagine today. It could unlock skills we find hard to identify today, radically improve the way we teach people new methods of doing things, and it could deliver even greater productivity and innovation.

Frankly I’ve never seen a place fail that has the right people with access to the right resources.

Again, it will be down to how we use the technology.  I’m sure there will be people who say that technology is going to destroy creativity and therefore make careers less interesting when it comes to sectors such as ours. I’d argue that will only be the case if we choose to apply technology in a certain way. If we get it right, the next decade could be the most exciting era ever for marketing services.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Is it true that innovation and disruption must now be part of an organisation’s DNA if they want to survive in the long-term and avoid being made irrelevant by a tech disruptor?

Tim Dyson: I believe so, yes. Until recently, the prevailing wisdom was that bigger clients want to do business with increasingly bigger agency brands. One model for growth therefore was to attract bigger and bigger clients by building scale through debt-fuelled consolidation. It turns out clients are a bit smarter than that, especially when we factor in new digital techniques. This is absolutely the case for new disruptive brands that are not troubled by prior experience of ‘what worked’ in the past and need to make their marketing spend work harder now.

Jamie Lawrence, Editor, HRZone: Where do most CEOs go wrong when it comes to understanding the talent agenda and the best ways nowadays to recruit and retain key people?

Tim Dyson: The biggest mistake I’ve made is to put the business problem or opportunity before the people. Leaders often look at a problem and then try and find a person to fix it.  That is logical and makes complete sense. However, it often ends up with a square peg in a round hole. What you have to do is start by finding great talent and then empower them to solve challenges and tackle opportunities. Great people very often reinterpret problems and opportunities in ways you’d never imagine. 

The biggest mistake I’ve made is to put the business problem or opportunity before the people.

We live in an age where leaders have the tools, thanks to technology, to empower people in ways that would have been impossible to imagine a decade ago. We have to be willing to let go and trust that if we focus on getting the right people in the organisation, then great things will happen.

Frankly I’ve never seen a place fail that has the right people with access to the right resources. It’s when we clutter up organisations with mediocre talent and restrict their access to resources that things go badly wrong.

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