Let’s cut to the quick. Michael Miller, by a heady mixture of smarts, good fortune and timing, has turned APN News & Media into a sexier $800 million beast than it has been for years.
Although APN’s share price has been hit by the broader declines on the Australian stock market in the past month, investor sentiment has turned markedly upwards for the company. So much so that News Corp has moved to a maximum allowable
14.9% stake in APN under current media ownership rules, fuelling more conjecture about Miller’s future as CEO of Rupert Murdoch’s Australian unit when Julian Clarke steps down.
Some believe it’s a given by year’s end although others in the mix for News Corp’s CEO role include News Corp’s chief operating officer Peter Tonagh and Foxtel’s CEO Richard Freudenstein.
Miller plays a straight bat on the subject. “I didn’t have plans three years ago to join APN, I had no plans to leave News three years ago,” he says without a flinch. “I am enjoying APN. You just ignore that conjecture and you don’t get distracted by it, as I think the other guys would be doing too.” That neither sounds like a confirmation or a denial but whatever transpires, Miller is pushing on with APN as a “growth stock”.
Longtime colleague, former News Corp board director and Bauer Media’s director of sales Tony Kendall is a big fan.
“He’s super bright, very, very bright, ridiculously hard working and funny,” he says. Kendall won’t go near the News Corp speculation but he does point to Miller’s track record at APN of getting things done. Indeed. Although some of Miller’s wins were set up under the strategy of his predecessor, Brett Chenoweth, Miller has been able to do what Chenoweth couldn’t in some areas – execute.
He took out the 50% stake in Australian Radio Network (ARN) owned by US-based Clear Channel for $246.5 million and has reduced the group’s reliance on print revenues radically – they’re down from 60% to 36% in 18 months. Miller’s good fortune comes in part from what his ARN lieutenant, Ciaran Davis, has managed in building a national radio network with a surge in ratings. Miller also offloaded APN’s 50% stake in APN Outdoor via its IPO.
But Miller is also benefiting from a broader lift in the out-of-home sector through Adshel and Buspak, which remain inside APN News & Media. He also recently unveiled a move to introduce paywalls for APN’s regional newspaper portfolio. They are all significant developments and interesting given Miller’s past reputation for having a blunt, abrasive personal style which some say often polarised people.
When asked about that one, Kendall acknowledges it might have been a point of contention in the past but less so today. “He probably grated people a little bit but he’s worked on that over the years.”
Others say it was due to his broader remit running one of News Corp’s most profitable Australian units between 2004 and 2011 – Advertiser Newspapers in Adelaide and the spiritual home for News Corp. He returned to Sydney in 2011 as managing director of Nationwide News before being caught up in the not-so-loved transformational efforts of former News Corp CEO Kim Williams. Then came the switch to APN News & Media in 2013.
Perhaps most interesting for a media CEO is that Miller has come up through the marketing ranks, not sales or finance.
When AdNews sat down with Miller, it was the end of two days of investor briefings. As the conversation turned to the challenges facing media and marketers, Miller quipped it was a subject he was passionate about but a theme somewhat missing in the previous 48 hours of briefings and presentations to investors and analysts.
Miller, for instance, has a robust view about the pressure on media companies from brands making large investments in their owned and earned media channels.
“The flat [ad] market we have seen has been a consequence I think of too much [customer] farming and not enough hunting by advertisers,” he says. “They have become farmers because they have got good [customer] databases, they have good customer data, they have invested in loyalty programs, they’ve invested in their own media platforms and everyone is creating their own content. But all they are doing is churning through their own customer base. There needs to be more hunting, which requires external media, probably more retail orientated.
“This is a marketing conversation, which as a former marketer is where my passion is. Marketers are becoming content producers, editors, I suppose, but that isn't their core competency. Maybe this comment is a bit self-serving but I think we are coming into an age where company differentiation is coming from marketing. It has become so much more complex, there are far more choices but marketing is going to differentiate a company’s performance to its competitors.
“I am seeing more and more marketers taking leadership positions in major companies as boards recognise that. I’m not sure the focus many have on content is where they should be.”
Interesting times for a rising star.
A version of this story originally appeared in the latest version of AdNews Magazine (12 June). Want more? You can subscribe both in Print and on your iPad here.
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