What happened to Truth?

23 Oct 2018  |  Bob Wootton 
What happened to Truth?

Don’t worry - the title of this piece isn’t clickbait to gull you into reading yet another diatribe about the industry’s loss of integrity and moral compass...

Rather, it’s a straight question as things seem to have gone very quiet from a media agency which launched late last year amidst much fanfare and some fancy promises around using blockchain tech to address the buzzword bogeyman of the day, transparency.

Its name? Truth, naturally.

Its energetic leader, Mary Keane Dawson, certainly made a splash with frequent press pieces and conference platform appearances. They alluded to and made some lofty claims for in-market investigations and their product, rightly hobnobbed with ISBA and claimed advanced conversations with some major advertisers.

Perhaps most notably, they parleyed themselves onto the pitch shortlist for the Government’s £140m media account, eventually awarded to MGM OMD in May.

(My own view at the time was that Truth could not credibly finish that race, but that their presence on the starting blocks was not only great PR for them but a master-stroke on the part of Alex Aiken, Executive Director, Government Communications, because it projected his seriousness about transparency).

Truth is a part of RYVL, a boutique global marketing services holding group. It was known until June as The Marketing Group, incorporated in May 2015, listed on Nasdaq First North Stockholm in June 2016 and also cross-listed on the Frankfurt Börse.

RYVL’s latest financial report showed net cash of just under £1m, cited the launch of Truth as a significant cost and referred to a funding round driven by a new and precarious form of fundraising called an Initial Coin Offering or ICO.

Unfortunately, ICO’s suffered some reputational battering around the same time. Although both are about raising money, I’m told conventional public offerings are encumbered with process and regulation and tend to focus on addressing specific market opportunities whereas coin offerings can be pitched with much less fuss to subscribers who reputedly seek the bigger picture and have more ‘disruptive’ mindsets. Some have described ICO’s as “bubbles waiting to burst”.

I can’t figure if this funding round is/was to fund the group or its Truth subsidiary alone but meanwhile Truth must have been getting through cash. It’s not hard to imagine three senior and other staff, overheads and development costs consuming at least a third of a million a year, probably more. Quite hard to absorb for long for a parent with less than a million in cash and other acquisitions to nurture.

RYVL is led by capable CEO Adam Graham, latterly of the Saint and Weapon 7 agencies. However, recent obligatory regulatory filings show that all its non-executive directors, including chairman and industry veteran Don Elgie, formerly the CEO of another holding group, Creston (now Unlimited Group), resigned recently. This might suggest financial challenges and/or “disagreements over future strategy”.

And a year on, what of Truth? It’s gone as quiet as its beginning was noisy. The murmur is that its much-vaunted investigations might simply have been others’ re-badged and that it doesn’t seem to have an ostensible product or clients. One of its co-founders is understood not to have worked for some time and Keane Dawson’s LinkedIn no longer mentions the Truth agency amongst five current roles.

[Editor's note: Since the creation and submission if this piece, it has been announced that Truth has parted company with its CEO and will be run by CTO recruit Oliver Southgate as it transitions "to a more high-fidelity state', "focuses on getting its product to a more completed level", "getting it from alpha to beta."]

Instead, the focus seems to have shifted towards a “Truth Data Cloud”, an(other) app aimed at end-consumers, promising to protect, and if they choose, help monetise their data. But even the promotional video for this also refers to the coin offering while some online posts suggest the funding round is all about the Data Cloud product…

Has the ICO tanked? Confused? I am.

Now most agencies are guilty of puffery, economy with the truth and backfilling with some substance once the pitch is won. No quarrel with that and guilty as charged back in my agency days.

But you’re in for a drubbing if you peddle a completely transparent modus operandi based on emerging blockchain tech, call yourselves Truth and set yourselves in the teeth of an industry, many of whose denizens make their margins ‘circuitously’.

Especially if you end up being economical about your very own product and status.

It’s a great shame that a word which should be a lodestone for future behaviours could now be associated with failure and its very antonym, deceit. A parable for our times, perhaps?

For balance, there are other players in the space.

Papyrus is an Eastern European contender – employee names suggest Russian but could be Ukrainian as they’re known for tech - but its website confines its pitch to ‘digital’ media thus far. Our own Paul Frampton Calero, latterly Havas Media’s UK lead, is an advisor. Concerningly, Papyrus is also seeking funding via a Private Token Sale, a more recent derivative of an ICO in which institutional investors get first dibs.

Finally, disclosure. I have skin in this game as advisor to and investor in Fenestra, a more stably- and conventionally-funded UK-based start-up which has developed and is now operating a blockchain-based media trading platform with real partners and real media buys.

So I have a first-order concern about babies and bathwater.

I am increasingly convinced that blockchain tech can and will help restore visibility and trust to a discredited sector*, whether for serious advertisers wanting to know where their money is actually going or agencies seeking to return to a fair and transparent living...

...but I’m also very concerned that, at this delicate stage in the onboarding of this powerful technology, some of the early businesses in the space are coupling the good and very viable concept of a reliable and transparent blockchain-based trading platform to a form of funding that is anything but, and might therefore fail not because of concept but execution, particularly financial.

@bobwootton


*now being investigated in the US with federal prosecutors issuing subpoenas, which scrutiny will doubtless touch these shores too given the ultimate domicile of one of the leading players and may unsurprisingly be the subject of a near-future column.

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