Blog: John Pearson in Conversation.

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John Pearson in Conversation.

Many years ago, The Goodies, in their eponymous TV series, had an episode in which they set up a radio station. Unfortunately, they owned only one record — a copy of A Walk In The Black Forest — which they played on repeat. I was reminded of this when John Pearson, at the latest Like Minds Business Breakfast event, told us of star performer Chris Evans’s tendency to absent himself from his radio show without warning.

John was interviewed at the latest Like Minds Business Breakfast on January 28th by IBM’s Andrew Grill. Andrew is Global Managing Partner with IBM Social Consulting. Andrew’s understanding of digital business was a perfect fit for John’s experience and the work he is now doing with enterprise video at Imagen and previously as chairman of Shazam.

This was the third of the breakfast events to be held at Business Members Club 12 Hay Hill. As always, the coffee, breakfast pots, and pastries were excellent and fuelled a good half hour of casual networking before John and Andrew took their seats at the top table.

Here are some of the key points that Andrew elicited from John during his interview.

The Early Career (from selling advertising space to CEO of Virgin Radio)

John’s dyslexia – only identified later in life – meant that he left school early and started work selling advertising space at a local paper. He loved music and radio, however, and made the decision to call all the independent radio stations in London, starting with Capital Radio. The last one he called was Radio Luxembourg and by sheer luck, their advertising space guy had just left. So, within 24 hours of making the decision to go to London and work in radio, he had landed a job. John was quick to offer a definition of his career as one based on luck.

Virgin Radio

From Radio Luxembourg, John finally moved to Capital – on the back of a pub conversation – and then heard that Virgin Radio was starting up. He joined as the first employee. He’s a big fan of what he describes as the ‘Virgin Way’. The company is a perfect example of a brand taking precedence over the product. At Virgin, the outcome is always what matters most.

Working with Chris Evans was always interesting – and, at times, challenging (as mentioned above). Chris was a natural talent but, famously, things went awry for a while. John shared about his experiences at length but, quite naturally, decided that some things were best confined to the lucky audience present at Hay Hill.

For all the various challenges, John enjoyed his time at Virgin. He says that talent management – or management in general – is easy when teams are small.

More on The Virgin Way

The essence of Virgin was that you don’t have to be first: you just tell people – or let people believe – that you’re first. At the same time, there is a flexibility that is not available to the larger and more hidebound organisation. Witness the case of the dirigible flown down the Thames mocking the failure of BA to erect the London Eye at the first few times of asking. On the side of the dirigible were the memorable words; “BA Can’t Get It Up”.


Like Minds events are known for their lively Q&A sessions after the main talk and this was no exception, as will be evident from the video. There was much talk about Virgin and the ‘Virgin Way’, of course, but questions also ranged across a number of other topics.

When asked if he could identify another Branson type brand, John suggested that Google is an example where the brand is more powerful than any single product or tool. However, he also made the prediction that there would be a new super-vertical search engine within 5 years.

Discussing the role of purpose in driving a brand, John mentioned how challenger brands tend to be able to disrupt in a way that established brands cannot. Virgin versus BA is one example but Apple, too, was mentioned. Apple, once a challenger brand, is now an obvious market leader and its products and its commercial approach now reflect that. Market leaders can struggle when the fail to find a crusade.

A question raised the issue of the size of the marketing budget. In other words, is it possible to challenge an established brand through marketing? John, quite rightly, said that the only possible answer was, ‘it depends’. In 2005 Shazam had no budget and yet managed to grow and disrupt quickly. On the other hand, MoneySupermarket exploited a huge advertising budget to grow its brand. The market sector obviously plays an important factor here, as does the presence or absence of a mature market leader.

John is clearly excited by the possibilities with Imagen. The platform already supports a number of leading brands in managing their video libraries and the rights access to them. With 64% of current internet traffic in the form of video, this is an area that can only continue to grow in the near future.

Time was up and more coffee called. Those who didn’t need to dash off into adjacent Mayfair stayed for more networking.

Don’t miss the next Business Breakfast!

Unfortunately, John didn’t have time to submit to a post-talk interview. Lesson learned: if you want to get the inside story from a business leader with experiences to share, make sure you come to a Like Minds Business Breakfast and experience it in person!