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“You need a storyteller to tell the stories of other storytellers.” Michael Laxton, the first CMO of Fairfax Media, joins The CMO Show live at this year’s Mumbrella360 conference in Sydney to discuss how to market the media.

In its 187 year history, Fairfax Media has never had a Chief Marketing Officer, until now. Michael Laxton is a digital native and a veritable wunderkind. A true legacy brand and a huge media organisation, Fairfax touches most aspects of Australian society.

“I think every industry has been disrupted now,” Michael told The CMO Show hosts and the audience at Mumbrella360. “If you’re not ensuring that you are at the forefront of where those new customers are and where their habits are, how on earth are you going to make them aware of your product?”

The answer: “You have to go back into brand.”

Highlighting the value of quality journalism is how Michael is marketing the media in a climate of fake news and misinformation. He advocated taking risks where necessary, and backing yourself wherever possible.

“You constantly have to be taking calculated risks on where you think the customer is and is going to be, and investing in that,” Michael said. 

“One key commercial risk that we took was, we have a full price subscription strategy. You’ll notice globally, around the world, that there’s an ‘always on’ strategy with I would say 95% of publishers at least around incentivising the purchase.”

“It’s almost saying to the customer, ‘We don’t 100% believe in the value of our news and subscriptions, so we’ll incentivise you in’.”

“We’re at full price from day one. So we believe in the value of our product. But at the time we were coming from how everyone else was doing it and we had to have a pivot,” Michael said.

The election of Trump has had, believe it or not, a good impact on people’s desire to keep up with current events, according to Michael. He described a tidal wave of curiosity, care and passion for news evident in the past two years.

“All of a sudden, I think a new generation [arose], I call it a “news intender”, someone who’s interested in news. I think it’s attitudinal, not demographic. [People] suddenly started to seek out the news, seek out the journalism. Because they were recognising their habit hadn’t been formed by the newspaper being on the kitchen table or in the office. The habit started to be formed by what they cared about,” Michael said.

With the proliferation of false information online, people are increasingly drawn to journalism from big-name independent organisations like Fairfax. The success of the ‘Independent. Always.’ campaign, and the subsequent ‘Independent news for independent thinkers’ campaign shows customers don’t want to be told what to think – they want the facts and they are willing to seek them out.

“We’ve all seen those stories over the past two or three years around ads appearing next to certain types of content, and brands, globally, and marketers are taking back control,” Michael, said.

“So marketers, all of a sudden, said, ‘Oh, actually, I used to trust my dashboard. I used to trust my user interface. I used to put my campaign into the system’, the campaign would go out and say, ‘You touched all these people. Here’s your metrics.’ And all of a sudden, we, I think, woke up a little bit. I could use the phrase ‘got woke’.”

Get woke with Mark Jones and Nicole Manktelow as they break it down with Michael Laxton on this very special edition of The CMO Show, live at Mumbrella360.



The CMO Show production team

Producer – Candice Witton, Charlotte Goodwin

Audio Engineers – Daniel Marr & Tom Henderson

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Transcript: Michael Laxton makes media great again

Hosts: Mark Jones and Nicole Manktelow

Guest: Micheal Laxton

MJ: Yes, thank you very much, and it’s great to be here with you. Thank you for coming nice and early. My name is Mark.

NM: I’m Nicole Manktelow. We are the CMO show.

MJ: the CMO show. And this is our first live edition. This is episode 79. I went and checked this morning. We’ve been running since March of 2015. Well done us on keeping going And I just wanted to ask first off, how many listeners of the podcast do we have in the audience? Yes, I can see those hands.

NM: Wonderful.

MJ: Most of those are ours. Let’s see. It’s good to know there’s a few listeners. You can find us on your podcast store of choice and on the web, of course, too, so I invite you to subscribe. And before we introduce our guest, I also wanted to thank Mumbrella for having us here. It’s a great opportunity. We’re a big fan of the event, and we’ve got a really great conversation ahead.

MJ:And, finally, I love making people uncomfortable, and in the spirit of our theme today, which is, Make Media Great Again, and yes, you can see where this is going. I wanted to see if I can get everybody to get in the spirit of the moment and I want you all to say together, because you ought to know that this is going live. Right? Our audience needs to know that you are real, okay, and there’s real people here. So, I want everybody together to say, fake news when I count to three. So one, two, three, fake news. Are you up for that? Is that okay? Okay. One, two, three.

Audience: Fake news.

MJ: See we’re off and racing. This is fantastic. Well done. Thank you very much. Well done, you. And welcome to our very special guest.

