ECI podcast ‘Building Successful Businesses’ with Don Scales, Global CEO, Investis Digital

We’re excited to launch the third episode of ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses,” in which we speak to CEOs about the building blocks of success and the lessons they’ve learned along the way.

In Episode 3 we chat to Don Scales, Global CEO of Investis Digital, about what he learned from working at the dog tracks as a teenager, the importance of consistency in leadership and his thoughts on why acquisitions sometimes fail. 

Since the recording of this episode we were deeply saddened to discover that Don Scales passed away in September 2021. As you can hear in our chat, Don was a man filled with kindness and good humour, and he will be sorely missed by all who knew him at ECI.  

Listen to Episode 3: 

Also available on Apple Podcasts: 

Listen to Episode 2: 

Transcript:

Fiona: Welcome to ECI’s podcast, “Building Successful Businesses,” where we speak to CEOs about the building blocks of their success and the lessons they’ve learned on the way. Today, I’m delighted to welcome Don Scales, CEO of Investis Digital and co-author of the book, “How to Lead a Values-Based Professional Services Firm.” Welcome.

Don: Thank you. 

Fiona: Where are you today? Are you in New York? 

Don: I’m in New York today, yes, at least for the last few weeks, I’ve been here. It’s just a pretty empty street. So, it’s just me, pretty much me these days.

Fiona: Is that quite nice, being able to walk the city when it’s empty?

Don: Depends on who you run into on the streets. Sometimes, it can be nice, but you gotta kind of watch your back a little bit..! 

Fiona: So, tell me a little bit about what Investis Digital does. Obviously it’s become a global powerhouse in digital communications and marketing over the last 20 years. How has it done that and what does it do to win such prestigious clients?

Don: Well, we started out, as you probably know, in the investor relations business and then over time, we migrated to corporate comms. But about five years ago, we took a look at where we were and what our strategy was. And we came to conclusion that we’re really in the content game more than anything else. So, by taking a look at how we were delivering engaging content to our clients, we actually went out and made some investments into performance marketing. The ideas is if you’re going to develop content for your clients and you’re going to deliver it through these channels that you’re building for your clients, you might as well optimize this content and make sure it’s going to be found by the people who you want to find it.

We invested, three years ago, in some performance marketing assets. And ever since then, we’ve been going to market with this whole concept that we call Connected Content. It is really a very unique set of skills that I think we bring, because we bring all the stuff that’s necessary to be a digital communication partner to our clients. But now, we’re bringing it across these performance marketing capabilities as well. You put all this together and it’s a very unique opportunity in the marketplace.

Fiona:  Was that something that you were having to sell into your clients or were they already looking for? 

Don: I think we were a little bit ahead of our clients. I think some of them were thinking about it, but maybe didn’t have an idea of how they were going to do it, or thought they were going to have to go to multiple partners. And so, when we came to the party, it was kind of a unique idea. And that’s why I think people gave us the chance.

We’ve been in business 20-plus years and we have over 2000 clients. You don’t keep those clients over a long period of time unless they really trust you. And that’s really where our heritage in investor relations comes in because, you know, we take care of a lot of proprietary data. We do it in a confidential way and we make sure that it’s delivered exactly when it needs to be delivered. So, we have to come through with our clients and they trust us over time. I was kinda surprised by how many people weren’t doing some of this. I thought maybe they had other agencies doing this, but we found that, on many cases, they weren’t doing it at all. It was sort of a virgin area for us. 

Fiona: During 2020, have you found those needs have actually scaled up or have people become more reticent to progress their marketing? 

Don: We’ve actually come through the crisis very well. I’m going to say we’re a very resilient firm. The need for performance marketing capability and being able to reach out to clients has actually gone up, if you will, in some cases, because people have to be more digital and online. In some cases, clients stopped and had to readjust and figure out what we were looking at and how it was going to impact their business. So, we had clients that were pausing, just to see where they should be, and trying to figure out where they should go with this. But then over time, they started coming back in. So now, we’ve actually picked up right where we left off pre-COVID and I think we’re going to have a solid end of the year, and I think we’re going to have a very good next year as well.

