Fairfax’s Andrew McEvoy hire is a statement of intent about its events play. But will it work?

As it struggles to find new revenue models, Fairfax is getting serious about developing an events business, but Andrew McEvoy faces a tough task, argues Mumbrella’s Tim Burrowes

Yesterday Fairfax Media made a big move, hiring Andrew McEvoy, the boss of Tourism Australia, to lead its events division.

And like many big moves, it’s a hard call on how this one will go.

There’s plenty of fuel for cynics to talk about why it won’t work, and a lot of ammo for those that see it as making sense.

Andrew McEvoy high resThe appointment, starting at the beginning of next year, will see McEvoy become managing director of Fairfax Media Events.

To some it will look like a crony appointment. Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood got to know McEvoy during his exile from Fairfax into the tourism sector. The counter argument of course is that it makes sense to look to that space when you want somebody to head up an events division.

And most importantly, McEvoy can point to a clean sheet during his three years running Tourism Australia. That’s actually a big achievement in the politically dangerous world of marketing a country where 22m stakeholders – and every politician – have a view. Getting the new There’s Nothing Like Australia positioning established, and getting the industry lined up behind it, was a big achievement in itself.

Given that he will now have to navigate the politics of Fairfax – and get people and departments who do not report in to him to cooperate – these diplomatic skills are going to be essential if he’s going to stand a chance.

But it would be interesting to know McEvoy’s motivations for taking the job – is he going because he wants a change and a new challenge in the private sector? Or – what appears much less likely – had his position changed given the change in government? It looked to me like McEvoy successfully kept his role as apolitical as it could possibly be in a government-funded body, but the timing of the move at least raises the question.

The major controversy during McEvoy’s time was Qantas pulling the plug on its relationship with Tourism Australia. From the outside, the airline’s problem is with TA chairman (and former Qantas boss) Geoff Dixon and perceptions that he was part of an anti-management investors plot rather than with the staff. So I don’t think this is a factor in McEvoy’s departure.

Then comes the practicalities at Fairfax.

Although McEvoy comes from the (relatively) underpaid public sector, somebody of his seniority will not come cheap. Allen Williams, boss of the publishing division, is on $775,000 a year, Hywood on about $2m.

You’d expect that McEvoy wouldn’t be too far behind Williams (update: that might be overreaching, I gather) . If I’m right about that, that’s a big salary for what is – at this stage – a not very large department to carry. Clearly you need somebody who’s smart and experienced to do the job – and have to pay it – but at the same time, events don’t always have great profit margins.

A further challenge will be the differing expectations within the company of what events are for. Is something like City2Surf primarily a brand building exercise or a profit centre?

If you squeeze the orange too far, you can lose readers’ support. As an occasional (and very slow) half marathon runner, I stopped doing the Herald-organised event in Sydney after they started insisting that all runners picked up their race number in person at an expo in the days before, rather than have it posted out. As a punter, it felt like there was no good reason other than to make us parade past the sponsor stands and buy some goodies.

By the way, I think the model is right. I detect the hand of Grey Hywood’s favourite consultants Bain & Co in some of this. They appear to be fans of the monetising-by-engagement model. And clearly Fairfax, like every media company, is in dire need of other models.

I’d certainly argue that any media company should see events as a crucial part of what they do.

In the case of Fairfax, I can see plenty of challenges for McEvoy and his new team. First, the best events come from being close to the readers. The best ones often come from commercially aware editorial people who spot the opportunity within their own niche, whether business or consumer (and clearly Fairfax has both).

Can McEvoy nurture a process where those ideas emerge, then get delivered? The ground the organisation covers is too big to expect a centralised department to generate all the big ideas.

Again, there are a couple of pointers in McEvoy’s track record. Under his lead, Tourism Australia was good at getting the whole industry behind it, and in behaving in a businesslike way. The Oprah Winfrey visit, and Best Jobs both come to mind.

The co-creating, with consumers and the industry, of content which has massively increased Tourism Australia’s social media footprint is also interesting. There are a few tricks that McEvoy could bring to Fairfax there too.

And even if these new, original events emerge, will they be profitable? The events space is crowded.

But what McEvoy’s appointment does do, is give Hywood a tangible example of a business  transformation strategy, which is what shareholders are desperate for. Even if it doesn’t really work, it’ll take a couple of years for that to become clear, and it would be unlikely to be in a particularly embarrassing or public way.

What is just as interesting to me is that Fairfax now has in its senior ranks a man who has successfully run a marketing organisation. Marketing is something the organisation has generally been mediocre at. It seems a bit of a waste if he doesn’t get involved in that somewhere down the track.

The hire may have been a left field one. But, on balance, I think it makes sense.


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