Three days into his role as the international chief executive of Exterion Media - the company known as CBS Outdoor until January - Shaun Gregory is already a bit bored of the obvious questions.
Yes, he is aware of next year’s tender for the £1 billion London Underground contract, and that people have concerns about the company’s private-equity ownership, but he does not want to talk about that.
He wants to focus on the possibilities of outdoor, both for brands and the wider public.
Executives in the outdoor industry have eulogised about its synchronicity with mobile for years. Yet there is still a sense of untapped possibility. Gregory, however, can speak from experience. He has spent the past seven years developing mobile advertising businesses. As the chief executive of the ad-funded network Blyk and then running Telefónica’s ad division globally, he has been at the forefront of attempts to develop mobile advertising around the world.
Gregory says that, after his tenure at Telefónica, Exterion was the "natural" next step. His experience working with Telefónica’s Onthespot, which provides point-of-sale interactivity in 82 countries, and the UK’s outdoor audience measurement platform, Route, has assured him out-of-home is "well-positioned not just for growth but growth ahead of other media".
When Gregory talks about growth, he is talking about the outdoor industry taking share from other media. But his vision extends to "changing environments for the better". Gregory says out-of-home has an opportunity to "genuinely change people’s lives and consumer habits" and gives the example of interactive shopping billboards in Asia. The click-and-collect services now offered at some Tube stations are just the start, he says.
Part of Gregory’s mission is to encourage the industry to work together more effectively. He has been a non-executive director at Ocean Outdoor for the past two years and intends to continue sitting on the board. He cites Google’s Eric Schmidt, who spent a number of years as a non-executive director at Apple. "There’s a very clear opportunity in this area," Gregory says. "But we won’t do it unless we work more collaboratively together."
I'm interested in making the London Underground the most iconic example of out-of-home across the globe
But for all this talk of the future, it is impossible to ignore the fact that Gregory is taking over a business that has had an uncertain four years. The Underground deal, the biggest outdoor contract in the world and signed before the financial crisis hit, threatened to drown CBS’s international outdoor division.
Although the contract was eventually renegotiated, Exterion will have to fight to keep it in 2015.
It must be difficult to have to keep answering the same questions about the past when you claim to be so excited about the future. But Gregory does it with patience.
"I know there’s a contract, and I know there’s a tender process. I know people are interested in that," Gregory says. "But what I’m interested in is delivering excellent campaigns, I’m interested in improving the asset base. I’m interested in making the London Underground the most iconic example of out-of-home across the globe. I’m interested in making that so great and so unique that everyone travels from around the world to see it."
Yet for all his gushing about the Underground, Gregory is clear that the UK is just one part of the company he has been appointed to run. He talks passionately about putting back more autonomy into individual countries so they can concentrate on what they need. He avoids answering specific questions about the long- or even medium-term plan of Exterion’s owner, Platinum Equity, preferring to answer for himself: "I’m here to build something long term and sustainable."
A hard-working northerner who worked his way up from regional radio ad sales at Emap, Gregory is widely respected. He may not join the team in the pub every Friday evening but he is fiercely loyal to them.
"I’m very excited Platinum has chosen someone like Shaun to drive the business," Eric Newnham, the chief executive of Talon Outdoor and chairman of BlisMedia, says. "If they’re looking to unlock the future, they’ve got the right person to do that."
That said, there are still many issues to resolve, not least whether the UK team needs strengthening.
Gregory gives his support for the UK managing director, Jason Cotterrell, and his team, as well as the way they have continued to grow the business through a period of instability.
But a clear mission for the company and Gregory’s hard-working ethic will come in handy if he wants to realise his vision for Exterion.
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