We sat down with James Dixon, Co-Founder and Chief Digital Officer of Atomic 212° to chat all things digital marketing and the current media landscape in Australia – hearing about what he’d rather not be doing next year, as well as getting his thoughts on that pesky Facebook issue that keeps on popping up.
Sum up your very first job interview in three words:
So long ago.
No seriously, I don’t even remember what it was for.
If you could be in any other career, what would you be?
Teaching came to mind.
What song do you think sums up the digital landscape in Australia right now?
Okay, I’ve actually got a good answer for this. There is currently a sea shanty making the rounds on TikTok called Wellerman, all about a ship’s captain trying greedily to capture a whale – but he never makes it home because of it. To me, the boat is the Australian Government and the whale is Facebook.
What’s something you don’t want to be doing this time next year?
Not picking up my teenage children late at night. I can’t wait until they get their licenses later this year.
What do you wish you’d been taught at school, but weren’t?
Communication skills – so much of corporate life is all about communicating to and with people. I’ve sat in meetings where you watch people just speak over one another in an attempt to get their points across, but none of them are listening and learning from one another.
Who is James Dixon?
James hails from a small island in the English Channel called Jersey and his first big passions in life were fine art and painting. After studying fine art at the Chelsea School of Art in London, and realising it was harder than he’d thought to become both a famous and well-paid artist, he ended up as an accountant for the government back in Jersey.
He says going back and hitting the books for three hard years of study was difficult, but ultimately paid off and thoroughly enjoyed his role as an accountant. Part of his job was distributing grants to entrepreneurs, one of whom ended up running an online music sales’ site that was second only to Amazon.
It was this experience which led him to believe in the importance and pertinence of the Internet and he got really passionate about all things digital around the year 2005.
He and his wife and two small children made the move to Australia, like many, for a lifestyle change after ten years in government.
As all good ideas are born, a discussion with a friend at the pub about digital marketing was the genesis for Atomic Search.
James says this was a good time to get into business as there were not a lot of SEO or SEM agencies around in Sydney at the time and they had a steady stream of blue chip clients.
Since then, Atomic Search merged with D212° and they went on to become Atomic 212° – now a full service media agency with 110 staff.
James, who describes himself as a desktop researcher, says apart from the obvious – being a part-owner and co-founder of his own company – a career and personal highlight was succeeding in his study to become an accountant.
Like many people, he says going back to the books was very “alien” to him and he really had to “learn how to learn”.
While he ended up finding the work for the government really interesting, James does say he did have a moment of revelation where he realised he was not cut-out for the cut-throat world.
In his words…
Tell us about what that moment of revelation was like for you.
Basically, what happened was that I was put-forward for a leadership program after having qualified as a chartered accountant. There was a list of five or six of peers, and I think I was the only one not to be put forward – it was a stinging moment at the time.
We all went to a day of testing and evaluation and I barely spoke in such a competitive environment. I think I was very conscious of the whole ‘scoring’ system, and that we were constantly being watched. It was a moment where I realised I was not cut out for corporate life, and, while it was a setback for one career path, it set me on a different course to starting my own business.
What’s the daily grind like for you?
I’m pleased to say that this is currently changing a lot. After 12 years of working long hours, I’m in the process of stepping back from the day to day operations and running of the business as we have recently appointed somebody else to take over this particular aspect.
Instead, I’m going to focus more on the thought leadership regarding content and the direction the company is heading into. This will mean I get to see the company from above, rather than from within.
A typical day, then, currently looks a lot more relaxed – much less reactive and stressful than it used to be. Instead, days are open to my own adventure as to what I want to do.
I’m also currently enjoying getting fit with the easing of the workload. In fact, for the first time in my life my new year’s resolution was to lose weight and get fit.
Let’s turn our minds back to last year – in terms of the impact on you personally and on the business – what was 2020 like?
In terms of the impact on the business, well, it was tough. By the end of the year, things were much better. In March and April, as the story broke we were all staring into the abyss of the unknown everything was horribly uncontrollable. But, thanks to our staff and the government measures we are back on track. Of course, there was an impact when clients paused spending, but by the end of the year most of this had picked up again.
It was also a good time to reflect on the business as a whole and tighten up some team or process issues that had needed to be done for a while.
For me personally, from an artist’s perspective at least, it was incredible to see Sydney so quiet. Going out on my lunch breaks and finding the city to be a literal ghost town is something I never imagined I’d see. I’ll remember the slower times of working from home with fondness.
In your opinion, what’s the biggest challenge facing the digital marketing industry right now?
That’s easy – it’s going to be what we are all quite dramatically calling the ‘cookie apocalypse’.
We’ve all – clients and agencies – been so used to having great targeting options available to them, as well as such obvious and immediate ROI from digital spend that this has been a shock. In fact, all of us pretty much assumed this sort of technology was only going to improve and many of our clients have invested substantial amounts of money in technologies which rely wholly on cookies.
All of a sudden, these are all set to stop working in the way we thought they would, so it begs the question as to what we are going to do now.
So how do you think agencies and their clients will mitigate these challenges?
The realisation that digital marketing will not work in the way we thought it would – which is highly targeted, data-driven sales means we will all have to move into the more uncomfortable place where we simply cannot target in the same neat way we have been doing previously.
When we became a full service media agency, I was exposed to non-digital forms of media like the billboard, TV and radio. Sometimes we think that digital is the only way to go, but, of course, there is a whole media industry out there which also cannot use the same sort of targeting.
This was a really valuable learning curve for me, and took about five years for it to sink in. Now, it looks like the whole of the digital media industry is going to have to embrace the same kind of ‘more difficult to measure’ forms of marketing.
To finish up, let’s hear your thoughts on the media bargaining code and Facebook’s news ban, and imminent news re-introduction.
Firstly, from a purely professional standpoint – Facebook has been and will remain a massive marketing channel. The impact here is really negligible – nothing has changed.
However, my second thought goes directly to the politics of the issue. I think this is a clear sign of the power and influence of traditional media owners – especially Murdoch’s NewsCorp – over our current government. I’m not really sure this was a political issue in the first place and even if it was, I think proper taxing of big companies like Facebook and Google would have been a much more appropriate way of going about it.
But, the media channels for my clients remain unchanged. What was much more concerning from this standpoint would have been if Google pulled out of Australia. There was a time when this seemed a real possibility, even if I always assumed it would be sorted out in the end.
Then again, the world has thrown up some pretty crazy curve balls over the past few years – so I try not to assume!