New managing director takes over at a challenging time for all branches of the media
Paul Farrell, the newly appointed managing director of Virgin Media Television, almost bagged his first TV job back in 1997.
Having completed an MBA in Iowa in the US, the Dubliner got an internship in Lee Enterprises, which owned dozens of newspapers and several TV stations at the time. This led to the offer of a commercial role at a channel in Tucson, Arizona, but Farrell decided to make a brief visit home and get a visa based on his offer of employment. On returning to Ireland, he learned the US visa system had changed and was now a lottery system. “And that was the end of that,” says the straight-talking Artane man.
The hiccup didn’t hold Farrell back and he has gone on to have a varied career, holding senior commercial and marketing roles in well-known businesses such as O2, the Irish Times and financial services firm Davy.
Although Farrell insists he did not harbour a hankering for a career in TV, the opportunity came up this year with the exit of long-time station executive Pat Kiely.
Farrell takes on the job at Virgin Media Television (VMTV) at a time of great challenge for the media business, with advertising badly hit by Covid-19 and key sporting events and hit shows off air.
However, he is bursting with enthusiasm about his new role and is confident VMT, formerly known as TV3, can ride out the storm.
“Our model has stood the test of time,” he says. “We’ve come through a number of crises, we’ll come through this one. That doesn’t mean there won’t be changes or we won’t have to look at different situations, but the culture and the model we have allows us to do that in a nimble enough way.”
Virgin Media’s news has performed well during the pandemic, scoring highly as a source of trusted information on Covid-19.
While it and RTÉ have some strong viewing figures, advertising revenue has fallen significantly for all media. Senior advertising sources estimate TV is down 40pc to 50pc at present, although are hopeful it will recover over the summer.
“There’s the same challenge for all media, except for our friends in RTÉ,” he says, referencing RTÉ’s licence fee income. “The model in Virgin Media is always you eat what you kill. So we invest in what we have the ability to pay for.
“Now these times are more extreme than anyone could have forecast. But we are just monitoring and managing our costs.”
“That’s a big piece of our effort, looking how can we protect and continue to grow the business through these times. We have to be forensic.”
If Farrell had been allowed his way, he would have left school before his Leaving Cert and joined the ESB. However, his mother insisted he stay in education and pushed him to go to college.
Farrell and some friends plotted an escape out of Dublin and when they were all accepted in to the Institute of Technology in Carlow, that is where he went. He loved life in the town, although he headed back to Dublin at weekends to work shifts in Kentucky Fried Chicken.
After a two-year diploma in marketing, he got an internship with the college, then getting a full time role in marketing there. Farrell completed his degree in Portobello College, Dublin, before heading to Iowa in the US on an MBA scholarship.
On his return, Farrell first joined Sean Melly’s MCI Worldcom, which included a stint in London. He returned home in 2002 to take up the position of marketing director with O2, where he met first Tony Hanway, now CEO of the wider Virgin Media Ireland business.
“It was just after Digifone got bought out and the rebrand had just happened,” he says. “The mobile phone market was really exciting, it was new and everyone was interested in it.”
His next role came out of left field in 2007, he says, a job at the Irish Times. “They really wanted to start looking at their digital strategy, that was the original brief,” says Farrell, who later took on the group commercial director role. He found the push and pull between commercial interests and editorial interests frustrating at times, he recalls.
When managing director Maeve Donovan left the title, Farrell was encouraged to put his name in the hat for the position but decided against it.
Instead he joined media agency Initiative as managing director at a time when it had lost major client Diageo and was struggling. During his time there, it merged with McCann Universal, which has also lost a major client and relaunched the joint entity as IPG Mediabrands. “We managed to get the business back on track and we grew the business,” he says.
Stockbroker Davy was his next step and it was a very different world to the media and telcos companies he was accustomed to. Davy CEO Brian McKiernan had been to the States and seen how wealth management and other financial services were evolving.
“The brief was to come in, build a brand, improve digital and secondly drive customer-centricity and change the culture within the business. That sounded exciting,” says Farrell.
While marketing had a place at the top table in Farrell’s other roles, it took some time for the Davy staffers to understand the new role of marketing director. “I remember meeting people in the first couple of weeks and they were saying ‘We could do with a few more [branded] golf balls and umbrellas,” says Farrell. “That was where marketing sat in their world, so you’re under no illusion as to your role at the start.”
