Feature

Verica Djurdjevic: Channel 4's classy contrarian

Djurdjevic has made a strong impression at Channel 4 after being hired “in the worst circumstances ever”. But is the working-class sales chief from Leicester what the broadcaster needs as ownership clouds become darker?

Verica Djurdjevic, Channel 4
Verica Djurdjevic, Channel 4

On a recent visit to her childhood home in Leicester, Veriça Djurdjevic cleared out her old bedroom. As she sorted through her belongings, she stumbled across a primary school exercise book containing a piece she had written about her interests at the time.

“My hobby at the age of eight was ‘watching television’. I watched a lot of TV,” Djurdjevic says.

The significance of that home visit was not lost on her. A few months earlier, she had been appointed to the new role of chief revenue officer of Channel 4. Her remit includes responsibility for “all of the key revenue streams” at the purpose-driven, youth-focused, public-service TV broadcaster, home of the Paralympics, Gogglebox and Great British Bake Off.

Although she could not have known when she was a schoolgirl that she would end up in TV ad sales in later life, Djurdjevic’s humble beginnings, steely resolve and “self-sufficiency” would stand her in good stead for a challenging first year at Channel 4.

Having quit as chief executive of PHD in September 2020, she started her Channel 4 role in November – just as a second wave of Covid-19 was sweeping the UK, forcing the nation to retreat to their homes again.

Ten months in, and Djurdjevic has met the majority of her 260-strong team only via video conference calls. This during one of the most dramatic periods in Channel 4’s 39-year history, when revenues, strategy and ownership have all been in flux.

On the revenue front, advertising plunged more than 50% during the first lockdown in spring 2020, yet the TV market rebounded in the autumn and Channel 4 was able to report a record financial surplus in its annual accounts in June 2021.

Meanwhile, Alex Mahon, Channel 4’s chief executive, to whom Djurdjevic reports, has been pushing a new, five-year strategy focused heavily on streaming, inclusion and the regions. This comes as Boris Johnson’s Conservative government has mooted privatising the broadcaster after a formal consultation closed on 14 September.

Mahon, who has been buoyed by recent successes, including buying the free-to-air rights to Emma Raducanu’s US Open final victory and airing #BlacktoFrontProject, a day of programming by black talent, has been adamant that it would be better for viewers and advertisers alike if Channel 4 stays in public hands.

“We are clear that we need to shift, change and follow the market and there is a commercial future for the organisation,” Djurdjevic tells Campaign on the roof terrace of Allbright, a women’s members’ club in London’s Mayfair. 

“And our remit [to be innovative, inspire change, nurture talent, educate young people and allow alternative views] and purpose also exists within the commercial team.

“It’s a beautiful virtuous circle. Our role is to recycle advertising revenue in order to fund the programmes and the production sector that makes them. The viewers that our content appeals to also appeal to our advertisers. I’m not sure why [the government] would interrupt the momentum we have built.”

Dozens of advertising and agency leaders have come out against a sale and signed the “4ThePeople” letter, organised by Campaign, urging the government to “think again”.

But does the talk of privatisation, concern Djurdjevic? 

“Having spent much of my life in an agency environment, where you can have major accounts go up for pitch at a moment’s notice, I have learned  not to spend time occupied on the things that you can’t control,” she says, putting a brave face on a situation that could lead to 4 Sales being disbanded, if, for example, ITV buys the broadcaster.

Life in a male-dominated sector

Djurdjevic brings two decades of experience in media agencies. She started with four years at Mediavest, before moving to MEC in 2002, where she rose to be client services director. She then joined PHD as managing partner, rising to chief executive in 2017.

PHD’s victory in Campaign’s UK Agency of the Year Awards 2020, announced in March of this year, was a worthy postscript to Djurdjevic’s tenure at the Omnicom agency, during which she fought to keep the Sainsbury’s business and helped to win HSBC.

Her decision to leave the buy-side of advertising for sales is not an unfamiliar one when it comes to Channel 4. A decade ago, Jonathan Allan left OMD to become sales director of Channel 4,  and his promotion to chief operating officer last year created the vacancy that was filled by Djurdjevic’s new role.

However, her journey differs in at least one important respect – she is a woman heading into a sector that remains male-dominated at the highest levels, including at Channel 4.

“I was aware of [the perception],” she says, “but would say that in terms of the gender balance within my function as a whole, it’s actually pretty evenly split – 48:52 (female:male). 

“However, certainly at a senior leadership level, it’s historically been male-dominated. That’s clearly in my line of sight, introducing diversity of not only gender, but also experience, ethnicity and background as I construct my senior team.”

"Well, I’ve never bought a TV campaign before"

Djurdjevic believes her agency background is a help because she brings “strategic thinking and the ability to layout short-, medium- and long term-plans” for clients.

