Louis Who? The low-key genius behind the company beginning to make a name for itself

Louis Venter is CEO for MediaVision, a company which claims its unique tech stack brings a digital performance marketing advantage. For 15 years, it has been quietly getting on with doing its best work for clients such as New Look, Addison Lee, Castore and Karen Millen, and for its people, but this year it features in Campaign’s Best Places to Work. So Performance Marketing World set out to find out more.

In this, the first of three articles, we talk to the impressive entrepreneur behind the company.

On tech and business

PMW: Hi Louis. First things first - how much of a geek are you?

Louis Venter: I’m probably the most geeky person you are ever likely to meet. I’m the kind of guy who looks at a robotic lawnmower and is more interested in the algorithm that makes it work than the actual cutting of the lawn. I’m mildly obsessed with figuring out how things work…

PMW: What’s the best thing about being a geek?

LV: I’m constantly curious and that also means I’m massively sceptical which I consider a good thing. I want things proven with data, rather than just relying on accepted knowledge.

PMW: Is there anything you mind about being a geek?

LV: Not at all. Being a geek is cool now. We’ve come a long way since our school days when things were very different! My son has just finished his maths degree at Cambridge and he’s the coolest guy I know. Don’t tell him I said that! How has that happened!? How are we now the cool ones? 

I also believe that arrogance is the enemy of learning. I’d rather be on the side of wanting to learn than being seen as arrogant. 

PMW: What’s different about what MediaVision offers?

LV: Our difference is based on a combination of our experts and our unique technology, plus we take a tailored client-by-client approach to the work we do. 

PMW: What are the three key lessons you've learned from running your business?

LV: Running a fast-paced business has taught me humility, the power of the collective, and the importance of self-care and patience, because “building things the right way isn't always necessarily the quick way”. It’s part of my ongoing commitment to culture and transparency at every stage of growth.  

On leadership

PMW: What is the key to being a good boss or leader? Are you a good leader?

LV: You would have to ask the team that! We are very proud to be included in the Campaign Best Places to Work for the first time this year so I guess we must be doing something right! 

PMW: What’s the biggest determinant of your company culture? How hard is it to maintain?

LV: Our company culture is based on a shared vision to do the best work we can together by building a community in and outside the building, always being transparent in everything we do and empowering each other to take the lead. In today’s hybrid business world, culture is even more important (and harder to maintain). With this in mind we have just spent two days together to recommit to our values in preparation for a return to the office. 

This also saw us redecorating our space to make it somewhere we look forward to spending time in together. 

PMW: How important is non-work activity to your work? What's your most valuable pastime?

LV: Outside of work is where I do some of my best thinking and problem solving. I love the outdoors and being on the water. Water slows it all down for me, as the rest of my life can be pretty fast-moving. Me and my son have been trying out foil boarding, which has been...interesting.

I also love coaching sports as well. This idea of the collective and getting the best out of everyone involved really drives me.

On the industry

PMW: Are Google and Facebook your friends?

LV: [Laughs]. More frenemies than friends. We use the platforms and need them to get in front of people. But these platforms are engineered for wastage and ultimately we are working for our clients. It can be very easy to build your entire tech around some of these platforms and end up being too aligned with them. 

For me, a really good partner is one where you are still aware of who you are working for. If you just let, for example, Google, dictate everything then you risk spending more on YouTube regardless of whether that is best for you. And of course they are going to do that as they have targets to hit like everyone else. So keeping that front of mind is important.

I guess it is a case of “can’t live with them, can’t live without them”.

PMW: What’s the most controversial thing you believe about the industry?

LV: It doesn’t do enough to minimise search cannibalisation. I think this is because of the way agencies are paid but it doesn’t help anyone, let alone the client.

PMW: What do you think the industry will look like in five, 10, 50 years?

LV: I can try to  predict the next five years at most! Network agencies are going to have a tough time of it. The economies of scale will diminish as they struggle to integrate teams properly. 

Platforms are also going to be pushing their AI more. We’re already seeing it with Facebook's Black Box and Google’s Smart Bidding. What will be really interesting is if people start demanding to have more insight into those. 

Mainly, though, there will be an acceleration into digital. COVID was a catalyst for a lot of this and I can’t see us returning to where we were before. It’s only going in one direction.

PMW: If you could change one thing about the digital universe, what would it be?

LV: A return to key level attribution and SEO. We used to get all the keywords from Google. Now we just get a bucket full of data. We then have to match up all these data sets. So a return to the days of greater transparency would make everyone’s life easier.

PMW: Are there any digital platforms that you personally avoid...and why?

