Core’s Aidan Greene: ‘What we learned from Covid is that you can’t communicate enough’

Interview: Marketing group’s next CEO on workplace culture, audiences and pandemic lessons

Aidan Greene, incoming chief executive of marketing communications group Core. Photograph: Conor McCabe

Aidan Greene, incoming chief executive of marketing communications group Core. Photograph: Conor McCabe

 

“It probably feels like March already,” says Aidan Greene, incoming Core chief executive of the year’s breakneck start. Not only have clients come back “refreshed” and “raring to go”, this week brought the announcement of his elevation to the top job in Core. It’s still only January.

Greene, who has been deputy CEO of Ireland’s largest marketing communications group since 2014, had been aware for some time that his friend of 30 years, Alan Cox, was stepping down after 15 years to launch a software company specialising in business transformation.

“I’m very grateful for the way it happened in terms of transition. This isn’t a surprise. We have been building to it.”

Of getting started – the handover will be completed in early April – he says he “can’t wait”.

Core, once known mostly for its media planning and buying activities, is no stranger to business transformation, with Greene working alongside Cox as what was Core Media dropped the “Media” from its overarching name in 2018 and restructured into eight collaborating practices, including one that has made an eye-catching push into creative advertising.

“The way the market went was into different silos and specialisms, but what clients are crying out for now is for those services to come back together again,” says Greene. Core Creative’s account-snatching run appears to back this up, with the HSE, the National Lottery and Aviva among the clients procuring both creative and media services from Core.

“The consumer doesn’t see the way they interact with brands as ‘okay I’m getting this from a strategy agency, I’m getting this from a media agency, I’m getting this from a creative agency’. They just know the interaction they have from the brand. That’s all they are concerned about, and that’s what brands should be concerned about.”

So far, the pitch is working. Since Core’s 2011 acquisition of Mediaworks (now one of its four media agencies, alongside Spark Foundry, Starcom and Zenith), the group’s expansion – its employee numbers have almost tripled in a decade to 330 – has largely been organic.

Greene says this is because the success of Core is “100 per cent linked to culture” and it doesn’t want to jeopardise this.

“Anytime you bring a different organisation into it – in an acquisition, for example – there’s always that danger of cultural clash. It slows the development down.”

Remote working

Workplace culture has long been a point of pride at Core, which adopted a remote working policy well before anyone had heard of Covid-19. For the past eight years, staff have been required to be present only for client meetings and “essential collaboration meetings” such as pitches or planning days.

“We’re very used to it,” says Greene. There were still HR lessons to learn when a day of total office closure planned for March 12th, 2020, turned into something longer. “What we learned is that you can’t communicate enough. We communicated a lot,” he says, recalling the isolation and frustration of that first lockdown.

Greene, who hosts staff webcasts dubbed “togetherness meetings”, uses phrases like “open dialogue” and “a sense of empathy” – concepts that might sound obvious, but somehow remain stunningly off the radar of other organisations of similar size.

So how about the next pandemic? “I think if we had to do it again, I’d communicate even more.”

And do people really adhere to Core’s policy of no internal emails after 7pm or before 7am?

“Everyone abides by it,” nods Greene. “When there are emergencies, everyone is very respectful. We’ll ask for permission and apologise for interrupting. So what that policy does is give a level of respect to people’s time.”

There is a narrative about the advertising industry losing talent to high-paying tech groups, including those that situated their European headquarters not too far away from Core’s premises at Number 1 Windmill Lane. Does he recognise this?

“Yes, is the answer. The way we train as an industry and the experience people get from advertising seems to be very appealing to the tech companies,” says Greene. But there have always been threats like this, and clear opportunities for internal mobility help mitigate it.

“Our [staff] churn rate is at 20 per cent. We think the market is probably around 25-30 per cent.”

Rathmines to Peter Owens

Google and Facebook were far off existing, never mind becoming employers of staggering size, when Greene (51) first fell into the advertising world. Growing up in a working-class family in Dundalk, he had a passion for cinema, but the film course he had his eye on was fee-paying. When his father became unwell and had to stop working, Greene instead pursued a European Social Fund-supported advertising course at Rathmines College of Commerce, coming to Dublin aged 17.

The following summer, in the same path taken by Cox before him, Greene secured a placement at what was then Peter Owens Advertising – its eponymous founder, a Madison Avenue veteran, was a “very flamboyant and influential character” in the Irish industry.

A night-time diploma in art direction and a stint in the despatch department – “essentially a human version of email” – was followed by a job in the agency’s media department.

Cox hired him into Bell Advertising in 1993, and after spells at other companies, he moved to MediaVest (now Spark Foundry, part of Core) in 2001, becoming its managing director six years later.

If he time-travelled back to the 2007 version of himself and showed him what 2022 looked like for Core, he would be “very excited” by it, he says. The entire media landscape has undergone radical change in that time, of course. So is the Irish media sector still capable of delivering the audiences his clients want to reach?

That was a lot more straightforward in the past, he says. “When I was working in Peter Owens, you could buy one advertising spot in Glenroe and get half of your audience. That was easy. To do so now would take multiple stations, multiple platforms, multiple spots. It would take a lot longer, and it would be a lot less efficient.”

The upside of media consumers being “absolutely spoiled for choice” is that it’s a brilliant time to be one. “Irish media is always going to have a massive role to play in that. But it will be a role, it won’t just be [about Irish media]. We have to be very mindful of all the ways that consumers are taking in their content.”

