CMO interview: Tackling transformation of APN and out-of-home advertising

APN general manager of marketing talks through brand transformation, data-led audience insights and why CMO tenure is a problem

It’s been one hell of a year for APN’s general manager of marketing, Charlotte Valente.

Having gained an executive-level leadership position earlier this year at the out-of-home player, she’s cemented a complete brand relaunch, taken the company’s first in-house data and insights offering, Dn’A, to market, overseen changes to the marketing team and its go-to-market strategy, and innovated the way marketing collaborates across the organisation.

Now, with APN shareholders officially approving the $1.2 billion acquisition of the business by French out-of-home giant, JCDecaux, the Australian OOH player is set to experience even more transformation and change.

While the team waited for the JCDecaux’s takeover to be finalised, CMO took the opportunity to catch up with Valente to talk career, transformation of the APN business in 2018, and how data and audience personalisation is changing the nature of how outdoor advertising is sold.

Valente has spent most of her career in media, starting in sales at Pacific Magazines before making the switch to marketing with a brand role at AMP Capital. From there, she worked at Creative Activation as a client business director, before joining Adshel as head of strategic integration in 2013. She became general manager of marketing for APN Outdoor in February.

A highlight moment was the turnaround of the Adshel business in 2013-2014. Valente started working with clients to pitch outdoor as a strategy to integrate into marketing plans, before switching to head of marketing and strategy covering strategy, insights, product and marketing communications.

During this time, she launched Adshel live, the company’s first digital network. “Being a marketer and understanding the commercial element, we took the position of our network truly adding value to advertisers and went on a journey of pitching the benefits of the digital network, such as contextual relevance, dynamic messaging and scale,” she recalls.  

“It became the most successful digital launch in the Clear Channel umbrella, and our launch was used as a case study globally.”

What followed was the first contextual relevance research in outdoor, using neuroscience to understand the difference between contextual versus normal messaging, Valente says. That showed a real increase in ad effectiveness.

Here, Valente expands on the wider disruption of the role of marketing in outdoor and her efforts at APN.

How have you seen the marketing role change during your career, as well as within the out-of-home industry?

What’s been interesting to witness is just how central marketing has become to the outdoor industry. When I started, marketing was just a sales support function. Throughout the transformation [to digital], marketing has been central to the organisation. Today, we are articulating the business strategy into a series of stories we seed, across the year or against the plan. We’re adapting those stories to marketers as well as media agencies, the creative community and also commercial, such as land owners.

Then there’s the whole people piece, which marketing has become critical in as well. Our emphasis is how we translate these stories to our people. People have now become our biggest marketing vehicle, and we need to make sure they embrace the stories and can communicate them.

How has this changed the allies you have across the organisation?

I have allies across every discipline, from IT to operations and how we present our billboards. It’s about understanding how marketing is affected by every division. I’m a big driver of collaboration and believe if you collaborate, you get a better result. I take the initiative to ensure everyone in the business is across what we are doing and why we’re doing it.

Since taking on the CMO role nine months ago, APN has undergone a brand transformation. How extensive was this shift?

It was pretty much a completely new brand. The only thing we didn’t do was rebrand our assets, but we introduced a new tone, website, personality, and all marketing assets changed.

It’s the first time I’ve been part of such change, which basically allowed us to wipe the slate clean and start again. We did roadshows with the team to get them across new brand, along with the market and what it meant for them. What was interesting was how receptive the market was specifically around the new brand. We were referred to at one point as the sleeping giant who’d not necessarily been taking advantage of our position in the market.

The rebrand was pivotal in us being able to cement our leadership credentials as marketers, too, while the business change was about acknowledging we had significantly grown and that we had big ambitions.

There were a couple of challenges, however. I expected with a new brand and tone, what we used to do didn’t apply anymore. I assumed everyone would get on that new page. What I realised is you have to have empathy for the journey people have been on to that point and the affinity they have with the old brand and what it stood for. It’s been a great learning for me on how you balance empathy with the past while driving future outcomes and future possibilities.

How did you use the rebrand to shake-up the marketing strategy and positioning?

We’ve done a big piece of work around defining purpose, mission and values. We used the rebrand to start conversations with our people about what they valued most in the workplace and identified four sets of values. These led to defining our purpose, which is wrapped around the idea of ‘smarter impact’.

That work helped guide the marketing strategy and gave us a sense check. A lot of the marketing strategy is then oriented around innovation and transformation. Innovation includes investment in data, in the way we address the market, and in how we communicate ourselves. This included innovating who we talk to.

Most outdoor businesses would say 90 per cent of communications comes directly with media agencies. We wanted to broaden out to clients and the creative community as there’s still a large challenge with creative in outdoor. That’s why we aligned with Cannes to become the festival representative in Australia this year.