Fiona: I often think as well, when people paused, it’s fine to do a short pause, but when you are at that April/May point, you began to realize that pause could go on for quite a while and you do end up having just to crack on with it.

Don: In our case, we had some of some very unusual wins during that time. We sold the largest IR site that we’ve ever sold as a company. We’ve sold the biggest project we ever sold. It was a Connected Content client so it packaged up all those services that we were talking about. We had some really, really noteworthy wins during that time. It’s really good, I won’t say it’s been a good time, but we’ve survived it and we survived it fairly well.

Fiona: I’ve got lots of questions about your career, but one of the ones I always like to start with is where it all began. What was your first job and what did you learn from it?

Don: So, I grew up in a small town in Northwest Florida called Pensacola. And I worked in a dog track. I don’t know if you have dog tracks in the UK, I assume you probably do? 

Fiona: Greyhounds, right? 

Don: Yeah, it’s greyhounds, where you race dogs. My job was actually to lead the dogs. I guess that’s where I got my love for dogs. I spent so much time with them as I would walk them around the track. And I think what I learned from that whole first job was that it was a team. We had like eight dogs per race, and we had a team that had to walk them out, and we had other guys who had to man all the other equipment. And so, it was a team. And if you didn’t show up for work, or if you were just goofing off, you’re letting the team down, and it showed. We had to be very efficient about how quickly we got the races off. I think I learned how to work as a team, and how to have some fun at the same time.

And the other thing that was really noteworthy is you figure out you’re not the star of the show. It’s the dog that was the star of the show. We were just the supporting cast. So, you really learn that you’re not necessarily the center of attention.

Fiona: What was the transition, given that it’s not necessarily a natural one from dog racing to marketing? 

Don: Oh, wow. It’s not a straight line by any stretch of imagination. So that was in high school. I actually went to college. My major was in chemical engineering. So, I always get this question: What qualifications do you have to run a digital marketing company? And I say, I have excellent qualifications. I’m a chemical engineer. It makes no sense whatsoever. But I do think the engineering really gave you a sense of discipline, an understanding of how to look at different things, different technologies, and break it down into parts and figure out how it all works together. And I think, in some ways, that holds true in this business.

I will say that I really got turned on to this business around the year 2000, when I worked for agency.com. It was really the first time in my career where I saw technology come together with everyday life and saw it really manifest itself. Here we were building these great websites and implementing technology. And yet, you know, nobody really knew what you were doing. It was a fascinating time and it sort of got into my blood. I’ve been doing it ever since.

Fiona: It’s always, I think, quite an interesting part about the marketing role is there’s almost two sides of the brain that need to be engaged. One is the more creative side, thinking about how you might want to communicate, what might a unique position be. But then there’s also, especially now, so many technological and analytical capabilities that you need as well. So it sounds like that chemical engineering is actually quite unique – and useful – in the world of marketing.

Don: I still lean on my colleagues here, because I have a really great chief digital officer who knows the technologies through and through. I know a little bit about a lot of technologies. He knows a lot about them. If I have a question, he can bring it down to Earth and explain it to me. And then I have a lot of interests on the marketing side of things, and I have a good chief marketing officer and she helps me out, so I get shown the ropes over there. So actually, I enjoy what I do because I get to see it across the whole spectrum.

Fiona: It’s back to the dog racing days. You need to lean on the whole team.

Don: Exactly. That’s exactly right.

Fiona: You’re now a member of the Forbes Council, so a real thought leader in the world of marketing. Was there anyone, as you were going through your career, who stands out as giving you very valuable advice or insight?