“A skill I’ve developed while working with advertisers for many years is the ability to understand what businesses are looking for and translate that into a common strategy,” she says. “It’s also important to translate that into a commercial strategy for Channel 4 as we shift towards being more digitally first and youth-focused.”

Djurdjevic also highlights a passion for people and wants to build a “positive culture” in which her team “feels empowered” – a task she admits has been much more challenging while working remotely.

When asked about her weaknesses, she pitches a curveball: “Well, I’ve never bought a TV campaign before,” she admits. “I’ve planned it, but I’m on a journey learning about the mechanics of [TV ad buying]... but they knew that when they hired me.

“Another challenge is staying connected to customers – the agencies and advertisers – because I’m now working in a bigger organisation and a bit further removed than when I was at PHD.”

“Focused, smart, well prepared, hard-working”

Colleagues past and present say Djurdjevic brings intelligence and empathy to her work.

Mahon, who appointed her, says: “She has been spectacular to work with, especially starting in the worst circumstances ever. She is focused, smart, well prepared, hard-working, personable and a thoughtful individual who has helped us transition our strategic direction. What she brings is a real understanding of what clients and agencies want and how we can commercialise our digital advertising – and we are well ahead of the market.”

A former Omnicom colleague, now at another agency group, who wishes to remain anonymous, adds: “She’s quite a fearless leader with a lot of conviction and very direct. I always had a positive experience, particularly on new business, and she would call out bullshit much more than others.”

Hugh Cameron, chair of PHD UK, who worked with Djurdjevic for more than a decade, says: “She embodies what I would describe as a ‘kind, next-generation leader’.

“She has a relentless focus on people, values, culture and well-being. She’s possibly the most cultured commercial leader in the whole advertising and media industry.”

In an additional nod to her degree in English Literature from Cambridge University, Cameron continues: “Her literary, artistic, creative knowledge and passion is really extensive. So I think Channel 4 is a natural home for her in that sense.

“She is always looking to move the other way when the world is moving in one direction. Channel 4 embodies that. She is the classy contrarian. “

Mindshare chief executive Jem Lloyd-Williams told Campaign Djurdjevic’s agency background has been positive when dealing with Channel 4.

He says: “Veriça brings a wealth of experience from an agency perspective to her new role, of course. This informs a lot of how she is shaping the team and their approach at Channel 4, I guess. Our clients need a clear, distinctive and valuable proposition that helps them invest in and benefit from good growth for their businesses. Growth that’s enduring and sustainable.”

Other industry folk describe Djurdjevic as shy – she prefers the term “considered” – but able to perform “theatrically” when called upon, whether it’s in the boardroom or a pitching environment.

“That’s my drama background,” she chuckles. “I actually do have a real love of performing. I had a fleeting moment, when I was about 16 or 17, where I wanted to go into acting and directing, but for various reasons I didn’t pursue it.”

Breaking through the class ceiling

Djurdjevic was born in Leicester in the 1970s to Serbian parents, who had emigrated from Croatia in the 1950s. She is the youngest of three siblings, growing up in a working-class family. Her father was a precision tool engineer and her mother a machinist.

She says her upbringing taught her “a great deal about self-sufficiency”. A bright student, she received scholarships to attend grammar school and then Cambridge University.

“What my parents and the upbringing I had taught me is the importance of access to opportunities,” she says. “I now think about the fact that if I were growing up today, from the background that I came from, those opportunities would not be there for me and the injustice increasingly plays on my mind.”

She has yet not figured out how to tackle what she describes as the “egregious class ceiling” but hints that she has plans afoot.

Djurdjevic’s own career is an example of breaking through a series of glass ceilings, given her gender, class and immigrant parents – a refreshing change from the usual demographic atop the media industry. 

Reinventing the commercial model

Djurdjevic says her focus as chief revenue officer is to help the £1bn-a-year business remain commercially sustainable as it moves towards a new, strategic direction, mapped out in its Future4 five-year plan.

In practice, that means accelerating the shift from traditional, linear TV broadcaster, with its headquarters in London, into a digital-first media company spread across the nations and regions.

Channel 4 is one year into its five-year plan, but the early signs are promising. From a commercial perspective, this means transitioning its revenue mix from linear TV advertising and partnerships towards at least 30% digital ad revenue by 2025. 

"If I were growing up today, from the background that I came from, those opportunities would not be there for me" 

At present, 90% of Channel 4’s revenue is derived from advertising. Of this, 81% comes from spot advertising, partnerships and sponsorships, and 19% comes from digital advertising, primarily through All 4, the ad-funded broadcaster video-on-demand platform. 

That digital growth is ahead of schedule, according to Channel 4 – albeit many other established media owners are further ahead in their digital transformation.

