Making a difference, building trust and remaining relevant at 40

Headshot of Alex Mahon, CEO of Channel 4

Making a difference, building trust and remaining relevant at 40

Alex Mahon, CEO of Channel 4, on digital, diversity and being true to the brand

3 minute read

Channel 4 may be in its 40s now but the broadcaster - and its CEO Alex Mahon - is not afraid to ruffle some feathers in the interests of staying relevant to its younger target audiences.

“Remaining relevant to young audiences is a challenge most broadcasters and many brands have given up on,” says Mahon. “I’m not sure I’m seeing a lot of companies trying hard enough to understand them.”

“Young people now are more focused on the authenticity of brands. They need to trust brands and believe they are credible. So businesses need to be more focused on their brand and have a greater understanding of what their brand means to young audiences.”

“We’ve had to switch where we distribute, what platforms we’re on, being on Snap, being on Instagram, being the first broadcaster to go on TikTok, modifying our content for those platforms and advertising on those platforms.”

“You’ve got to fish where the fish are. You can’t pretend you will drag young people to the ways that we’ve historically done business.”

Statements about millennials and Gen-Z are commonplace in business, but Mahon says Channel 4 actively engages with and regularly researches its target audiences in order to inform its decisions. She seems less convinced other business leaders are so actively seeking such insights.

“Most CEOs are in their forties, fifties and sixties,” she says, highlighting just one of the gulfs that can exist between business leaders and younger consumers resulting in cultural disconnects. “You can’t just believe you know Gen-Z, you have to do the research, work with and listen to them. Our recent Beyond Z study tells us who Gen-Z really are, what’s important to them and what it’s like to be them growing up in Britain today. How we work with this generation is going to be critical to all of our success.”

In the case of Channel 4, that means not only exploring new platforms and digital innovations but approaching content in new ways.

“We have a series of documentaries called Untold, which is specifically aimed at Gen-Z,” says Mahon. “They want to see more facts and data because they’ve grown up in a world where you can double-click and get more information at any point. Their appetite for information is much greater than ours, so if you take that to a documentary, they want more facts but sometimes less opinion because they’re prepared to create their own opinion.”

Targeting younger audiences, and looking to engage audiences underserved by other media outlets also means taking editorial decisions that might excite, inspire and be inclusive of some audiences while causing others to reach for the remote control or close their browser.

Mahon says a barometer of how well the broadcaster is performing in that regard can sometimes come in the shape of complaints.

“We should be getting complaints. Otherwise we’re really not doing our job,” she says.

“I love making content that gets people hot under the collar and stays true to our brand. At times the Channel 4 brand has gone a bit too safe. But I think it’s good that we’re bumping into the guardrails quite a lot and still doing things that create debate in society.”

Mahon cites the recent example of Prince Andrew: The Musical and other boundary-pushing comedy, but also Channel 4’s rich history of documentaries and agenda-setting LGBTQ+ content. But she also says representation must not just be seen on screen. The broadcaster is committed to bringing diverse perspectives into the organisation and the wider media industry to safeguard its relevance to future generations and broader demographics.

“We’ve set up this programme called 4Skills and we committed £5 million last year and we’re about to commit £10 million this year to train people from disadvantaged backgrounds, from the nations and regions, to bring them into the industry,” says Mahon. “These are people who might otherwise never get into the industry because they’re from a disadvantaged socioeconomic background or they don’t believe the media is for them because it’s a socially exclusive industry historically, or they’re out of London so they don’t know anyone who works in the media.”

Last year, more than 15,000 people benefited from a Channel 4 training experience and it’s this ability to make a difference to lives that excites Mahon most about her role. She talks with pride about Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics - which burst onto screens with its ‘Meet the Superhumans’ ad campaign and Public Enemy soundtrack in 2012 - as an example of the power the broadcaster has to shape opinions and challenge perceptions.

“Andrew Parsons, the CEO of the International Paralympic Committee, told me at our 10th anniversary party that the film did more in 90 seconds to promote and shift views about the Paralympics than arguably the last 90 years of promotional work.”

Last year, Channel 4’s Winter Paralympics coverage was the first time the event was covered by a team consisting entirely of presenters with disabilities.

“It’s of utter joy to me,” says Mahon, “to have a job where it’s genuinely part of my role to give opportunities to others.”

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Marco Amitrano ACA MCMI ChMC

Marco Amitrano ACA MCMI ChMC

Managing Partner & Head of Clients and Markets, PwC United Kingdom

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