SPH Ignatius Low on his new title, massive new marketing hire and pure play thinking


Singapore Press Holdings (SPH) has been stealthily hiring from the marketing and advertising community. Next to join the ranks of the senior management at SPH, is marketer Joanna Ho, who for the past two years, was holding the title of marketing director at Courts. Ho, who has also worked with brands such as Shell, OCBC, 3M and SGX, will now be the head of business planning and operational efficiency, and will be handling areas such as organisational development on both the talent and training front, and advertiser outcomes integrating both offline to online and eCommerce.

According to an email sent to client partners and seen by Marketing, her task will be to improve both the front and back-end processes involved in placing an ad with SPH, ensuring that the user experience is speedy and cost-efficient by today’s standards and consonant with the trend towards self-directed DIY bookings and settlement.  She will also be in charge of performance management and managing the revenues and costs of the division – a key factor in deciding what processes to change and the correct level of resources to allocate to them.

In a conversation with Marketing, prior to the announcement of the hire, CMO Ignatius Low (pictured) who will also now take on the new role of chief commercial officer of SPH media solutions, said Ho possessed an interesting mix of talent.

“She has had extensive experience on media buying from the client side perspective which I lacked in my management mix, and she’s also had a broad range of experience in business process engineering,” he said.

It is rare to find talent with both media and business process engineering, so we had to grab her for the role when we got the chance.

Meanwhile, Low also outlined that with the new financial year dawning, the team will also evolve its name to “Media Solutions Division” (previously Integrated Marketing Division) - that better reflects the function in the organisation.

"This is necessary to avoid confusion given the appointment in May of group marketing head Sharon Cheong to a newly-created role to handle marketing and branding across SPH’s media brands," he said.

"Our clients' support has been critical as our industry struggles with the double whammy of digital disruption from global giants and a sharp economic slowdown. More than that, it shows their support of our efforts to transform ourselves and adapt to new market realities," Low added.

The news comes shortly after Marketing broke the news of industry veteran Helen Lee taking on the role to head up its product development and innovation. Confirming on the record on her role, Low said Lee had been brought in due to her keen evaluation and eye on the media landscape. She will handle in-platform development for print, digital, radio and OOH, along with cross-platform development.

“Lee has been a media buyer all her life and she’s been assessing the relative value of media. So when we have a new development, she will be the best person to judge if something is realistic and sell-able, while evaluating the value of the old formats as we embrace the new,” he said. He added that Lee’s hands-on attitude was also a clincher for the appointment.

One of Lee’s primary tasks now would be to coach the sales team, especially the “best and brightest”, said Low. “Sales teams are always running after numbers but I think it is a lost art of understanding the client and their strategic objectives, which Lee will be tasked to handle,” he said.

In addition to the new hires, Low has also expanded former GroupM talent Linda Lim’s role to head of content solution and market development. She will be leading up content sales and partnership management along with her prior duties which began in February this year, in anchoring SPH’s relationship beyond straight media buys. She is also in charge of SPH’s outdoor advertising business, SPHMBO, looking at how the portfolio can be expanded to better fit into the company’s overall media solutions proposition.

“When it came to replacing previous OOH management, we had interviewed four pure play OOH talents, but none of them were entirely the right fit because in SPH, you can’t afford to be a pure play individual specialising in just one vertical anymore. That’s why we hired Lim where a third of her job is to handle the OOH medium," Low said. He added that today, the company is clear that the strongest client relationships must go beyond traditional buy-sell transactions:

Singapore is now ready for wider and more strategic conversations about value exchange, and value-based relationships.

“Lim’s hire heralds the next phase in our development as a media solutions provider following the merger of our sales teams across our print, digital, radio and outdoor platforms in 2016 and the consolidation of our content marketing,the Sweet brand last year,” he said.

Addressing Damien Bray’s departure as well, Low also added that Geoff Tan has been put in place to grow the Sweet operations. Tan was one of SPH’s first content creators and has been helping SPH Magazine’s with the creation of a lot more of its branded content.