ML:Thank you very much.

ML: Okay, great intro with fake news. It’s going to kick off the whole conversation.

MJ: Actually, that’s a really awkward segue I’ve just realised. Yeah.

ML: Yeah. Thank you very much.

NM: We’re delighted to have you on The CMO show, Michael and I think it’s worth pointing out that for a brand that’s had a 175 years for some of these mastheads that you’re now looking after, you’re the first CMO, so why does Fairfax need one?

ML: First, I’d say 187 years.

NM:Oh, my.

ML: I have to correct because the team would be very sad if I didn’t correct that fact.

MJ: Turns out facts are important.

ML: Yeah exactly.

ML: And I think with that in my mind, you’ve got brands that are basically owned by the customer. We have brands that are part of the fabric of our community’s lives, and we think about the Herald of the Age is 164 years old. The Fin’s close to 70. These are long standing brands in Australian society. And in a country that’s still very young, and you can hear from my accent, I’m not Australian. And as much as I’d like to now appropriate Australia as my home. They’re there. They’re there as part of people’s lives, they’re their every day lives. And if you think of yourselves, you wake up every morning, the first thing you most likely do, is check the news. And you’ll be checking one of our brands.

ML:So from a marketing perspective, I actually got asked this question around a CMO of a media business. And the way I explained it was that, you need a storyteller to tell the stories of other storytellers. It’s so important today. So in terms of … We have a huge editorial teams, day in, day out investigating, creating information, entertaining people, informing people and it’s really important. I mean, from the title of this podcast, in terms of make news great again, we’ve all seen over the past 18 months, the value of quality news, the value of quality journalism. And it’s my job and my team’s job to keep that message alive and keep reminding customers of how important that is. And actually, I think it’s brilliant. So, I’ve been at Fairfax for four years, and it’s become really, really exciting and inspiring to be in this industry. And I think we’ve seen, probably over the past 20 years, where the move away from newspapers, the move away from that habit had disrupted the industry and I think the industry had rally been thinking about, “What next?” And all of a sudden, they went back to the core value prop, which was the news.

MJ:We’ll get to some of the brand and masthead stuff, in a minute. A bit more on the Michael Laxton story. How did you get into Fairfax itself? Because, you’re not a native, not just to the country, but to the industry.

ML: Yeah, exactly. So I joined Fairfax from General Pants Group, so retail and my career in London was also really based around eCommerce and retail and I started my career basically at the start of businesses moving to online environments and moving into transaction environments. So, my first job was building a website, basically. I worked for a retailer called Geiger in London, and they were trying to figure out their kind of clicks and mortar journey, as it was labelled back then. That was the new big thing in the mid 90’s.

MJ: Hashtag

ML:And I was really … I look back and think how lucky I was from a marketing perspective. So didn’t do a marketing degree, I did a languages degree, but what I had was a real fascination with the customer, and a real fascination with actual language use, so the English language. And so I joined when you basically got to learn on the job. You got to learn how to code. You got to learn how to write newsletter copy, to send the newsletter, to build a display banner. You learned how to work with Flash, SEO. So I was there when double click was just double click, before it was bought by Google. So, right at the start. I basically got to learn as the industry learned itself.

MJ:You’re a hipster of digital marketing, pretty much.

ML:Well, it was just … I mean, it’s not even that long ago really. You say I’m young, but it’s a lifetime, I think, in digital because it’s come so far in 15 years. But at that point, we were all trying to figure out how to connect that customer that we knew was coming through the shop door, into coming onto the shop front, the digital shop front. And where you would get them from. So back then it was all the portals and it was all the AOLs of the world. And you were like, “Oh, I think they’ve got this mass audience.” And people didn’t even know how to metricize size it back then. So you were just like, “Oh I think …” And interestingly, which we’ll come to, but back then you just did it around kind of customer affinity, or what you thought they would be interested in. So we were a fashion retailer, so you would go to other fashion portals and go, “Let’s advertise with you because that feels right.” Feels right, intuition. So I was schooled very early on around, “What do you think the customer wants to do.”

ML: Which I think is quite lucky, because if you come to today and you may be coming, step straight into it and you’re a digital marketer and I don’t like that phrase. I think you’re a marketer in digital channels. And day one you’ll probably get landed with a dashboard, and you’ll get landed with a marketing plan, and you’ll be instantly told the metrics you need to measure yourself by. And what’s really important I think marketing leaders need to remember this. Is that you still have to teach marketers that there are human beings at the end of this journey. So, if they’re going to see a banner, or a paid search ad, or something on social, or on a known platform, it’s still a human being. And I think, over the past 15 years, I’ve watched the complete, it went right down to that end of that funnel.

