The bad boy who proved that, at least in advertising, it pays to come good

David Jones, high flyer, Scorpio, and the only British CEO of a quoted French company, talks to Judi Bevan
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The Independent Online

Parents of lazy, badly behaved teenagers, take heart.

When David Jones was 18, after a chequered school career, he found himself alone in a German college on the first ever European Union-sponsored business course. He had failed to get into a British university. Then the pampered eldest son of a Cheshire businessman had a moment of awakening: "It was incredibly tough listening to lectures in German, I didn't know anyone and it was difficult and expensive to phone home," he recalls. "It made me realise that I had been incredibly lucky, my parents had been amazing and I had been a complete shit."

The experience was his making. Chance led to an internship at an advertising agency which catapulted him into a meteoric career in the industry. Early this year he was appointed chief executive of the French-quoted Havas, which, although way behind giants such as Omnicom, WPP and Publicis, is one of the top six advertising and marketing groups in the world.

Fluent in French and German, Jones is the only British chief executive of a quoted French company, which makes a refreshing change from continentals running UK businesses.

At 45, in his dark, immaculate Paris-made suit and white shirt with matching pocket handkerchief, Jones not only looks like the ad man from central casting but is apparently living the dream. He and his well-connected French wife, Karine, have a house on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with their four young children. When he is not in London, Paris or travelling elsewhere – more often than he would like – he makes his children breakfast before walking the two eldest to the Lycée Français a few blocks away. From there, it is a short journey to his office to begin his working day.

Jones has been in London to promote his book Who Cares Wins: Why Good Business is Better Business, about how nice companies do better than nasty ones. It is a not-terribly-original concept, slickly repackaged for the digital age, and published by Pearson, which is, of course, a "nice" company. Havas, too, is a nice company, tuned to the twin zeitgeists of conservation and good works. There is some pretty obvious advice in his book – which he wrote in 10 days – such as "be prepared", but it also makes some interesting points about increased transparency in a world where Facebook and Twitter can start revolutions and phone hacking can close newspapers.

As co-founder of the charity One Young World, which sponsors talented young people from all five continents to do great things, Jones was also hosting a "Young Leaders" question and answer session with Olympics supremo Lord Coe and London Mayor Boris Johnson. "I have always believed that we can use the power of creativity to effect positive change," he says. "In our business, we try to change people's views, attitudes and behaviour for commercial purposes, but you can also change people's behaviour about some of the big issues in our world." In 2009, Jones helped create Kofi Annan's TckTckTck campaign on climate change; 18 million people signed up. Although commendable, let's not pretend that all this do-goodery is ultimately about anything else than winning business – in essence the message of the book.

We meet in the St Pancras Grand restaurant, on the upper concourse of the wonderfully renovated London station. Jones is catching the Eurostar and needs to check in by 10am. For the next hour he barely pauses for breath. Relentlessly upbeat, he spatters his conversation with "amazing", "incredible" and "massively".

Jones is a Scorpio, something he imbues with importance. "Every boss I have ever had was a Scorpio," he says. His mother was an artist turned teacher, while his father ran the textile group Vantona until 1982, when Lord Alliance merged it with Viyella to create Vantona Viyella. His father was ousted in the deal, a crisis that may have provided the psychological kicker to give Jones his drive later on. Having a brilliant elder sister, Zoe, may also have played a part – although, while growing up, rather than compete, he chose another route to gain attention. "I thought being bad was a better strategy," he says, laughing. He did, however, compete in sport. "I was a sports freak – rugby, tennis, cricket, athletics – we were a massively sporty family. My dad was captain of the county's first tennis team, and me and my brother played first couple."

His career path is a Who's Who of advertising agencies, starting with BDH (now BDH/ TBWA) in 1989 when he was still at the Reutlingen Fachhochschule in Germany. After two years managing accounts for Henkel, Silentnight and Salon, he joined JWT's Paris office where he managed the European account for Unilever – handling both detergents and shampoos. There, he met Kate Robertson, now UK chairwoman of Havas and a co-founder with him of One Young World.

Three years later, he was off to Abbott Mead Vickers, where he became the youngest ever board member, working on British Telecom, Wrangler and Mars. By that time he had married Karine Bernard and both were sick of London. "We thought, 'let's go do something else', so we headed off to Sydney to kick some tyres."

At 32, he landed a job as chief executive of the Australian arm of Euro RSCG, part of Havas, where he launched a digital agency, won new clients, including Orange and Dell, and a host of awards. After five years, he was offered the chief executive job of Euro RSCG New York, and then of the RSCG Worldwide.

Enter Vincent Bollore, a veteran corporate raider and maverick, who owns 32 per cent of Havas and 25 per cent of a rival, Aegis. In 2010, he re-organised Havas and in 2011 appointed Jones as chief executive under his chairmanship. There is constant speculation that Bollore will merge the two companies. There are also rumours of clashes between Jones and Bollore. Jones looks genuinely puzzled. "I have never had an argument with Vincent," he says, pausing. "Although that doesn't mean we don't have differences of opinion, but he is invariably right," he bursts out laughing, "and just unbelievably smart." He goes on to describe Bollore's latest venture – the world's first electric car hire scheme, launched in France last week.

So far, Jones has done well at Havas, reducing debt and addressing failing companies within the group. The future for the eurozone may be uncertain but he is ever the optimist. "I don't think the economy will be as bad as people are predicting." Then suddenly it is 10.10 and Jones is sprinting to catch his train – off to Paris to do good and win more business.