Hazlitt could be the perfect hiring

ITV’s new management is certainly rocking the boat with the appointment of Fru Hazlitt coming hard on the heels of the news that commercial chief Rupert Howell is to leave.

Fru Hazlitt
Fru Hazlitt

The question is whether the boat is the Titanic and the broadcaster has just hired another hand to help rearrange deckchairs, or whether this is an appointment that can help ITV with its as yet unrevealed new survival strategy.

Hazlitt takes on the new role of managing director of commercial and online in August.

The departure of Howell, who is managing director commercial and brand, is not a huge surprise. He was a Michael Grade appointee and failed to grab the chief executive job that ultimately went to Adam Crozier. It’s to be expected that new chairman Archie Norman and Crozier want to build their own team.

The reshuffle also sees the exit of Ben McOwen Wilson, director of online and interactive. He joined ITV in 2006 as ITV’s first director of digital strategy.

But why Hazlitt, who spent many years in radio, and why the shift in job title? For some, there seems little reason in the appointment if she is not going to be muscling in on the territory of long-serving and well-regarded ITV customer relations director Gary Digby – the man who does the agency/client deals. One media buyer says the appointment is a shock and he would not be surprised if Digby is upset by the nature of the restructure.

As one former commercial TV sales chief points out, Hazlitt may have the charm to handle the biggest clients and to oil the wheels for the big deals – but so did Howell. The industry insider cannot see the immediate logic behind the appointment and points out that ITV has now had five commercial bosses since it was formed from Granada and Carlton in 2003.

However, while Hazlitt’s background is in radio it has been at the highest levels, and for the highest stakes. Her radio career kicked off at Virgin Radio but she rose to be chief executive of GCap Media and fought the battle to remain independent when Global Radio made its play for the conglomerate.

She lost the battle and ultimately left but the experience of devising a defensive strategy to offer shareholders could prove invaluable to ITV as it faces similar challenges and possible merger/takeover threats.

Back in 2008, Hazlitt said she wanted to turn GCap Media into a “thoroughly modern media company” with “radical but realistic measures” that would result in “a leaner and more dynamic company”. ” Music to Crozier’s ears, one would have thought, as he conducts a strategic review of ITV with the aim of turning it into a fit-for-purpose 21st century content and distribution media company.

The key part of the job has to be the online remit. While ITV is still delivering shows with high audience figures and is undergoing something of a mini-boom in TV ad revenues the current model is still not a long term strategy. And that’s not counting the CRR issue that continues to hamstring ITV1 revenues and show no sign of being lifted after a recent Competition Commission ruling.

The broadcaster has to start comprehensively exploiting all the digital channels available and making sure its individual programme brands alongside the master brand are strong. This means looking at revenue models beyond spot ads and there has been much speculation over whether the ITV digital channels will become part or all subscription.

There is plenty of scepticism over whether ITV can fully leverage its digital assets. Starcom Mediavest Group UK trading director Chris Lockesays: “The reality is that ITV.com is a tier two digital player at best.”

He points out that ITV has to realise people are not behaving online “as a media owner wants”. For instance, while they may watch X Factor on ITV1 they are more likley to go and talk about it on Facebook than see what ITV.com is offering about the show.

ITV is making much of Hazlitt’s digital background at Yahoo! where she was UK and European commercial director, Yahoo! Europe. While one criticism could be that this experience was now seven years ago – a lifetime in digital – she is still connected to the online world via her seat on the board of Betfair.

Former colleagues of Hazlitt believe she understands the opportunities and challenges of digital.

Former strategy director at Virgin Radio and now headhunter at Lighthouse Kathleen Saxton says: ” I think Fru will be there to fully integrate the audience proposition for ITV – they have millions of viewers and millions of online users and making sense of that for advertisers and possibly even the programme/content makers themselves it what is needed.

“Fru is able to marry together her experience of the traditional media world with that of the digital and indeed emerging technologies and ensure ITV is fit for purpose going forward.”

She adds that while she suspects Digby will continue to develop relationships with clients and agencies Hazlitt will be looking to the future and alternative revenue streams, creating integrated campaigns and solutions and ensuring ITV’s strategy is about where the eyeballs really are.

The fact she knows Norman and has talked business with him before, apparently, cannot have hurt her chances of landing the job either.

Norman and Crozier may now have their dream team with Kevin Lygo, Peter Finch and now Hazlitt. ITV’s survival does depend on some radical changes and it seems the first steps are underway.

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