The other 10% of Channel 4’s revenue comes from a variety of sources: subscription revenues from its new All 4+ platform, an indie growth fund, 4 Ventures (which invests in start-ups) and social media branded content (which runs across Channel 4’s social channels).

Another important aspect of the new strategic focus is engaging young people. All 4 has grown to reach 1.5 billion views this year, and Channel 4 says it has become the UK’s top youth media company – ahead of LadBible – reaching more than 90% of 18- to 34-year-olds. 

“A big part of our future success as an organisation will lie in the ability to continue to reinvent the commercial model,” Djurdjevic says. 

“While we’re always going to be largely reliant on advertising, the innovation around new formats and creating opportunities for new revenue streams outside of advertising are increasingly important.”

An unexpected surge in the TV ad market this autumn provided a short-term fillip. 

Mahon’s team has said the business is on target to generate revenues of more than £120m in September – a 48% rise on a year ago, and 36% up on its pre-pandemic September 2019 performance. October is also on track for a 14% year-on-year rise, up nearly 30% on 2019.

The strength of the TV market – with other media channels, such as outdoor, yet to recover all of their pandemic losses – and Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympics have helped, according to Djurdjevic. Another important aspect is Channel 4’s ability to connect with young people.

“I was having a conversation with a leading UK advertiser recently and they said: ‘If we want to get our video assets in front of hard-to-reach younger audiences and high-quality environments, [Channel 4] are absolutely critical to any plan,’” she says.

“What’s also happened, particularly over the past 18 months, is that marketers have been reminded of the power of TV advertising to fulfil a number of different functions in their media plan. So, when people ask if an ad-funded business in broadcast is sustainable, I would say, absolutely, it is. 

“But the duty that we have is to make sure that we’re developing the right formats and the right ways of reaching and connecting with audiences that are relevant and drive results for the advertisers. 

“What we have to do as a commercial team is grow that VOD piece in line with increased viewing figures that we have and the demand from advertisers for more targeted and addressable solutions. We also need to make sure that we can squeeze all of the available growth from our other revenue streams.” 

TV hasn’t articulated its case well

For the TV broadcast sector, there are two technological advances considered by advertisers, media agencies and industry commentators as “game-changers”. 

The first is cross-platform measurability (uniting linear and VOD figures), which is being launched through CFlight. The second is addressable advertising (targeting TV ads to specific audiences and demographics).

Channel 4 has used Sky’s addressable targeting tech for a while, but the measurement piece is still a work in progress and vital for a traditional media channel looking to compete with the tech titans of Facebook and Google.

"When people ask if an ad-funded business in broadcast is sustainable, I would say, absolutely, it is"

Advertisers and media agency bosses have long been perplexed by the slow progress of  the TV industry when it comes to cross-platform measurement. But what does Djurdjevic, who only a year ago was a media agency boss, make of it all, after crossing to the other side of the fence?

“I guess this may sound really naive, but a surprising learning for me was the complexity that sits behind what goes into getting TV campaigns on air and digital VOD campaigns on screen,” she says. 

“However, where I will step back from it and think back to my previous [role at media agencies] – and I’ll say this in a diplomatic way – I don’t think that the broadcasters necessarily articulated this in a way that brought everyone on the journey with them. 

“My message [for advertisers and agencies] would be that things are moving very quickly... and that inertia is going to come to an end very quickly.”

Another important part of Djurdjevic’s vision is restructuring her senior sales team. She wants to create separate roles for sales leadership between commercial innovation and the management of partnerships. This, she says, has been far too integrated in the past and needs demarcation. 

Another element will be building her team across three offices: she currently has 200 people based in London, 50 in Manchester and 10 in Leeds.

Djurdjevic, who expanded PHD’s office in Manchester when she ran the agency, says: “I know there is a really powerful advertiser and media scene outside London, and that’s something that you definitely want to capitalise on. 

“We have certainly seen that in Manchester with interest from a lot of emerging brands.”

Privatisation might be the most immediate cloud hanging over Channel 4 but the government reasons it is necessary for the broadcaster to deal with its other challenges – notably the rise of the streaming and social media platforms, which are luring eyeballs away from linear TV.

As the government’s consultation document warns: “The evolving media landscape poses material challenges to Channel 4’s future success and sustainability under its current ownership model and remit.”

However, Djurdjevic was under no illusion about those challenges when she joined Channel 4. What’s more, this working-class, daughter of immigrants, who has risen to the upper echelons of TV adland, is not in the mould of a “traditional” sales leader.

As Cameron observes, Djurdjevic stands up to the status quo. She cares about the disruptors, diversity and calling out “bullshit”. 

A “classy contrarian” may be what Channel 4 needs at what is a time of great change and uncertainty but also of opportunity.