Almost exactly a decade ago, I quoted Greene in an article about radio: “When audiences were consistently good and growing across the board, advertisers could choose a particular tone of programme that they wanted to advertise with – now they’re just chasing an audience,” he said at the time.

Can advertisers, with all the choice that’s available to them now, prioritise tone again? Or are they still chasing a certain volume of audience?

“It’s a mixture of both,” he says. Consumers have the ability to curate their own set of media niches to which they feel “deep connection”, but that’s not all they do.

“We’re still a nation of radio listeners and newspaper buyers and linear TV watchers, and that is an enormously important part of audience delivery [to advertisers].”

Staying up to date

Content producers today need to be “wary” of tone and they must adjust to evolving audience attitudes, Greene adds, citing recent criticism of RTÉ weight-loss show Operation Transformation.

“There is a really interesting programme that has been a huge success over the last number of years, but is it staying up to date with the way people want to be spoken to, the way people feel?”

Content producers are held to “a much higher standard” than before – a “not only do you have to entertain me, you also have to reflect my values” standard.

“Anyone who is producing content has to make sure they have got the proper pulse of their audience.”

He has “many times” been associated with campaigns that haven’t “hit the right note” with audiences, either because of their placement or the creative content, usually the latter.

“We have to acknowledge that if something is inappropriate, our role is to find a way to cancel that campaign, or adjust it and replace it with a different message. It does have to be done at pace sometimes.”

A “huge amount of effort” is put into making sure its communications are “culturally relevant and appropriate” and reflect society, he says. “As a company that is relatively new in the creative space, we have got a greater responsibility to build the practice the way it should be built. We don’t have to battle with legacy.”

Five years ago, Core pulled its clients’ advertising from Google’s YouTube, joining in an international boycott fuelled by alarm that the platform was not doing enough at the time to stop blue-chip brands appearing next to extremist content – the sort of terrible look advertisers hate.

The march of the data-rich Google-Facebook duopoly, however, means that online advertising accounts for comfortably more than half of the Irish advertising market, having been a mere slither of the cake as late as 10 years ago. While portions of this newer investment in social media bypasses agencies, Greene says Core has a “very healthy” social spend.

“I think about 30 per cent of our billings are digital, and about 22 per cent of that is social, so it’s still a large part of the spend. But we want to grow our business.”

Business momentum

Its current “groundswell of momentum”, notwithstanding the Covid blip of 2020, began in the wake of the financial crash. Core took the “build your brand now” advice it was dishing out to clients at the time, Greene says, investing in its digital capabilities and reaping the rewards later.

“That’s when we moved away from the competition in terms of our scale, and it has continued ever since.”

According to figures from independent research agency Recma, it has about 37.8 per cent of media billings in the Irish market, he notes. “We can trace the origins of that back to the recession.”

In 2020, the global second-quarter pause in spending by advertisers had everybody worried, but even by the autumn the recovery was eliciting sighs of relief. Core’s billings dropped just 4.6 per cent to €202.4 million that year, shrinking its pre-tax profit from €1.5 million in 2019 to about €266,000.

Last year saw a decent rebound, with billings rising 18 per cent, and a further 9 per cent growth is expected in 2022, says Greene, who is a shareholder in Core alongside other members of its senior management team and the departing Cox.

“In terms of our billings, we’re back up to pre-Covid levels, thankfully. Everyone is trying to regain that momentum they had just before Covid hit.”

While some old-school employers are now insisting staff return to the office full-time, Core will be keeping its pre-existing remote work policy, says Greene, speaking from his home in Bray, where he has lived with his family for 14 years.

“Looking out now, if I strain and stand up on the table, I can see the sea, so that’s good news.”

Even better news, on the Covid front, is that the Virgin Media Dublin International Film Festival, which he chairs, looks set to have in-person events when it begins on February 23rd, “variants willing”, though it will also keep the online access that helped it broaden its audience in 2021, when all red carpets had to be forgone. In 2020, they had luckily managed to get the festival wrapped during the “joking about not shaking hands” phase of pre-lockdown.

“There’s always challenges when it comes to the film festival,” says Greene sagely, recalling its 2019 undoing by the Beast from the East. “After that we thought ‘it’s not going to snow again, what’s the worst that can happen?’”

CV: Aidan Greene

Age: 51

Position: Incoming chief executive, Core

Family: He is married to clinical nurse specialist Siobhan Gardner and they have two daughters.

Something you might expect: He is a “big podcast consumer”, loving comedy and film pods in particular.

Something that might surprise: As far as television goes, he jokes that he sees “whatever the kids will let me watch”.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
GO BACK
Error Image
The account details entered are not currently associated with an Irish Times subscription. Please subscribe to sign in to comment.
Comment Sign In

Forgot password?
The Irish Times Logo
Thank you
You should receive instructions for resetting your password. When you have reset your password, you can Sign In.
The Irish Times Logo
Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.
Screen Name Selection

Hello

Please choose a screen name. This name will appear beside any comments you post. Your screen name should follow the standards set out in our community standards.

The Irish Times Logo
Commenting on The Irish Times has changed. To comment you must now be an Irish Times subscriber.
SUBSCRIBE
Forgot Password
Please enter your email address so we can send you a link to reset your password.

Sign In

Your Comments
We reserve the right to remove any content at any time from this Community, including without limitation if it violates the Community Standards. We ask that you report content that you in good faith believe violates the above rules by clicking the Flag link next to the offending comment or by filling out this form. New comments are only accepted for 3 days from the date of publication.