CMO interview: How Nova's marketing and digital chief is battling the data deluge

We catch up with Nova's chief marketing and digital officer, Tony Thomas, to hear the latest on the radio station's brand rejuvenation, growing data sophistication and his views on the role of marketing as a service

Nova's Tony Thomas
Nova's Tony Thomas

Nova chief marketing and digital officer, Tony Thomas, is excited about the array of consumer insights being presented to the radio station owner through digital connectivity and capability.

But with so much data at the marketer’s disposal today, he agrees the big challenge for marketing teams is knowing what data to read, and what action you want to take from the insight as a result.

“I don’t necessarily think more data equals more insight – sometimes more data equals more confusion,” Thomas tells CMO. “It’s important to know what you’re looking for, but it’s the nuggets of gold that pop out of a surprising set of data that is where the big insights come from – the thing that’s thrown up through data that you otherwise didn’t know.

“As marketers, we like to think we know everything, but as long as it’s not a one-off, and you can understand it over time and whether it’s an insight that’s been substantiated over time, then data will throw up a really interesting insight every now and then that you’ve got to jump on.”

Better compiling complementary data sets has been a key focus for Nova from a commercial perspective, as well as a marketing one. Last November, the group announced its partnership with data management vendor, Signal, tapping into the latter’s addressable audience technology to raise the bar on its media offering.

The Nova Unite deal brings together 150 pre-determined audience segments based on demographic, lifestyle and purchase-based data from Signal’s data source pool, including the Coles Flybuys program, with Nova’s first-party data in order to better target media buying across its network. Alongside this, Nova also struck a partnership with Gigya to better manage its first-party data assets.

“We are building a huge amount of data currently on our digital audience but we can also extrapolate that to our broader radio audience, as a lot of people stream our product online,” Thomas explains. “We can find out a lot about behaviour as a result, and access segmentation data on consumers through that data capture, which we’re really excited about.

“That will lay down premium selling, but also allow us to understand how our content is performing and how the audience responds to that, and what they’ve done before and afterwards.”

An in-depth study in consumer perceptions of the Nova brand, undertaken in advance of the group’s first rebrand in five years, also threw up significant insights into brand beliefs as well as market trends, Thomas says. This is being supported by regular consumer tracking.

“We use a lot of market data to look at how things have changed with consumers and how they’ve evolving and changing, and we’ll continue to do that this year,” he says. “In terms of a deep dive consumer studies, we will regularly check back in a more proprietary way.”

The data explosion isn’t the only thing making the job of marketing more complex, however. Thomas points to increased sophistication in process, along with an ever-more complicated stream of agency and international partnerships.

“It’s a lot more complicated working with suppliers and agencies because of the varied services they now offer,” he says.

“More generally, the expectation on marketing within businesses to deliver results, and be accountable for what we do, is much greater than it used to be. Marketing is such a multi-faceted area, it’s today accountable for results across many different functions of the business.

“Sometimes, the influence of those other functions back on marketing can really impact whether you achieve those results or not. So many factors go into delivering a result, which puts a lot of pressure on marketers overall.”

A career in adaptability

Thomas has been in marketing for his whole career across a range of industries. He got his start in health and snackfoods at Uncle Toby’s while it was still privately owned, before shifting into the alcohol category with Diageo, followed by soft drinks producer, Pepsico, for six years. He then joined Ninemsn for 18 months, before starting his own social media and digital strategy business, the Population.

After a short timeout, Thomas took up a six-month contract role overseeing media at Coles before joining Nova nearly seven years ago. While all had very different approaches to marketing development, a consistent theme has been the need to respond and adapt quickly as a marketing organisation, he says.

“They’re dynamic categories that move fast, and you have to be agile and deliver things quickly in order to react,” he comments. “In broadcasting, we have to move really fast, otherwise we’ll miss a trick. The on-air product changes every day, so we as a function need to set up our processes to react quickly as well.”

What’s also different about the media industry is the nature of product ownership, he says.

“Traditionally, marketers own product and are able to influence product development and what’s going out to market on a daily basis,” he says. “In media, you have a program director that owns product, so there is a real requirement to work closely with the program director and have a strong, trust-based relationship. You need to be in song with insight being driven back into programming, and programming communicating with marketing on where the product is going.”

Marketing’s changing skillset

Where Thomas’ remit has expanded at Nova has been around digital. Two-and-a-half years ago, he inherited ownership of digital following a decision to put that function into the hands of a group executive and make it a strategic priority.

