NZME CEO Michael Boggs on stepping into the limelight

NZME's new chief executive Michael Boggs has been dismissed as a number cruncher and bean counter. But as Damien Venuto discovers during their chat, there's more to Boggs than spreadsheets, debits and credits.

By Damien Venuto | March 17, 2016 | news

When NZME announced that former chief financial officer Michael Boggs would take on the chief executive role vacated by Jane Hastings, there were certainly a few eyebrows raised around the industry.

Some questioned whether putting a “bean counter” in charge of the media company—and all the talent and ego that comes with it—was a smart move.

Like most CFOs, Boggs has flown under the media radar since joining the organisation from Tower in the latter half of 2014. But, sitting down with him, he assures me that just because he hasn’t been in the limelight doesn’t mean he hasn’t been on the tools.

“Although numbers are part of the role for a CFO, you sometimes also shift your focus to other parts of the business,” Boggs says. 

“You really do get to be the business partner of the chief executive and you do get to drive the strategy, moving forward.”

Boggs says he has seen this time and time again in his own career.  

“When I look back at my prior roles, while I might have been the CFO at times, at other times I’ve actually been running businesses. In my very last role I ran a business, which was the Pacific Islands business, which made up a third of Tower’s profit.”

He says that in his experience, good CEOs always give the chief financial officer remit to operate well beyond the remit of number crunching—and, he says, Hastings definitely shared this sentiment.  

Boggs says over the course of his tenure he would work closely with Hastings and the executive team to ensure any ideas or projects pitched could be executed in a financially sustainable way (Boggs hopes the new CFO, which he is yet to appoint, will show a similar willingness to become involved in the strategic side of the business).

“I’ve been Jane’s business partner in all major decisions,” Boggs says.

In fact, he says the collaborative culture across the entire executive team was so strong that “APN felt there were several possible candidates for CEO”.

The IPO issue

Shortly after his appointment, there was speculation that Boggs had been nudged into the big seat in order to get NZME’s initial public offering (IPO) across the line.

When asked about the veracity of such claims, Boggs doesn’t hesitate—indicative of having answered this question more than once since his appointment.

“There’s certainly no IPO currently planned,” he says. 

“My focus right now is getting out and looking to grow the business.”

Talent and egos

Boggs may have been strategically involved in all major decision-making, but there is something to be said for the relationship Hastings had with the talent across the business.

She became NZME chief executive after running The Radio Network (TRN), and she was well versed in the delicate dance it takes to ensure that the egos within the business don’t boil over into bickering and disputes. Over the years, she had honed this skill, establishing close ties with many of the most important contributors to NZME’s product.

Boggs recognises that this is something he will have to work on, and he says he is taking steps to ensure people across the business get to know him.

“I think it’s really important to be visible as much as possible,” Boggs says.

To do this, he is taking steps to meet as many people across the business as he can.

“It’s about engaging with the staff to understand what they all do,” he explains.

“An example would be something as simple as having photography taken. Spending time with a photographer allows me to see what he does in his job. Another example would be catching up with Marcus Lush on Thursday night last week. And I’ve literally just come from spending time with Tony Veitch.”

Boggs has also taken a slightly quirkier approach to engaging with staff in the past by asking Jeremy Wells to do a ‘Like Mike’ clip, which was then shown to the finance team during an off-site meeting.

Boggs says internal comms plays an important role in removing some of the awkwardness that comes with a new appointment.  

“I’m just looking forward to getting past that phase of people thinking they don’t know me,” he says.

In a business that is still going through enormous change, the importance of approachability should not be underestimated.

Boggs says it is essential that the talent within the organisation feels comfortable enough to approach him with ideas.

He points to WatchMe and CreateMe as examples of the executive team backing innovative thinking—and this is a culture he wants to maintain.

“There’s absolutely no change from what we have already been doing. And the great thing is that I’ve already been a part of that, both in its design and implementation, as has the rest of the executive team. In fact, I think people should just see this as business as usual.”

Boggs says that after taking on his role, one of the first calls he made was to Cameron Death, the head of WatchMe, to let him that he will continue supporting the initiative.

