CMO50 2020 #1: Leisa Bacon

  • Name Leisa Bacon
  • Title Director of audiences
  • Company ABC
  • Commenced role March 2017 (joined 2014)
  • Reporting Line Managing director
  • Member of the Executive Team Yes
  • Marketing Function 170 staff, 7 direct reports
  • Industry Sector Media and entertainment
  • 2019 ranking 2
  • Related

    Brand Post

    One of the paradoxes of the COVID-19 crisis is the positives it’s created out of negatives. It’s something ABC’s director of audiences and this year’s CMO50 number one, Leisa Bacon is very conscious of.

    On the one hand, the pandemic has positively impacted the ABC by strengthening appreciation of why we have a public broadcaster in this country. The ABC has never been stronger, with huge growth in reach and quality/distinctiveness over this period.

    On a brand purpose and social advocacy front, the crisis also cemented the ABC’s critical role in leading national conversations around key issues such as the environment or mental health.

    “We’ve needed reliable news, more entertainment than ever, good radio as a companion. So from a business perspective, we have seen audiences come back on what were declining trends,” Bacon says. “For example, our TV network grew this year. As most know, TV has been in decline for the last five years from a total reach perspective, but we grew this year. Radio also grew this year.

    “So people have come back to traditional media. But I don’t believe it’s sustainable. It’s very driven by news, more people at home with more time wanting to know what is going on. But it’s been a good reminder to people of why there is a public broadcaster, the value of trusted views, the value we place on kids and education content.”

    Equally, audience growth and engagement boosted the buy-in and fulfilment of Bacon’s team, a mix of marketers, designers, customer insights managers and more. “When your audiences grow, there is nothing more fulfilling for a team whose job is to respond to audiences to be part of that,” she says.  “Yes, we have had challenges, we have had to react quickly, and we threw away some of the plans to make sure we were appropriately responding.

    “But at the start of COVID, I still remember saying to my team: We will never have this opportunity again guys. This is brand building, audience building – it’s the opportunity of our generation and we have to make this work.”

    And after an initial few weeks to get everyone working from home, tweaking activities and campaigns to make sure they were relevant for the moment to ensure the team was serving the right content to the right people as behaviours were changing, innovation at the ABC was flourishing.

    Specific examples of work during this time included taking the ABC’s brand song, ‘We are Australian’, crowdsourced people singing it, and editing it into a brand spot. It was so popular a kids version, Auslan version, and version with support messages for Melbourne were subsequently created. All came from mobile videos people had sent in.

    The ABC also brought forward its mid-year iView binge campaign, providing a greater array of series stacked content to work through for both adults and families stuck at home. It quickly identified and expanded its education offer, getting a kids education block up on TV and all the curriculum links and messaging out to parents everywhere.

    “It was and continues to be a fantastic opportunity for us this year. What is the trickier thing is sustaining it the next year and how we continue to maintain those audiences despite their behaviours returning more to normal,” Bacon says.  

    But there is the very real downside of COVID in terms of economic and societal impact. It’s something Bacon is conscious of not just because of what the ABC stands for, but as an executive leader.

    “I believe mental health will be the issue for the next decade and we all need to be doing what we can to combat that,” she says. “As the ABC, we certainly have a role we can play in raising awareness, helping people understand how to have conversations about mental health and reduce the stigma. But we all have a part to play in that.

    “This year has really taught me the importance of holistic health. It can’t just be about the job – my role as a leader is to look after everybody, and their physical and particularly mental health are key in this.”  

    To help, all of Bacon’s leaders have done a mental health first aid course, something she says raised further understanding around how to help each other during the COVID-19 crisis. “Your imperative as a leader increasingly is high EQ and IQ, and thinking more holistically about people,” she says.  

    Content plan

    Well before the crisis struck, Bacon’s truly collaborative, inclusive and all-in approach could be seen in her work leading the ABC’s first Content Plan (2020-2022). This comprehensive framework sets out the ABC’s creative ambitions for the next three years, and for the first time brings all content teams together to articulate and grow overall audience impact.

    The Content Plan is about assisting content teams to make informed commissioning and acquisition decisions. “To do this, it views our current and planned content mix as a portfolio, mapped against audience needs and opportunities. It sets out what our audience priorities need to be,” Bacon explains.  

    “We surface where the largest gaps and opportunities were, align on which team was best placed to meet those opportunities, and create KPIs for each of the teams at an audience, genre and program level.”  

    The process was as important as the output, Bacon says. Things kicked off with a research phase to map out audiences and opportunities. A workshop process then pulled together hundreds of content makers across 11 different genre workshops. The output is a portfolio strategy clearly articulating the role of different areas in delivering audience needs. The plan was approved by the ABC Executive and Board in November 2019.

    Internal communications was critical for engagement and utilisation, Bacon says. The plan was launched to staff through a series of Town Halls, then to industry at the 2020 Slate reveal. Feedback consistently states the Content Plan as the most comprehensive overview ABC has ever done, helping to provide direction to content makers, and has been supplied to Government to explain why the ABC makes the content it does.

    “From a results perspective, content is performing more strongly than ever, across audience reach, and quality and distinctiveness measures are at record highs,” Bacon says.

    Bacon agrees she could not have achieved this kind of plan or got the buy-in when she started at the ABC. “You earn your seat,” she says.

    “People appreciate the value you bring, and experience helps you demonstrate your ability to deliver in complex projects. This [Content Plan] was a complex project with many stakeholders. It was about me and my team facilitating and partnering with the organisation to deliver an audience focus and plan. We positioned this by saying through the disciplines and understanding of audiences we have, we will be able set up appropriate frameworks by which to do that in ways the content teams may not have thought about before.”  

