Straight speaking, forward-thinking and unafraid of failure, Dr Paul Kearney is the type of guy you want on your team.
Journalist Melissa Stewart spoke to the Non-Executive Director who is pushing Push into bold new frontiers.
In a world full of anxiety, uncertainty and seemingly endless bad news, Paul has the type of confidence and self-belief you wish you could bottle and sell. After an hour on the phone together anything feels possible; his enthusiasm and can-do attitude are infectious.
Paul joined Push last spring as a Non-Executive Director. His brief: to help the agency streamline its services and differentiate itself from the rest of the online advertising pack. You’d think with this remit Paul would bring years of experience working in digital marketing, but no. In fact, Paul’s CV is so diverse it’s almost unbelievable – so, let’s start at the beginning…
Born in the North West, just outside Liverpool, Paul started his professional career almost 30 years ago as a dentist. “I became a dentist almost by default,” he says. “When I went to school you were expected to go away and do things that were worthy of the A Levels you could get. I didn’t put too much thought into it.”
Six years later and hungry to experience the wider world, Paul signed up to the Royal Navy, initially joining as a dentist. However, he soon tired of the dentistry aspect of the job and decided to transfer to the Royal Marines to do commando training, serving in Kosovo and then Iraq and Afghanistan. During this time, he discovered he had an aptitude for leadership, commanding combat operations and getting results.
“I ended up setting up a special operations unit in Afghanistan and it was really interesting because I started to see the world in a different way. The military is very regimented, whereas special operations are a bit more entrepreneurial. You work to find solutions, rather than those solutions being dictated from central command. There are fewer soldiers and the challenges are much more complex and dynamic.”
After three and a half years in the job and being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, he came back to the UK and decided not long after that it was time for a change. It was then that Paul took his first foray into the world of digital marketing, joining the Inspired Thinking Group (ITG) in 2010. With his help, the agency became the fastest growing start-up in the UK, operationalising marketing.
“We brought administrative rigour to the marketing process,” he explains. “I realised it’s not too dissimilar to what you do in the military as an officer. In the military, my job was to organise everyone to ensure they were in the right place at the right time and everybody knew the plan. We were able to act as a coherent one, rather than as many individuals – and that’s how you stay safe and get the job done. Operations in marketing is very similar. We worked with big brands like Sainsbury’s, M&S, Boots, Audi and Weight Watchers – big brands. We did very well and grew big.”
But, after three years in the job and tremendous success, Paul started to feel restless again. Keen to work on a new project and with a bigger team he joined the global construction company Bechtel. First he joined them in Muscat, overseeing the build of the city’s airport, and then he moved to Gabon in Central Africa to oversee the construction portfolio. Before long, he’d been promoted to Director of Operations.
“I was running 2,000 contractors and 300-400 engineers,” he says, “many of those were expats and one of the great successes I had, and one of the most satisfying things, was removing those expats and replacing them with Gabonese engineers. I was helping the country to create a middle class. It was much cheaper for them but also much better because Gabonese people were determining their own futures. I really enjoyed that.”
Being away from his family however started to take its toll, so when he was asked to return to ITG to help them get a new business operation back on track, he accepted the role. The job played to his strengths – parachuting into a company, streamlining operations and turning the business around to turn a healthy profit. Three years later, having achieved what he set out to do, Paul once again felt the time had come to move on – and that’s when he met Ricky and Steve, the CEOs at Push.
Paul came into the business in a consultant role before becoming a Non-Executive Director in June 2020. Not working directly in the day-to-day business means that he can offer a strategic perspective and help the agency to hone its business offering and play to its strengths.
“What Push have done well is continually evolve and stay at the forefront of online advertising. That’s their USP, that’s why they’re successful – they stay ahead of the game. But, until recently, the old model of the business involved a lot of people having to understand complex technology and then translate that to the client. Going forward, with technology like AdInvestor, we’ll simplify the whole digital advertising process – you won’t need all the people. Or more accurately you’ll manage many, many more clients with the same number of people, that’s the key to scale.
AdInvestor is the piece of tech that excites Paul. This new software, developed by Push, is an absolute game-changer in the digital advertising industry. “AdInvestor is the reason I got involved with Push. It will disrupt the entire market,” he says.
In a nutshell, AdInvestor is a one-stop digital advertising portal. Business owners can log on and control all their digital advertising needs from one piece of software. No more logging in to multiple, complex platforms like Amazon, Facebook, LinkedIn and Google Ads. You simply allocate a budget and the software all the hard work for you. It distils the entire opaque world of digital advertising into a couple of straightforward decisions.
AdInvestor launched last year and the team are already developing the next phase of the software, which will use artificial intelligence to automate digital advertising. “It takes automation and puts it on acid,” explains Paul. “It does it much quicker and faster than a human could ever do. That will phase in through 2021. It will no longer be about utilising specific channels because as a business owner you don’t care – you just want leads. That’s how powerful AdInvestor has to become. It does all the hard work so all you have to worry about is the leads.”
Ambitious stuff, but with Paul backing the project it certainly feels within reality’s grasp. He’s an optimist and a person who doesn’t believe in doing things half-heartedly. The thread that runs through Paul’s CV is a desire to be on the cutting edge, the frontier. When he was in the military those frontiers were physical, but now they’re metaphorical.
“On a frontier, there are no rules, you just do what you need to do to get the job done. That’s the world where I flourish. I’m much less adept at managing complex political situations and large organisations with lots of agendas. Working with Push on AdInvestor is simple, it either works or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work, we just move on and try something else. And that’s why I enjoy it.”
What’s telling, and something we can all learn from Paul is there’s no need to fear failure. If something goes wrong, you just pick yourself up, dust yourself off and try something different.
He says: “I have a natural curiosity. I’m not afraid to throw myself into situations that I don’t understand because I learned at a very early age that very few people understand the situations they’re in anyway. You might as well throw yourself into things that are exciting and back yourself to get out of it.
“I’m not frightened of failure because I don’t think failure is really likely to happen if you apply yourself 100%. The result might not turn out the way you expect it to, but as long as you keep fighting you’ll get to a good place.”
Today, Paul has not one, but three jobs. As well as working for Push, he is Chief Operating Officer for the engineering firm CAL International and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, has returned to his roots as a dentist at Bupa. “I just wanted to do something a bit closer to home again,” he explains. “And dentistry is always a good career to fall back on. It allows me to take career risks elsewhere and do all the other things I want to do.”
In his downtime, he enjoys spending time with his family, walking his cocker spaniel in the dunes near his home in Birkdale (north of Liverpool) and keeping active through running and cycling. As you might have already gathered, he’s not someone who needs much downtime.
“Most stress comes from attempting to manage detail that’s ultimately not relevant. The key is to ignore the noise and only focus on the critical items and you’ll de-stress yourself quite quickly.”
And with that, our conversation comes to an end. I hang up the phone with a renewed sense of perspective and a feeling of optimism about the future. That’s the Dr Paul Kearney effect.
I can’t wait to see what he does next.