Business · interviews · Sunday Times

How I made it: Chris Gorell Barnes, founder of Adjust Your Set

AFTER almost 10 years of producing television commercials, Chris Gorell Barnes saw the need for some new thinking.

“I realised brands would need to tell stories digitally and online video was the most powerful tool,” he said.

The shift in advertising would require a different kind of agency. In 2008, Gorell Barnes founded Adjust Your Set, a digital content provider for the likes of Marks & Spencer, Carphone Warehouse and British Airways.

The agency, with 60 staff in Marylebone, central London, specialises in producing videos for popular brands. Last year it reported sales of £6.25m and expects revenues of £9.5m in 2014.

“I started creating compelling video content that was not just an advertisement but also useful and entertaining for the consumer,” said Gorell Barnes, who put £250,000 into the business.

He took on his first client, the Royal Opera House, in 2008, hoping to change public perceptions of opera. “We filmed in rehearsals and told the amazing stories of the conductors and artists. We brought opera to life for the digital age.”

Gorell Barnes specialises in securing big names. “I am quite tenacious. I spend a lot of time phoning, emailing and tweeting companies so I can convince their chief executives of our merits.”

M&S is among his most illustrious clients. Its print and digital campaign M&S Leading Ladies was seen by 10m people on Facebook alone last year. “The work we’ve done with M&S has been game-changing in linking video and ecommerce,” said Gorell Barnes.

When the film is paused, a link to M&S’s retail site appears. Viewers can buy the clothes modelled by the Leading Ladies, who this year include actress Emma Thompson and singer Annie Lennox. The technology, which also yields valuable consumer data, is changing the way companies think about advertising.

“Advertising is losing much of its power because of the search culture,” said Gorell Barnes, Adjust Your Set’s chief executive. “Everybody is checking out reviews, deciding what they are going to buy before they enter a store.”

He believes “interruptive” advertising — ads during primetime television — are a thing of the “pre-digital age”. The company’s name is a humorous throwback to the days when exasperated viewers were warned not to “adjust your set” to stop them taking blunt instruments to their TVs when the signal was lost.

“We are seeing a seismic shift in the industry. The customer isn’t just king, they are masters of the universe,” he said.

In 2009, Gorell Barnes worked with the Sunday Times columnist Charles Clover to produce The End of the Line, a documentary highlighting the dangers of overfishing. Waitrose sponsored it. “It was brave of them to back a documentary criticising the fishing industry, which they are a big part of.”

Then, in 2010, he co-founded the Blue Marine Foundation to protect the oceans. “Some 71% of the planet is ocean but only 2% of it is protected. The aim is to protect 10% in the next 10 years.”

Adjust Your Set has a vested interest in such campaigns. “Clients need to make content that matters,” he said. “It’s not all about product or price.”

Gorell Barnes grew up in Maida Vale, west London. His father, who died when he was 10, was a merchant banker. His mother and older sister are therapists and his stepfather is a psychiatrist. “There’s lots of smart thinking in the family.”

In 1991, while boarding at Bedales in Hampshire, Gorell Barnes co-founded his first venture, promoting parties for fellow pupils. He continued to run Capital VIP Promotions during his studies at the European Business School at Regent’s University in London. In 1997 he joined the ad agency Rapier, with clients including Virgin Atlantic and Barclays.

He switched to television advertising in 1999, becoming head of sales for the production company BFCS. He found his niche in film production and in 2001 joined Tsunami Films to produce commercials for Audi, Direct Line and AOL. Two years later he co-founded Method Films, a music video and TV producer.

But not even Madonna could hold his attention. “I missed the thinking behind technology, which was becoming very exciting,” said Gorell Barnes, who quit and founded mobile marketing firm Brand Hand in 2006, making ringtones and wallpapers for mobiles.

The company peaked before the smartphone revolution, and he dropped it to start Adjust Your Set. But in 2007 he invested in Eagle Eye Solutions, a mobile phone voucher start-up.

Gorell Barnes, 39, lives in Marylebone with his partner Martha Lane Fox, co-founder of Lastminute.com and a cross-bench peer. “We share a love of digital and social change but we don’t spend too much time talking about work,” he said.

He advises aspiring entrepreneurs to be courageous: “Take risks and don’t be afraid of failure. Trust your team and inspire them, not with what you are doing but with why you are doing it.”

Link to article in the Sunday Times

PDF – Chris Gorell Barnes of Adjust Your Set

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