    This was truly a cross-functional job, Bacon says. “There wouldn’t be anyone at the ABC who would dispute we understand our audiences best at that macro level and the big trends – it’s what we are doing day in, day out,” she continues.

    “There is an enormous value in that when you’re working in a content team that knows the content inside and out but may not be thinking beyond the audience for a particular show. Our job is to get them out of the bubble, thinking more holistically about where the opportunities are.”

    Customer-led approach

    Helping Bacon realise this mission is an expanded role that sees all direct audience contacts centralised under her stewardship. The intent was to flip away from disparate ‘complaints management’ into a single, valuable, direct audience feedback team and provide a true voice of customer function that proactively met audience needs and fed improvements in real time into content and product teams. 

    Thanks to this two-year journey, the team is now able to provide consistent services when audiences need it, irrespective of channel and contact mechanisms. Service levels and issues are tracked in real time, and the whole mentality has shifted from reactive to proactive support through a strong voice of customer team and program of work.  

    This whole change has been an eye-opener, not least because of the value these audience insights can bring to the organisation if approached differently, Bacon says.

    “That is gold, but no one thought of it as gold until you looked at it through an audience lens. To profile different parts of the organisation and show the value that could bring has been one of my biggest learnings,” she says. “Great ideas come from everywhere, and you need to enable people to raise those things. Just because you are on the phone dealing with a complaint, doesn’t mean you don’t also have 10 years of amazing history and insight into what upsets our audiences. It’s just no one asked you before to contribute to the broader process, or valued that, or started raising it to the leadership team every week they’re so aware and can act on it.  

    “Everyone contributes value, you just have to make sure you create enablers for that value to filter up in the most appropriate and relevant ways to act on.”

    This team also played a critical role during a bushfires as well as more recently in the COVID-19 crisis. “During the bushfires, they literally helped people navigate out of impacted areas, which saved lives,” Bacon says.

    “They have also proactively changed our scheduling of key content and rights practices, to improve our audiences experience with content and are the ‘first responders’ to breaking issues across products and broadcasting, frequently leading resource deployment to critical fixes.”

    Innovative marketing

    From a more traditional marketing perspective, another area of focus for Bacon’s team in the past year has been responding to the raft of global content streaming entrants launching into Australia, from Netflix to Apple, Disney+ and YouTube Kids. This had seen awareness and use of ABC Kids decline for the first time.

    “As ABC Kids is a critical entry point to the ABC, I successfully pitched to create a focus period and increase overall investment, to ensure ABC Kids maintained its position as the number one place for Australian children,” Bacon says.

    The strategy encompassed four key workstreams: Awareness for new parents, increasing digital use, building differentiation and growing recommendations/advocacy. Bacon’s team delivered a comprehensive offer to reach Australian parents and their kids encompassing a rebrand, new app, new content and a new marketing strategy (across media/CRM/partnerships).

    During the coronavirus crisis, the ABC also launched the ‘Helping Hand’ email series, an education block on TV, and additional content across apps. This education initiative was about providing parents with resources and activities to keep their children supported and entertained.

    “The new ABC Kids app complements our broader kids’ strategy, increasing functionality beyond video programs, to include audio, education and craft content, as well as more transitional content as our audiences age,” Bacon says.

    A key differentiator for the ABC is trust, built through enabling parents and educators to share their feedback and referrals through publicity, building the ABCKids community, newsletters, increasing presence in childcare centres and schools, in addition to advertising. Bacon adds ABC Kids is highlighted as a safe space, with curated content, no ads and no tracking.     

    Since this push, and despite being substantially outspent, ABC Kids is now tracking as the number one kids TV channel and kids video streaming app in Australia, is the most trusted kids app and has the number one kids program in Australia, Bluey

    Data-driven approach

    Another milestone kicked off in 2019 was a new ABC personalised audience experience (PAX), a partnership between the audience and technology teams. Key objectives are to acquire new audiences through optimising content discovery, linking communications on and off platform, better retaining audiences by serving more relevant content in the right context, and re-engaging lapsed audiences to grow product usage.

    So far, the ABC has completed Horizon 1, which included testing and bringing in a new customer data platform (CDP) to enable behaviour-based segmentation, launching a new CRM program, rolling out voluntary log in and improving the audience experience. Another key step was building the first whole-of-ABC newsletter and loyalty program. This enabled Bacon’s team to pull together content from across the ABC, tailoring it to audience interests and optimising individual preferences within the algorithm. 

    As a public broadcaster, with an older audience base, the team also instigated work to gain optional sign-on to its streaming service with a focused education campaign. At time of CMO50 judging, 200,000 people had signed in. But even without sign on, the ABC have been able to build improved recommendations algorithms based on prior behaviours, and rails to surface these across key products as individuals open them. These have driven increased engagement of over 20 per cent and in many products, are now the top performing sections.

    “While our digital growth in 2020 has been exponential, this is an ongoing journey. Next steps on our roadmap include ramping up our value exchange for summer, with an exclusive Australian drama binge, and building up our machine learning capability, as we increase first-party data,” Bacon says.

    Cross-functional collaboration

    If it wasn’t clear enough from the examples above, being collaborative and filtering up value is how Bacon describes the way her team works at the ABC, and the role of marketing and customer leaders more generally.

    “I won’t use the word ‘marketing’ when I want to influence the content areas. I position things in terms of the effectiveness they can have. If a team wants to grow audiences, my job is to help them deliver that. If they want to really understand their audience, me and my team’s job is to help them do that. So over the years, I’ve learnt to position things in the benefit of the partner you have. It’s the best way to get outcomes.  

    “If I learnt anything over my time before and at the ABC, it’s that you have to earn your seat at the table. You do that by demonstrating value and by ensuring people understand what you do and how that will help them.”    

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