Advertising and media giant Clear Channel has appointed Richard Cross as its Chief Digital and Transformation Officer. In an interview with the Horizon CIO podcast Cross reveals how he defined digital leadership and re-engineers businesses for the digital age and how he advertises the positives of digital change.
As Cross and I discuss the real opportunities of digital leadership in September, it was clear to me that the business technology leader has lost none of his passion and inquisitiveness about the role. I’ve been fortunate to interview Cross in his CIO roles at broadcaster ITV, design and engineering firm Arup and more recently as CIO and then CDO of civil engineering firm Atkins. So what type of digital and transformation director are advertising leaders Clear Channel getting?
“On the journey I’ve been a digital leader of the corporate strategy,” Cross says, revealing that this involved being part of the leadership team that faced the city in the then listed Atkins engineering group. “We did a capital markets day and that set the tone on incremental growth from digital methods and that is now driving the value of the company.
“If people believe that disruption is coming, then it must have a proactive strategy rather than a defensive strategy,” he says of why it was important to explain the role of digital within Atkins to the city of London. “It is about having a plan to turn digital into real money that is incremental.”
“It is really hard to genuinely change the whole organisation and we had those conversations about doing digital to one side, but if you do that, you just create another analog business,” he says of how his CDO role was about changing the operational model of Atkins. In the interviews I have had with Cross over the years it is his clear thinking that technology can change the way the organisation operates, and therefore be more digital. Cross never gets confused with trying to make a heavy engineering company a digital business. It is an engineering firm. But an engineering firm can use digital to improve the way it operates.
“We banned projects. Everything was a product and that upshifts the team,” Cross says of how he changes the structure of IT teams to ensure they are a central part of digital transformation. “Make your IT team digital and then start thinking like a startup,” he says adding that Atkins worked in the same way as digital poster children Airbnb and Uber, by which Cross means the pace of development and being user centred. Throughout our conversation Cross focuses on how IT can move from being a process of the business to an engine.
“We brought people from outside of the IT into the group to give it the commercial mindset and to have that delivery focused mindset,” he adds. Cross says at Atkins the CEO “liked to talk of IS as a business, not as a function”.
During Cross’s tenure as CIO and then CDO of Atkins he and his team were involved in the all the major technology waves impacting business and at all times they were assessing them as digital opportunities for new ways to operate the business. And not all of these trends were necessarily positive:
“Automation in engineering means software can carry out a 20 day task in hours. That is disruptive when you are paid by the hour. With AI, software knows as much as every engineer in the company and that is very impactful. This is not something minor. In professional services it is driving the way we work,” Cross says. Automation has already impacted media based advertising and no doubt will soon disrupt what Clear Channel calls “out of home media” and many aspects of advertising are a professional service of client advisory work.
But Cross is a realist and passionate about technology. In his time at Atkins he adopted technologies to drive opportunities for the business and its people. He used the latest technologies to increase the amount of scenario modeling the organisation used, which improved the service it offered its clients.
“Looking at the different ways of building, for example the environmental impact, you can use gaming engines to simulate usage of the building. Or you can anticipate business issues like a shortage of concrete or a run on the steel price,” again improving the service to the client that has commissioned a building. You can see how Clear Channel could use these technologies to advise advertising clients using weather, traffic or event data.
Atkins is more than a construction company, it is involved in major civil engineering projects which impact communities. Cross and his team used the very latest asset management technologies.
“There is a problem of aging infrastructure, our roads and rail and it will cost trillions of dollars to bring everything up to speed; so prediction modelling will improve maintenance,” he says.
Clear Channel is one of the largest suppliers of outdoor advertising, billboards to you and I. Cross and Atkins have already begun working on disrupting this model with the development of Intelligent Mobility, running trials of autonomous cars. But if consumers are no longer sat in a traffic jam in control of the vehicle, they will be engaged in other activities and therefore in all likelihood receiving advertising online, not outdoors.
Intelligent mobility was one area where Cross and Atkins used its digital methods, setting up a startup that offered mobility as a service to test out the approach in “a real world context”.
“We had three months of investment and measured the results to change the mindset,” he says of how the car pool startup in Cambridge.
“That is the real power of the startup thinking, it is underpinned by technology, the success,” he says. At Atkins Cross was instrumental in forming a Digital Incubator to validate each of these ideas and a Digital Playbook was created, this documented the development to ensure the organisation learnt from each incubation.
“The digital playbook gives people the permission to try things and then tell the story of it to the company. So we are learning by doing rather than big training courses. It all hones the creativity of the organisation. You create converts and they go back into the organisation, so it’s like viral marketing,” Cross says. Cross has spent his career in highly creative organisations facing major digital change, whether they are engineers, architects, broadcasters and now advertisers.
As Atkins became a leader in using digital working methods internally it began to take these out to its customer base.
“Atkins is a B2B business, but we reached out to our clients, so we became a B2C business helping clients like Heathrow improve its arrivals experience. It is great experience to work with the client and their customer, which was a whole different way of working with a client. The IT group can now sit in the room with your customer’s customer,” he says of the transformation of where IT operates in the Atkins business.
“IT in the past has not been the first port of call for innovation, so to do it under the IT brand is difficult,” Cross says of the adoption of the digital moniker for himself and his team.
“We took the approach that this was about how do we get people to collaborate across the silos. The One Atkins 2020 strategy crowdsourced ideas from the staff, negating the need for strategy groups, just people coming together, and a lot of use of Yammer. We had 75% of the company on Yammer as an active user. Which led to people talking and there were ideas such as the Bid in a Box,” he says.
Having created a collaborative culture Atkins was able to improve the process, developing a minimum viable product (MVP) for the Bid in Box, which shed Atkins of 80 silos.
“It had always been a problem that we were too big to solve, but we broke it down, bringing people together and being clear about what is in it for you,” he says of how people who wanted to solve the problem came together around an idea.
“When you move fast like this you spend less time and therefore less money,” he says of developing an MVP. “You naturally focus on the things that add the most value.”
CIO to CDO
“I see it as an exciting time for CIOs and IT,’ the CDO says. “I have been doing this for 30 years and it is the most exciting time as this is the best opportunity to step outside from the back office and meet with other senior managers of the team.
One year into his career at Atkins Cross changed job title from CIO to CDO and he says of that change: “There is a mindset of the CDO role to be more open minded as there are a lot of people that are passionate about new technology and that is a great place to start from,” he says.
Cross has media experience having spent six years as Group Technology Director of ITV, which included seeing the organisation through a merger.
“Digital was transforming the way we made television and the crossover of virtual reality (VR) is going to be a big thing. I expect you put your client into an immersive environment.”
Any media industry watcher will be well aware that all the challenges that Cross’s previous organisations ITV, Arup and Atkins have faced are well and truly on display in outdoor advertising and it will be fascinating to see how Cross brings his digital methods and clarity to Clear Channel.