Yesterday, just about everyone was stunned when Nova’s CEO, Cathy O’Connor, quit to take up the role of CEO and MD at outdoor player oOH!Media. In doing so, NOVA’s chief commercial officer, Peter Charlton, got elevated to the Nova CEO role. Here, B&T chats with both O’Connor and Charlton on their future plans for their respective medias and how they’re navigating the global pandemic…
Cathy, yesterday’s announcement probably blindsided many, what prompted the move over to oOH!?
O’Connor: I’ve already got a great job at Nova but when I met with the oOH! board the opportunity was just very compelling.
Can I just say this – radio does seem a tad more glamorous than the outdoor industry?
O’Connor: [Laughs] Well that’s something we’ll have to change straight away! There’s a great team of people over there [at oOH!], they have a very compelling offer, they’re very powerful in the digital space and I think they just wanted to build on all the things that [current CEO] Brendon [Cook] has created there. I reflected on the job I’ve done here at Nova and it’s about having a great team, it’s about getting your brand right and then taking your offering and marketing that in new and interesting ways. I just thought that the skills I’ve used at Nova were very transferable and it’s very much an opportunity that I thought was the right move for me.
Peter, it’s a tough time to be a media CEO right now. Some could say you’ve inherited a bit of a poisoned chalice?
Charlton: I think every business in Australia is challenged at the moment. Nova, like every media business, is challenged at the moment and I’ll just get to face that in the CEO role. Obviously, things aren’t turning out as rosy as we thought they would at the beginning of the year, but I’ve been with Nova for eight years now and things are pretty well in place for the the growth that will undoubtedly return. I just hope that it comes quickly. But we’ve got a great set of brands, we’ve had extradordinary audience growth during all this, we’ve developed a very strong digital audio offering and the one thing that COVID has bought, it’s seen a consumer movement to other platforms. I think what COVID will do is drive the development of interesting new products on different platforms while continuing to do all the work we’re currently doing on the existing brands. I think COVID has really fired-up the digital medium. It’s a difficult time for the economy, but at the same time it’s an exciting time for myself and Nova.
Cathy, looking at the outdoor space, what excites you about it? What do you see as the challenges there?
O’Connor: Obviously the pandemic is playing havoc with the economy. What oOH! offers is a number of different products and some of these have been more impacted than others. As airlines are struggling, home improvement and groceries are thriving. Certain parts of the business will take a bigger hit and will require more focus. I think that as the pandemic passes – and that’s a big “when” – I think all businesses will have to respond to restore the growth in those products that have been impacted. On the other side of that, there are other elements of the oOH! business that have done comparatively better. So, in the end, you hope that it all balances out. You asked what excites me about outdoor? You can sense the power of outdoor into the future. How does it interact with people and public spaces? At the end of the pandemic, obviously! Outdoor’s assets – thanks to digitisation – have just become so much more powerful and more measurable and the audiences are becoming more sophisticated. It’s a robust, exciting media and you combine that with the technology and it’s very exciting for both the advertiser and the consumer.
Do you envisage more consolidation in Australia’s outdoor space?
O’Connor: It’s not something I can really comment on. That said, it could happen because the prospects for outdoor are so strong. I think with any media where there’s a prospect of strong returns… you’ve got established businesses with tight assets then… consolidation becomes part of any viable marketplace.
Peter, radio is a media that a new CEO could shake-up very quickly. New line-ups, new products etc. If you had, say, a three to six month plan for Nova, what would that entail?
Charlton: I’ve been working alongside the Nova leadership team for a good three years now and the strategy and planning is very well developed; bar the slight hiccup from this year. So, I think rather than any dramatic change I’d say we’re on a pretty good wicket as it is. We’ve got growth trajectory, we’ve got great brands and we’re strong in the digital space, so I think the only thing would be more digitisation as that gives you more information, more data and we can provide our customers with even more insights. So, neither myself or the current leadership team would be making any major changes to the current strategy. What we’re doing works and that’s shown in our growth in ratings and revenue and we’re not going to change too much.
We’ve just seen the holding companies report and the general consensus appears to be the worst is behind us. Would you agree with that?
Charlton: Look, I hope they’re right. When it comes to someone like WPP, they’re very good at looking at all markets and all sectors and they see the patterns of growth around different categories and hopefully that does indicate that things are improving. Undoubtedly there has been some greenshoots or whatever analogies you want to use and hopefully we can return to our normal, daily patterns. And we can see certain categories grow but we’ve got to be cautious. I like the fact that the holding companies are talking positively, that makes us all feel good and makes clients feel more positive about the future. We can adapt around media choice, we can adapt around creative, we can adapt around messaging, and we need to work with this and be resurgent in a market that has changed. I share their positivity from where we were around three to four months ago. We are looking at much better numbers than we imagined we were in those dark days in May and June, but we have to be cautious.
In both the radio and outdoor space, what would you like to see more from the agency side? Be they creative or media?
O’Connor: I actually think it’s on the out-of-home sector to educate the agencies. I think when an industry works together… I’d be interested to see what progress the industry bodies are making in that regard. Of course, within that, I would like to see oOH!Media lead that education with or withour other out-of-home companies. As I said, there’s always power in the united good. Every media has to own its perception and that’s about responding, seeking to understand and responding to strategies that deliver what agency requirements are. When you come up against resistance, I think you have to try and understand why that is there and work through that. Again, the onus is on the media to drive its own perception.
Charlton: I think it’s the same for radio. Ultimately, revenue shoud follow audience and it doesn’t always follow it as quickly as a media owners would like. I think we can all learn from other industries. You look at television and they’ve worked very well together to provide data and insights about where audiences are going and around creative and how to change creative and work on different engagement models. You talk to any advertiser these days and they definitely want more joined-up measurement to make their decisions easier and persuade clients to change their traditional buying habits.
Last question. You’re both very senior players in Australia’s media landscape. What have you learned – favourable or otherwise – from the tsunami that has been COVID?
O’Connor: Not withsatanding the scale of the impact that COVID has had on the business, I’m pleased with the way that we’ve been able to lead through it. But that doesn’t mean we’ve been able to make decisions that are always popular decisions, but we have tried as a leadership team to really focus on how we’re doing things. And I believe that doing the “how” well has really helped us to ultimately go through what’s been one of the most challenging operating environments that any of us have ever worked in. It’s about leadership, in the good times and the bad times. And it serves you well to take a very humanistic, communicative approach even with the toughest of news and to always have that leadership dynamic always at the forefront of your thinking.
Charlton: I think we’ve learned there’s definitely a place for flexibility. I think there’s a place for short-term thinking. I know we all like to think long-term and lay down plans, but I think during this period we’ve seen marketers wanting to slow down their decision making and that makes real and first up-to-date data and I don’t think that’s going to go away. I think we’ll always find it difficult to forecast and plan for the long-term because marketers and clients will really see the changing nature of consumers and how they communicate with them. There’s going to be a greater thirst for new information, for greater data and tracking of consumer habits and maybe just more short-termism.
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