ML: So, I was at Warner music in London. I set up their direct to consumer business there and that was really around about ROI. So it was how much money do you need in year one to make X money back? So the conversation wasn’t about is there an audience need here. The conversation wasn’t really about, “Oh, where do you think all these fans and artists connect?” It was, “How much money do you need,” because the CFOs back then, at the end of the noughties were obsessed with reporting and obsessed with metrics. Because they’d been sold the direct marketing dream. And that’s not necessarily bad. It fits in the funnel, but it has a place in the funnel and people forgot that that funnel just didn’t sit right at the conversion point. So for me, coming then to Fairfax, it was really to come with a digital remit at the start and really understand that conversion environment, but also the audience environment. So I came and looked at a broad audience remit across our news mastheads, our lifestyle mastheads, and our subscriptions businesses and that really then focused down on growing those subscription businesses as record rate as we knew global trends for publishers were going into subscriptions and then with the move into the CMO role, it’s really about, kind of that whole customer touch point strategy. I really believe that the corporate of work is the customer at home and we touch every customer in Australia, basically. We’re a huge media business and I think that as long as we remember exactly what we’re here to do, I don’t think we’ll go wrong basically.

NM: What’s the scariest thing you’ve ever had to do in this role?

ML In this role. It’s an interesting question because I think you have to have a certain comfort with risk, because we’re a hugely disrupted industry. So, you constantly have to be taking calculated risks on where you think the customer is and is going to be and investing in that. Because if you similarly start to naval gaze at the publisher and just withdraw back to your own platforms, I think then you’re not really understanding what a customer’s wanting from you. One I guess, key commercial risk that we took was, we have a full price subscription strategy and to give you a bit of an explanation there. You’ll notice globally, around the world, that there’s an ‘always on’ strategy with, I would say 95% of publishers at least around incentivizing the purchase. So, for me it’s almost saying to the customer, “We don’t 100% believe in the value of our news and subscriptions, so we’ll incentivize you in.”

NM: Okay. So this is your X number of what’s free for a little while.

ML: Or also just to keep, just to get you paid from day one. Whereas we’re at full price from day one. So we believe in the value of our product. We believe in the value of our news and so three years ago, we turned to a full price strategy. That is pretty scary to do because it’s not following market trends, it’s not following global trends. And it’s also saying that we really value what we do. And it’s been very successful. So, it’s been a rewarded risk. But at the time we were coming from how everyone else was doing it and we had to have a pivot.

MJ: That’s interesting, the confidence that comes through with that. Give us a bit of an insight into the culture at Fairfax, and being the first CMO, and you’ve got this digital, you know, the digital history you spoke about. But working at the board level, taking on these risks, communicating perhaps a different strategic perspective on marketing. What’s that been like as a pioneer inside the business?

ML: In a nutshell, at the start, I think I came in and my first impression was that the content and the journalism was the most important thing. Now I know that probably sounds a little bit I was going to swear there, and I’m not going to swear in a podcast. I know it sounds highly simple, and highly simplified. However, I joined really as, with a retail focus but knowing we were a purpose and values led business. So my brain obviously went to, “Well, how am I going to sell this?” And then when I looked around at how I’m going to sell this, “Well, how I sell the values and the purpose of this business?” It’s the journalism. It’s what we do every single day. We’re a news organisation. We’re a media organisation. So then, coming into the business that the, my instincts first told me it was to really understand from the editorial team, exactly what they believed in, what made them tick, how that newsroom worked, and how we really had a 24/7 part. Because, the previous strategy, and it’s not to say that it was wrong, was, really around growing a subscriptions business. It was very product led, very price and promotional led.

MJ: Very tactical.

ML: Very tactical. It was grow, grow, grow. And when I joined, my first thoughts were, “For this to be sustainable, it has to really align to the values and why we’re here.” So, actually when I started to have those discussion internally … I actually think I kind of found some universal truths there. Everyone that worked, talk about the culture at Fairfax. Everyone believes in what Fairfax is there to do. And I think it kind of gets sometimes obscured by kind of the media company label. Versus, we have these amazing brands and those brands are really created, generated, contributed to by the readers. So really, it’s these brilliant communities with very engaged people. And everyone at Fairfax believes that it’s very important that those mastheads continue and go on for the job they do. So that’s the culture.

MJ: And just to clarify, that brand purpose that you speak to and why we exist, why was sort of obscured by a lot of the other news coverage that the media are writing about media, and all the drama that goes with that? Was there … Was that a part of it?