Don: I actually give my mother most of the credit because it’s not so much the business lessons that she taught me, it was more the lessons of life. So my mother used to have a saying, no matter what you do, whether you’re in a tournament or you’re in school or whatever the challenge is, that somebody is going to come out on top and she doesn’t see any reason it can’t be you. She used to tell me that all the time. And to this day I sit here and I can’t believe how motivating that was to me in almost everything I did. I’m not the smartest guy in the world, but I work a lot more than most people. And I think that came from her as well, because you can make up a lot of ground if you’re willing to put in the time and the effort to do so.

Fiona: I think there’s also a lot to that, in terms of having someone behind you who thinks you can do anything because my mum was the same, I mean, to – I would say – a ridiculous degree because I remember a job came up for something like the BBC Director General, and she went, “You should apply for that. They’d like it.” At that point I was like, “No, I think that’s too far.” But it’s really nice having that person behind you who believes you can do absolutely anything.

Don: I used to bowl a lot when I was a kid, and my dad and myself were in a father-son bowling tournament, and we won. My dad was more proud of that than I was, I think, so he had to go running in the house, holding up our trophy. “We won, we won.” And my mother, her response was, “I knew you guys were going to win.”

Fiona: You recently published your first book, “How to Lead a Values-Based Professional Services Firm,” where you talk about the importance of purpose over products. That feels that something that really resonates in the current climate.  Do you think brands are getting it right? 

Don: I think they’re getting closer. I mean, I think it’s a wide spectrum. I think some brands are probably maybe going over the line even too far. I grew up in a period where it was really only the bottom line that mattered. So, nobody really cared. The only thing you ever saw about values was what was put up on conference room wall and nobody ever talked about them.

And now, I like the way things have moved where you have even the younger staff asking you what you stand for and what we’re going to do as a company, all these great things. You know, I take pride in what we’ve done here. But at the same time, I don’t want to lose what my original values were in that we’re there to make money. We’re there to be a business. We have shareholders, for example we work with ECI and we have to make sure they stay happy! You can’t forget about that stuff. And sometimes, I think, some companies probably err on the side of maybe going a little overboard with it these days. But then, I think people are getting it right. They really are understanding more and more about what their values are and what they stand for.

Fiona: You mentioned that Investis had acquired businesses. How do the values translate when you’ve got two separate businesses coming together?

Don: See, now, you’re hitting a topic right to my heart because… the second book is called “The M&A Solution” and it’s a values-based approach to acquisitions. 

First of all, you have to start with your own set of values and understand what those are. And then my premise is, if you go look at the companies you’re looking to acquire and you take the time to look at what the value set over there might be – and you can do that through interviews, literature searches, whatever – but, if you take the time to understand their values, and then you map the two in a way that looks for overlapping compatibility, you stand a higher chance of success later on after the acquisition is complete. That’s my premise.

There’s quite a lot in the book about this because I actually think there’s a lot to it. If you look at when you do acquisitions and you look at the diligence checklist everybody has, you have to go look at legal, you have to look at this, you have to look at that. Nobody ever says you need to go look at your values, nobody. But yet, when something fails, when an acquisition fails, the first thing they point to was, ‘well, the cultures didn’t mesh.’ ‘Our values didn’t align.’ Well, why didn’t you ask that question before you did the acquisition?

Fiona: So, is that a lesson you’ve learnt in practice?

Don: Oh, my God, yes. My entire career has been in professional services, and they are notorious for having bad acquisitions because, at the end of the day, the assets that you’re looking at walk out of the building every night. You have to protect those assets, and if they’re not happy, they leave. So more often than not, acquisitions fail in professional services. And I’ve been a part of some real doozies

Before this company, I was at iCrossing, and we got bought by Hearst. They’ve had trouble from day one, because very clearly, their values didn’t align. Years and years ago, EDS bought A.T. Kearney, which is a management consulting firm. That marriage was not made in heaven. It varies so much and there’s so many stories that comes out of that. I think it boils down to the same thing. It’s just not understanding what the other side is all about.

Fiona: Would you say that’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned during your career?

