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“We can move very quickly when there’s a burning platform”: Dame Carolyn McCall CEO of ITV

“We can move very quickly when there’s a burning platform”

Dame Carolyn McCall

“Organisations that have existed for many years tend not to move very quickly,” says Dame Carolyn McCall, CEO of ITV. “But the pandemic showed we can move very quickly when there’s a real burning platform.”

From dealing with a significant impact on advertising revenues to working out how to keep producing shows through lockdown, McCall says the “needs must” nature of the pandemic has accelerated ITV’s digital transformation and the cultural change and greater agility which underpins it.

Speaking to PwC for the 25th Annual CEO Survey, McCall shares the example of popular ITV reality show Love Island and the way its production was transformed overnight.

“When we produced Love Island last summer, we were able to do it because not everybody had to go to Spain. A large number of people sat in Gray’s Inn Road in London, editing remotely, whereas the year before everybody went to Spain.”

“I don’t know if we would ever have remotely edited the whole show if we didn’t have to, but travel restrictions and quarantines meant we did,” she says. “It was the biggest trial of our capabilities and our investments in the cloud. It really worked and we’ll do it again and again.”

In order to maintain the momentum injected into technology - an area McCall says ITV was underinvested in before her arrival four years ago - ITV needs to attract, recruit and retain digital tech talent. But she concedes it is a resource in too short supply.

“It is an industry issue,” she says. “Having sat on the Prime Minister’s Business Council, the digital skills issue was the thing that kept recurring. It was something we talked about with David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson, and something we’ve not cracked properly yet as a country, and I think the visa issue post Brexit has made it more difficult.”

Digital skills

However, through a combination of recruitment and partnering, McCall says ITV is able to secure the skills and capabilities it needs.

“We know people such as software engineers really want to do interesting work, and we have really interesting work. It’s challenging, it’s complex, it’s fast-paced and the environment is good.”

McCall says ITV’s investments in remote working, and a culture that supports employee choice around new and more agile ways of working has also appealed to technical staff.

“In the whole of ITV, one of the areas that is most productive working from home is technology, and software engineering in particular,” she says.

However, recruitment alone is not enough.

“We will always have gaps. So we partner with organisations. Not just to outsource but real partnerships with people who do a lot of work with us, who understand us and what we are setting out to achieve.”

This dual approach of recruitment and partnership helps ITV plan and deliver long-term technology transformation, while ensuring it can scale-up teams on specific short-term projects.

Short and long-term priorities

McCall says this balancing of short and long-term priorities must be a key focus for all CEOs, especially as high priority projects - from delivering significant transformations to addressing workplace diversity - do not conform to the quarterly or annual timeframes against which business performance has traditionally been measured.

One such example was McCall’s decision to resist the temptation to furlough staff in ITV’s sales teams, even when ad revenues were at a pandemic-induced low.

“We didn’t furlough anybody from our commercial team, because we felt long-term client relationships and agency relationships were so critical to what we do.”

Instead, sales teams spent more time in conversation with clients and agencies, discussing advances and innovations such as highly-targeted addressable advertising.

“The learning there was that you can take a short-term decision to furlough staff and save a few million but actually the long-term benefit was so much greater. The economy rebounded so quickly and we made a lot more money in 2021 as a result of having deeper client relationships.”

“In all roles I’ve resisted short-term pressure,” adds McCall, who was CEO of easyJet and Guardian Media Group, prior to ITV. “There’s no point doing something for a quarter that gives you problems in two years’ time.”

McCall says it is an essential role of the CEO to ensure shareholder support for longer-term projects and one which requires ongoing dialogue.

Communication is critical

As somebody working within the media, McCall knows better than most the importance of reliable, trustworthy communication, and says it has been more critical than ever since the start of the pandemic.

Since joining ITV, McCall has done a video address to all staff, with a Q&A, every two to three weeks. When the pandemic struck, these became a weekly fixture in people’s diaries.

“People would ask anything, such as ‘I’m sitting on a beanbag in my room, why aren’t you giving me money for a desk?’, and we’d be able to help resolve their questions.”

“We’d tell everybody everything we knew in real time,” she says, adding the regular communications drove high levels of engagement with a promise of openness and transparency.

“This is really important,” she says, emphasising how critical employee trust is to business success.

“If an organisation loses its people it is very, very hard to regain trust internally,” she says. “If you’re trying to deliver big transformation programmes and major strategic plans it’s hugely problematic if your people are not on your side. And when they are, that really speeds you up.”

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Marco Amitrano

Marco Amitrano

Head of Clients and Markets, PwC United Kingdom

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