With plans to file for an IPO on the horizon and new offices tipped to sprout up in Mexico and Dubai, what better time to catch up with the man at the helm of Adknowledge, Ben Legg.
While it’s one thing aiming to be a CEO of a global company, it is another getting there. This article takes a behind-the-scenes look at one of the many varied routes some take to get where they want to be in the thriving performance marketing world.
One glance at British-born Legg’s LinkedIn page and it is clear he is a man of many trades. As if ex-Google and ex-Coca-Cola don’t have a pleasing enough ring to one’s CV, he is also ex-McKinsey & Company and spent a decade as an officer in the British Army.
So how do you go from designing bomb-proof structures in Bosnia to heading up a Kansas City (Missouri) founded global digital advertising company with a database of 600 million people?
Despite it being a ‘long story’ according to Legg - who took a whopping 165 flights in 2013, he said each of his varied, and somewhat globally sprawling roles over the years, actually put him in the best possible position to take what was once ‘a ‘scrappy startup’ and turn it into a successful business model.
A ‘non-traditional’ past
Fresh from his A-levels, Legg went straight to The Royal Military Academy Sandhurst. As a Royal Engineers Officer, he went on to lead various military engineering organisations in Germany, Canada, Cyprus, Northern Ireland, Poland and Bosnia - and even led the military engineering organisation that relieved the Siege of Sarajevo in 1995.
However, in-between designing and building various military, civilian and bomb-proof structures and clearing mines, Legg said he became fed up.
“I was studying in my tank at nights and I was bored,” Legg said.
“I just realised that it was not enough for me and wasn’t what I wanted to do.”
In 1999, after more than 10 years in the army, he joined American global management consulting firm McKinsey & Company, as a strategy consultant at its London HQ.
“It worked out well as McKinsey were looking for more ‘non traditional hires’ and were poaching people from the army,” Legg said.
After getting his MBA, Legg soon realised he ‘didn’t want to be a consultant forever’ and was keen to move into a role with profit and loss responsibility.
After turning down a job at the MI6 he was wooed by Coca-Cola and across five years he took up three roles. First up he was director of training and development in Greece, it was then on to a commercial director position in Poland, before leading 12,000 sales people in an India-based role at Hindustan Coca-Cola Beverages.
The Google package
With such an array of roles under his belt it was not long before Legg was headhunted by Google, where he spent the next three years.
“Because of my previous roles I could write strategies, I had the engineer speak, had the sales experience and being ex-army was good as they wanted someone to kick some butt,” Legg begins.
“My diverse background at last started to kick in, in a good way, which was great. I had so many ideas, but Google wasn’t keen to move in the same way.
“Google told me ‘no’ a few too many times, so I started to get frustrated and I soon realised I was probably too commercial for Google.”
From Google, Legg then headed to Amsterdam for a job with European Directories, where he led the transformation of eight Yellow Pages print companies around Europe - into a multimedia local advertising group.
“I probably joined with too much confidence,” Legg admitted.
“Print was declining by about 15%, not the 5 or 6% I had thought, and investors were in panic mode due to a combination of print decline and debt.”
Business needed help
After two years in the Netherlands, Adknowledge called Legg and offered him a job at its Kansas City base.
“I said no at first as it just didn’t appeal to me and I had my doubts about being based in Kansas too. They called back and said to come out with my wife, all expenses’ paid, and if Kansas wasn’t for me then we could live in New York,” Legg begins.
“I’m a sleeves up guy and with more than half of the employees based in Kansas I thought I have to be based here if I do this.
“I could see it was a fantastic team, had great technology and culture, but it needed help. It was good at writing algorithms and working with publishers but it wasn’t good at working with advertisers.
“It was still a scrappy startup and I wanted to take it global. It had very little debt – which was a sharp contrast to many European businesses which were trying to survive and were paying back interest only.”
Adknowledge, which works with brands such as Walmart, Netflix and Heineken, as well as agencies and publishers, uses social media, email, display ads, mobile, apps, video and sponsored content. It allows advertisers to bid for traffic in websites, email and smaller search engines and in 2013 it acquired SocialWeekend Labs.
The company, which is one of Facebook's Strategic Preferred Marketing Developers, achieved 45% growth in 2013.
In terms of market comparisons, Legg said Europe is far more complex than the US due to its varying markets with different languages. He stressed the business deals with far bigger budgets in the US too, and the smaller EU budgets make it harder to make money.
Adknowledge offers North American offices in Toronto, New York, San Francisco, Chicago, and Fort Myers, and has offices and/or a sales presence in London, Paris, Munich, Shanghai, Australia and Brazil.
“While the US and UK are very similar in terms of being more developed, the rest of Europe is behind, but not too far,” Legg said.
He said Sweden the Netherlands and Germany follow the US and UK, and that having a big hub in London fully allows the company to manage other European countries.
Future plans, IPO & challenges ahead
Legg said the company, which has made a total of nine acquisitions, seven of which have been successful, said there are plans for another acquisition in the next few months.
While he was unable to reveal more detail on the new deal, he said a total of two acquisitions for 2014 was likely, but three would be the maximum amount for the year.
“Yes it is great that seven out of nine acquisitions have worked,” Legg begins.
“But I am not saying we are perfect. We have tried things which may not have worked, but it is about making sure there are far more things working than things that are broken,” Legg said.
“In terms of trends, I think 2012 was the year of social, 2013 the year of mobile and I think 2014 is the year of video.”
Legg, who said the social gaming sector is the most sophisticated and developed, said it is the brands which have got a lot of catching up to do in terms of learning about the different ad and performance options available.
With 10 big clients in Mexico, Legg said the time is right to open a local office there next - but he remains cautious about global expansion.
“Our offices are dependent on the amount of clients we have in that area – this is what determines it for us,” Legg said.
“After Mexico we would look at potentially opening offices in Italy, Dubai and Australia – when we reach the right amount of clients. Beyond that, possibly Warsaw and Istanbul.”
“In terms of challenges, I'd say globalisation, without burning a ridiculous amount of cash,” Legg said.
“We have cracked social, email and mobile and next on the list is video. Also, within the next two years we would like to file for an IPO."
Despite being British, and having a successful London office running much of its European operations, Legg said when the time is right to file an IPO, the company would be listed in the US.
In 2014 Legg hopes to add another 60 employees to the workforce of 310.