IRS+ Leaders Questions with Paul Farrell

Welcome to IRS+ Leaders Questions! The interview series with a difference, where Peter Smyth, CEO of IRS+, interviews media industry leaders while putting them (and himself!) completely out of their comfort zone. Like abseiling down a height tower for example.

First up, is Paul Farrell, the Managing Director at Virgin Media Television.

Peter Smyth, CEO of IRS+, and Paul Farrell, the Managing Director at Virgin Media Television, discuss the current pressures in the media industry, the opportunities and challenges AI will provide in the near future, the importance of local and much more.

Watch the full IRS+ Leaders Questions interview now or read more below.


Peter: So, listen Paul, I have a few questions I’d like to ask you. First of all, in your role at the moment, AI is a big hot topic. Has that started to affect the business or the people within it? Have there been questions asked? Have there been innovations? Is there a focus for the brand to start looking at AI?

Paul: Yeah, I mean, I think for the last probably six to nine months, AI has been probably the hottest topic. You know what’s interesting is when your 80-year-old mum is talking to you about AI and what it means. So, I think every business is trying to get their head around it. Some are a lot further on than others. My sense of AI is that it’s going to be as significant as the printing press was in terms of changing industry and improving productivity. That’s what we’ve all got to get our heads around. I see it more positively than negatively.

On the positive side, even in industries like ours, creative media, the opportunity to make mundane tasks more efficient, allowing people to spend more time adding value, creating things, and spending less time reading documents, printing documents, editing documents, all that type of stuff, will improve productivity and make people use their brains and the creative side of their brains much more. So, I see it overwhelmingly positively.

The only negative, which I’m not well qualified to think through, is as these models evolve and data starts to pervade through AI models and people start to interpret data and build new kinds of solutions, products, and ideas, who owns that IP? Where will that IP be stored? How will government regulate that? On one side, I think it’ll make jobs more interesting and provide more opportunities. But as things get bigger and more complicated and data gets manipulated, who owns the data? Who owns the IP? That’s where I think the challenge is. But for me, I’d see it more as a positive than a negative.

Peter: Within the business, is there a layman’s fear that you think is prevalent everywhere, that all our jobs are gone and there’s no future? Or is it starting to be an educational focus for the brand?

Paul: Yeah, I think there’s two things. I think a lot of businesses on the legal and regulatory side are a bit nervous about what you’re doing with people’s data. Is it secure? Is it controlled? GDPR and all those things. So, there’s a rational fear that businesses within their legal and HR teams are trying to get their head around.

Outside of that, I think companies need to encourage people to start to play with the models, understand the models, and see how they can make things better and easier for customers and staff. So, I think there is a genuine fear and concern. It’s normal. Bigger companies are probably tighter on a lot of the regulations and what they do with data, how data is used and controlled, and who owns the data, which is logical. I think that’s preventing a lot of people from using it.

In other companies, we’ve seen examples. We talked to Microsoft recently, and they showed some great examples of how companies are using it to streamline customer service, make jobs easier, and more productive. So, I think it’s a natural evolution. It’s the next wave. Similar to the printing press and the industrial revolution, this is going to transform things. People are naturally worried and concerned.

Peter: An in fairness, credit to our industry, whether it’s press, radio, or other traditional services, the same levels of staff are still there. People have educated themselves, moved on, and got into bigger, better jobs. History has taught us that no matter what happens, there’s still an opportunity for people.

Paul: Yeah, I think human beings naturally evolve, and technology naturally makes things better and improves things. Within media, you, me, and the Irish Times from almost 15 years ago, the business is still growing, evolving, and learning. It’s bringing new solutions and content to audiences, as are radio and TV. It’s how you apply the technology and make it relevant where businesses succeed. The thing we talk about is that everybody has access to the same technology. It’s how you apply it, innovate, and create with that technology. Everyone has access to the internet, programmatic, programming, coding, and now AI. The winners will be the ones who can adapt that technology best to make their business better.

Peter: Speaking about the industry that we’re in, every year there’s scare-mongering about digital taking a larger piece of the pie. There are the two giants, Meta and Google, and obviously, Amazon is coming on track as well. Our challenges are always the same. How is your brand dealing with that pressure? TV, for example, probably has the biggest challenge with streaming services talking about advertising while linear is talking about slowing down. Despite unbelievable growth over the last few years, how are you guys addressing that challenge?

Paul: Yeah, as you said, it’s not dissimilar to the AI point. Every business has faced increased competition, much of it driven by technology and innovation. In audio, you’ve got Spotify and Apple. In TV, there are all the streamers like Netflix and Disney coming into the market. For us, I think similar to newspapers and radio, what stands out is the ability to understand your audience and provide relevant local content. That has become more important than ever. Trusted content has become more important than ever. That’s where I think local media has a head start.

