MEDIA HEADLINER: ONdigital's managing director raises the stakes in digital TV. Fyfe will have to prove that ONdigital can be a serious TV player

Rob Fyfe isn't heading Railtrack, but you could say he is burdened

with the media equivalent, which is ONdigital. The quietly spoken New

Zealander, who was enticed over to British soil 18 months ago to be

Stuart Prebble's right hand man as chief operating officer, has been

appointed as the managing director of the digital television operation,

while Prebble has been elevated to the position of chief executive of

ITV.



Fyfe, who until he came to the UK had no broadcast experience, seems

unfazed by the task ahead of him. Although media commentators are

regular critics of ONdigital's ride through the tough digital TV

environment, which is dominated by Sky, the gritty 40-year-old Kiwi has

no doubts about the company's future. Now that the company's owners,

Carlton and Granada, have decided that it should be more closely aligned

with their ITV brand, Fyfe faces the task of re-educating consumers as

the millions spent on branding ONdigital are spent on rebranding the

service ITV Digital this summer.



Fyfe acknowledges that it may seem like money has been wasted on

rebranding, but he says: "If I were ITV, I'd have been quite nervous

about attaching a fledgling brand to the established brand of ITV." He

adds: "We have spent an enormous amount of our resources on

communicating our brand, but we acknowledge that there is a degree of

confusion in the marketplace. ITV Digital for us is a big branding

challenge - ITV is such a powerful brand, evoking a clear sense of

identity in the minds of 55 million viewers."



Fyfe inherits a company that last month revised its forecasts for when

it would achieve 1.7 million subscribers and break even. It was thought

both would be achieved by the end of next year, but now ONdigital has

said that this is scheduled to happen somewhere between 2003-04. Cynics

say that if Granada and Carlton have to continue reaching into their

pockets at such a furious rate to prop up ONdigital, it is inevitable

that at some point it will be sold to Sky. Fyfe, however, is adamant

that this is not a prospect. "The vast majority of investment in this

business has already been made - around 75 per cent. It's in absolutely

no-one's interests not to have healthy competition in this market. All

the power today is with content owners. Carlton and Granada

strategically are committed to this and, from the market point of view,

a competitive environment benefits the consumer."



Granada Enterprises' chief executive, Mick Desmond, confirms this:

"ONdigital will not be sitting out on its own - the very fact that it

will be under ITV Digital's umbrella means that it will be driven in one

very clear direction."



The cost of subsidising its set-top boxes, however, is weighing hard on

ONdigital's investors and Fyfe concedes: "Clearly we will have to review

in time the economics of subsidising set-top boxes." The company is also

reviewing how it packages its services.



Fyfe's experience in customer services, through a series of top

management roles in the New Zealand, is what landed him at ONdigital.

Prebble comments: "Since I lured Rob from New Zealand by telling him the

weather was much better here, he has thrown himself into the job of

chief operating officer with drive and enthusiasm." Those who work with

him say that customer service is one of his obsessions because he feels

that the company's interface with its customers is essential.



ONdigital has more than one million customers (compared with Sky's five

million) and has a high churn rate of about 22 per cent. Fyfe points out

that it is only two years old. He also draws attention to the expected

impact of analogue switch-off. "It's a tough job," he admits. "It's a

really competitive market. We respect our competitors and they don't

make life easy for us. On the other hand, with the toughest challenge

goes one of the greatest opportunities."



With the launch of ITV Sport in August, which will feature UEFA

Champions League matches, Fyfe feels that he has a powerful new weapon

in ONdigital's armoury. "We are offering our subscribers more sports

content on our service than any other platform in the marketplace. Sky

has gone from being the dominant force in football - from next season a

substantial chunk of that will only be accessed through ONdigital."



With ONdigital being brought closer under ITV's wing and set to take on

a new identity to reflect that apparent cohesiveness, this is perhaps

Fyfe's one and only chance to prove that the digital broadcaster is here

for good, providing real and healthy competition to digital's big

brother, Sky.



THE FYFE FILE

1994: Bank of New Zealand, general manager, marketing and distribution

1997: National Australia Bank Group, group general manager, marketing,

distribution and electronic banking

1998: Telecom New Zealand, general manager, consumer

1999: ONdigital, chief operating officer

2001: ONdigital, managing director



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