Chris Dobson

27th Feb 23

Chris Dobson high res 2

To say that Chris Dob­son has had quite an inter­est­ing career would be an under­state­ment akin to not­ing that some Pre­mier League Foot­ballers are quite well paid.

He has enjoyed senior roles with companies enormously well-known not only in the United Kingdom but at a worldwide level. Yet this was not a result of some carefully constructed scheme either at the start, in the middle, or now. It is proof, he asserts, that in many cases, the whole notion of “planning your career” is more fiction than fact!

He was born in Bath, but the family later moved to Plymouth where he lived from the age of 11 to 18. Like many young people in the South-West at that time, when he had the chance to move on he escaped the region (despite its charms) for Brighton and Sussex University and “never went back”.

He read Biology, basically because it was his best subject at school and not to become a scientist. In those days, degrees were in relatively short supply and companies would queue up to recruit talent irrespective of what had been studied. Chris’s great passion “then and now” was cars. So, when the chance to work for Jaguar Rover Triumph, a division of British Leyland, came along, he jumped at it and duly relocated to Coventry. He would not spend a lot of time there because in a few months he had been selected as one of four graduate trainees for Land Rover, a very sought-after position.

He was told that he would cut his teeth in the Middle East, starting at Abu Dhabi. Which was great, except for a couple of small details. He did not know where it was and he did not possess a passport. Those minor inconveniences sorted out, he spent a happy stretch covering the Gulf States and Dubai (both a fraction of the size that they are today) and sold specialist military vehicles to the Gulf’s Defense forces. This was fun and educational!

A lengthy sales trip to the region including Tahiti was “particularly memorable.” No mobile phones or email in those days so you were very much on your own!

It whetted his appetite for international corporate travel. When he returned to the West Midlands he took on responsibility for Asia-Pacific, particularly Australia, New Zealand, and all the far-flung islands in the Ocean around them. A lengthy sales trip to the region including Tahiti was “particularly memorable.” No mobile phones or e mail in those days so you were very much on your own!

It was not, though, the basis he sensed for a long-term career. He was 28 years old while most of his peers were much closer to 40. If he was to get ahead in life, he would need to do something else.

He changed tack. The opening was at Thames TV, the largest of what were then 13 ITV companies. They needed someone who understood the motor industry so that they could sell advertising to it. It meant a move to London but on an attractively larger salary. It was also still a booming sector as the cable and satellite television competition was not yet strong enough to mount a real challenge to it.

Chris sensed, nonetheless, that it soon would be. He was approached by Viacom who had recently launched MTV Europe and were scaling up to sell pan regional airtime and sponsorship. If cars had been the spot to be in the 1980s, rock music and cable were where to land in the 1990s.

That would not necessarily be true for the 21st century. An enticing Business Development vacancy emerged with Zenith Media. This would be a new and different platform for business development, marketing and above all else the pivotal skill that is sales.

Chris would have stayed longer (he was there less than two years) but then Microsoft came knocking on his door looking for EMEA Sales leadership for the MSN section of their emerging online empire. The perceived wisdom of the age was that you could not achieve much in display advertising without the context of content. Mere “data” of itself had little commercial utility, surely? Chris disagreed.

International revenues for the Messenger property ballooned from $10’s to $100’s millions in 3 short years leapfrogging the International markets at MSN to be larger than the US mother ship.

He placed his bets on MSN Messenger, in what it would transpire was a pioneering example of social media. The user demographic was almost identical to the audience for MTV so it did not take him long to discern how it would be possible to sell advertising without creating content around it. The results were spectacular. International revenues for the Messenger property ballooned from $10’s to $100’s millions in 3 short years leapfrogging the International markets at MSN to be larger than the US mother ship.

This was noticed. Chris received the Chairman’s Award from Bill Gates (and had dinner with him). He was elevated to VP Global Sales Microsoft Advertising, despite being a Brit based in London. He was, however, obliged to commute on an increasingly regular basis to Seattle and the company was bound to want him to settle there full-time. Not wishing to do this, he looked elsewhere.

A former colleague who had moved to BBC Worldwide reached out to him. The organisation was after a Head of Advertising Sales for everywhere outside of the UK for the developing multi-channel media market – a market to which the BBC brand and group of assets were well suited.

Chris formed a division entitled BBC Advertising. It took two years to secure approval (possibly because at BBC UK HQ the words “BBC and Advertising” had opposite magnetic poles!).

It was a fascinating experience, especially as he was operating across a multitude of disciplines. But he had been advised by a head-hunter to keep an eye on the clock in terms of his career. If he did not leave the BBC after five years, then the chances were that he would be there until retirement. On the stroke of five years, he was out. This would be (unknowingly) his shift to Chair/NXD terrain.