“When I started to a few years ago, digital still sat as an outlier to our core business, as a separate revenue stream. We now see digital as more integrated in the rest of the business, through how you content market, and work with digital and marketing to ensure everything is seamless – process, output, and so on. And it’s clearly more of a priority in terms of revenue and future growth.”

digital has in turn, influenced the skills required in marketing, and Thomas says all his marketers have to be digitally proficient, especially given the growing amount of content Nova now publishes online. Another significant area of team development has been around taking what was traditionally agency work in-house. This includes ideas development, media strategy and design.

“As a publisher and a broadcaster, you need to understand the dynamics of that product and be able to react and respond quickly - it’s an agility question,” Thomas says. “If something happen on air or something in the market, we need to be able to come up with an idea, develop and produce creative around that very quickly.”

Thomas describes marketing at Nova as a service function supporting the needs of the wider business. “We service consumers but also need to service a lot of internal departments,” he says.

“That mentality is a real capability I ensure all our team members have. We need to respond, react and service that need from an agency, internal or external consumer.”

What is helping ensure Thomas is a strategic CMO is great relationships within Nova’s group exec team. This consists of a head of commercial, head of programming, head of marketing and digital, head of technology, head of strategy and the CEO.

“We all have influence over all of our areas, so as a team we all take responsibility for every area of the business and we challenge each other,” he says.

“A team always has to work through its dynamic, you don’t just come together as a well-oiled operation. There were early hiccups in how we worked as a team, but it’s changed by getting to know everyone’s style, what strengths they bring to the conversation, meetings, offsite days and leveraging those in a dynamic where we all add something, rather than pushing people into an uncomfortable zone that doesn’t then add value.”

When it comes to structure versus culture, Thomas says you need both. “The structure has to work for efficiency and productivity, then the dynamics have to work based on skillsets,” he adds.

Brand rejuvenation

Key on the priority list for Thomas in 2017 is rejuvenation of the Nova brand. The rebrand was unveiled on 3 February, and kicked off with on-air programming and fresh logo and branding across owned assets including digital, social and mobile. It is being supported by an extensive national marketing and media campaign across TV, social, consumer and trade media.

While it’s early days, Thomas says the organisation is happy with how things have started. The first rating results of 2017, released on 14 March, show share increases in a couple of different categories, notably drive time (a 1.4 share points increase to 10.6 per cent with 413,00 active listeners).

“When you’re in development of something that’s going to impact so many elements and areas of the business, externally and internally, you’re always apprehensive about the work you’ve done in a box to how it then rolls out when you’re implementing in the market,” Thomas says. “I’m happy with the rollout and how we have managed the process of doing that. But this needs time to cement itself in market.”

Data is again important in providing evidential fact on the impact the brand is having in market.

“Now, you have immediate insight into how things are going, and how you need to influence a change in strategy,” Thomas says. “It’s an exciting way to be, as long as you give things enough time to settle.

“There are case studies of campaigns that have an immediate effect, but there are so many influences on consumer behaviour, that you have to allow people to take things on. I always say let’s hold fire until we get a consistent view and read on numbers that will substantiate an insight that could force a change. Jump too fast, and the consumer can’t keep up with you. It’s important in a consumer’s eyes to be consistent for a while, take time for them to jump on-board – then when they do, they’ll do it fast.”

Top priorities as a CMO

It’s the ongoing challenge of being close to the consumer that Thomas suggests can keep him awake at night.

“The other thing would be drowning in data: There are so many different sources of data, and sometimes conflicting opinions around that data,” he says, adding that if he could bring in one additional skill to his team tomorrow, it’d be around insight resources. “The clarity of producing an insight that will influence solid work is something that keeps me up at night.

“And ensuring the team is managed well – ensuring people have clear direction, feel valued and remain passionate about what they do is something I’m always thinking about.”

When it comes to the top attributes of the modern marketing leader, creativity is number one.

“Marketers have to be able to asses and influence creative,” Thomas says. “Understanding the dynamics of creative, what does and doesn’t work, and being able to articulate that, is very important. If the marketer isn’t able to do that, they’re too far removed from the most important role of marketing, which is the creative output.

“On the complete other side, we need to be able to find real gold within a wealth of data. I don’t think that’s a skill easily come by. The best marketers can read a 100-page document and find the one thing that’s going to really influence the approach in future. Providing clarity of insight and turning that into a communications brief and to see that right through the process is really important.”

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