NM: The politics and the personalities?

ML: I think four years ago, when I joined, I think news media globally was still trying to figure out how it fit in. So, you would hear a lot of conversations around, “Is it a SEO strategy? And a Google news strategy? Is it a content distribution strategy, where we need to make sure we appear on all these off platform areas?” But what I think has really happened, especially over the last two years, it’s really realised that it doesn’t really matter where you are, but the content is the most important thing because that reader will come back. And I call it a reader because even four years ago, it was quite unfashionable to say reader. You were talking about audiences.

MJ:A bit crass really.

ML: Well, you were talking about scale. So, when … I think four years ago news media organisations were still trying to figure out the monetization and commercialization strategy. So back again to me pioneering through the business, it was always recognising that purpose and values were going to be the most important thing because we’re a news organisation. Secondly, you would be naïve though, not to talk to your stakeholders around the monetization and commercialization strategy because we’ve still got to pay the bills. But lastly then, from a customer perspective, what we really realised, it wasn’t really about us. It was about them. So I think when you stop looking inwards and start looking outwards you suddenly remember there are all these passionate people around you, who really want to engage with your brands, who want your brands to succeed. And I think that was also a pivot for us, where … And we’ll come on that, I think in a bit. But, around the the brand strategies for the main mastheads and The Fin, is around really going, “Who are we talking to? How important are they?” Not how important are we. And I think you can see that for news organisations globally now. It has become much more about the reader, I would say. And I talk about customer centricity, and I think that really applies more from a business perspective, but from a purpose and values perspective, it’s about the reader.

MJ: Okay, great.

NM: Michael, I want to find out a little bit more about how you integrate this philosophy and this purpose throughout … As you were saying, the company has no lack of purpose, and has a lot of people interested in it and they have their own views. But, how do you make this actually happen? How do you put that value in a form that can be seen by the end user, the audience, or the reader, and that they recognise that there’s a value to it? How do you permeate, now that you’ve got it clear, how do you get that message out? Where are you in the system?

ML: I think , I mean, my first thoughts always go to back to basics, in my head, around channel strategy in terms of permeation. I think what my team have been very good at doing and have set up in their-

MJ: They’re here aren’t they?

ML:They are. Yeah, in the audience.

MJ: Cheers.

ML: Your welcome. It’s actually more around the expertise that we have built as a marketing function, has been around bringing in people that really understand their channels, understand their role in those channels, in that funnel, and understand that getting that message through is really important. So, over the past four years we’ve created a really robust … And I call it a channel strategy which makes it sound too simple. But understanding exactly where the customer is, reflecting where the customer is in their journey. Because if you think about a new journey, you will have people who, will obviously sit right on top of the funnel in terms of kind of casual, you’ll have people who are highly engaged but don’t pay, you’ll have people who are high propensity ant pay but aren’t, and then people who are paying. It’s kind of simple as that.

ML: So really, turning up with that value and message at that point in the journey, has made us very successful. Because, if you’re kind of a casual reader, you’re probably very aligned to the topic matter. So you probably come for your breaking news, or you come for your sports headlines, or your business headlines. And we’re happy that you come for that and we want to keep reminding you of that habit. If you don’t come into a high propensity, which is you are using us enough to be paying for us, we think, but you’re not, it’s really then, we think about that extra utility in our products. And bringing value and purpose through in the utilities. So, is it about, let’s say for instance, an iPad app which is giving you the experience you want, where you want it, and then through in terms of when you’re paying for it, we really have to do a brilliant job of demonstrating the value of paying and staying.

ML: So we have a highly successful subscriber loyalty programme, but that is a loyalty programme really based around our values. So if you get an exclusive experience with us, it’s really around what we call and arts and smarts strategy. It’s around those brands, those brand partners, those activities that we know our audiences value. And we have live series with our journalists. We bring our journalists to our readers. We allow them to engage. I say allow, which is like permissions based. We want them to engage.

MJ: You sound like you’re taking over.

ML: Yeah, exactly. And then we make sure then we bring all of that content back out to people to remind them what’s going on. And I think that makes us look less functional and more purpose and passion driven, because we say, “This is what’s important.” We recognise who you are and keep talking to that.

MJ: So something that fascinates us at the CMO show is trend spotting in marketing. And you made a comment to me about the rise of brands. I don’t know what that’s against in your mind, perhaps campaign driven ideas, or you know bespoke executions. How do you connect this concept of amplifying the channels to a brand strategy and you know, there’s been I think most of you would have seen the “Independent, always,” tagline that’s being used, ubiquitously I would suggest. So connect that, why is the brand rising? And what does that mean?