As things start to transform, we have access to a lot of better technology. We’re about to upgrade our player to get us to a point where we’ll have a comparable experience. It’s taken us a bit longer than we would have liked, but we’re going to get there. What Netflix doesn’t have is the ability to deliver live, local, relevant content 20-plus hours a day. The same goes for radio and newspapers. If you look to the US, the streamers are all starting to struggle. Not everyone can subscribe to 10 streaming or audio platforms. There are only three or four that will sustain that. What they can never deliver is that local, timely content. That’s where we’ve seen great success. Our player is up 20% year on year in terms of volume, driven by a mixture of live sports and local content. Radio is seeing the same thing with podcasting and the takeover of local, relevant, interesting content.

Peter: I agree. You made a good point about live and local content, which is really important. That engagement and companionship between the people you trust is key. Trust is a big factor. There’s a lot going on with people being cancelled for saying silly things, and there is a prevalent cancel culture. Have you built a regulatory process for your content? Has this challenge intensified for you over the last couple of years?

Paul: Great question. It’s funny, being on the commercial side of the business, you’ve always got to be careful to protect and retain editorial control. What we’ve seen recently is that it’s very hard for people to hold opinions. Immediately, if someone presents an opinion that somebody doesn’t agree with, there’s a pile-on. As you said, you can quickly become cancelled for something relatively innocuous. The challenge is that media needs to be comfortable facilitating debate. A lot of media organizations in Ireland have been fearful of presenting opinions and voices from the other side because people from certain media or organizations pile in, which has led to a lot of media organisations being very careful about who they bring on.

My view is that media’s role is to present and facilitate debate and discussion, then let the viewers and listeners make their own decisions. Cancel culture has limited that perspective and constrained the number of opinions and views facilitated on Irish media. I’d like to see that expand more as we come through a new election era with the Europeans, locals, and our own elections. The breadth of debate and engagement with different voices is something media needs to stick to.

Peter: Do you think the opinion makers of the past, who were willing to stand up for themselves and their own opinions in broadcast, have waned or become fearful of being cancelled? Is there anyone within your own organisation or someone that stands out as a strong opinion maker, like a Vincent Browne type of personality, who can really stand by what they’re saying? Or are we weaker now?

Paul: I think it’s become quite homogenised. There are a lot of similar voices from similar backgrounds in the media. I don’t think there is that breadth. I think you see a little bit of it on the entertainment side, where you start to see people with different, diverse backgrounds.

But I think it’s important to understand that diversity isn’t just about the colour of your skin or your gender but also where you come, where you’ve been educated, it’s where’ve grown up and the experiences you’ve had.

I think Irish media has become more and more homogenised and there’s less of those Vincent Browne’s, Ivan Yates, was probably one of the best as well, in terms of you know, stimulating that debate and letting different voices be heard but equally challenging when they were not kind of presenting the right view.

So, what you find is, the traditional medias like us spends a lot of time giving out about social media but social media is the only place a lot of these voices have gone to and they don’t get challenged on that platform. Whereas, in a traditional form as you say, Vincent Browne, or back to the old days. I remember the days of the early debates around the abortion referendum. You had some really strong opinions, I remember, growing up and the people you just didn’t agree with but they got a voice on RTE and they got to be heard. There’s less and less of that happening and that’s where these kind of run off to the social media and they create this kind of vacuum that doesn’t facilitate challenge and can then go on challenge. So, I think, that’s an opportunity for media, if they can find a way to bring, as you say, some of these personalities through, that are comfortable facilitating discussion.

Peter: If you look at things, there’s threats everywhere but there’s also opportunities. So collaboration, our own business, have had to, we’ve got the fundamentals right for a long time. Consistency obviously for me and a lot of people in businesses is the key to being successful but we had to evolve and collaborate.

Within the brands, that you’ve worked with, and you’ve obviously gone through a number of different brands throughout your career, do you think paddling your own canoe is the way to go or collaboration in terms of being able to evolve, to get that extra bit of revenue, or you know, grow that little extra bit of reach, particularly within media.

Paul: Yeah, I mean, I’ve always been a huge fan of collaboration. I think it’s the only way for business to make the best use of their resources they have and then find opportunities that you just couldn’t justify doing on your own.

So, I think there was a term coin, I think Colin Gordon, many years ago, called competition, where you can work with your competitors and still create opportunities that are mutually beneficial.