LV: Avoid Facebook. It has become an echo chamber that just reinforces the steady polarisation that’s affecting pretty much every society on earth. You’re this, or you’re that. There are no shades of grey. It has caused tolerance to drop and it is starting to drip into the non-digital world. I’ve seen the effect on family and friends. Everyone has their own beliefs and convictions but you need that open dialogue and respect for different views.

On the sector

PMW: What’s been the main change you’ve seen down the years in SEO?

LV: The SEO team used to share a data pack...which then nobody looked at. Now everyone can access that data. 

SEO also used to be just about giving Google as much content as you could. Now you need to be more nuanced. It needs to be good content. And Google rewards that good content. 

I’ve seen a lot about the “death of the link”. It’s rubbish. Links are still important. They are just easier to manipulate. They need to be linked to trusted websites and need to be clean. It’s the same with social signals. It is easy to manipulate them into your whole SEO strategy.

PMW: What's the most common digital strategy mistake you see made?

LV: An over-reliance on paid media in the short term and an underinvestment in natural visibility in the medium and long term. And taking growth for granted, especially in the world we now live in; nothing can be relied on to stay the same. 

PMW: What's the one digital constant you've seen through the years?

LV: A real sense of opportunity and can-do attitude throughout the whole industry 

PMW: What’s the one thing you can’t believe you did in the past?

Growing up in South Africa, we used to swim in Fishoek Bay three or four times a week before the “shark spotters” were installed! I shudder to think how many Great White Sharks were swimming with us! 

On himself

PMW: What’s the most important book you’ve read?

LV: Creativity by John Cleese; it’s been hugely instrumental in how I think and work. That’s why everyone at the agency gets a copy when they join.

PMW: What is your greatest strength?

LV: Introspection. Digital people have that inherent self-doubt. We’re always asking ourselves how we can do better. But I see that as a strength, as long as you don’t let it paralyse you.

PMW: And your greatest weakness?

LV: I spend too much time thinking about the future. I need to start thinking about and living in the present. When I have my MediaVision hat on, I’m always thinking about next month, next year and so on.

When you are at home, you have to be more in the moment. With four kids, you have to be more present, you don’t have an option! Lockdown has been, ahem, “interesting”, but you still need to try and switch off from work mode.

PMW: Where and how is your innovation mindset fired up the most?

LV: When I’m problem solving. If there’s a problem, then that’s when I thrive. You can’t innovate if you haven’t got a problem to crack.

I’ve also learnt that I am most efficient during a four-day work week. So I save Fridays for coaching cricket, paddle boarding on the Adur with the family and practising wing foil surfing. It's also when innovative ideas take shape in my tortoise brain – a technique I love from Creativity by John Cleese. 

On South Africa

PMW: How important was your South African upbringing? 

LV: It’s a harsh environment. There’s no net. And it wasn’t really somewhere I was comfortable raising my kids for a number of reasons.

I had my first son when I was 22 and in my final year at university in Cape Town. I went into coding so that I would be able to provide. Having to step up to the plate and support a family motivated me and four months before he was born I set up my first business. I sold that and then the 2001 crash hit South Africa hard. It meant that me and my business partner chose to liquidate the company we had then and I headed to London with the family, originally just for six months.  We’re still here all these years on!

I guess my work ethic comes from working on the family farm as a kid. Honestly, there is nothing harder than waking up at 5am and shifting frozen pipes around.

PMW: Does it inform your business practice?

LV: My only experience working in South Africa for someone else was with a horrific boss. I learnt to do the opposite of whatever they did! It also made me determined to work for myself and do things on my own terms while creating a great working environment.

There is an Ubuntu proverb that reads: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, you go together.” I think that informs how I look at business. If you want to go far as an agency then you have to go together. That means having those values and behaviours that inform that approach. I have found that the work has come as a result of that approach.

PMW: What good things have you learned from your South African experience and what bad things?

LV: Massive scepticism of the news media. I’ve seen how it was manipulated in South Africa. When I hear a story, I always think “follow the money”. It makes you question why we are being told this. Now fake news is everywhere! Well, we lived through it first. It’s given me a bit of a head start in the world that we live in now and the ability to think critically.

PMW: Dale Steyn or Allan Donald?

LV: AD. We never saw the best of him at international level. Warwickshire had him at his peak unfortunately. 

But you’ve given me an opportunity to talk more about sports! Sport is massive for me. I love cricket and rugby and anything to do with the water, including cold water swimming.  I coach a youth cricket team every week, the Preston Nomads Under 14s. It’s really great to work with a group of guys all the way through their development, getting the best out of the collective. It can be frustrating at times but it is worth it and giving back is really important for me.

And like work, it is all about getting the culture right. I like to draw a distinction between a performance culture and a nice culture. A performance culture has accountability in both directions and that’s been one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned over the last couple years. Get it right, and then it can really work.