Streaming a new brand: Rdio's Colin Blake

The former marketing chief and now head of Australia for music streaming services provider, Rdio, talks about his marketing career, how to build a brand, and how CMOs are closer to being business leaders than they may think

There aren’t that many marketers who boast both solid branding roots and broader business leadership and development experience. But head of territory Australia and New Zealand for music streaming company Rdio, Colin Blake, not only possesses these skills, he’s also coached the Canadian Olympics snowboarding team.

Blake joined Rdio in March last year and is responsible for managing the company’s Australian operations including its strategic partnership with DMG Radio Australia. With a key focus on long-term brand strategy and vision, his objective is to expand Rdio’s subscription base via marketing, partnerships and commercial opportunities.

Given his sporting history, however, it’s not surprising that building brands was not what Blake first set out to do. As a young adult watching snowboarding take off in Vancouver, Canada, he decided to take a year off from university to pursue this new-found passion. Several years later, it led to the unexpected opportunity in 1995 to coach Canada’s inaugural national snowboarding team for the 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics.

“They announced snowboarding would be a new sport from the Nagano Olympics and wanted to establish a national team for Canada, so some funding was put behind it,” he recalled. “It was fortuitous, as there were only a few dozen guys in Canada who had been in that space, and it legitimised what I was doing.”

Blake inevitably became involved in sponsorship relations, PR and communications, and ended up the voice and face of Canada’s snowboarding aspirations. This was his first entry into the marketing world and when his contract expired in 1999, it landed him a role with a small, entrepreneurial agency in Vancouver called Inventa.

Brought on as a consultant on youth marketing projects for clients such as Coca-Cola, Nike and Molson Breweries, Blake quickly branched into account management on other businesses including ING Bank and BC Gas Corp.

In 2001, he moved to Australia and took over as head of marketing for fashion retailer, General Pants Group, for four years. “It was purely a youth marketing play, and very brand focused,” Blake said. “We had an opportunity to turn that into something extremely cool and the doors were wide open to how we made that connection to consumers – via music, media, and other things.”

This was also the case with Blake’s next role at MTV, where he was responsible for expanding the media group’s Australian presence. “There was a heavy brand agenda, as MTV had the idea that it needed a significant presence in Australia from both a trade and consumer perspective. The company wanted to get to the point where it was shooting above its weight as far as media reach off the power of the brand.

“It was a dream scenario for me: It was market for your life for the next 4-5 years, and make it as cool as you can.”

Blake ended up taking on talent relations, PR and comms, then more commercial duties. His last title at Viacom (MTV rebranded in 2011) was VP of brand partnerships, a role he claimed “made me a more well-rounded business person, rather than a straight brand marketer”.

“There was a very big turning point for me personally at Viacom when I flipped from a straight marketing remit, where it was about strategy, budget and result management, to VP of partnerships where I had revenue targets, had to balance a P&L, and had a wider business remit.

“You needed the marketing know-how for the role, but it changed my vision on what a marketing result was and where it landed in the context of the overall performance of the business. I transformed from a headstrong brand marketer happily arguing the merits of any marketing initiative I felt passionate about, to having a much more rounded vision on marketing’s impact on the overall good of the business.”

Combining user experience with partnership

This combination of marketing smarts and business nous is coming in handy at Rdio. Established by Skype co-creator, Janus Friius, in 2010, the company delivers on-demand music access to consumers via a free-to-use service or monthly subscription offering. In just four years, Rdio has expanded into 51 countries, and claims paid-for subscribers account for 90 per cent of users.

According to Blake, much of Rdio’s success comes from its ingrained focus on technology excellence and commitment to user experiences. But with the rapid growth of the streaming industry as well as increasing numbers of commercially-led competitors, the company also needed to build strong distribution and technology-aligned partnerships. Partners today include Shazam, Cumulus, DMG in Australia and Live Nation.

“These other big businesses we have connected with allowed us to punch hard and grow big quite quickly,” Blake said. “These have been part of the strategic vision of our international head [Scott Bagby] to find partner businesses that complement us, have a like-minded vision and can help with distribution and reach.

“The focus is on continuing to optimise those, as well as build out new ones, then look for further opportunities with commercial, ad-funded partners.”