But McKiernan’s support ensured marketing would play a bigger role in the organisation’s future. “Some of the first questions you got asked were ‘Who do you report to?’ Once you said Brian, people’s attitudes changed,” says Farrell.
“These tended to be very clever guys who were managing pretty significant portfolios dealing with very influential capable people. They went from feeling they really didn’t need a lot of help, to realising there is something in this marketing stuff,” he says. “It was really getting yourself off the floor, the dirt on someone’s shoe, to people realising that this guy had something to add.”
One of Farrell’s first tasks was to carry out a client survey. Initially, Davy staff were very protective of their clients but, over time, saw the benefit of more customer engagement and client satisfaction become part of its measure for remuneration.
Another unexpected job change came in 2016, after Hanway was appointed to the top job at Virgin in Ireland.
Farrell took over as vice-president of commercial at the group, although after restructuring the commercial division last year was looking for new opportunities within the group.
He says he was originally drawn to a new, yet-to-be revealed telco project within Virgin but when it emerged Kiely was leaving, he was delighted to take on the role of managing director of the group’s TV business.
Farrell says he has been overwhelmed by the messages and good wishes, reflective of the level of attention media companies tend to attract.
He believes Irish media organisations need to join forces to face down the tech giants, which are sapping a growing proportion of ad revenue.
“I think at a very macro level, which is beyond the TV piece, I think the broader understanding of the entertainment and media and advertising industry is not as it should be,” he says.
He referenced recent stats from Core Media which suggest digital advertising would have a 65pc share of the overall ad market this year. “And Google and Facebook at 85pc of that.”
“That means Google and Facebook will have 55pc of the advertising market. If that was in any other industry, the Government would be saying ‘Hang on, there is something wrong here, that is dominance’.
“What always concerned me is how our friends in Google and Mr Zuckerberg have been able to tread this line between platform and publisher. They are a bloody publisher, they should be accountable for what they put up as any publisher would be.”
Farrell is also concerned about the amount of media coming in from the UK, a far bigger and better financed market than ours. “We suffer probably more than any other market in terms of in-spill from our neighbours,” he says. “Again we have got to be very conscious that we reinforce and invest in local in media. I don’t think we’re great as an industry on coming together on these things.”
However, Farrell follows in the footsteps of his predecessors by raising some concerns about RTÉ’s funding. TV3/VMTV has long highlighted the public service broadcasting it delivers without the help of licence fee funding.
“The Government needs to look at how you fund media generally,” he says.
The coronavirus means VMTV won’t have the same sports line it has enjoyed in recent years, while huge audience hits such as Love Island are off air. When it comes to sport, negotiations are going on behind the scenes given the significant rights fee that have been paid out.
“I think there are a lot of conversations that will happen over the next six to 12 months to look ahead at what is the model for content investment into the future,” he says.
TV viewing is changing rapidly and the Virgin Player will have a big role in the company’s future plans. It is investing in and upgrading its app among other things. Farrell also says collaborations will play a big part in the TV business.
Will VMT need three channels in the future, given there is less content? “I wouldn’t be as fixated on saying are three channels going to become two. I’d be more obsessed about how we can package our content a little bit differently and partner with the right people to increase our audience,” he says.
Incoming managing director of Virgin Media Television
Malahide, Co Dublin
St Joseph’s Secondary, Fairview, Dublin
Institute of Technology, Carlow
Portobello Institute, Dublin
MBA, St Ambrose University, Iowa
Roles in Davy, Irish Times and O2
Married to Niamh. Children Rian (18), Éabha (16), Keela (12), Nola (11), Oisín (9)
I cycle and I coach my daughter’s Gaelic team in St Sylvester’s and two girls’ teams — the under-13s and the under-11s
The Godfather and The Big Blue, which is a move about free diving
I Am the Cheese by Robert Cormier. I read it when I was young and it stuck with me
What is your approach to leadership roles?
As a leader - and I said this to the guys in VMTV on a call with them last week - your role is to make it easy for people to do their jobs. If you employ people, let them do what you employed them to do. I think too many people get in the way or feel they have to take ownership.
What's your top piece of career advice?
Always leave things better than you found them; you should always enjoy what you're doing and learn and grow. And if you're not achieving both of those, it's time to move on.
Sunday Indo Business