I remember when we first talked about partnering with RTE, people were going “that’s never going to happen”. And you know, the Rugby World Cup was probably one of the most successful partnerships ever in Irish broadcasting. And the real winners were the punters and the viewers who got to see more games that they would have seen and got to choose where they watched them.

So, I think that’s one small example, but I think particularly you talk about tech, you talk about infrastructure, you talk about resources, you talk about how you develop and improve you staff and people within the business. The best way to do that is to collaborate and find people who have a similar kind of challenge or similar opportunity or are looking to get there. And I think the biggest challenge I’ve seen in every business I’ve worked in is this kind of silo thinking where people spend all their time, you know, internally focusing on what they’re doing versus what somebody else is doing and not spending enough time looking externally and looking for opportunities and having that kind of almost silo mindset that we can’t do anything over there, because they’re doing that and they’ll step on our toes. So, I think it’s a maturity, and it’s a confidence that Irish businesses need to kind of continue to develop and I think it does create that synergies that you know, everyone talks about. There a lot of opportunities there but you just need to be open to them, you need to trade them, you need to encourage and develop people within your organisation that have that space to innovate or try different things.

Peter: When I look at your stellar career, Paul, over the last number of years, and we worked together for a few years at Irish Times, taking risks obviously is a big thing, but the best success has come out of failures.

In your time, what have been the ones that probably everyone said “Paul, that’s never going to work”? In your time throughout all the different roles you’ve had, where everybody has been against you saying that is never going to work and it ended up being one of your biggest successes and what does success look like for you?

Paul: I think you touched on it in the first part of the question. I think it’s just being prepared to take a risk. I think there’s so many examples of kind of great success coming from failure, and people have learned and been prepared to fail, and culturally I think that’s something we struggle with in Ireland.

There’s a caution or conservatism to say you know, I got to have the perfect business case before I go and do that, and I think you learn more from failure than you’ll ever learn from kind of the spreadsheet kind of model of will this make sense on paper.

I think at O2 we took a big risk going after the business market. Vodafone had it pretty sold up pretty much, and O2 was seen as a consumer brand. We ended up getting 33% share at the B2B market within about three years. We went after text as a proposition, we bundle texts into an all you can eat package. When I talk to my kids now, they kind of go, “you paid for texts?”. But that I mean got us huge traction and the brand took off.

The Irish Times, again, we set up online partnerships travel, retail businesses all on That generated about 10million of a return once it got up and running. Again, something people said Irish Times won’t be selling holidays, or books, or travel, or furniture, and that type of stuff. So, I think there’s loads of examples, in every business, and as you said RTE is a good one and I think it’s just having that willingness to take on a challenge, learn from the failure and move on. And I think if you can get that, within people in your business, because you know, I get all my energy from the people that I work with and seeing them kind of come up with ideas and challenge the business to do things differently. But that’s all cultural, that’s where I think you know, all businesses ultimately succeed, creating a culture that is aligned and focused and gives people the oxygen to develop and grow and look out and build something  successful within the business.

Peter: That’s a fantastic answer. It’s actually something I was going to ask you as well. You’ve kind of half answered which is what’s your formula to produce that good environment to get the culture right? You’ve obviously been in in leadership roles in various different places but it’s every time and I’ll be biased because I’ve worked with you, but I know other people that worked in different businesses as well, and they all said the same thing, that the environment was set up for them to win. Is there a formula that you could impart your wisdom on?

Paul: I think a lot of it just comes from experience. Sometimes it’s easy and it’s a cliché, but you know, that only comes with time and age, but as I’ve gone in my career, I’ve had great bosses, I’ve had bad bosses, but I’ve had great bosses. The Irish Times, I’ve had a super boss, Tony in Virgin being a super boss, and what they both did for me, they trusted me to do my job.

And I’ve learned over time, you know, what I really enjoy is building good teams. And you can only build good teams if you trust them and let them do what they’re employed to do. The worst experience for anybody in any organisation, whether it’s sporting or commercial or business somebody constantly telling you what to do or how to do it. So, I think trusting and empowering and letting people have a voice and then getting out of the way. You’ve seen a lot of quotes about employing people that are better or brighter than you. It does work, but you’ve got to give them space flourish and grow and get out of their way. Let go of the steering wheel every now and then and just see where you go, take a chance. But for me, it just comes as you get older and you’ve kind of been lucky to work with people who have done the same for you. Trust your people. If you employ someone to do a job, let them do their job. Give them the tools to do the job and get out of the way if they’re doing it better than you could.

Peter: Yeah, brilliant. So that’s wrap, thank you for your time.


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