Future tense: Dallas Gurney on starting out as a cart boy, leading Newstalk ZB and taking on branded content

About 21 years ago, a 15-year-old Dallas Gurney, who dreamt of one day having his voice broadcast across the Whangarei airwaves, seemed headed down the road of nominative determinism as he landed his first job as a cart boy.

“The announcer recorded an ad onto a reel-to-reel with a production engineer, and I was the guy that took the reel-to-reel and put all the individual commercials onto cartridges for the announcer to then play on their radio show,” explains Gurney.

With the advent of computers, this role was struck off the payroll and Gurney was forced to extend his skill set beyond pushing carts around the studio. 

“I was very lucky to have bridged those two worlds and be at the forefront of computerisation in broadcasting,” he says.

Through his adaptability, Gurney was able to work his way up the ranks and by the time he reached the relatively young age of 31, he took over at the helm of Newstalk ZB and Radio sport, a position he has held for the last five and half years. 

The success of the station under his tenure has been well reported in the various radio surveys over the years, and Gurney also went on to win a hat trick of Radio Programmer of the Year awards between 2012 and 2014 for his efforts.

However, Gurney recently left his role at station and now finds himself sitting between two worlds again as he comes to grips with the dual content and commercial responsibilities demanded by his new position focused on branded content creation across the NZME group. 

Gurney is set to take on the new role in mid August, and it will see him developing commercial branded content, white-labelled content solutions, PR and communications services for clients within the framework of NZME’s various media properties.

For someone who has spent the most recent patch of his career focusing on news, the move might seem slightly unusual given that branded content is regularly criticised for obscuring the lines between editorial and sales. But, if anything, Gurney argues that his experience in the newsroom will benefit him as he takes on his new role.       

“Firstly, I’m a news guy. I’ve spent years protecting the credibility of my brands. It’s something that really dear to my heart, and my approach won’t change here.” 

He says that one of the simplest ways to protect the credibility of a brand is by adopting a transparent approach when it comes to branded content. 

 “You’ve got to be honest with people … and tell them that a client has paid to be connected with the content.  But hopefully, you don’t let that get in the way of readers using it, because hopefully the content is really good.”

In his time at Newstalk ZB, Gurney has already shown a knack for developing branded content executions that don’t interfere with the general flow of the programming. One of the better-known examples of this would be ASB’s sponsorship of segments of Mike Hosking’s show. 

This sponsorship has now also been extended onto the NZ Herald through the Mike’s Minute video series, which is brought to viewers by ASB and features Mike Hosking sharing his opinion on a range of topical issues.  

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In a sense the Tiwai Point Aluminium Smelter is subsidised work and doesn’t pay its way. We need to work out how much subsidisation Tiwai Point’s 800 jobs is worth. #MikesMinute

Posted by Mike Hosking Breakfast on Monday, 3 August 2015

“The ASB partnership is probably a very good example of that,” says Gurney. “It’s not just a commercial execution; it’s really a fundamental part of the DNA of the Mike Hosking show and also the wider station.”

Gurney says that effective branded content like this is only possible when there is clear communication between the client and the publisher, and this is something that he will look to facilitate more seamlessly in his new role. 

“It’s about sharing of information. Talking to them about what we have coming up, and then them doing the same with us and then together working on how the two might marry up.”

Several months ago at the Radio Rewired event, ZM presenter Jase Hawkins spoke about how the role of radio personalities was changing and that they were increasingly coming up with commercial ideas for advertisers.

“Years ago in radio, when I first got into it, people got into it thinking they’d do a couple of hours a day,” Hawkins said. “I’ll get in, get free stuff and get out. These days, presenters are pretty much producing as well. You’re in there and involved in the process. When you’re selling an idea to a client, a lot of times the announcers have to go out and sell the idea to a client rather than having them read it on a bit of paper. You’re a bit of everything: producing, sales and so forth. People don’t just want radio. If we come up with an idea or a client brief, you have to think: ‘What’s going to make great radio?’ and ‘Is that going to translate to video?’”

Our attempt at making ‘Sushizza’ last night was… interesting.

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Gurney explains that this approach has thus far proved effective, because audiences develop a relationship with the presenters over time. Listeners are, after all, tuning in to listen to a personality they like rather than showing loyalty to the abstraction of a brand.  

“We’re able to hook commercial partners not only into a relationship with our brands, but also potentially hook them into our talent,” says Gurney. “And that’s quite different, because our talent has a deeper relationship with the audience. In many cases, the audience feels that they’ve got to know them and they’re part of their lives. And hopefully, that will lead to a deeper relationship with the brands as well.

At a pop culture station like ZM, this approach, when executed well, shouldn’t interfere too substantially with flow of the programming and can even give presenters new material to work with. 

But news brands, such as Newstalk ZB or the NZ Herald, have a trickier challenge, in that there is an expectation that they deliver objective and unbiased news. 

Getting news personalities to participate in branded content initiatives could therefore prove risky to the credibility of those involved. But Gurney sees the role of talkback personalities as different to that of a conventional journalist or news gatherer.   

“When we’re talking about ties like Mike Hosking, Kerre McIvor, Rachel Smalley and Leighton Smith, these are people who have built their careers on having an opinion. But this is different to the news,” he says. “They are connected [to the news], because they’re talking about things happening in the news, but primarily their job is to tell people what they think of those stories and to interpret those stories on behalf of the audience. So I think we are able to keep those separate although connected.”

It’s also worth noting that the likes of Hosking, McIvor, Smalley or Smith are very unlikely to sell their opinions to the highest the bidder, given that they have built their careers on saying things exactly as they see them. 

And the storytelling prowess of these personalities can add value to a message, as was illustrated in the heart-wrenching ‘Forgotten Millions’ series, which was fronted by Smalley and developed collaboratively between the NZ Herald and World Vision. 

The campaign raised $322,893 by its close, significantly exceeding the initial goal of $100,000. And although this money was raised for charity, the effectiveness of the campaign provides a strong argument for the ability of branded content to reach the target audience without infringing on the credibility of the personalities involved.

Gurney’s objective will now be to convince commercial partners that branded content can also drive strong results for their businesses, but he says this can only be achieved by producing good content. 

“People won’t watch, read or listen to something that isn’t compelling, and I know that from my background in content,” he says. “So we just want to make cool stuff that just happens to be funded by external partners … It will be different things for different clients, and it depends on what problems they want to solve.”

Solving these problems for clients through branded content is increasingly seen as way for both local and international publishers to plug some of the revenue holes that have been caused but advertisers shifting ad spend from print to digital. But not everyone is convinced that digital advertising will ever generate enough to ensure that journalism is funded sufficiently. 

In an earlier feature in this series, Hive News founder Bernard Hickey said that philanthropic funding, direct reader payments through a subscriber model or some form of state funding through a licence fee (as used in the United States and Canada) were possible solutions to the revenue problems faced by publishers. 

Asked for his thoughts on this, Gurney admits that it was still too early to say what the right answer is. 

“There are many models and people are working it out,” Gurney says. “It might take some time for the answer to be found. Some people will find one way that works and other people will find another way. For us, we’re committed to the advertising model.”

And despite ongoing industry concerns about job security and publishers’ financials, Gurney remained optimistic throughout the interview not only when talking about NZME and his new position but also about the future of those working in the Kiwi media industry.

“I’ve survived, many others have survived, and I think if you’re adaptable and willing to learn new things, there’ll always be a job out there for you.”

And now, at the age of 36, Gurney shows that he is still willing to learn as he takes on a new challenge and another step away from his humble start as a cart boy. 

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