Don: I think the hardest lesson I’ve had to deal with is that you put in your blood, sweat, and tears into building a company up, like Investis, or in my case prior to this, iCrossing. You exit and you sell it, especially if you sell it to a strategic, and at the end of the day, you may think that company’s yours because you built it, but they paid the money for it and they’re going to dictate what happens. And in many cases, they don’t necessarily have the right idea. They don’t really understand the company, how it ticks. And so, they start making bad decisions. And you can object till you’re blue in the face, but it’s their company to run, and that’s the hardest thing in the world, to watch it, to just watch the company deteriorate before your eyes, because the buyer is making a number of bad decisions. And that’s really difficult.

FionaHow do you cope with that?

Don: Again, I think you have to spend more time upfront before you actually sell the company or buy the company, whichever side of the transaction you’re on. You have to spend more time to understand what they’re all about, what makes them tick. I think there’s a certain amount of understanding that the people that you’re acquiring, they did something right to get to that point in time. They accomplished a lot in their own right. Just because you’re buying them doesn’t mean you can discount that success and you shouldn’t just discount them and make these people feel like they’re second-class citizens because you bought them. If you actually treat them with the same amount of respect as you would demand and you acknowledge their success and you give them the running around to go out and continue to do that, then you stand a good chance of more success in the future.

But if you just say, “Well, it’s my company, we’re going to do it my way, and I’m smarter than you,” then clearly, you’re going to have trouble down the line. And I think too often, you see that in acquisitions.

Fiona: What do you think the scale of your success has taught you about yourself as a person?

Don: I think it’s one of the leadership characteristics I’m very proud of, which is consistency. You have to be the same leader every day, whether it’s a good day or a bad day, whether you sell the biggest contract in your history, or you just lost the biggest client. Either way, you need to be the same kind of person. If you come in every day and you’re wearing your feelings on your sleeve, and you spout off to somebody, and then the next day you’re all nice, people aren’t going to know how to approach you. If they know you as a person and they can come in and talk to you and you talk to them same way, and they trust you to go do what you need to do, I believe that’s really how you build these things. And you get people that have the same kind of motivations you do. Investis has built something fantastic and it’s all because we’ve got a great team. And that’s what we’ve done from day one. And when we exit, we’ll keep going. I’m looking forward to the next phase of this journey.

Fiona: I completely agree. I think consistency is often underrated as a quality. You really feel it when someone is inconsistent and one day, they’ll behave in a certain way or react in a certain way, and you never quite know where you sit. And so actually being consistent, and especially when you’re in a leadership role, I think, is super important. So last question from me. What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are at the start of the journey now?

Don: I’ve had the opportunity to take over for a couple of different founders, but I think the one that I really relate to is the guy who started iCrossing. He’s truly a visionary and he was very strategic in nature. The execution side of that wasn’t his strong suit. And so, the credit I gave him was he decided that he needed somebody like me to come in and help him execute on his vision. And I think that’s a valuable lesson for entrepreneurs, that you can be incredibly smart, but it’s very rare that you’re so smart and you have all the managerial skills that you can carry a company from its infancy all the way through to wherever the exit or IPO or whatever. I mean, the Bill Gates of the world or the Zuckerbergs, those are rarities because at every stage of maturity in a company’s life, there’s a certain set of skills that the CEO needs to have in order to, navigate that period of time. In summary, I think it’s just understand who you are and what your skill sets are, and don’t be afraid to go get somebody to help you out.

Fiona: Thanks, Don. That is super helpful. And it’s really interesting, I think, to hear about how purpose-driven culture is changing and how it’s working at Investis.

Don: My pleasure. Thank you.

About the author

Fiona Moore

"I lead marketing activity across ECI and you may recognise me as the host of ECI’s podcast, Building Successful Businesses. I also sit on ECI's ESG Committee, progressing ESG initiatives for ECI and its portfolio. I’ve worked in marketing since 2012, including a number of years working within private equity."

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