CMO profile: Why physical availability is critical to Nova's growth plan

Recently installed chief growth officer talks through the decision to take smoothfm nation and how marketing is more than just mental availability

The potential of physical availability rather than pure mental availability, is key to how Nova’s recently installed chief growth officer, Adam Johnson, is looking to propel growth.

Johnson spent more than a decade in client-side marketing initially, starting with Nokia in consumer technology before working with Microsoft in Australia, the UK and Europe. He describes his move into the media industry with UK radio giant, Global, as a fortuitous accident that came from completing his The Marketing Academy UK scholarship.

During his six-and-a-half years with Global, Johnson ran the entire marketing team and helped grow a portfolio of commercial radio brands into a comprehensive digital audio business, launching its Global Player platform as the centralised brand for digital listening.

Moving to Australia for personal reasons, Johnson met Nova CEO, Peter Charlton, in January 2022 and quickly saw how his learnings could help realise Nova’s growth aspirations. The broader chief growth officer position Johnson now holds brings together marketing as well digital, aligned in the pursuit of growth. He’s not only marketing Nova’s stable of brands, but also building new products, platform and distribution strategies to find new audiences.

The decision to create the chief growth officer also fills a gap left after the departure of former Nova chief marketing and digital officer, Tony Thomas, in September 2019.

“There became an excellent opportunity to create a broader function with greater impact across the business, rather than operate in silos,” Johnson says.

Here, Johnson shares key pillars in his growth strategy.

Pillar 1: Making smooth national

Taking the smoothfm brand national through a multi-million-dollar marketing campaign, content investment and distribution is the first manifestation of this growth quest. Johnson explains the strategy is about taking an existing product to market in a different way to grow audiences, harnessing the power of digital for distribution. Smoothfm launched in Australia in 2012 and boasts of 2.4 million listeners in Sydney and Melbourne, growing streaming audiences by 76 per cent from March 2020 to July 2022.

“Smoothfm is an incredible brand in this market and was always under distributed,” Johnson says. “The insight was just because we don’t have FM transmission in other cities like Brisbane, Adelaide or Perth, it doesn’t mean we can’t build audiences in those markets.

“The brand is built around a mood and needs state rather than genre or geography. It’s a universal product that makes you feel good, with a hint of nostalgia and great music people know and love. That’s not tied to a place or a distribution platform.”

Adam JohnsonCredit: Nova
Adam Johnson

Smoothfm debuted nationally on 4 September 2022, supported by fresh local breakfast shows in Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth. The marketing campaign, meanwhile, includes TV, out-of-home, cinema, podcasting, digital and social activity. There’s also experiential campaigning, including smoothfm ‘Feel good’ café pop-ups across Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide. In addition, the Nova team partnered up with Amazon Alexa to create ‘smooth star’ promotions nationally and to help listeners with engaging with smooth via Amazon Echo devices.

The creative emphasis initially is on highlighting the brand’s ‘feel good’ format and elevating awareness of how to discover the station via the Smooth Player, website, DAB+ and smart speakers.

For instance, the TV ad features Robbie Williams as one of the iconic artists playing on the station, showing the role smooth plays in his day, accompanied by three songs: Robbie’s own tune, Feel, Get out of my Dreams by Billy Ocean and September by Earth, Wind & Fire.

“Then it’s about being in the right places in TV around those feel-good shows in the evening, such as our first spot running in Farmer Wants a Wife. The data tells us we have good audience overlap during those times and it’s the right place for that brand to live,” Johnson says.  

Localised outdoor formats are then used to showcase local breakfast announcers as well as the direct impact of experiencing smoothfm’s mood-based programming as a listener.

Recognising the importance of a local element to the brands and product, Johnson’s team did a lot of work around localisation.

“We have local breakfast shows presenting to Brisbane, Adelaide and Perth as people do expect that in the morning. They want to be listening to a voice from where they live and it gives that sense of connection and closeness, and an ability to react to things in that city. We then have the brand at the heart of it,” he explains.  

The first burst of activity will be followed by investment throughout 2023.

Pillar 2: Mental and physical availability

More broadly, growth opportunities for Johnson lie in digital streaming stations and their physical availability.

“With Nova 96.9, you can listen on radio, our app, website, a smart speaker. It’s making these core products available wherever and however it suits listeners,” he says. “It’s using the almost limitless opportunity of digital to create more products that aren’t completely fulfilled in the core brands, such as Smooth Relax and Nova Throwbacks. They are great brand extension examples as they’re true to what the brands stand for but with different playlists. People may listen to those at different parts of the day as it’s taking you to a different place.”   

