Jacob keeps smiling in face of adversity

Jacob keeps smiling in face of adversity

 Virgin Radio is back in the news again this week having lost its second breakfast show host in seven months. It's the sort of crisis that might leave some quaking with fear under the desk, but not Virgin's commercial director Kathryn Jacob.

For someone who, even before Steve Penk's decision to quit, was tasked with steering a radio station through the worst advertising slump in a decade, riding out a sweeping redundancy drive by its troubled parent group, SMG, and facing a £9m compensation claim by Chris Evans, Jacob seems to be bearing up very well.

So, just why does the station have such a hard time holding on to its breakfast show hosts and why does the woman in the thick of it all apparently love her job so much?

"Steve Penk came to the station and did us a favour when Chris left, but, looking forward, we thought Daryl Denham would be better to do the breakfast show," she says.

"We decided we wanted to put Daryl into Breakfast and Penk in to the drive-time slot, but, sadly, Steve did not want to do this and he's left.

"It's not a crisis because we're making positive steps to have the widest depth of talent and move the station forward as a result."

Although no one could accuse Kathryn Jacob of having an easy ride, as far as she's concerned, dealing with tantrums from the talent just comes with the
territory of running a national commercial radio station.

"I work in a commercial role in the entertainment business and, having lived through the Evans episode, I've got used to it all - it beats working as an accountant, doesn't it?

"The only way I can do my job to the best of my ability is to make sure we keep growing and deliver the best market share possible and if that's painful for me sometimes then that's what I get paid for."


No pain, no gain

It is, in fact, the station's position within SMG and its future without either Evans or Penk that Jacob feels will set its safe passage through the coming months.

"I think a lot of people in the industry predicted that Chris' departure was a serious threat to our strength as a station," volunteers Jacob.

"But I firmly believe that we'll come out of it all much stronger.

"All of our clients have reacted positively to our decisions regarding programming and I have the utmost faith in our programme director Paul Jackson."

Even so, all eyes are now on Jacob and her team. To say the pressure is on is an understatement. Jacob apparently copes   by taking an uncompromisingly level-headed approach to the situation and by calling on her legendary reserves of energy.

According to her, there is no possibility that the presence (or absence) of any one individual can shake the foundations of a station's brand identity and credibility.

"You have to constantly re-invent yourself and revise your policies just to keep up - there is no such thing as drawing a line in the sand," says Jacob.

"Several new people have joined Virgin recently and,
ultimately, we have a level of expertise that we can transmit into a variety of areas and we'll try and find as many platforms as we can."

Trying to keep the foundations of the radio station from crumbling has not been made any easier by the financial problems of parents company SMG.

But Jacob believes that its recent shock decision to offerthe possibility of voluntary redundancy to its entire workforce will have a minimal effect on the group's radio assets.

She is also adamant that there is a wealth of opportunity with a rock solid backbone to support Virgin's plans for the long term.

"There's no media group which has emerged unscathed in the past year," she says.

"SMG is a fantastic parent company, not least because it's an all-media orientated company and, therefore, it can and does understand all-media issues.

"How did it affect us? Well, what I can say is that we didn't feel threatened.

"SMG is a very ambitious company with a strong strategy about how it's going to position itself - the group has invested too much in its radio assets not to see this through.

"There were three people within Virgin Radio who took voluntary redundancy at the time it was offered and  there's no doubt that margins will be delivered."


Right to access

According to many in radio, Virgin must not fall into the trap of relying on its past reputation. There was a stage when every advertiser wanted Virgin on its schedule. One agency radio head says the station needs to get more creative in selling itself and become less bullish about its pricing.

Many are looking to the station's new Access All Areas initiative to bring a refreshed approach to Virgin's proposition to potential advertisers, involving programmers fully in the sales mix for the first time.

Launched last week, it offers bespoke campaigns for clients, with a member of Virgin's programming and production team working with the sales teams when they discuss custom-made solutions with advertisers.

Clients will also be offered access to panels of Virgin Radio listeners for tracking studies and access to research initiatives to include the option of pre-testing creative work.

For Jacob, inspiration came from looking at the general trend within the agencies toward creative planning.

"If you look at the success of people like Naked, it's clear that, by listening to people saying they want something different, we can integrate our advertisers into the fabric of our programming, more so than in the past.

"We'll give clients a dedicated team of people with a programmer sitting on the sales team, giving us a point of difference between our competitors."

Following Chris Evans' departure from the station's vital breakfast show last summer, Virgin's rivals waited to see when the knock-on effect of this loss would impact the station's listening figures

With Rajars looming as this article went to press, Jacob was gearing up for the inevitable.

"Added to the effects of September 11, which all stations will be affected by, I believe that these are the Rajars which will show the effects of Chris' [Evans] departure."

Jacob is probably not the first to describe 2001 as "the hangover from 2000", but she has proved herself as one of those willing and brave enough to withstand anything for the sake of a long-term strategy.

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