ITV Media Bima

ITV chief Dame Carolyn McCall on digital transformation, diversity quotas and leadership


By Stephen Lepitak, -

May 13, 2019 | 10 min read

ITV needs to transform digitally was the admission made by the broadcaster’s chief executive Dame Carolyn McCall while accepting her induction into The BIMA Hall of Fame.

Carolyn McCall and Tarek Nasir

ITV chief Dame Carolyn McCall on digital transformation, diversity quotas and leadership

Speaking to BIMA co-chair Tarek Nasir, McCall talked about her experience in digital media over the last quarter of a century, which included launching Wired in the UK and the first website for The Guardian, where she held the role of chief executive. She also discussed her interest in technology and how she infused that into her time at EasyJet and her own ambitions for her current company, ITV.

“I was very lucky because when I was at The Guardian I had come through the commercial ranks, I had done sales and management and I was asked to launch Wired UK, so that meant that I had to go and meet Wired in the States and it was amazing,” she began, when asked about the role digital media had had in her career.

“I worked with them in San Francisco and we had a great launch team here. It was the most amazing learning experience because the first time I had really seen a website in action was Hotwired, and what they created was really early days but it was an amazing thing for me because, as a result of that, I set up a recruitment website [for The Guardian] initially in 1993.”

Discussing her ambitions for her current company, she revealed her belief that ITV is on a brand-building mission after years of underinvestment. This follows the release of a second advertising campaign under the ‘More than TV’ banner that aims to convey the important role the output of the channel has had on its audience over the years, which has been met with widespread acclaim.

“ITV has done so well for so long — it will be 60 years old next year — and it’s this amazing creative machine and it’s also highly commercial, which is an amazing combination when you get it right,” McCall said.

"The issue we have is a brand issue; we are seen as very comfortable and coy and very warm, but we are not seen to be modern or contemporary, so most of our dramas are attributed to Netflix if you ask sample groups. That’s an issue if we are going to really make it a much more relevant, contemporary brand. Second, there was no investment really in digital, in tech, in data, in analytics and that whole area of machine learning and experimentation; that whole area was under-invested, so the first part of the strategy is brand and really getting that whole investment right and making sure we get results. And the next step is to transform ITV digitally.”

McCall continued to explain that the channel will aim to be discoverable on any technology that the ‘customer or consumer’ is seeking content.

“That’s digital transformation,” she stated. “It’s not necessarily what you see on screen; of course, through the apps and the web, streaming is going to be important and you couldn’t do streaming without digital — those are all parts of digital transforming yourself as a company.”

Asked about her thoughts on her leadership, she expressed the belief that “It’s important that you have to know yourself.” And she admitted that if she had joined ITV a decade or more before, it would not have been the same intellectual challenge as it is for her currently — as she now devises how to counter the competition of Netflix, Amazon, Apple and Disney when it comes to viewer attention.

Talking about why she took her previous role, moving from media into air travel by taking on the job of running EasyJet, she said: “When I found out it was a customer and people problem — the people at EasyJet were very demoralised; it was an operational problem, but there were a lot of people who knew what to do with the operation, [so] it was a brand issue — then I thought I could do it, but it was a massive risk.”

Developing a thick skin through the role, which was up-and-down depending on the fortunes of the budget airliner, she admitted that “it was very hard years” as expected of a ‘turn-around’ company.

“You’ve just got to let it wash over you and know that what you are doing is right,” McCall said.

“So, know yourself, and then, as a leader, it is really important that you listen. I learned more from the crew at EasyJet and the pilots and the people at ITV and the people who are making the news and are creating the programmes and are selling the advertising than I have from any textbook. They will tell you what is going well and what is going really badly. I would just have to sit with the crew in the galley and they would tell me what was wrong, and I would go back knowing what I had to fix. Listening to customers and your own people are really important.

“This is an age of real uncertainty and turbulence and no one quite knows what direction everything is going, a leader have to ride that bit. You have to expect that that is the way it is going to be. Anyone who sits there thinking that things will be the same in six months or a year is very naïve because everything changes at a pace. For your people then, absorbing some of that uncertainty and direction becomes really important because if you get caught up in the uncertainty, then you project that in everything you do. So, it’s important to rise above that and accept that is the way it’s going to be.... Trying to find a clarity through it is important in leadership today; I’m not sure anyone would have said that 10 years ago.”

Having named her daughter after political activist Emmeline Pankhurst, McCall is widely acknowledged as a differentiator when it comes to the push to improve diversity within businesses across the UK. Having been born and raised in India, she says it’s “an obvious thing” for her to do.

“My grandmother was Anglo-Indian. For me, it was just always the normal, right thing to do. I had parents who didn’t have high expectations of me; they just expected me to be a good person. But they always said that ‘what you want to do, you’re going to be able to do’ and from a female perspective that’s quite important. That’s shaped me. I’ve never gone into jobs saying, ‘I don’t think I can do this’; I always think, ‘I’m going to have to learn a lot, but I’m going to learn it and I’m going to be able to do it,’” McCall said.

“That’s an important thing for women, for anyone — for men and women.... Wherever I’ve gone, I’ve always tried to make sure — whether it’s an executive committee or a management committee or a board or wherever it might be — that there’s balance on it.”

In her career, she has held positions as president of Women in Advertising and as the chair of Opportunity Now in order to encourage a more diverse workforce in the advertising sector.

“You’ve just got to get people, women, people from different ethnic backgrounds, disabilities... in the pipeline. If you get to a stage where you are looking for a chief financial officer of a chief marketing officer or a human resources director and the only pool of candidates you have internally are the same, then there’s no pipeline, there’s no one coming up and you restrict your choice and you are worse off for it,” McCall.

“There are loads people can do to encourage diversity and inclusion – there’s a lot coming up that companies should be thinking about. The thing I hate more than anything is when people quote medians because they say; ‘our median is this and we’re a bit better than the national average.’ But you think ‘yeah, but it’s still shit.’ That’s when things don’t change internally because people make themselves feel better and you think ‘so what?’ They might have got it wrong.

“All leaders can make a huge difference about banging on about being more flexible about work, diverse shortlists. Whenever I see a shortlist I will say, ‘OK, I want a diverse list.’ I don’t just want the same white candidates — men usually. I think there are loads [of things] we can do to make that happen.”

Finally, when asked about her relationship with technology, she stated her view that technology can be a force for good, but that it should still be treated with caution, despite owning several smart home devices.

“We have to be very careful about our use of technology and information in our digital footprint and how that can be used and sometimes abused. I am suspicious now of quite a lot of stuff online in a way that I wouldn’t have been a few years ago. There’s always a downside.”

Dame McCall was inducted into the BIMA Hall of Fame alongside investor and entrepreneur Sherry Coutu.

Listen to the full interview through The Drum's Soundcloud account below:

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