Jeremy O’Brien on his decade in TV

This week’s news of Jeremy O’Brien’s resignation from his position as commercial director of TVNZ drew the curtain on an 11-year career at the company.

Stints like these have become rare in the media industry, with executives jumping from one opportunity to the next in a bid to further their careers.

Asked what kept him at TVNZ for so long while his executive colleagues were playing corporate musical chairs, O’Brien says every year spent at the state broadcaster taught him something and that he has no regrets about hanging around for so long.   

“I can genuinely say that the last 11 years at TVNZ have developed and evolved me to the point where I can branch out and do something really exciting in a new industry,” he says.

It was always going to take a high-profile suitor to coax him away from TVNZ, and this came in the shape of Air New Zealand, where he will be working as regional general manager of direct and market development from September.      

“It’s a great opportunity for me to develop my career in a new industry, so it’s really about furthering my career over the next five to ten years. It’s all about looking forward.”

O’Brien will have his work cut out for him at the airline, which is currently undergoing a period of enormous change with competitors ramping up their efforts in the local market.

However, having spent the last 11 years in the television industry, change and bit of international competition doesn’t really scare O’Brien. He has, after all, overseen an enormous shift in TVNZ’s strategy over the last few years, in particular.

“Excuse the pun, but it’s been like changing the jet engine mid-flight,” he says.

O’Brien will hopefully not need to change any engines mid-flight while at Air New Zealand, but some of the skills he’s learnt at TVNZ will certainly be applicable in his new role (he’s clearly thinking on-brand already with the use of that analogy).

He says one of the challenges in working for an incumbent is that you are often required to tweak the strategy while continuing to do the things that have put you in the market-leading position.

“To do that, you’ve got to have the foundation of the business strong,” he says.

“Of all the things I’ve done with the team at TVNZ over the last 11 years, establishing a strong foundation at the business is probably what I’m most proud of.”

Several times during the discussion, O’Brien shares his aversion to ‘one-hit wonders’, which he describes as business initiatives that might result in a spike before withering away.

O’Brien says it’s far easier to roll out fads than to create business plans that have longevity.

Elaborating further, O’Brien points to TVNZ’s content marketing platforms—particularly, Tech in Sec and The Mix— as examples of business solutions that do have staying power. 

“These are five-year solutions that are still going strong in the market,” he says.

“Those mastheads and formats work because they’re driven by genuine insight about the customer for those clients. And it’s a genuine partnership with those clients to continue to evolve those formats over time.”

In addition to developing these platforms alongside Brandworld, O’Brien has also played an integral role in monetising TVNZ’s digital channels.  

“As we’ve moved into online video and online video advertising, we’ve been able to deliver sustained growth over multiple years in that online video ad space,” he says.

This has included the launch of KPEX, which saw TVNZ, Fairfax, MediaWorks and NZME enter into an unlikely partnership at the end of last year in an effort to tap into the programmatic market.

O’Brien has also played a key role in expanding the TVNZ OnDemand platform to the extent that it today has over 1.5 million active subscribers in its database.

“All of those things are important, because as the market has changed in dynamics and become quite volatile, we’ve been able to provide a stable platform for the business to evolve.”

While the market certainly has been volatile over the last few years, TVNZ has enjoyed a relatively stable period in terms of its executive structure.

O’Brien admits that this has played a role in the state broadcaster retaining its position as the incumbent, but adds that stability can only take you so far.

“Stability is really important and it’s really helped, but at the same time you also want to embrace new ideas,” he says. 

“I think the business has a nice mix between strong, stable leadership but also bringing experts from other industries over time to challenge our thinking and evolve it.”

One way TVNZ has introduced fresh thinking is by hiring staff who don’t necessarily have a background in television.

“If you look at my team over the last few years, we’ve brought in people from the financial services industry, from the telco industry, and a number of industries completely different from media and entertainment,” O’Brien says. 

“These people are arriving from industries that are similarly facing disruption. It brings in a variety of thinking and I think that’s always healthy in an organisation.”

As O’Brien embarks on his next journey (we can’t blame him for this one), this statement could be flipped and applied to his own career, given that he will now be lending his media knowledge to a completely different—but also disrupted—industry.

So as he heads off, does he think TV has a future?

“I think the future for television is incredibly bright,” he says without hesitation.

“It will be TV but maybe not as we know it. Ultimately, television programmes are all about delivering content that people get engaged in and love to watch. I don’t think that customer need will change, but the way we deliver against that need is going to change. And the core premise of quality content and engaging storytelling is never going to go away. It just might look a little different from what it does today.” 

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