I transformed from a headstrong brand marketer happily arguing the merits of any marketing initiative I felt passionate about, to having a much more rounded vision on marketing’s impact on the overall good of the business

As head of the Australian business since March, Blake’s tasks were to suss out the competitive landscape, and get a strong grasp on how to bring more people into the wider streaming fold. “There is a mass of work to be put into the brand so we stand for something, as well as the more tactical and functional marketing practices as the technology evolves or we need to convert the subs,” he commented.

“Both Scott and DMG CEO, Cathy O’Connor, bought into the idea that for Rdio to win in this space, we need to go hard for several years, and that needed someone to drive a longer-term vision.”

One of the big challenges Rdio faces is the immaturity of the streaming industry. Entertainment streaming services are in their infancy, and consumer and trade knowledge of the differences between the technology and services offered by various streaming providers is limited, Blake admitted.

“Right now, there is nothing more innovative and ripe, and more uncertain in terms of how things play out, than the streaming industry,” he told CMO. “Where this thing goes, and how it changes people’s ability to interact with content, whether it be music or something else, as well as how platforms are optimised for commercial results and open opportunities for clients and partner brands, is open slather.

“They say there’s about 12-14 streaming services available in Australia right now, which makes it one of the most competitive markets in the world. But when it comes to similar technology, the capability to evolve and be on top of the game, there are probably only 3-4 players with such capabilities. Rdio is dead set on leading that charge.”

The sooner the smaller players fall by the way side, the better, Blake said, yet he’d also be happy to see a few “really turn it on”.

“What we do need more than anything is a big tipping point to happen, where there is a greater understanding of what streaming will do for you as an individual, how it evolves your entertainment proposition, and what the technology delivers.

"An educated public will start making choices based on one technology serving them, or the brand that connects best with them. To get to that point, a fair bit of work needs to happen and Rdio can’t do this on its own. We need category competitors in there alongside us, going hard with their own agendas, in a way that creates bigger wins for the whole category.”

Brand building

For its part, Rdio has embarked on a range of major marketing activities for the 2013/2014 summer season, led by an exclusive audio streaming partnership with the ARIA Awards. The deal included a VIP consumer competition, outdoor campaign congratulating key nominees and highlighting nominees for people to vote for, and strong PR push.

The next cab off the rank is Big Day Out in late January, then the Future Music Festival at the end of March.

“It was important we were out there, being vocal, and that we start standing for something and targeting people we know are probably going to like what we are doing,” Blake said. “By the end of the summer, we want to make sure we have a substantial brand that means something, a user base committed to us, and hopefully have an effect on the greater good by educating the wider public about streaming services.”

Another initiative is working within the music industry to grow awareness and support for streaming services. Rdio has already signed partnerships with several record labels for access and distribution of exclusive artist content, and is helping to co-promote new releases from key artists.

Globally, Rdio has also launched an influencer program through social channels to kickstart further grassroots support for streaming services.

“The main issue is overall understanding and awareness; that is a trade and consumer issue,” Blake continued. “The number one thing is using the technology and then falling in love it. Then you understand what Rdio might be able to do for your business. That’s a time and momentum thing.”

Transitioning from marketer to business leader

While marketing is dominant in his territory role at Rdio, Blake takes pride in having a far more rounded view on the issues that may arise for the business.

“Knowing there are these bigger business objectives that have to come into play simultaneously with the marketing remit, is key,” he said. “It’s early days, and there’s a lot of exciting marketing stuff we’re up to that gets me excited as a marketer, but I’ve bit my tongue a couple of times because I’ve needed to be smarter about the extra activity and the results it may or may not drive.”

Blake saw many parallels between running a comprehensive marketing campaign and team, and leading company direction.

“Good marketing leaders have to strategise a campaign, create a budget against it and metrics for the rewards for each element, manage all the moving parts and resources internationally and externally, while constantly keeping a balance so that each component contributes to the outcome of the bigger picture,” he said.

“As a CMO, you often end up with certain agencies or PR going nuts about what that campaign needs to deliver from their point of view, and you’re often pulling them back in check. Or you may have a media agency trying to justify a particular investment in a certain channel but you know it’s not the right thing to do and that it must balance against the overall outcome.

“Business leadership is the same thing: It’s keeping all those little pieces in check against the greater vision, and making sure people aren’t too siloed in what their department outcomes are. CMOs that have run large campaigns and herded and managed multiple resources are doing the same thing.”

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