Alan Cox: Pirate radio to marketing boss

Core chief talks transparency, creativity, tech regulation - and a ban on emails after 7pm

 

Not far from the Google-Facebook tech axis in Dublin’s Docklands, an airy, plant-draped office building in tasteful slate grey rises up from the site of the old Windmill Lane Studios, demolished in 2015 to make way for redevelopment.

On the floor newly occupied by Core, Ireland’s biggest marketing communications group, chief executive Alan Cox shows me a piece of Windmill history: a segment of the graffiti-adorned wall once frequented by U2 fans that was purchased at a charity fundraiser and now stands in reception “just as a constant reminder of the history of this building and the relevance it has for what we want to do here”.

The names of Core’s meeting rooms are drawn from albums recorded at the studios. Some people might say this is a little “old media”, harking back to the pre-internet glory days of physical recordings?

“There’s no doubt that the music industry has changed beyond all recognition. But collaboration and great art endures forever,” says Cox. “It’s important to be aware of where you came from and draw inspiration from the past, and combine that with new knowledge and learning.

“I think that’s what creativity is all about, taking stimulus from lots of different parts of life and bringing them together to create a new idea.”

In this case, the new idea will see Core commissioning Irish artists to interpret the chosen albums in the form of a piece of art for each room.

You will find plenty of people employed on the editorial side of the Irish media bubble who are unfamiliar with the name Core, despite its size and importance to the commercial wheels of the industry. At its heart, the mostly Irish-owned company is a buyer of advertising, a planner of campaigns, with a 35 per cent market share, a workforce of 310 and projected 2018 billings of €220 million. It matters where it puts its clients’ money.

Not alone among media agency bosses, Cox has in the past voiced criticism of a perceived staleness in Irish radio. But he says he is only sitting where he is now, amid the grown-up upholstery of the Core client lounge, because of his love of the medium.

Aged 14, growing up in Dún Laoghaire, Co Dublin, he got a CB (citizens band) radio, a craze imported from the United States, and it changed the course of his life. “It was our social network. That was the late 1970s, early 1980s. All my friends had CB radios and we all had handles. Mine was Tomcat.”

Like many others with a fondness for CB radio, he gravitated to pirate radio, then at its height, becoming a DJ on the “original” Radio Nova while he was still at school. This sparked his interest in advertising and, when applying for third-level, he spotted an advertising course at the then Rathmines College of Commerce.

“I said I’d give that a whirl,” he says. By the end of the course, he had a placement in the Peter Owens advertising agency.

Radio remains his first love. “It’s a wonderful medium. People have a unique relationship with radio. It feels part of their lives in a way that other media don’t. It tends to partner your week, doesn’t it?”

His late father, Tom, was a broadcaster, which also drew him to the business. In the 1950s he presented the show Hospitals Requests on Radio Éireann, broadcasting out of the top floor of the GPO to an “enormous” listenership. On one occasion, after his father played a Cole Porter song, sung by Ella Fitzgerald, with the lyrics “I’ll always be true to you darlin’ in my fashion / I’ll always be true to you darlin’ in my way”, his boss called him in to say “the palace had been on”, meaning the palace of archbishop John Charles McQuaid, to say “his worship” had difficulty with “the circumscribed morality” of the song.

What McQuaid wanted, he got. Cox’s father was told his career would not suffer unduly if he didn’t play it again. The following weekend, he played the instrumental version as his two fingers to archbishop’s palace. “But it’s incredible, isn’t it? That someone could have that influence.”

He thinks that, in Ireland, “we’re just coming out of our adolescent period”, and he hopes that, as a nation, we become “a wonderful adult”.

Restructuring

Core, meanwhile, is entering the next phase of its development, with a €7.5 million investment facilitating the leasing of the 24,000sq ft space from Hibernia Reit, happily close to its existing offices on the quays, and a restructuring of its nine separate businesses into one company.

Core, which has dropped “Media” from its overarching name, has retired several of its business names – sponsorship agency Livewire is now Core Sponsorship; research subsidiary Ignite is Core Research – and united them all in one company. Only the four media-buying businesses – Mediaworks, Spark Foundry, Zenith and Starcom – have retained their identities, enabling them to handle competing clients.

A chunk of the investment will go to building up Core Creative to “deepen” its capabilities in this area.

A single company structure “without silos, without walls” allows for better collaboration, producing better outcomes for clients, he says. Number 1 Windmill Lane is designed for this purpose, with a “CoLab” room of tiered, cushioned benches, all facing each other, where people can come together to “crack an idea for a client”.

It’s a style of restructuring he believes will soon be replicated on a much larger scale within the global advertising giants, which are also built on sometimes unwieldy alliances – more silos. “The industry has to find a way of coming back together in a more cohesive way,” Cox says.

Of these marketing behemoths, Core’s 16 per cent shareholder, the French group Publicis, is best placed to change how it is set up “in order to be future-focused”, he believes. It was for the best, he thinks, that the Publicis-Omnicom mega-merger, announced in 2013, didn’t go ahead, as it would have made Publicis’s current reform plan impossible.

It won’t be so easy for WPP, a conglomerate of about 400 companies, he says. “It’s much more challenging for them, particularly given what’s happened lately with Martin Sorrell’s departure.”