What Chair/NXD positions do you hold?

“At this moment, only one, I am Chair of RevLifter, which deploys sophisticated technology to convert personalized offers into sales for on-line retailers. It is backed by a couple of VCT investors.”

What prompted you to explore non-exec roles?

“It was not my intention to do it. I thought that I was far from done with full-time employment with a single company. I had no aspiration to move towards a portfolio career. Events changed all this.”

How did you get your first such role and what attracted you to the organisation?

A former colleague encouraged me to agree to assist a company called iPromote as an Adviser to the Board. They were a US business seeking to establish a footprint in Europe and an Exit path. They were also what I consider to be real technology, in that they never had more than 20 employees but would generate around $60 million+ in revenue as a genuine SaaS platform.” I stayed with iPromote all the way up to their successful acquisition

“Shortly afterwards, I was approached by the founders of The Exchange Lab, which was an innovative provider of technology in the Programmatic Advertising space, to be non-executive Chair. I was not especially attracted to that post (although the company was intriguing) and took it on the understanding that I would not have to be in place long. After five months I became the Executive Chair and some eighteen months after that, with an exit on the horizon, the CEO/Founders and I both came to the conclusion that we would secure the best return if I were to take over as the CEO.”

In non-exec roles what has been the most useful part of your prior management career?

“I have worked for a number of companies which consistently sought to achieve similar objectives. These include building the right team, focusing on maturing the P&L, expansion/product strategy and creating a truly sustainable competitive advantage. This personal experience means that I can see the road ahead for a young company – history tends to repeat itself.”

What makes a business appealing to you as a NXD or Chair?

“I like technology-based businesses which can bring real value as a result of their activities. I enjoy rapid growth environments. Managing decline or even stability at a high level is not enticing. I like collaborating with founders and assisting them turn their vision into something valuable. I am also interested in “what’s the next big thing?” which at RevLifter means e-commerce and retail media.”

What are the three biggest lessons that you have learnt from being an NXD/Chair?

“First, understand that you are moving from a role of control to one of advice and influence. This is a really big change. Second, you have to earn trust to secure credibility. Your CV does not do it alone. Finally, appreciate that you are serving two masters, the business itself and the investors (this is emphatically so in a private equity context). You have to be aware of what investors are looking for.”

What is the best experience that you have had as an NXD/Chair?

“The journey within The Exchange Lab which was unusual as I did the non-exec Chair, Exec Chair and CEO roles in an unconventional order. I helped steer what was a very successful exit to WPP and made a pleasing return for the investors and shareholders. After that, I could have dived back into corporate life. It was really at that point when I realised that I did not want to do that and that a more portfolio existence could be sufficiently stimulating and allow me to do other things (like my gaining a private pilot licence).”

What is the biggest problem that you have faced as an NXD/Chair and did you resolve it?

“People. More precisely what to do when it becomes evident that senior individuals with much to commend them are not right for the next stage in the development of a company. There will be difficult points when change has to happen. At that junction, you have become a disrupter in the business. You have to put yourself in the eye of the storm and show that you have been right.”

If you do not stand out from the pack because of what you do, then you will be drawn into a damaging price war. You need to choose your marketplaces carefully. Chasing after every theoretical opportunity may hurt you.”

What are the biggest challenges that boards will have to deal with over the medium-term?

“Right now, economic headwinds are the main concern, notably when dealing with finding private equity finance. The days when growth mattered far more than profits are behind us. You have to be on the right side of the evolution of your sector and as ahead of the curve as you can be. The need to concentrate on sustainable competitive advantage is even more compelling. If you do not stand out from the pack because of what you do, then you will be drawn into a damaging price war. You need to choose your marketplaces carefully. Chasing after every theoretical opportunity may hurt you.”

What advice would you give anyone starting out on a portfolio career?

“Start with a NXD while you are still in the day-job and be open about it. Your own company should support you as this is part of your career development (if they do not, that tells you something). Use your own networks (including former colleagues) pretty remorselessly. There is nothing like being recommended to others by those who have worked with you. Also, take the time to expand on that network by deliberately making more connections in the private equity world and with the boutique head-hunters who really have insight into that industry. Give back before you get back, by which I mean if asked for your advice on something by a new contact, respond fully and don’t invoice for it. It is much better to be appreciated and be on their radar. Always try to divine what investors want. Finally, for me personally but not others perhaps, I prefer a smaller number of deeper engagements with companies to a larger number of shallower one. That is why RevLifter is so satisfying for me.”