Media Headliner: Nick Milligan faces up to regulatory threat to Sky

By Jeremy Lee, campaignlive.co.uk, Thursday, 10 March 2011 12:01AM

The media industry is waiting to see how the sales boss responds to prospective changes in the TV ad market.

Sadly, there aren't that many big beasts left in TV airtime sales. In fact, Nick Milligan, the managing director of Sky Media, is possibly the last of them (well, the last visible one since Channel 4's Andy Barnes appears to have taken more of a back seat).

Sky rarely offers its people for interview, something that Milligan acknowledges - "it doesn't like telling people what it is doing" - but the launch of Sky Atlantic prompted its all-powerful corporate publicity team to do something about this to get it some puff. Subsequent regulatory events, however, have overshadowed the channel launch, and the presence of someone with some advertising clout could prove useful to Sky if it is to present its case coherently ahead of the Communications Act next year.

Advertising contributes less than 10 per cent to BSkyB's revenues so it's the icing on the cake for the company - but a very useful addition - and Milligan has, over the past six years, seen the company steadily grow its share of net TV ad revenue from 11.5 per cent to 19 per cent.

He has also created a suite of services to advertisers that includes Sky Magazine, a pubs and clubs feed, green button and interactive, and will one day include a targeted service - called Sky Adsmart - that serves virtually personalised commercials (to a postcode level) using the company's existing data and the technology that already is embedded in Sky boxes. There was also the matter of Sky acquiring the third-party sales contract for Viacom that led to the closure of Viacom Brand Solutions and then triggered a wave of consolidation.

So you might think job well done. However, following the recommendation by the House of Lords Communications Committee that TV ad minutage is harmonised and that Contract Rights Renewal is dispensed with, Milligan is now faced with a possible challenge to Sky's position. It will be interesting to see how he responds.

Unfortunately, given how Sky displays an almost collective paranoia that its executives toe a cautious corporate line and dislikes anyone to take a position on anything, Milligan is reluctant to commit himself on the record other than to say: "The world has moved on. CRR is now working for ITV and Kelly (Williams, ITV's sales director) might not be in such a rush to judge the issue. Regulation around minutes and distribution will only serve to confuse the matter further." Privately, you feel, his views must be considerably stronger and he will lobby hard against any plans that would end up costing Sky ad revenue - even if it is just for reasons of personal pride.

Milligan is almost obsessively competitive - even down to being not entirely complimentary about some of those who used to work for him who he may perceive as a threat. For example, he smiles wryly when asked about what he makes of the replacement of Gary Digby with one of his former proteges, the likeable but less hard- hitting Williams.

He's also reassuringly old school - a proper salesman down to his toothy smile, which belies this intense desire to win. This is one of the reasons that make him not universally popular (but still respected) in the industry.

He's also very loyal to Sky. "We have never been more resilient. Sky built during the recession. Sky has taken huge risks - investment in digital, Sky+, HD, telephony and 3D. It's this willingness to take these risks that makes working here difficult to compare to working at Channel 4, Channel 5 or ITV," he says, toeing the line effectively.

Critics say he can be prone to having bouts of thin skin and he sometimes appears to take criticism personally, and while he is quick to credit and praise the team around him, Sky Media does come across as The Nick Milligan Show. He thinks this is unfair and credits the depth of the management team for contributing to Sky Media riding out the recession.

Certainly, Sky's continued innovation has made it a more attractive proposition to viewers and advertisers, and the launch of Sky Atlantic, which brings the best HBO programming to the UK, has broadened its audience proposition further. Milligan describes it as "the most significant channel launch to date".

It is also indicative of the pace of change at Sky, an organisation that does not tolerate those it regards as underachievers or past their best.

So, does Milligan fear for his own mortality, for the sudden and unexpected crashing down of a meteorite on Sky Media's 123 Buckingham Palace Road offices, rendering the big beast an extinct dinosaur? It would be understandable if he did - indeed, he confesses that he has had to put a succession plan in place (like all senior Sky executives). But, sadly, he refuses to name the chosen one.

Certainly, there's also an elephant in the room in the shape of what may happen if News Corporation is given permission to buy the remaining stake in BSkyB that it does not already own.

Should it then - as expected - attempt to cross-sell to agencies its newspaper assets with its television ones, then it is likely to appoint a sales supremo to co-ordinate this, and it is likely to come down to a battle between Milligan and his opposite number at News Group, Paul Hayes.

Milligan won't be drawn on this but just says: "I love working at Sky because it never stands still and there is so much to learn."

Let's hope, for the hue of the industry, that this love is mutual.

THE LOWDOWN
Age: 49
Lives: Wandsworth, London
Family: Victoria, Amber (10), Olivia (8), Emily (6) and Kit (2)
Interests outside work: The kids, skiing, golf, motorbikes, anything
outdoors
Favourite TV programme: Spooks or Silent Witness
Most treasured possession: Beach house in Trebetherick, Cornwall

This article was first published on campaignlive.co.uk

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