Hiring from the media industry

SPH is not the only player recently to hire talent from the media industry. Just last month across the border, Star Media Group hired Andreas Vogiatzakis to take on the group CEO title. Vogiatzakis was previously CEO of Havas Media Group Malaysia, a role he first took on in 2016 after 10 years with Omnicom Media Group as its CEO in Malaysia. Meanwhile, former Dentsu Aegis Network's group CEO of the China market, Susana Tsui, has also resurfaced at the content platform for Mums and parents, theAsianparent, to take the CEO of media role.

Speaking on why Low specifically chose to hire from the media agency landscape, he said: “It was easy to know we had to hire from the agency side because we had to transition into solutioning and move away from hard selling of inventory based on pricing given the pricing game is already won by programmatic drivers.”

We need to move up the value chain and talk about content and solutioning. Many traditional publishers are stuck where they need to move up the value chain.

Moreover, the skills needed today for multi-platform players such as SPH largely centre around bringing the platforms together. “Agencies did this 10 years ago and it was the same for them with print and digital specialists who had to integrate and merge skills to become solutioners,” he said.

He added that talent such as Lim and Lee have had to train planners, promote and remove those who couldn’t adapt. At the end of the day, the publishing giant is looking for talent that can mix and match media and has some feel for traditional media and where that plays in the platform ecosystem. So, this is unlikely to be the last of its media agency talent hires.

Rejigging how teams work

Earlier this year, SPH saw encouraging growth from the digital side of its business. But revenue from traditional media still continued to struggle. According to financial results released by the company for the first half of 2019 financial year that ended in February, SPH reported a 15.1% increase in newspaper digital ad revenue compared to a year ago. Revenue for the media business, on the other hand, fell by 10.1% to SG$296.2 million.

Addressing the financials, Low also added that currently SPH is at the “third phase of the journey” where there is a lot of room to improve client and agency experience by better optimising campaigns and tracking. Amplification of a clients' message on its medium alone is not enough, and Low explained that print "is no longer what it used to be" given it has only a 60% penetration in certain segments with younger audiences.

He added that there have been times that clients have bought into the content creation abilities of SPH, but rejected the amplification of it because of its mass positioning and many clients would now much rather reach a niche group. “We were woken up to the fact when we lost a deal recently where the client from a property segment bought into our idea of content, but wasn’t convinced on amplification," he said.

As such, the strategy now has to shift from monetising platform to monetising audience and content. While digital for SPH has adapted with the introduction of social rate cards marrying social spend, print hasn’t had major development in 20 years despite pricing tweaks or interactivity.

“We haven’t done anything major for a long long time when it comes to print. We need to hack the value chain and simplify the contract and instead of all of our titles being a mass reach, some can be more targeted,” he said.

For example, SPH is now thinking of how it could ramp up distribution of copies in certain areas if clients have specific programmes or events in a location.

"While our newspapers are national, we can alter our distribution patterns to suit a targeted reach, particularly geographical. These days geographical reach has become important again, despite the talks of Singapore being small. If I live in the east, it's unlikely I will head to the north to go to a supermarket which has a sale on groceries. Meanwhile, if you simply hand out flyers, they go straight to the bin. But give the public a newspaper, with real content of value, it will be quite hard to ignore  or chuck it aside,” he said.

When asked why the declining financial trend has persisted despite the integration of SPH’s teams in 2016, Low said that initially it was the “pure play thinking”. He was quick to add that over the past three years SPH has made vast improvements from declining at a -20% rate to -5% in the first quarter of the last financial year.

“Everyone in print did everything they could to preserve print. And the same thing happened with radio and OOH. I think we needed to move away from that, where whether radio, print, OOH or digital, you are part of this integrated value proposition,” he added.

“For us, it is adopting the whole new approach. As we say, if you are a small speedboat, you can make a turn easily but if you are a big ship, you have to make the signal and only three months later will you be able to turn,” he added, emphasising this is the turn that SPH is now vowing to make.