ML: To probably give you the understanding, how I see it, we obviously went from I think way back when it was all about audience and brands. So, all your marketing campaigns usually weren’t measurable but you were returning to places, that you knew your customer was. So we had TV and radio, and cinema, and outdoor, because we knew the customer was there. It was pretty blunt, but it was actually highly effective. Occupying that mental availability around your brand. You knew you had to be there for you to be considered. Digital comes along, and starts making it addressable, targetable, and you suddenly start to be able to segment, you start to be able to isolate your audiences. And that actually led us further, and further, and further into the niche, and the niche, because you were like-

MJ: So it really fragmented strategies.

ML: Fragmented strategies, but I think it became less around the brand and more around. There was still kind of a message, but maybe not a brand message, but maybe a message that you thought was relevant to that point in the journey. But it became very direct response in my opinion and you were then, “Okay, so, we know it can turn a dollar here.” And then it becomes almost kind of insatiable and you were chasing the dollar because you knew you could turn a dollar and all you thought about was ROI.

MJ:Right. Is this manifesting in journalists you know, writing stories that effectively give you clicks, or …?

ML:So, I’ll do the marketing lens maybe first, and then we come to the journalism lens. Form a marketing lens, we went down that rabbit hole, right? And we were obsessively down there and I think it became less about “How do I turn this brand?” and more, “How do I make sure that I’m constantly always on.” And I think we saw a lot of what would have been called “brand money” go into direct response money. And, all of sudden, I reckon, probably 2010, 2011 we were just in this martech, adtech, every conference I went to was big data, small data, platforms and I went from seeing all of the small little tech vendors being bought by the big vendors and you were all consolidated and you were in this marketing cloud. And there were lots of diagrams with circles, and interconnecting dots, and central nervous systems, and you’re like, “Wow, the future of marketing is here. I can just put all my data in for me and it will spit out a marketing campaign.”

ML: And then all of sudden people started going like, “I don’t know what your brand is. I haven’t seen your brand.” And I think the penny started to drop that people had forgotten to market their brand. And they suddenly forgot that there was actually a whole funnel and there was a decent funnel here. And all of a sudden, I started to see people talking about the funnel again, and everything went back to awareness and consideration before you got to the pain point. So then, from my perspective in terms of where I think brand is having it’s resurgence, in two ways and I can connect this back to journalism, is number one, people have realised that I think every industry has been disrupted now, and if you are not ensuring that you are at the forefront of where those new customers are and where their habits are, and that’s not going to be at the point, because they’ve not even adopted you yet. They haven’t got to the bottom of the funnel, because they don’t even know who you are. How on earth are you going to make them aware of your product? And you have to go back into brand.

ML:And I think now, we still have much smarter ways … I think it’s great to see that we’ll have things like programmatic TV and programmatic outdoor. I think that can be very clever. However, there still needs to be a brand message which is, “We are here and we exist.” A good example, I think in this market, is something like Uber Eats, which has high … Uber the brand, high penetration, in everyone’s pocket now because of the phone. But you bring in the food service and the first thing, I think they did, was go back to brand. They kind of tied themselves back to “Who do I want to be known for?”, kind of slightly luxury, out in TV land and they know that they’ve got to still make you aware of them. People forgot that.

ML: So when it comes to journalism, I think that we had people you had to pay for journalism, you had to pay for that paper to access the news. Come 1994, ’95, I think it was, there was a global news organisation conference and they said, “Actually, we’re going to make our news websites free.” So they instantly changed the model. Then, so it was all mass participation and I think that was fine still because there was no barriers to entry for a customer. You could just go on to probably the one that you still read in the paper, went online. Then all of a sudden come the advent of the iPhone and everyone stops thinking they needed to go their news agent, or needing it delivered, they could just pick up the phone on the table. And it was still free, but all of a sudden, that kind of core revenue stream, had started to be disrupted. And then that translates into, “Okay, well we’ll need pay walls. They’re gonna start paying for it.” And then we start chasing the pay wall strategy or chasing the monetization strategy, chasing the freemium models, et cetera. But again-

MJ: Are we still stuck there?

ML:Well, I would say no, now, because I would say, particularly in the last two years … That’s why it’s so exciting to be a marketing in news publishing because the last two years, and Trump has certainly helped, people went back to-

MJ: Sorry. He’s helped?

