David Jones is pretty pleased with himself – and you can see why.
The 45-year-old adman who advised David Cameron on his election campaign claims to be the “youngest global chief executive in the history of advertising” after he ascended to the top of the agency Havas last year.
He is also is a “leader” of Kofi Annan’s tck tck tck campaign, which raises awareness of climate change; has played top-level rugby in France; and was good enough at tennis during his student years to have been matched against Michael Chang, just before the American won the French Open as a teenager in 1989. In what constitutes a rare setback in Jones’s life, Chang hammered him.
Now Jones is plugging his latest project, a book on corporate social responsibility (CSR) called Who Cares Wins: Why Good Business Is Better Business. It does exactly what it says on the tin, arguing that the worlds of social responsibility and social media have become fused and that there is a commercial benefit for companies that behave themselves.
“Social media has taken CSR from a silo to putting it in the profit and loss account,” he says in a tidily prepared soundbite. “The price of doing well is doing good.”
To illustrate this point, the book identifies an “age of image”, from 1990 to 2000, that was focused on altering the reputation of a business in a consumer’s mind, rather than genuinely changing how it did things; an “age of advantage”, from 2000 to 2010, when a few companies realised they could gain an edge by delivering on promises made; and an “age of damage”, from 2010 onwards, when businesses that are not socially responsible will suffer as a result.
“If I had to pick one word to use as the guideline for running a business in this new era, it would be ‘transparency’,” Jones writes in his book. “And the research among business leaders, where 67% believe that business success is based in corporate transparency, supports this.”
All well and good, but there are obvious traps. For starters a charity that Jones co-founded, One Young World, was embarrassed last year when it was signed as the first client of Andy Coulson’s PR agency, Elbrus Consultants, albeit only briefly until the former News of the World editor was arrested as the phone hacking saga unravelled.
Meanwhile, one of Havas’s biggest clients is Reckitt Benckiser, the household goods group that was sued in 2011 for £90m by the health secretary, Andrew Lansley, for allegedly devising a secret plan to extract more cash from the NHS. It is also the company whose former chief executive, Bart Becht, famously took home more then £90m in cash and shares in one year.
Which brings us on to the thorny subject of executive pay. “If you have the ability to create 100,000 jobs then you deserve to be well paid for that,” says Jones before becoming noticeably uncomfortable when asked the obvious question about his own earnings. First he says that he takes the same £650,000 salary as he did before being promoted to chief executive, but then he dodges what other aspects might make up his package, mentioning an available bonus of 50% of salary, only to backtrack by claiming that the top-up is still “currently in discussion” with Havas’s chairman and major shareholder, Vincent Bolloré. He then demonstrates a curious form of transparency by making a request for that particular detail not to be revealed. Still, he’s quickly back with a polished pitch.
“We are coming to an end of an era when it is too easy to make money without necessarily creating value. Banking people were incentivised to take massive risk with no downside,” adds the adman, whose company also works for Barclays.
And here lies the problem. Jones may have a point about “why good business is better business” but, as an image man, is he really the person to be making it? It is tempting to view anything he says in the cynical manner of the late US comedian Bill Hicks, whose hatred of advertising and marketing people led to a routine in which he asked any of his audience who worked in the sector to commit suicide.
“I know what all the marketing people are thinking right now,” continued Hicks after delivering his shocking request. “‘You know what Bill’s doing? He’s going for that anti-marketing dollar. That’s a good market. He’s very smart.’”
Certainly, by portraying himself as the expert on responsible business, while writing a book on the inevitable growth of CSR, Jones is presenting a great advert for Havas which effectively says: this is an unstoppable business trend; we are the experts, so spend your money with us.
“I will get a huge amount of flak,” he admits. “People will say: cynical image men, the ad guys, created all this. Who’s this guy to tell us how to behave?”
The answer is that he is an industry wunderkind who landed the top job at Havas’s ad agency Euro RSCG Worldwide at just 38. He has advised many of the world’s best-known brands, from Unilever and Air France to Kraft Foods and L’Oréal, and in 2006 was at the helm in New York when Havas’s largest unit landed the global Reckitt account, which brought in billings of more than $1.3bn a year. In March last year, he was rewarded with the top job at the holding company, one of half a dozen global marketing services groups, although it lags the likes of WPP or Publicis in size.
It is a career that has exposed him to many influential contacts, such as the musician and activist Bob Geldof, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the online publisher Arianna Huffington, all of whom plug the book. As does the British prime minister, so what would his advice be to Cameron now?
“I’m not telling you!” Jones fires back. “It is an interesting time to be a leader. People don’t like being governed. For the first time in history technology doesn’t help world leaders, it undermines them.”
Quite. And perfectly on-message.
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