News Corp tackles revenue rust

Paul McIntyre
By Paul McIntyre | 29 July 2015
Sharb Farjami

Sharb Farjami has been tricky to pin down since joining the Murdochs last year from WPP. As an ex-Viacom executive, ultimately controlled by Sumner Redstone, Farjami’s had some practice working in the engine room of a media mogul. He’s been somewhat elusive publicly in the past year as News has re-engineered the re-engineering which sparked a firestorm under former CEO Kim Williams.

This year has seen long-speculated changes to News Corp’s top sales brass with Fiorella Di Santo’s exit – she was considered close to current CEO Julian Clarke, while Farjami was more aligned to the incoming CEO Peter Tonagh. Whatever the politics, Farjami is News Corp’s go-to on the ad revenue front, under the rapidly expanding remit of Damian Eales, one-time CMO and now also the head of News Corp’s metro and regional publishing unit.

News Corp, for the most part, is outplaying its closest rivals on the revenue front this year. Next week, the group should throw up some perception-shifting initiatives at its “upfronts” briefing to the market. And it needs to. However you explain the why, News Corp this year has slowed the rate of decline versus its rivals in print and lifted its digital revenue growth faster than any of its main publisher competitors. In year-to-date terms, according to SMI, News Corp’s print revenues are back 10% over the previous corresponding period compared to a broader market decline in print of 17%. In digital revenue, News Corp is up 21% while its major metro rivals combined are up just 1.7%. It’s still not matching the runaway figures of Google and Facebook, but Farjami says there are big statements to be made to the market about News Corp in coming weeks which might shift a few rusted-on perceptions.

“We are probably in a better place than many people think,” he says. “There is an opportunity with something like the upfronts to give a sharper shift to perceptions and say, ‘Hey, you may not know some of this stuff about our organisation.'” Farjami admits News Corp, like many legacy media companies, does have a perception challenge. But part of the appeal, he says, for his switch to News was its appetite for what he calls “aggressive reactivity”. There were certainly rumblings at the time of his move to News that, of any media or tech company he could’ve joined, News Corp was not at the top of the progressive list in Australia. Farjami tells a different story.

“When I sat down with certain individuals from News Corp before coming to this company, they explained what was in the pipeline and the rough direction they wanted to take the company in. The reality was actually the reverse to what you’re suggesting. I got the sense it was very pro-active, that it was a progressive company that had deep-seated plans, mostly to increase, I’d say, News Corp’s aggressive reactivity in the market. It was about being able to change and be comfortable with that change. I found that very exciting.

“I think the perception is probably a fair reflection of some views in the market, but it’s entirely down to us to create our own perceptions and to ensure we’re perceived the right way.”

Farjami’s focus is pretty much where most of the market is going: content marketing and native ads, data and analytics, video, mobile and programmatic. But he has also pursued a more pro-active presence in the market with News Corp’s media agency and advertiser customers. That has been one ongoing criticism of the company in recent years.

Farjami says the grander plans for growth are rapidly taking shape. While some may relish making the point that it’s all but over for legacy media owners like News, Farjami suggests a more tempered view. Some of the things he hints at include predictive analytics capabilities which might see the company guarantee viewing and sharing of advertiser content. He won’t say more than that, but as more brands flock to content creation and marketing, Farjami says it bodes well for content creators and distribution networks like News Corp.

“We probably needed to be a bit braver, and News Corp is being a bit braver about informing the market about some of the change,” he says.

“The end-to-end process of creation, curation, aggregation, targeting, distribution and amplification – we feel we’ve got most of those parts of the puzzle solved. There are a few other parts that we’ve yet to solve, and we’re focusing on partnerships or new products that will allow us finally to fully answer the question of end-to-end content marketing. That’s one thing.

We’re very close to doing that, and the thing that gives us the advantage is that first bit: creating content.

“If you look at Facebook Instant Articles, for instance, most of the big five global publishing companies are there early in the trials. The average age of those companies is, like, 107 years. People like saying old media companies are dead. All of Facebook’s content is coming from those companies.”

There are also hints of how the company is culturally and strategically trying to reset.

“We see ourselves as a multimedia sales organisation; we don’t see ourselves as an organisation of platforms. We see ourselves as one of the world’s, and certainly locally, leading [publishers] in terms of quality and quantity of content. That’s not just platform based. We sell an audience to a client’s requirement. Structurally we have, historically, possibly not been set up as well as we should’ve been or could’ve been. We’ve made some changes.

We’ve brought in a few different styles of media sales executives and we’re putting a focus on commercial integration into the suite of brands and assets and products that we have. I’m very excited by what’s coming down the pipe from News Corp.”

Next week, we’ll find out.

A version of this story originally appeared in the latest issue of AdNews magazine (24 July). You can get your hands on a copy right now, either on iPad or in print right here.

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