ML:Certainly. He definitely helped in terms of … People suddenly realised that “What do I care about? Do I care about news publishing? Do I care about journalism? And all of a sudden, I think a new generation, I call it a “news intender”, someone who’s interested in news. So I think it is attitudinal not demographic, suddenly started to seek out the news, seek out the journalism. Because they were recognising their habit hadn’t been formed by the newspaper being on the kitchen table in office. Their habit hadn’t been formed by traditional ways of consuming news media. The habit started to be formed by what they cared about.

NM: Not an algorithm.

MJ: So, “What news sources do I trust?”.

ML: Yeah, exactly. And also, “Do I care about the news? Yes or no?” And there’s been this huge tidal wave of curiosity and care and passion for news that’s come back through, and we’re a quality news outlet. We invest a lot of money in our journalism and I think it’s really benefited those quality news outlets. So you can see for us in this market, you can see the Washington Post, The New York Times, The Telegraph in London, The Times in London, all of a sudden there are new audiences and core audiences came back to those organisations that we care about. We care about the work that you do. And so brand is back because it’s no longer, yes it’s content driven, but you associate in your tribe with your masthead. And I think there’s no greater market in Australia to show that polarisation of tribe. And there are two core media businesses really from a publishing perspective, in this market. And those tribes are distinct. And what I find really exciting is the new “news intender” that’s coming towards Fairfax, that’s coming towards these mastheads and saying, “We care about you. And we want to be part of the tribe.”

NM: How does that translate in a world which is driven by the algorithms that are changed at the whim of the facts running our big social media platforms and decide, “Hmm, now I’m going to make things more active and I don’t want passive content anymore. I have a new thing I want to flog, so therefore my algorithm will benefit a particularly kind of media.” How do you guys cope with that?

ML:WellI think, firstly, I think one word, which is trust. So, I think four years ago there was a very compelling message around utility for social media platforms and news distribution. It was, “It’s where I am. It’s where I want to be. Therefore I will have it served to me.” And I think there’s been a huge amount of algorithm change across all of the social media and search engine platforms. But now, I think, instead of going, ” Well, it’s how I want it served to me,” it’s, “Do I trust what is being served to me?”. The dialogue changed two years ago, I think. And I think what we’ve also seen from Cambridge Analytica as an investigative piece, what we’ve seen from the Trump election, and that’s not from me having an opinion on it. That’s from me saying the stories that have been created around it, and you can make your own mind up. From what we saw from Brexit in the UK. We’ve now just seen numerous occasions where it’s entered the public discourse, around news. And do you trust the news.

ML: And I think for quality news organisations, that narrative is basically informing itself. And I think, versus news organisation which were now, you see us globally all doing it, continuously now demonstrating why you trust us, how you can trust us. And I think from a commercial perspective when you look at advertising in this market and probably globally actually, you now look at brand safety, transparency, and viewability as core metrics around where you’re going to spend your money. And I think that’s very interesting because premium news environments are the place to be now, because you trust where you’re going to show up, the reader trusts the environment that it’s in. You can measure it. It’s highly transparent, et cetera. And we’ve all see those stories over the past two or three years around ads appearing next to certain types of content, and brand, globally, and marketers taking back control.

ML: So marketers, all of a sudden, said, “Oh, actually, I used to trust my dashboard. I used to trust my user interface. I used to put my campaign into the system, the campaign would go out and say, “You touched all these people. Here’s your metrics.” And all of a sudden, we, I think, woke up a little bit. I could use the phrase, “got woke” which would be very new wouldn’t it? And just said, “Hang on.”

MJ You heard it here first.

ML:You heard it here first guys. I’ve been trying to use that phrase. I think, all of sudden, everyone is very aware. I think “news intenders” are very, very aware of where they’re getting their news from.

MJ:So connect all these great ideas to “Independent. Always.”  And if we kind of think of it as a mini case study. We’ve talked about some of the strategy as to why the brand message, the brand purposes exists and the metrics, et cetera. But what’s been the impact? So, what have you learned and what’s it delivered to the business?

MLSo I think … So “Independent. Always, ” was put into each of the mastheads to signify the significance of it and back in 2013, 2014. So that was really a bold statement in this market to say, without fear or favour, We will report on the things we need to report on. We will not have a consideration for anything else apart from the truth and we will support our journalists in that endeavour. And from a marketing perspective, it’s there to highlight those endeavours and that truth. What we’ve done since, “Independent. Always,” from a brand perspective in market … So we launched, “Independent news for independent thinkers,” as the kind of earmark activation of that kind of ramp platform. And what that did was put the journalism front and centre. So we launched that in 2015. And that was really all round the topics that our subscribers and our readers really cared about. And we’ve done that successfully since then and we’ve done it through election times, US election times. We talked about things like marriage equality, all of those passion points that we think need to be surfaced and we know that our audiences want to see this.

