Dom Hawes | Innovator 25 EMEA 2022

Dom Hawes

Group CEO
Selbey Anderson


“Very few businesses make it as disruptors. By definition, they are outliers. The rest of us innovate incrementally.” 

When Dom Hawes co-founded Selbey Anderson he had a clear vision: to approach the traditional marketing network model in a completely different way, with a focus on high-growth specialist agencies. Hawes cut his teeth in the communications world with a six-year spell in B2B and technology agency in the mid-nineties. He moved in-house with two short stints in tech start up and early-stage VC before co-founding ecommerce business Bitemark in 2002. Following the sale of the business he consulted for start-ups and tech companies for six years before setting up Selbey Anderson with PR industry veteran Simon Quarendon. Since its inception in 2018, the group has bought 10 independent agencies in the UK, including two PR firms: iconic consumer agency Unity – setting up its co-founder Gerry Hopkinson as CEO of a new Selbey Labs foresight and innovation project – and financial services specialist Greentarget. Hawes – an amiable leader with a sharp business brain who clearly loves the game of acquisition, investment and growth –plans for several acquisitions every year for the next five years after raising £10 million in funding in May this year and with another raise of at least £15 million on the cards for early 2023. With Asia and the US in its sights, Hawes has made Selbey Anderson one to watch in the new era of global marketing holding companies.  

How do you define innovation?
Innovation is about experimenting to find new and better ways of achieving our goals. It can be invention, but it's normally not. Re- imagining or re-mixing existing ideas is lower risk and often more fruitful. Very few businesses every make it as disruptors. By definition, they are outliers. The rest of us innovate incrementally. Clayton Christensen explained it well in the Innovator's Dilemma. Many people diss incremental innovation, but it's what most of us do.

What is the most innovative PR or marketing initiative you've seen over the past 12 months?
Well, it's from one of our own agencies I'm afraid, but it's a goodie.... you know how we call hate creds presentations? Digital Radish built their creds as a gallery in the Metaverse so they can meet clients online and talk them through the work they've done in a stimulating and exciting manner. It was a master stroke.

In your opinion, which brands and/or agencies are most innovative in their approach to PR and marketing?
Agencies? I'm watching Hard Numbers. I love that they are starting from a different place (i.e. quant not qual). That's hard. I love that they've built their agency OS on a CRM. I love that they are not afraid to experiment. They will be future winners.

Describe a moment in your career that you would consider to be innovative.
I built a wholesale e-commerce business in the early noughties and the B2B marketing and communications in that sector was seriously dull. We created an advertising and comms campaign designed to show how dull the sector was by lampooning our own company, but with very high design and creative standards. We upset a whole sector over six months, but everyone knew who we were. I really enjoyed the creative process too. It's the only time in my life I've signed off a self-deprecating headline.

Who do you admire for his/her approach to innovation?
Easy. Ben Horowitz. I've never had a hero. But if I did have one, it would be Ben.

How do you get out of a creativity rut?
Extreme exercise, alcohol, reading, delta blues, jazz, company of friends or electric shock therapy. I lied about one of those. You decide which.

What advice would you give to the PR industry around embracing innovation?
I'm not sure too many people in PR realise quite how much power rests in their art. For decades, PR practitioners have had to earn their keep by being influencers. I was not a great PR. But great PRs have had to persuade others to do their bidding... they are influencers to the bone. Forget the delivery mechanisms you rely on. They will change. Look at the skill set you own. My favourite quote of the moment is Orwell's "The revolution will be complete when the language is perfect". PR owns communication which owns language. You want change? Change language, embrace PR.

What would you be doing if you weren't doing your current job?
I'd love to work in radio. There's something magical about voice.

Which book/movie/TV show/podcast/playlist/other cultural source has provided inspiration over the past year?
Easy. I'm obsessed with organisational design and Frederic Laloux's Re-inventing Organisations is amazing. Digital Radish's Lorna Charlish recommended it to me and when I read it, it made me realise that I haven't been mad all these years. People can and should self-manage. Doing anything less is infantilising.

How would you like to see work culture, and the role of the office, evolve?
I'd like to see more trust and less management. The way we've designed management structures in business is overly-cumbersome and assumes that people can't be trusted. The structure and management style of many agencies hasn't really changed that much in the last 80 years. Everything about our business has changed, but the pyramid still remains? It's ripe for changing.

The office? I think many people are getting hung up about "where you work" when "how you work" is more important. We're all naturally sociable animals, but we like freedom, so being able to choose matters. But who's choose to come to work to be infantilised and have hierarchy rammed down their throat? If we want social workplaces, we need less structure and more freedom at work.

How can the PR and communications industry harness innovation to make more progress on diversity, equity and inclusion?
I'm not so sure this is an innovation issue?

I think PR has always been a leader in gender diversity, but ESG considerations go so much deeper these days. We operate in a privileged industry because we have so many strong diverse role models. Other industries would love to boast our diversity.

I may get cancelled for saying this, but I think we are truly blessed as an industry because we're already innovative in this regard. There are anomalies. One of the first things I look for when acquiring a business is pay gaps or bias. These things are red flags. There aren't many businesses today where this is true.