Interviews, insight & analysis on digital media & marketing

My Media Hero: Adam Foley, CEO, Bountiful Cow

Adam joined Bountiful Cow in January 2022 after six years at the Guardian where he was Director of Advertising, and one half of the leadership duo that relaunched the award-winning Guardian Labs content team. Prior to media owner life he spent 15 years at media agencies, working up to become Managing Partner for Strategy across the Starcom MediaVest Group.          

Who is your media hero?

Duncan Sillence.

What did he do to win hero status in your eyes?

Duncan taught everyone he worked with to challenge everything. Right up until the end of his life, he was sharply critical of lazy thinking and conventional wisdom. He was a formidable opponent but utterly loyal to his teams – who would feel untouchable as a result.

His fierce intellect and loyalty made you totally confident that when he liked some work you were doing, that you were onto something special. He would then help you bulldoze it through into reality. That gave the people he worked with the courage to break the mould and achieve some exceptional work.

Because of his total conviction in what he saw as right and fair, he could be an intimidating person for clients just as much as the people he worked with. During one particularly abrasive fee negotiation which he saw as lurching towards the disrespectful, he reached into his pocket, threw his wallet on the table and barked ‘well you might as well have that too’.

That changed the conversation.

Every single day, whatever I am doing in my work, I still always ask myself what he would think of it.  

How has his heroism helped drive media?

Duncan was emblematic of a culture at Starcom which, at its best in the early 2000s, was a total breath of fresh air. When I first got there, I was so stunned by the quality of the work that I was worried I wouldn’t be able to cut it. I didn’t even know that it was possible to do things like that in media. We were there to find out what everyone else is doing and then break the rules or do the exact opposite.

There was a total intolerance of bullshit or mediocrity, the standards were set high from the leadership down. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that lots of people who worked there have gone on to hold leadership positions within the industry.

What the biggest challenges in media we need another hero to solve?

Fraud. Bob Hoffman recently wrote that ad fraud is the biggest fraud in business history.

Billions of pounds are wasted on ads that no-one sees that fund disinformation or harmful content while quality publishers see their ad revenues dwindle. There are far too many vested interests in propping up the existing system and far too many people complicit in selling brands something they know won’t work but make themselves money.

Like any crime, it preys off a human need – in this case an addiction to completely irrelevant short-term metrics which even though we know are meaningless, somehow feel more comfortable than an educated leap of faith.

As long as the average click through rate looks OK, then why worry about the fact that barely anyone has seen the campaign, and of those that do, almost none will remember it? The online display market needs an Elliot Ness.

What is your most heroic personal achievement so far in media?

I don’t think I’ve ever achieved anything that I would describe as heroic. I’d hope that I helped a few people enjoy coming to work a bit more and got some of their ideas out of their heads and into the real world. But nothing that would justify me getting to wear my underpants on the outside of my trousers.