Even so, a challenge media content owners like Nova face is balancing the need to own audiences through direct platforms, versus disintermediation but broader reach through third-party partners. For Johnson, the ability to work with third-party platforms and partners is something to be energised by rather than a threat.

“Marketers tend to focus on mental availability a lot, which is your brand salience and people remembering at that one point of purchase. Our point of purchase is wanting to listen to something,” Johnson says. “Therefore for me, physical availability is being in what platform I decided to do that, whether that’s a radio button or digital assistant. Whether you want to be uplifted, relax, recall songs of your youth – we have a product available at that point. We are very much focused on being where the listener is. Therefore you will find Nova streams on our platform as well as the aggregators.

“Clearly, we have a motivation to bring consumer through the Nova or Smooth Player front door, because we see the value in creating direct relationships with our listeners. That means we’re able to provide with more personal experiences and clearly provide our advertising partners with addressable data to create more informed, targeted campaigns. We will always prioritise our owned platforms but not at the expense of not being available elsewhere.

“It’s why we have worked hand with partners like Amazon Alexa to have native integration with its platforms. We’re also able to start building a direct relationship with those listeners without necessarily being disintermediated.”

Pillar 3: Addressable advertising

It’s clear the opportunity for increasingly digitised audio offerings provides addressable advertising opportunities never before seen in the traditional radio space. Much like media players in other channels, Nova has invested heavily in a customer data platform (CDP) to understand who its listeners are and their behaviours. It’s operating a customer engagement platform on top of that, which Johnson says allows the business to have a more direct relationship with customers.

“For example, if we’ve just put a Nova Red Room video on the Nova Player, and we know you like an artist, we can suggest they check it out. It builds a clearer picture of our listener base,” he says.

“From a B2B perspective, that allows us to go to market and generally sell our audio proposition, which is we can bring you significant, valuable reach through a radio campaign. But that really works when you also build in digital component, working across our streaming products and podcasts to identify a target or addressable segment.

“We’re having interesting conversations with agencies and clients where we help them with their reach goals but also help them drive brand connection and action.”  

Context is important in this equation and even more important differentiator for Nova as it diversifies its products.

“We are a highly curated environment, and a human being has been curating that content, which means brand safety is a definite benefit of working with the audio space,” Johnson comments.  “A consumer’s relationship with audio is so intimate, it means you can place your brand contextually in powerful environments.

“Podcasts by nature tend to focus on a certain area lifestyle or news, so you can put a brand advertising in that space to audiences, then overlay data. We know how much they’re spending times in locations, we know where product is available and what has most relevance to an audience. Reach, context and availability are all coming together.”

Repositioning radio brands like Nova and smooth as more than reach on a media plan is nonetheless no done deal.

“There is work to do to sell across both channels – digital and radio. Radio is on the plan for sheer reach, live, and localised perception, and does a good job of it. That is the role radio tends to play on a media schedule,” Johnson says. “The opportunity and where we see growth is clients coming to us with an audio brief rather than a radio brief. We’re able to provide them with a solution to their brand that provides addressable reach as well as context and targetability through digital.

“Some briefs will have ‘above-the-line’ allocation and a ‘digital allocation’ of media spend and we find ourselves in both plans. But there is less of that as clients are more informed of omnichannel. They’re also trusting their agency partners to take their campaign budget to find the right media and communications solution for that, rather than prescribing channels.

“Today, the briefs are much more around what the ambitions are, then creating an audio plan with brand integration, story solutions that create a more targeted solution. Measurement is ongoing discussion at an industry level, and we’ll continue to work on that to ultimately make it as easy to buy as possible. That’s our responsibility back to agencies and clients.”

Pillar 4: Harness data and insight for marketing

Consumer insights are clearly critical and Johnson points to where people choose to stream, better understanding the role of brand like smooth, and how audio’s role changes during the day are all key areas of data insight both for B2B clients as well as Nova’s consumer marketing strategy.  

“That can then inform us if we’re placing ads on YouTube, what is the best time to place these. That data is going straight into the marketing mix and it becomes part of the brief to our media and creative partners,” he says.

“Internally, the priority is to build out those digital journeys and bring that through all aspects of the audio proposition. For example, Red Room live music brand was originally conceived from live radio broadcast; now we think about that as a content platform that creates an amazing point to listen to our radio station. But we also think about what content we keep back for Nova Player, what’s working best on an app – is it extended interviews or extra content, live versus on-demand.”

However, with a tip of the hat to his brand marketing roots, Johnson has a firm eye on how to continue building brand salience too.

“We need to make sure there is genuine love for Nova, smooth and our brands so they continue to play an important role in people’s lives and for their audio fix,” he says. “We are doing a lot of work around brand positioning that will inform campaigns we launch next year.”

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