Industry figurehead Sorrell, the man who took a manufacturer of wire baskets and made it the largest advertising group in the world, resigned in April after misconduct allegations, sending WPP into an existential crisis. Was it ever healthy for such a big company to revolve around one man?

Sorrell is “an extremely talented person”, but the answer is no, says Cox. “What’s really surprising is that the issue of succession has been talked about in WPP for years but there was no real sign of it when that unexpected departure happened. It seemed like they were a little bit at sea.”

Transparency

What the marketing world needs alongside structural reform is a new focus on transparency, Cox says. “The industry has not done itself any favours on that front internationally. It needs to be wholly transparent about the way it trades, how it earns its money, and be very clear with clients about that.”

It’s “disappointing” that the industry has clouds of suspicion as part of its narrative, he adds. Still, much as he wishes it were otherwise, he “can’t quibble” with the international commentary on advertising fraud, as “there’s no smoke without fire”.

He believes it is not an issue in the Irish market, “although I can’t speak for our competitors”. Core offers clients “complete transparency” on how it operates its programmatic ad buying, the relatively new part of the business where things have been “a bit murky”, and on the rebates that agencies earn from media owners, “which need to be spoken about openly”.

Sacrifice trust and you sacrifice the long-term health of your business, he says.

Indeed, his main criticism of Irish media companies is what he perceives as a lack of long-term thinking. “I don’t like to be the person who is slagging off other organisations, but I don’t see any clear evidence of it.”

The business is marred by too much infighting and not enough “sustained, consistent” co-operation in tackling the threat posed by the ascent of Google and Facebook. He would like to see the Irish media come together in a single owners’ association, and also for the Government to have a minister for media, as the UK does.

Discussions about the consequences of Google and Facebook’s immense advertising power on indigenous media companies need to happen sooner rather than later.

“In a small market like Ireland, it could happen very quickly that one or more media organisations that we rely on today could go out of business,” he says. There’s not much point looking back and saying “isn’t it a pity?”

It’s not that he believes in protectionism, which “makes for lazy planning”. But there’s “a fine balance” to be had here. Alongside fairer tax structures – “should there be any VAT on newspapers? I don’t think so” – and an opening up of public media funding beyond RTÉ, the regulation of Google and Facebook as media organisations would be “a helpful intervention” and he thinks that the momentum is there now, at European level, to do it.

In the meantime, Irish media organisations really must find their own “north star”, he says. There is too much “complaining about the way the market is now” and not enough “saying what they will do to change their future path”, is how he puts it.

News outlets, and not only Irish ones, would find it easier to charge for digital access if they had “a big think” and took advantage of their websites’ multimedia possibilities to a far greater extent. They are still looking at online content, “through the lens of a newspaper”, with “far too little video being produced”, he says.

He speaks as a consumer of media, not someone thinking about the advertising possibilities that come with video.

“That’s what I would like to see,” he says. “Isn’t it unusual that you have a multimedia channel available to news brands, but they continue to force people to read through that multimedia channel? The written word will always remain hugely important, but it needs to be balanced with video.

“The reason they are not investing in video, of course, is that it would be too expensive. But would it be too expensive not to do it?”

Already, the market is moving on to the tantalising prospect of voice activated search, which is “going to require a different way of thinking”, while artificial intelligence and augmented reality will also make their presence felt increasingly.

In more than 30 years in the business, however, Cox has learned that it is mainly the technology, not the human being, that changes. “The human brain has taken millions of years to evolve. It’s not going to change within 10 years of an iPhone.”

To find their “north star”, media organisations need to “develop and articulate plans that will motivate their employees”, he says. “That’s crucial. You don’t have to have the right answer, but you need to have an answer. You need to point your business in a certain direction that excites everybody that works with you to be a part of it.”

Working environment

He talks about the working environment in Core, which he says is trying to do more to support its employees, both on the professional development side and in their work-life balance.

“Everyone in the organisation has the ability to work remotely, and they’re encouraged to do so whenever they want,” he says. Emails have been banned between 7pm and 7am and at the weekends, unless two people are working on a project and both choose to do so. “It has to be both of them.”

The policy has already made “such a difference” after just two years. “That and getting people to turn off the audio notifications on their phones. You know, the ping! Every ping is stress.

“And sometimes people were sending emails in the evening not because they wanted a response, but because they just wanted to clear their desk, but that didn’t matter to the person getting them, because they would see the email, they would hear the email. Some of them would respond unnecessarily and even if they didn’t, it would bring them back into that stressful world.”

He has “a good balance” in his own life now. “Like a lot of people in this industry, I didn’t in the past,” he says, with a rueful laugh. “It’s not a nine to five job, but it’s not seven days a week anymore. And it was.”

CV

Name: Alan Cox

Age: 51

Position: Chief executive of Core since 2006.

Family: He lives in Howth, Co Dublin – “like nowhere on earth” during the heatwave – with his fiancee Wendy and her daughter Yanna, while his teenage daughters Michelle and Anna, live with their mother in Killiney. He is “very lucky” in his family life, he says.

Something you might expect: He has an Amazon Alexa device at home.

Something that might surprise: He has kept his own desk in Core’s older offices at Sir John Rogerson’s Quay rather than moving to brand new Windmill Lane.