Jonathan Allan eyes his future at Channel 4

The broadcaster is pushing ahead with a new creative approach for brands and agencies.

Channel 4 in numbers

Channel 4 Sales’ revenue haul in 2015, including cash generated for UKTV, Box TV and BT Sport – up 9.1% year on year

Channel 4’s advertising and sponsorship revenues in 2015 – up 6.4% year on year

Allan’s pay in 2015 – up 13.3% year on year

Group M forecast for TV adspend decline in 2016.

ITV forecast its spot revenue would fall by 3% this year, which it said was ahead of the market

If anyone was in any doubt who was the star of Channel 4’s sales team, Jonathan Allan arriving at the broadcaster’s recent upfronts on a zip wire might have answered the question. It also serves as a good metaphor for the manner in which Channel 4 parachuted him in to shake things up five years ago.

Allan has summoned Campaign to Horseferry Road for a chat. Ostensibly, it’s to review the sales
director’s progress – the broadcaster is on track to deliver £1bn in revenues for the sixth year in a row. But you would be a fool not to wonder whether he might have one eye on his next move. For what it’s worth, Allan says he already has the best sales job in media: "It’s a great brand, it’s really fucking interesting." But what if he is after something bigger than another sales role? Might he be positioning himself in case David Abraham does – as expected – move on as chief executive in a couple of years?

After moving up through the ranks quickly at OMD – Allan rose from graduate to managing director in just 12 years – five years might seem like a long time in one job. However, he did take on additional responsibility for all aspects of commercial, such as licensing and distribution, after Anne Bulford’s departure to the BBC in 2013. It was Allan, Abraham and programming boss Jay Hunt, closeted together in Rio during the Paralympics, who masterminded the poaching of The Great British Bake Off from the Beeb in September.

Even so, rising to chief executive might be a stretch for Allan, given the likely contenders. But taking on sales director was a mighty jump back in 2011.

"For me, JA represents an exciting generation of leadership in our industry because he is as able to deliver real digital innovation as he is ready to champion the enduring strengths of TV," Abraham says. "He combines exceptional levels of business acumen with strong people skills. His achievements in building on the strengths of the Channel 4 sales team are clear for all to see and I have little doubt that he has the ability to deliver even more impact in the future."

In his first years at Channel 4, Allan gutted and refitted the senior echelons of the sales force. The agency-facing teams he introduced have strengthened, deepened and broadened relationships, he says, but it wasn’t easy. "The thing I underestimated at the time [was] when you do such a dramatic restructure and change of people, it does take quite a long time to rebuild those relationships both internally and externally," Allan explains. "But I think we’re there now."

The fact that Channel 4 picked up TV Sales Team of the Year at the Campaign Media Awards last month for the third year in a row is testament to that journey.

The sales team has got fully involved in Channel 4’s year of diversity – giving away £1m of airtime to a Maltesers campaign featuring disabled people and setting strict targets for recruitment.

Five of his six direct reports are men but Allan says he is "focused on developing the next generation of leadership". Theses things take time, he adds. To be fair, TV sales’ traditional male skew and Channel 4’s low churn rate of 10% mean changing the ratio was never going to be instant.

Earlier this year, Channel 4 opened PL4Y House, a space in Islington, London, where marketers and agencies can brainstorm creative ideas. All of the sales team – "whether you’re 21 and have just come in or you’re 40" – have access to a planning tool-style platform to help them work through client briefs.

"Quite a lot of media owners have a creative solutions team that sits in the corner of the room," Allan says. "Our approach is about making everyone at Channel 4 more creative."

Another example of this creative approach has been embracing programme finance, notably with Group M, which is behind The Jump. Arguably, the greatest test of Allan’s mettle during his tenure was the stand-off with Group M during Christmas 2012 – a drama that led the WPP media buyer to stop advertising for two weeks.

At last month’s upfronts, Channel 4 said it is bringing interactive ads to broadcast video-on-demand for the first time – the latest of many innovations under Allan. He says £100m of Channel 4’s ad revenue will be digital in 2017, with 50% of that bought programmatically. Channel 4 will look to sell programmatically bought campaigns based on viewing next year and is talking to Sky, Virgin Media and YouView about targeted advertising on linear TV.

Josh Krichefski, UK chief executive of Media-Com, which partnered Channel 4 this year on Ronseal’s ad-break takeover – involving a man painting his fence for three minutes – praises the broadcaster’s investment in content and innovation. However, he warns that its "business model has issues" because it is reliant on ads. 

Another concern is the decline in younger audiences (down 8% in the first ten months of the year). Krichefski asks: "Given they have traditionally been the Channel 4 heartland, what can Channel 4 do to remain relevant in a 16-34 adult media day?" 

Allan predicts Channel 4 will outperform the TV market this year. Brexit has been "lightly depressing on the market but not catastrophic", he says, although money is coming in much later. To shore up revenues, Allan wants to sell branded content to companies for global distribution and is exploring the option of making Channel 4’s programmatic marketplace available to third-party sales. The broadcaster is also investing in "much more" content to lure back those younger demographics.

At 42, Allan is not too far off those demographics himself. What he does next might depend on where the privatisation debate goes. 

Allan says Channel 4 has done a "really good job" of making the case for public ownership, and the option of moving to Birmingham will have limited impact as Channel 4 has only 800 staff. The broadcaster has commissioned EY to carry out a review of its contribution to the nation and the regions.

Whether Allan takes a wider role at the broadcaster or a helicopter arrives to take him to another business in need of a turnaround, Channel 4 is in good shape.

And it’s just as well because, with Brexit’s threat to the economy and structural changes in the market, the future is far from certain.

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