Rebels, misfits and innovators: 50over50 – Decipher MD Nigel Walley

50over50 is a series of interviews with our most influential and inspiring industry leaders aged 50 and over. 

Nigel Walley has long been one of the loudest voices of reason in the digital industry. Founder and MD of media strategy consultancy Decipher and the iBurbia chain of media R&D labs, there is no one more knowledgeable about both different media platforms and consumer behaviours on them.

He is also one of the most enjoyable and irascible Twitter commentators at any large media event.

What the one thing you are proudest of in your career?

My younger self would say that I should say ‘I never bit my lip and I never followed the party line for a client’ and I think that this would be true.  Without doubt this has lost me clients over the years but I have always known that was the price for playing the way I wanted to.

However, the reality is that the bullish exterior is just window dressing.  The more important legacy, which I actually care about, is people.  Decipher has always been a small company but there are a couple of hundred people out there with Decipher on their CV and I like to think that means something in the world of media, research and tech. 

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

Anything which involves assembling a range of talent.  I know it’s a cliché to talk about networks of contacts and address books but I really think that after years of making friends and swapping favours, I could find the people to do or build anything in our industry nowadays. 

However, if it involves an all-nighter in the office I’m done for.

What gives you most satisfaction in your role today?

Given that I still feel like a beginner in the industry, it feels very odd to have a body of work that stretches back a couple of decades.   We are using ideas frameworks in Decipher today that we first put together over 15 years ago. 

These have been continually updated as we challenge the forecasts we made back then with actual market outcomes.   My role has shifted more to education – for clients and staff – in the last few years. Our education sessions span past, present and future of the media industry and I love having this body of work that allows me to put our ideas into a much broader context. 

We even flag up the things we got wrong!

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

Borrow more money and raise more equity.  I always took a strange pleasure that everything we did with Decipher was funded out of revenue.  Even when we built facilities like the iBurbia research Labs we made sure we did it without debt because I liked the freedom it gave us.

I called it FU Financing because I wasn’t beholden to anyone.  But secretly I always knew this was a form of risk avoidance and it hampered our speed of roll-out and limited the risks we took. 

Nowadays, whatever I was doing, I would definitely do it with large amounts of someone else’s money and do it much bigger and much quicker. 

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

Without doubt the main bit of advice would be to avoid awards and awards ceremonies. 

They are a dreadful racket, dominated by PR teams and a waste of time that could be better spent with family and friends.  Even in the early years, when awards were few and far between, they were a bit of an industry. 

Now, with the explosion in the number of awards and ceremonies they are a debased currency. 

I can fully understand that a creative agency might still value a Cannes Lion or a Yellow Pencil, but no-one gives awards in stuff that I really care about, and if I never eat another piece of Grosvenor House chicken it will be too soon. 

What is the biggest mistake that companies are making in their attitude to age today?

I am really not sure the industry is making mistakes about age. We employ young people because they are biddable and have the energy and inclination to sell you their body and soul in pursuit of their career.  

We trust young management teams for the same reason and the really clever ones use grey-haired advisors very judiciously.  

We also use young, beautiful and sexually-charged people in our marketing content because, however much we deny it, we all want to be young, beautiful and highly sexed.  The minute you enjoy being targeted by a Saga or Viking River Cruise ad you are dead.

What are you most excited about in your industry over the next 10 years?

I sense that the marketing industry is about to have another wave of changed imposed upon it.  It is so interesting to me that the marketing industry prides itself on its creativity and innovation but the most significant changes that have affected it in the last 30 years have come from outside it. 

Globalisation of TV tech platforms and the role of data in broadcast are going to have the same impact as the original web revolution and the more recent social media upheaval. 

The potential creative chaos this will bring is tantalising.

What is your biggest regret about the industry today?

I am shocked that, 20 years after starting Decipher, there is still this tangible split between the internet-based marketing disciplines and what people still refer to as the ‘traditional’ ones – we have always tried to treat all media, particularly all screen-based media, as a single industry.

To still have separate trade bodies for each seems odd.  To go to conferences and hear senior agency people still talking about ‘TV and digital’ is mind-numbing.  I just don’t understand how you can still get to be a senior person in a global marketing services agency and have so little understanding of the core products your agency deals in. 

In some ways I feel this as a personal failure because it was something I tried to change with Decipher, but we will just have to continue fighting the good fight.

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