Watch out Adland: Silicon Valley wants your people, as well as your money

Rob Evans
By Rob Evans under Insights 09 May 2013

When I saw the news about Nicola Mendelsohn getting the top job at Facebook EMEA, what struck me most wasn’t the fact that she’s another ‘Super-mum’ who can boss it in business. It was that the UK’s beloved ‘Adland’ had lost an incredibly high-profile, high-value leader to the world of technology, and nobody seems to be going the other way.

Nicola Mendelsohn

Sure, this isn’t the first time a person from Adland has moved to a high-profile tech company (Google has snapped up legions of ex-advertising people). But Nicola Mendelsohn is the most high-profile mover and she is certainly the first to land the top job. For me, the move squarely brings into focus just how serious technology companies are about embracing, acquiring and learning new marketing skills to successfully grow their businesses.

This is entirely logical and sensible: technology companies, in order to monetise their products, need to understand how to get brands to pay for access to them. Who better to do that than Nicola Mendelshohn, with her deep industry insight, client long-list and golden touch? And Facebook is deadly serious about it. It is willing to let someone, with no technology experience, step in and run the whole thing, because it knows that she will know best. £934m in revenue, entrusted to what some might see as an ‘outsider’.

However, this open-mindedness seems to be on just one side of the fence, and sadly, the skills and knowledge migration seems to be just one way. How many Adland chiefs have acknowledged that they really don’t have a clue when it comes to technology and have reached out to a genuine technology person to run their business? I can’t think of any at market, agency or holding company level. And this seems a lot less logical. Just as technology needs to get advertising, advertising needs to get technology, and lightening fast.

From my personal experience of working on both sides of the fence, it’s not that the tech types won’t understand the intricacies of advertising even if Adland would love to think so. (And what they don’t understand will probably make them stronger anyway). And it’s unlikely to be the money: advertising still makes plenty of it and can still write super-sized cheques when it needs to. So my hypothesis is a little more depressing:

Nobody in Adland has the courage to admit that they really don’t get it, that the old model needs outside help to evolve and fix, and to empower someone from a world they don’t understand to run their businesses. And I think that’s going to cost advertising dearly. (Oh, and an army of creative technologists or innovation heads does not count. They aren’t deeply experienced technology people, and they’re not running the place).

Selfishly, from The App Business’ perspective, long may this continue. We’ve always believed that the ability to combine an understanding of brands and businesses with deep in-house technical expertise is something clients would find increasingly valuable. That’s why over half of the company are software engineers who can actually build products and sweat code.

For Adland’s sake, someone out there has to sum up the courage to make a proper counter-raid on Silicon Valley or Silicon Roundabout. Put the technology experts at the top of their advertising business and watch what good happens. I’d be amazed if it didn’t create incredible value and steal a march on the competition.