“With WatchMe, today we’re focused on 18- to 25-year-olds for much of our content. But we think there are many opportunities to go outside of that—whether it be in a wider audience, sport or news. So just keep watching this space. There will be more and more investment and more and more content put onto that platform.”  

Expanding the empire

Boggs says that despite his background as a financial guy, he will continue to invest in ideas that he believes can grow the business. And he is already living up to this promise.  

“I announced to the team internally on Friday that we’re taking a stake in a new business that will take us to a new part of the business.”

Boggs was tightlipped on the name of the business, saying that it would be announced to the broader public in due course.

In addition to this, Boggs says NZME will also be increasing its activity in the e-commerce space.   

“A recent example that you will see us coming to market with in the coming weeks is around motoring and being able to list your car in the motoring space.”

Boggs sees this as a digital play to win back some of revenue that has shifted from the classifieds section.     

“If you look back some years ago, people might’ve in the past advertised in the newspaper with a classified and much of that has now gone to Trade Me. So there’s an opportunity there for us, and motoring is a good place to start.”

NZME already has a very strong e-commerce platform in GrabOne and it also launched ShopViva last year, but this is a major growth area in the market.

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BNZ figures showed that online retail in New Zealand accounted for $3.5 billion in 2015 and this is tipped to continue growing, as Kiwis become increasingly comfortable clicking buy buttons across the internet.

Drifting revenue

Diversifying its approach to earning revenue is becoming increasingly important, as more and more ad spend shifts to the interactive channel.

The most recent report from the IAB showed that online advertising contributed over $800 million to our annual ad spend in 2015, and it’s no secret that a large chunk of this went directly to Google and Facebook.

“If you look at their market share over the last 12 months, it really has expanded,” says Boggs. “And this is why we have to do everything we can to make sure the pie keeps getting bigger.”   

Local media companies might not be able to compete with the likes of Google or Facebook in terms of scale, but Boggs believes NZME does have a few opportunities at its disposal. 

“It comes back to using CreateMe to develop creative that can help our customers solve their problems and reach an audience. And that’s really our major advantage. We have people on the ground who can deal with our customers.”

The argument here is that NZME could function as a one-stop shop for clients looking to reach an audience. Rather than having an ad agency produce a campaign, which is then rolled out across a media property, clients can approach NZME directly to have a creative idea developed and then rolled across all its internal channels (and perhaps some external ones as well).

This has already been brought to life through some of the integrated campaigns that Alternative Commentary Collective has developed for various brands, and Boggs says he hopes to see more of this in 2016.

"With my CFO hat on, I often question whether we would’ve got that revenue before and whether we are perhaps cannibalising it with new cost," he says. "And I totally believe it’s new revenue, because those clients would’ve gone somewhere else, offering something sexy or experiential that we aren’t involved with.”

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The move away from dots and spots

Selling integrated campaigns isn’t easy, especially considering most sales people have forged their entire careers selling within a certain channel. Added to this was the fact that it was much easier to sell a templated slot in newspaper or a 30-second spot on radio.   

However, Boggs doesn’t get caught up in the nostalgia of how good things once were (perhaps because he wasn’t running a media company back in those days).

“The last thing we want to be doing now is saying, ‘here is a spot or a dot for you to buy’. There will be some customers who have a limited budget, and they may want to buy a spot or a dot, but more and more the business is about those integrated campaigns and using our media assets and creativity to reach the audience they want.”

And although he admits it has required a major shift in mindset, Boggs says staff have become increasingly comfortable stepping outside their comfort zones.   

“I don’t think it all became real until we physically got to this building. And once we got here, people went, ‘I get it, I know what my role is in this’. People have realised that their jobs have got bigger and that they have more opportunities to be involved in more platforms.”

As I close my notebook, switch off my antiquated recording device and wrap up the interview, Boggs catches me off-guard by asking what advice I might have for him.

I blabbered some generic response, which will make very little difference to how he runs the business.

But as I left the NZME building, it struck me that Boggs was the first executive I had ever interviewed that wanted to know what a lowly journalist thought. And this surprise was all the more significant given it came from someone who was meant to be a socially awkward bean counter. 

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