How APN Outdoor bounced back from 'the bad hangover' of 2017

Josh McDonnell
By Josh McDonnell | 12 September 2018
James Warburton

No parental leave, disengaged female employees and a company recovering from “the hangover” of a failed merger. These were the first hurdles that APN Outdoor CEO James Warburton had to clear to build a business that even lacked a “real” HR department.

After failing to merge its business with Ooh!Media in 2017, causing the exit of its then CEO Richard Herring, APN Outdoor was left in a malaise, lacking drive, motivation and a positive internal culture.

Since then the business has turned it around, getting itself to the point of being bought out by international competitor JCDecaux for $1.2 billion this year.

Speaking to AdNews, Warburton says that there were obvious issues within the business that he noticed right away, stemming from the executive team, right through to the entry level roles in the businesses.

“The people and culture transformation at APN Outdoor has been driven by a very clear strategy for the total business, a dedicated management team and staff who were keen to embrace change,” Warburton said.

“Early this year, we told the market that APN Outdoor was a sleeping giant: it lacked ambition, it was too conservative and it was not acting like a market leader. Our staff had lost confidence but not ability – they were very talented and very passionate about APN Outdoor.”

See: APN's Warburton says industry 'really needs to grow up'

His first move to rebuild a business that had an annual employee turnover of over 30%, with the sales division getting as high as 44%, was to work with APN Outdoor's GM people, culture and performance, Annaliese van Riet.

Hired knowing that she would be dealing with a completely different CEO than the one leading the business when she joined, van Riet was tasked with driving the overall strategic direction of the people, culture and performance function, effectively creating the company's first “real” HR department.

“Working with James there was a fire and drive to do more and create something that, from behind the scenes, would turn the businesses around,” she says.

“But first it was really about finding the flaws in the business that were causing the problems to begin with.

“It was like a really bad hangover after a failed merger and that sounds dramatic but it was quite obvious to myself and a few others who were fairly new hires that there was this feeling of almost malaise around the business, that everyone was quite tired.”

Both Warburton and van Riet were disappointed to find there was no parental leave in place, which had led to a major disparity between the day-to-day experiences between male and female employees, and was the cause for a high number of female members exiting the business.

Since then, the establishment of APN’s first parental leave policy has taken place, including 14 weeks of paid leave for primary carers and four weeks paid leave for secondary carers.

See: Adland companies reveal parental leave policies

In terms of engagement with the business from a male and female breakdown, we looked at the overall engagement score and found it was a 15 percentage points difference between the two which is statistically very significant.

“Anything over 5% is significant so we were 15 percentage points difference and in some parts of our business, it was as high a 30% different. To be honest, that's really bad and unlike anything, I'd seen in the many other businesses I'd worked in before.

“My philosophy around these things is don't play catch-up and I think the worst thing that we could have done is said, 'well, what does Ooh!Media do?' or 'what does Adshel do?'. What we did instead was put together a package to far surpass what our competitors do.”

Adding to the paid parental leave and the creation of a fully dedicated HR department, annualised employee turnover has declined from 30% in June 2017 to 24% in June 2018.

One key findings from further internal surveys also found that APN people now believe in its leaders and feel that its leaders have their best interests in mind.

There has also been the introduction of career transition coaching for new parents; a parenting support package and other related measures to support employees to transition effectively to and from parental leave and parenthood.

Van Riet and her team also developed a new sales capability framework, embedded into learning and development initiatives for sales staff including tech-enabled sales coaching and development, while also launching Learning Hub, a digital learning and development platform – centred around the new company value of 'Be Curious'.

“Thanks to the efforts of one the most aligned management teams I’ve ever worked with, we have done a lot of things to change the culture at APN Outdoor, including the launch of a new brand and voice in market, the introduction of a smaller and flatter management structure and – most importantly – the creation of a high-performance, sales-centric culture that puts our clients at the heart of everything we do,” Warburton says.

“After surveying staff in November last year, the management team developed our Vision, Purpose & Values plan and then held workshops with 25% of staff to bring that plan to life and start changing the culture. The results we have achieved in a relatively short period have been remarkable.”

Despite the results and the impending merger with French out of home business JCDecaux, Warburton and van Riet remained focused on the next stage of the plan and have developed strategies to integrate its people and culture framework into the new business.

Warburton also appeared on this year's AdNews Power 50, check out the list here.

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