Rebels, Misfits & Innovators: 50over50: Damian Ryan, Corporate Finance Partner, BDO

Damian Ryan is a partner in the M&A team at BDO. He specialises in the digital sector and has advised many of the leading players in the space for over 15 years.

He founded Ireland’s first digital marketing agency and wrote Understanding Digital Marketing, available in ten languages and listed on the curriculum of over 100 universities around the world including Harvard and UCL.

What is the biggest mistake companies – brands of the industry are making in their attitude to age today?

I seriously question the old demographic scales. People are not the same as they were 30 years ago and we shouldn’t categorise them in the same way.

People live longer, are fitter and more active, more outgoing, wealthier (for some) and travel more. They also have changing attitudes towards material possessions, property, their personal networks and their own brands too.

The world is a smaller place and there’s a lot more of us in it, but we’re more connected than ever and all this makes for a completely different world. Brands should be less concerned about age (although respectful of rules) and more concerned about providing a valuable and meaningful experience.

What one thing are you proudest of in your career?

I’m proud of where I am now, making a successful transition from media to becoming a trusted M&A advisor. Back in 2004, I was well known in Dublin as an innovator in the media space, but I badly wanted to become an advisor – someone to pass on the wisdom and knowledge I had gained and help people continue through difficult parts of their journey. I knew London was a centre for both M&A and media, so I packed by bags and haven’t looked back.

I’ve been fortunate with timing. My career developed alongside the boom in the digital media age and presented me with the most incredible array of opportunities.  Creating digital agencies, writing books on digital marketing, winning industry awards and working with some of the smartest people in the world.

Now as a partner with BDO which complete more deals than anyone else in the market. Leading on projects like the sale of Webcredible to Inviqa Group and advising on the merger of Topcashback and Quido have been particular highlights over the past year.

What creative heights are you now capable of that you wouldn’t have been able to achieve at the early or mid point in your career?

Becoming a good advisor is impossible without first understanding people. The experience you gain and people you meet are fuel for creative thinking. Every deal is different because every person and their individual goals and circumstances are different.

My 35 years of experience with different people, deal making and a continuous investment in technical knowledge are precursors to creativity in M&A.

What gives you the most satisfaction in your role today?

Seeing the positive change that my role can bring to people’s lives – this is what gets me out of bed in the morning. It doesn’t happen all the time because not all deals come off but when they do, and that client turns around and tells you they’re taking their kids away for a year on a world tour, or the mountain of worry has lifted from their shoulders as you bring an end to years of stress.

That just makes me feel absolutely elated.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in your career?

Listen. How to listen. How to ACTIVELY listen. Listen to the little words people use.  Listen so you know what questions to ask next. Listen and listen some more, so you understand the individual and you understand the problem.

Then separate the people from the problem before you get to work!

When I was younger, I couldn’t wait to solve the problem. In my callow existence, I sometimes believed I had it all resolved before I’d even met the client!  That approach didn’t last very long as I learnt the hard way that no problem is the same.

Learning to listen will get you far, mind you I’m currently suffering from the odd bit of tinnitus, apparently something to do with my days in an unsuccessful but very loud rock band.

What advice would you give to your 25 year old self?

Firstly, don’t worry.

Most of the things I stayed up all night worrying about never happened. And the things that did happen usually led to something more positive anyway, so don’t worry young Damian.

Having been through some very challenging business deals and not to mention several personal tragedies, I’ve learned just how corrosive and destructive it is to worry. Worrying is a prolonged state of fear, but people can so easily get frozen to the spot when it gets the better of them.

Instead of worrying, take action.

Secondly, travel more.

I’m hardly off a plane these days and it’s a real advantage when you learn more about different cultures, business styles, processes and regulations. In fact, it’s vital if you’re going to be successful as an advisor to digital media companies who need help with international issues.

When I was 25 I hadn’t seen much more than London and Dublin, with travel even easier than ever I would encourage young Damian to explore the world.

What are you most excited about in your industry over the next ten years?

Two things excite me.

Firstly, how will the media and advertising industry evolve to meet the needs of all people, irrespective of age, device, culture and beliefs.

Secondly, how will technology evolve to ensure we all have more time to be creative and solve the bigger problems in the world.

What is your biggest regret about the industry today?

The complete lack of trust, even though most of this erosion is largely deserved. The Internet in particular has done a poor job maintaining its initial level of trust with its users but the challenge is bigger than that now.

Technology companies, media owners, government, NGOs and business in general should seriously question where they live on the “trust scale” – do we need Chief Trust Officers?

Whether we do or not, we have managed to make a mess of this and now it’s time to point technology, media and the above institutions towards a brighter future.

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