Underpinning that was a focus on putting audiences first and being values-led. Instead of spruiking what we’ve got, it’s about the benefits it delivers. We are one of the leaders in the market, we needed to start acting like it, with a voice and opinion on things. The purpose and brand work was the opportunity to do that.

APN launched its Dn’A data and insights capability in June. What role did marketing take in its development? And how does it change the product proposition as well as how you communicate?

Data is something everyone is talking about. We were keen to make sure we not only talked about it, but extracted the value it provides. We also have to be honest – we don’t quite know and have all the answers yet.

What Dn’A has done is completely change the team, and we now have two data scientists on-board. Our data scientists are not only mining data, but developing insights, as well as visualisations of these insights. It’s been interesting to see the evolution in the team through that.

What it provides advertisers is more understanding. We still very much get briefed on demographic profiling, and what we’re trying to do is ask more questions in order to uncover more. There’s still not enough collaboration in our industry both across media, creative and client to extract the full potential of this data.

For example, if a client has identified people 18-24 year olds as a core demographics, what we can do is use transactional data to show they get more traction if they target men 18-35 because they’re the biggest spenders in their category. We can then underpin some behaviours that drive that spend and attitudes, and map that to key areas where it’s important for advertisers to be seen. Although data in that instance is being used to support an APN outdoor campaign, what it does do is provide marketers with a broader view of their customer.

What we need to start working on is how to adapt creative to these different areas in order to reflect them better. For instance, people might be working in that area and processing the messaging very differently compared to those in an area going to a sporting match.

We’re only starting on that journey, and it will be a long journey. But the more we understand about an advertiser or marketer’s customer, the more we can uncover and the more opportunities that can be unlocked.

Everyone across the advertising ecosystem is trying to understand the ‘customer’ better – from marketers investing in better customer segmentation, to publishers providing addressable audiences, and agencies providing more contextual insight. Do you agree it’s blurring the line on who is responsible for what? Can it lead to confusion around customer?

In a way, we are all responsible for customer. The issue is we have is a bottleneck around who is processing that data and putting the whole picture together. That’s where the challenge is. We are more time poor yet when you talk about channels, we have more channels than ever.

I think about the communication we have with media agencies. They’re dealing with a rising number of channels, all of which are vying for budget, time, and throwing more information into proposals. We want to make sure we are not doing data for data’s sake and that it’s truly providing insight for an advertiser.

There is also the challenge of translating that to sales to pitch more effectively. This has resulted in an education gap we need to consider as a team. Which is why solutions and partnerships are so important. By collaborating more with partners and clients, we won’t just try to throw in stuff and hope it sticks, we’ll provide less that tells you more.

Up next: APN's data play, plus CMO tenure and why it's a massive problem

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What types of data and insight are you’re endeavouring to provide clients first?

What we do in outdoor is provide audience. And we reach all people; that pool is deep. One of the fundamental changes to our business is moving away from being a real estate agent, to being able to articulate that audience.

If we can demonstrate that we understand that audience and why it adds value to the advertiser, then we’re one step ahead. So we use data to tell a story about your customer – here’s who they are, what they do and how they do it, and here are products that help you influence them along the journey, from transit to billboards. The solution is a means to an end.

Various figures suggest CMO tenure in Australia is shortening. As a CMO yourself, why do you think we’re seeing such a phenomenon?

We actually heard a lot about this when we were working with the Cannes keynote and presentations this year. On one of our panels, featuring agencies, creatives and marketers, we talked about award-winning ideas and how ballsy some of ones that won were. All panellists agreed you need tenure to get some of these ideas to happen. And they’re all about fostering strong relationships between the marketer and their agency. A lack of tenure is eroding some of these opportunities and creative possibilities.

One reason it’s happening is the pace we are moving at. But there’s also so much choice in terms of where we could work. Sometimes it’s people getting burnt out, but also there’s so much agility, people are just trying to keep up and stay a step ahead. It’s not hard to make a big difference quickly these days, so it could also be people getting that gratification sooner and moving on. But it is a challenge.

What are the top attributes modern marketing leaders need to lead today?

Firstly, you need the ability to collaborate and know marketing doesn’t have all the answers. You’re one voice in the business. But if the people in the organisation don’t believe in what we have to say, the message won’t get out there. Collaborating and aligning internally is therefore key.

There’s also something around healthy tension. There’s a lot of talk around whether to bring everything in-house versus doing it yourself. Being challenged by other parties is really healthy in the evolution of the brand.

As we’ve been on the journey with our new brand, we brought in an agency to get a fresh face to embrace what the new looks like. It’s hard when you have a team who’ve been working with a certain brand for a long time to get it and move on straight away. Working with an agency showed the team what’s possible.

As marketers, I also worry we are losing the ability to trust our guts. We now use data as a measure for everything – success as well as why we do something. I was attracted to marketing because I just if something felt right or not.

Trusting your gut is often where best work gets done and where the best work happens.

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