ML And I think, we have the opportunity as these brands, and as these publishing platforms, we have the chance as the marketers for those to really contribute to the Australian discourse on these subjects and be that voice in market. And I think, from a brand perspective, when we go out fully into market, into what we consider traditional at home. So you see your street furnitures, you see your buses, you see your trams in Melbourne, et cetera. And we believe that our responsibility is to keep that discourse active around that subject matter. And then from a marketing perspective, you can translate that, I think, quite easily into a digital strategy. So you’ll see it, through the journey, around and through the payed channels, through our own platforms, if you are any of our environment, you will see the same message being reiterated. And “Independent news for independent thinkers” was really important for us because it was the first time we put the customer value prop into the brand platform. So the two key components of that, independent news, it was reiterating, this is exactly what we stand for in this market.

NM: It’s what’s on the tin.

ML: It’s what’s on the  if you knew that from the UK. Saw that phrase all the time. And from a customer perspective, Independent thinkers. And it’s really important for us to differentiate us in the market. We are saying that we aren’t asking you to believe what we’re saying. We’re asking you to have an opinion on what we’re saying. We’re asking you to think about what we’re saying, because we believe our audience doesn’t want to be told what to think. We want our audience to be given the opportunity to know what’s important to be thinking about.

MJ: And how are you translating all that to the business results? Are you seeing the sales team have better engagements? What feedback do you get from media agencies? What happens on the bottom line?

ML: So two sides actually, from a commercial revenue perspective. One side is also our own core subscriptions business side, which I’m accountable for. So in February this year, we reported 283, 000 paying digital subscribers, so it’s our biggest result yet. And that was a 20% lift on the previous half. And we had a 10% lift in subscription revenue on the previous half. So you can see tangible results in the consumer business.

ML: Then from, and I won’t talk on behalf of my commercial peer, Matt , but what I know is that from a commercial perspective, we have the same message with our advertising partners, with our agencies. Which is we stand for journalism. We stand for trust. We stand for brand safety. So therefore, as I said before, so if it’s a corporate at work, or a client at work, or an advertising agency at work, they’re a consumer at home, so it’s very important that the brand and the commercial strategy are aligned because then when the commercial team is at the market they know, who they’re going to want to advertise with. And we know that big brands in market and globally want to associate with quality and trust and safety, and we’re their natural partner for that.

MJ: And so those sales conversations are easier?

ML: I think so. I think it’s because we know how we turn up. We know we turn up as this organisation in each of our core markets.

NM: It’s always easier when you know who you are.

ML: Right. Isn’t that exciting?

NM: Really strong frame to work with.

ML:And it’s such a healthy dialogue, I think, in the business between technology and product, and commercial and marketing and editorial in terms of we are all unified around that core message in who we are and why we’re here. And therefore it makes all the conversations very much easier, because then if you just talk about what your departmental value prop is, you’re all coming from the same truth.

MJ: You made an interesting comment to me as well about creativity. And we’ve been very data centric for awhile, just, what’s your philosophy on creativity and reclaiming it?

ML:Yes, exactly. So, I had a really good phrase, reminding me of the phrase of, maybe a few weeks ago now, around marketing being that beautiful blend of art and science. And as a senior marketer you really need to have those two things at hand to be successful and to inspire your teams. So, a modern marketer absolutely needs to know it’s numbers, like their numbers. They need to be able to demonstrate their value to a business, and I think we’re set up for success there. However, we’re in marketing for a reason. We should be passionate it about the idea. We should come up with the idea. And so, I really believe with my team, is that their responsible for the idea. They are not brief writers. They know their customer. They should be passionate about their customer. And they should be passionate about creating really great work. And I think, I definitely noticed over, maybe ten years, people abdicating responsibility to the agency. They thought if I bring in this big agency X or big agency Y, they’ll give me the idea, and I think, I’m talking out of school a little bit here.

MJ: No, go ahead.

ML: It makes me a little bit sad when you do see lots of great big awards for creativity and it’s a big brand campaign, it’s the agency then, not the brand. And I’m like, “Okay, what’s the marketing team thinking about this?” I’m very territorial around my brands. I’m very territorial around my creativity. I want my marketers to live and breathe their ideas, and what gets them out of bed and what makes them excited. And I really encourage people to not forget that their a human being, and their customers are human beings and if you don’t realise, and what makes you excited, do you think that is good? Because I used to see it a lot where things would come back from the agency and it would get extrapolated around metrics or extrapolated around the insights and the segments. And I’m like, “Is it good? Do you think it’s any good?” Because I think it looks like a bag of spanners.

