Jason Xenopoulos wants to win the advertising war


Jason Xenopoulos has been part of South Africa’s internet economy about as long as we have had one. One of Internet Solution’s first dial up subscribers, Xenopoulos has seen the boom and bust cycle of dotcom investments better than most. He recently re-emerged as an important player in the South African digital arena through his role in facilitating and leading the merger of three digital businesses, mobile expert Brandsh, digital agency Stonewall+ and content management firm Cambrient, to launch Native.

Xenopoulos studied film making at New York University in the early 90’s. He came back to SA to make a movie based on the novel Na die Geliefde Land (Promised Land) by author Karel Schoeman. While he waited for enough money to be raised he got involved in writing company scripts for VWV studios. Research for a sci-fi screenplay set in Jozi in 2020 led him to explore the Web at the same time as its’ marketing potential become obvious and he soon helped establish VWV Interactive. The company grew to 60 people in 18 months and soon acquisition hungry Primedia had purchased a sizable chunk of the VWV business.

Primedia now tasked Xenopoulos with establishing Primedia Entertainment. He was partly responsible for helping to raise the R1.5 billion Primedia needed to acquire Ster Kinekor. In the meantime Primedia was also eyeing the success enjoyed by rival Naspers in its listing of M-Web. It already owned the iafrica.com brand and Xenopoulos was moved to put together an online business Primedia could list off. They gave him 90 days.

Aged 28 be became the CEO of the JSE listed Metropolis Transactive. The listing raised a R100 million. Metropolis proceeded to, rather famously, burn through that entire amount in little over two years. The dot com bubble burst before the business could be sold or refinanced, and the company vanished as quickly as the original R100 million. Xenopoulos retells the story matter of factly.

Asked what he learnt during that tumultuous time Xenopoulos says he learnt mergers are not made on paper. It’s not bits of Lego you put together. Mergers are not about structures or even strategies though of course you need both. It’s much more nuanced, it’s about people, and the chemistry between them. Xenopoulos, like many dot bubble entrepreneurs, learnt the hard way, but he seems relieved to have learned and found value in the experience.

Xenopoulos finally got to make his film, Promised Land, with the help of deferrals by staff and suppliers, and later directed Critical Assignment, which was sponsored by Guinness beer as a branded content project. It lead him to advertising and Y&R where he served as Executive Creative Director. Later still he got involved in film production company 2.0 Media where he served as Chief Creative Officer.

Xenopoulos wanted to build a digital agency again, but realised it would be difficult for a production company to move up that ladder, which convinced him he needed to look beyond 2.0 Media. The Brandsh/Stonewall+/Cambrient marriage was the result and funded from the cash in the bank of the companies involved.

Native will evolve as the industry evolves, says Xenopoulos, but for the moment it is focussing on fulfilling the role of “full service digital agency.” Xenopoulos agrees a turf war is emerging between ad agencies beefing up their digital skills and digital agencies taking on a more strategic role. Net#work BBDO Cape Town recently rebranded as 140 BBDO with a focus on brand ‘curatorship’ and outsourced production where required. Native, he promises, will ultimately be digital at its core but fully integrated across all channels. It will increasingly become an advisory business, says Xenopoulos.

Who will win the war? Xenopoulos is betting on the digital side, which is where the momentum lies, while traditional agencies have to reinvent themselves against the current. He would rather come in with the new than from the old. He is doing it minus the moneymen hoping for quick listings and with little care for the people Xenopoulos has accepted professional responsibility for. The Metropolis man has long gone, it’s clear, and in his place, finally, a CEO.

Reprinted from Squeezeback.


Published by Herman Manson

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