Clear Channel UK’s new chief executive Matthew Dearden is not your average media owner first-in-command.
For starters, his favourite music - as cultivated through an annual pilgrimage to the Bromyard Folk Festival - is English folk rock "played with gusto", while his favourite novels are the Spenser detective series by American academic Robert B Parker.
Secondly, he combined an astrophysics degree at Edinburgh University with editing the student newspaper, running the student council, organising a sustainability conference and working on the computing services helpdesk. "I didn’t sleep on Tuesday nights for three years because I was putting the paper to bed," he says. "I was ridiculously busy and I should have been focusing on my studies."
Dearden’s drive to "just get on and do things" may have prevented him from getting a First in astrophysics, but it didn’t stop him being groomed for the Procter & Gamble graduate scheme - although, true to form for a man who clearly knows his own mind, he didn’t stick around long as "culturally it didn’t suit me".
"[The culture] at Procter & Gamble is American alpha male, and I don’t fit that," he says, looking extremely happy in his own, alternative, skin. "The other thing is that I am vegetarian and couldn’t sit comfortably with animal testing. Procters is very serious about living by its values; I just had a different set of values."
When he later describes how he climbed a ladder with a bucket of paste to have a go at posting a News of the World billboard in Hayes, North London, the picture is complete: a quirky intellectual with a "let’s get stuck in" attitude and relentless enthusiasm for both Clear Channel and the task in front of him. Senior colleagues Rob and Steve Atkinson are "fabulous", the private equity owners are "extremely positive" and Clear Channel International has a "wonderfully grown up" attitude.
Making the right connections
Dearden, 37, was headhunted from BT for the chief executive role and vetted by a representative from Clear Channel Outdoor’s private equity owner Bain Capital before being offered the job, but some out-of-home observers question his lack of connections in the outdoor village and suggest he needs to "raise his profile".
But Dearden, whose first priority after joining the outdoor media owner four months ago was to go and visit all the depots on the ground - "some people were very surprised to see a chief executive in person" - is clear where his priorities lie. He has made the connections that matter - with Clear Channel UK’s 650 staff, its suppliers and its clients - and doesn’t feel the need to "get cosy" with his rivals. "I will meet my competitors at appropriate social events," he says, "but it is not my goal to get to know my rivals, it is my job to compete with them."
Nor does he pretend he will ever know more about outdoor advertising than his colleagues with the "absolute deep knowledge" gained through decades of experience in the sector. He says: "I don’t bring a little black book of every media buyer in London, nor do I claim to. I bring a strategic, longer-term view; rigour about how we do that; and experience of driving positive change internally. I also bring a client’s perspective - what is their marketing objective and how can we help them?"
For the last two years, Clear Channel’s strategy has been to cull the tail of low-quality advertising inventory - reducing the number of panels by about 3,000 - to increase the overall quality and therefore prices of its 57,414 UK sites.
Dearden will continue to invest in that high-quality estate - "I want our portfolio to be one where I could look any brand owner in the eye and say your brand will be well-served by this location" - and reveals plans to take the Pinnacle top-end range to major cities outside London (Manchester, Cardiff, Newcastle, Bristol) this year.
"A good outdoor creative remains jawdropping," says Dearden, as he pulls out 2010’s brochure for the Cannes Lions festival [sponsored by Clear Channel] to show off some of the "gorgeous" advertising work. "So I am really excited about getting our collective focus back on the fact we are an advertising business; how we can help our clients use creative to connect with their consumers."
This commitment to premium creative also extends to digital sites, of which Clear Channel owns just 153, or 0.3% of its total advertising estate. As a client at BT, Dearden believed the digital creative on the London Underground was "pretty poor", but treatments such as the DEP ads for James Corden’s show on Sky, where the actor appears to walk up the escalator next to travellers, are raising the bar.
"Digital is a premium product because you can do different, more exciting creative," he says. "But if all we do is go from paper to pixel and nothing else changes, digital will never pay out." And while Clear Channel has run campaigns involving Bluetooth, touchscreen and mobile ads - such as a tie-up with Foursquare that made consumers the ‘mayor’ of the ad - digital screens don’t have to be interactive to be "a fantastic way to connect with a consumer when they are out-of-home".
The business case for investment
Later today, the OAA is expected to release the full-year figures for outdoor advertising spend in 2010, which are expected to be up between 10% to 14% on the previous year. The 2010 financial results for Clear Channel International [every global market except the Americas] are not yet available, but Dearden "feels good" about Q4 2010 and says Clear Channel UK had a stronger year than 2009, when the international division made an operating loss of $68.7m.
"Financially we are beating our targets, and because we are doing that we can focus on the bigger issue. We are in the business of helping brands connect with their customers, and the investments we are making will focus on that."
Major digital announcements will follow in the coming months, understood to be in malls, and Dearden intends to pitch for "a few dozen" tenders this year, ranging in value from a few hundred thousand to millions of pounds, and spanning retail, local authority bus shelter and street furniture contracts and "various digital formats".
Some OOH contemporaries believe CC's ability to compete for large contracts is restricted by the parent company’s majority ownership by private equity firms Thomas H Partners and Bain Capital. But again, Dearden is upbeat, maintaining the owners "actively want us to invest in the future of the company". "I have never yet heard, ‘we can’t afford that, stop looking at it’," he says. "As long as there is a great case to spend the money, every time I have felt fully supported to go forward."
Nothing can dampen Dearden’s enthusiasm, it seems - he is "agog" to hear the results of the OFT’s investigation into OOH’s shady practices (see below), and posting a Kellogg’s billboard in arctic conditions gave him "a great reality check". He is even still in touch with his "brilliant and inspiring" physics teacher from school.
If the laws of physics dictated that positive thinking by a company’s chief executive is directly proportional to the business’s bottom line, Clear Channel UK would - as is Dearden’s stated aim - outperform the market every time.
CCO’s majority ownership by private equity partners: "You can reply on private equity owners to be extremely rational and think about the long-term health of the business, but you can’t always rely on every shareholder from a publicly-held company to think that way. Sometimes it can be more value-creating to miss one quarter’s number because you can hit the next one bigger."
The OFT’s investigation into the outdoor sector: "Clear Channel has been happy to co-operate fully and I am agog to see what the OFT will say. But my personal experience is that out-of-home is a transparent, well-functioning market. My perception of outdoor deals with BT is the same now as when I was responsible for the deal on the client side."
Outdoor advertising opportunities around the Olympics: "For the Olympics to be a success for clients, they have to promote their sponsorships. Simply being a partner isn’t sufficient, they have to make a lot of noise about what they are doing. We also need to make sure our long-term regular clients are able to keep doing business through and around the Games as they wish."
Lives: Outside Aylesbury with his wife Deviyani and his two children Rosa, five and Reuben, one.
Likes: Following the fortunes of The Washington Redskins in the American National Football League and hillwalking.
Desert island media: The Economist, The West Wing, The Guardian.
Favourite music: Modern English folk rock played with "gusto and energy", such as The Oyster Band, Mabon and Rallion.