NM:Taste, instinct, intuition-

ML: Your tummy compass. My favourite phrase.

NM:And you can from an era when you were doing a lot of data stuff and in retail you wanted to use your instinct and you went with your instinct. And I hear this in a lot of the comments you’ve said today, coming back to, even the business, deciding what we are. WE’re about value. We’re about trust. And deciding to push that as the all encompassing message. That’s not based on data particularly.

ML:Absolutely right. I always say, and I say it to my team, “Data should inform your decision, not make your decision.” I’m very clear on that. I’ve been clear on that since I started my career that as soon as kind of the Google Analytics Dashboard came out, a few years ago, and everyone was like, “Oh, wow, I didn’t know that you liked that.” It’s very good insights but it shouldn’t change your marketing decision, because your marketing decisions should be based on instinct and nuance and understanding your brand. And I think, why would you be in marketing if you don’t get to play … I definitely hear people get very insecure around, “We’re not the colouring in club.” I hear that a lot, right? And I’m like, “Well, actually, I quite like colouring in.” So, as long as I can demonstrate a business outcome and a revenue outcome in some strategic spots, I also would like to do some colouring in.

MJ: And some of the great case studies I’ve seen here at Mumbrella 360 have ostensibly been great creative executions, right? That’s the spirit of creativity that’s in there.

NM: Is it rapid fire time?

MJ: Rapid fire time.

NM: Can I begin?

MJ: You go first.

NM: If you weren’t a marketer, what would you be?

ML: That’s a very good question. I think … If I wasn’t a marketer, I reckon I would probably … Do you know, I wouldn’t be surprised if I was a writer, some sort of writing gig. But I don’t think that would be journalism, but I love the English language. So …

MJ:  What’s your best ever career advice?

ML: I’m going to give away some of my tricks here. My best advice to any marketer, is if you can’t innovate, emulate. So, like we don’t all have the funds or the cost envelopes to have amazing agency, lots of agencies, lots of people giving us ideas all the time, we don’t have R&D budgets, et cetera. So, sit back and go, “This is my key strategic challenge. Who is doing a brilliant job at this right now? How are they doing a brilliant job? And how can I think about that in a way that it applies to my brand?” And so that’s not to copy. It’s to emulate.

MJ: Well, don’t they say if you borrow it from like ten people, it’s research. If you borrow from one it’s.

NM: That’s plagiarism.

ML: I really, I mean, and I don’t always think that’s cheating, but I think it’s just smart thinking to go, if I don’t have all the time in world, all the money in the world, think about who does a brilliant job and benefit from their R&D.

MJ: Last question.

NM: If you could change one thing about the marketing industry, what would it be?

ML: I think it’s probably, actually I think it’s the perception of the marketing industry. I really think that people sometimes have a very … I get very proud and very territorial about our marketing and being a marketer and I think sometimes marketers don’t defend themselves properly. We are, we know our customers better than anybody else, in any organisation, and that’s not from an editorial perspective. They know they’re readers better than a marketer ever would, but we know it and we know are technologists, data scientists, we’re creatives. We are like a quadruple threat. So, we should be proud of being a quadruple threat, and we should make sure that we know our place around the table is a valid one and one that is vital for the future of any business.

MJ:  That’s a great perspective on where media is going in this country. Thank you for the work that your doing to restore … I’m speaking as an Fairfax person, got to put that out there, right? So I’m slightly biassed, I’ll admit it. But it’s been great. We’ve really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you for being on the CMO show and our very first live episode recorded here at Mumbrella 360. Thank you for coming and I do encourage you to download this from the iTunes and Android stores of choice.

NM:  Like us, love us.

MJ: Love us, love us. Right.

NM: Provide feedback. Got any ideas?

MJ: That’s right.

NM: Questions you want answered.

MJ: Say hello to us afterwards. Thank you very much for joining us on the show. We’ll hand over to our wonderful host.

MJ: If you’ve got a question you’d like us to answer on the show, just tweet us @CMOShow or use the hashtag #TheCMOShow. We’d love to hear from you.

MJ: The CMO Show is a podcast produced by Filtered Media and a quick shoutout to our incredible team Candice Witton, Charlotte Goodwin, and Ewan Miller.

NM: And our engineering wizards: Tom Henderson and Daniel Marr.

MJ: You guys are the best!


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