Why is Barry O’Brien leaving Ten?

Declaration of interest. I like Barry O’Brien, so I’m a bit biased.

His departure as Ten’s chief sales officer does not come as a surprise, but the timing does.

From the day he took the chalice a year ago, there was always going to be an expiry date on his role with the network.

He was brought in by James Warburton as something of an emergency appointment after the leftfield appointment of Mike Morrison didn’t work out. Having left the media agency PHD – and left it in a good state – a few weeks before, he was available to start straight away. And went the network needed was an old school media guy.

O’Brien fitted the bill. Although his affable exterior can fool you, one person who knows him describes him as a “kind old bastard” with all three aspects – his demeanour, his experience and his toughness – necessary for him to succeed as a media boss.

He was open at the time that he’d signed on for two years. He told me as much in an interview a year ago.

The appointment came to him as a welcome new adventure at a time he’d probably been anticipating moving towards retirement, perhaps after a few board and charity roles.

barry_o'brien_He was the right appointment at the time, because his popularity within the industry and career-long relationships allowed him to call favours at a time when the ratings-challenged network needed them. Virtually the only thing on O’Brien’s office wall at Ten’s Pyrmont HQ is a list of the key 15 media agency CEOs and their mobile phone numbers.

But clearly this far into his career, O’Brien was not going to be the network’s long-term future, not least following the departure of CEO James Warburton and replacement with Hamish McLennan.

Don’t get me wrong – O’Brien wasn’t on cruise control. He lost weight, got fit, stopped drinking. He completed Tough Mudder a few months ago, finishing the course covered in blood after a mishap along the way. He was up for the challenge. Even if the appointment of the formidable Lou Barrett made it likely that there would be a transition at some point.

The main thing that changed, obviously, was the arrival of new boss McLennan.

Yet the timing is a surprise. Just like the axing of James Warburton five months ago, the announcement was slipped out late on a Friday as everybody was headed for the weekend. I was expecting him to be around for another year. Respectfully written as it is, Ten’s statement inevitably doesn’t tell the whole story.

A few weeks back, I chatted to the CEO of a top ten media agency. The subject of whether Barry O’Brien would be sticking with Ten came up in the conversation. I’d recently interviewed McLennan on the couch at Mumbrella360, and as he ran though his key team members, Barry was not on the list. I wondered if this was significant.

But the agency CEO was not reading too much into it at the time. He said roughly this:

“They’d be crazy to bone Bazza. He’s half way through a two year contract, so it will cost them as much to get rid of him as it will to keep him. The industry won’t like it if he gets shafted, so they’d be much more sensible keeping hold of him.”

So did he decide working for Hamish wan’t for him? The best evidence may come a few weeks down the track – if O’Brien ends up with one more big job, then the time may have been of his choosing. We’ll find out soon enough.

Tim Burrowes


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