CIO Spotlight: André Azadehdel, Clear Channel

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? “I think it is obvious to everyone working in technology and digital that access to talent is difficult across the board. Some areas that… are in data engineering, product ownership, cyber-security, data science…”

Clear Channel

Name: André Azadehdel

Company: Clear Channel

Job title: CIO

Date started current role: July 2021

Location: Europe

André Azadehdel joined Clear Channel as CIO in May 2021 and is responsible for leading the digital transformation of Clear Channel Europe and building the core technology capabilities to enable this. He oversees an international team spanning 17 markets with an agile and flexible approach, driving a strong digital culture through innovation and collaboration. Azadehdel first worked with Clear Channel in 2014 as a consultant, initially to help scale its digital offering. He has previously spent over 20 years working with clients across multiple sectors whilst at Deloitte Consulting and as an independent consultant, advising them on how to redesign and transform their businesses and utilise digital trends. 

What was your first job? My proper first job was as a Consultant at Deloitte working in the Customer practice. I spent almost ten years advising large international businesses and public sector organisations on how better to engage with, market to, sell to and serve their customers. The work ranged from customer and channel strategy; operating model design; business change; as well as the implementation of both package and bespoke technologies as enablers. This gave me exposure to a broad set of businesses and industries and provided me with a core set of skills such as correctly framing business problems, shaping solutions to these problems, quickly building high performing teams, communicating effectively and managing delivery as well as exposure to lots of best practice. I enjoyed putting the hours in, so it meant I got a lot of experience under my belt.

Did you always want to work in IT? I think I’ve always wanted to work at the challenging and sharp end of business where organisations are either facing a disruptive challenge or an exciting opportunity to transform. This may require technology to enable the business outcome, but potentially the impact could be just as easily and more appropriately achieved with an organisational or process change for instance.

What was your education? Do you hold any certifications? What are they? I studied a BSc in Management at UMIST which has now become part of the University of Manchester. I think it gave me a great grounding in business, providing foundations in corporate strategy, marketing, accounting, economics, statistics, sociology, and psychology for example. Lots of people feel that their educations aren’t practically applicable in the “real” working world, but I’m lucky that I’ve been able to apply what I learned academically throughout my career.

Explain your career path. Did you take any detours? If so, discuss. After almost ten years working at Deloitte, I left to work as a contractor and spent a number of years operating a small boutique consulting business with a handful of consultants. I then set up a consulting business called Riverflex with an old colleague and friend. Riverflex specialises in digital, data and innovation and was a pioneer network consulting business. The business has grown to operate in the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Spain and Turkey, working with world class clients such as Samsung, Nestlé, Ikea, PVH (Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger), Alhold Delhaize…and Clear Channel. Clear Channel was one of our first clients who I worked with for a number of years. I built strong relationships and was extremely excited by and invested in their transformation. So, when the CEO asked me about taking on the role of CIO it felt like a natural and exciting challenge. It gives me the opportunity to execute the playbook for transformation that I’ve learned over two decades as a consultant into practice myself rather than convincing and supporting someone else to do it.

What business or technology initiatives will be most significant in driving IT investments in your organisation in the coming year? I’ve worked in lots of industries with lots of businesses where digital disruption has been a negative existential threat. But for out of home advertising, several digital trends are creating an opportunity to truly transform our industry. OOH is the world’s oldest advertising medium and the product that we historically sold was a paper poster pasted every two weeks. But today, on digital screens, you have 99,000 different ad slots you can choose from in the same two-week period. By digitising our estate, we are changing the proposition that we can offer to our customers to be more real-time, more flexible, more targeted and more creative.

What are the CEO's top priorities for you in the coming year? How do you plan to support the business with IT? OOH is perhaps the only traditional medium with a brighter future than past and digital is the foundation of our Mission to Create the Future of Media – offering all of our customers and partners simpler, smarter and even more effective advertising solutions. Delivering on this mission is our priority. New digital channels to market such as programmatic, direct APIs and self-service make it simpler and easier to buy out of home advertising providing access to vast volumes of new customers and budgets. There is more and more data available on people in outdoor environments (obviously anonymised!) that can be used to provide more targeting and measurement of campaign performance to advertisers.

Does the conventional CIO role include responsibilities it should not hold? Should the role have additional responsibilities it does not currently include? Technology, digital and data have become core competitive enablers of most businesses. Tech is something that customers use and experience directly and is often the product or part of the product that the customer ultimately pays for. This obviously changes the profile of the leader in this space to be a driver of the strategy of the business, to be an enabler of transformation and to be commercially focused.

Are you leading a digital transformation? If so, does it emphasise customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency? If both, how do you balance the two? I think the term digital transformation is one of the most misused terms in business, and many times what people label as digital transformations aren’t really that transformative. Just adopting new technology or digital tools isn’t necessarily a radical or transformative change. A fundamental change in business model, products, channels to market, target customers or operating model are the types of transformational changes that can be enabled by digital trends. And I think as an industry and a company we are going through many of these changes at the core of our business that are being driven by and enabled by digital.

I don’t think the goals of customer experience and revenue growth or operational efficiency need to be, or even should be mutually exclusive, transforming properly can and should achieve both. For instance, very simplistically delivering a good experience generally requires a simpler and more streamlined business process and improved first contact resolution which results in operational efficiency. Revenue growth should be profitable which implies a level of operational efficiency.

Describe the maturity of your digital business. For example, do you have KPIs to quantify the value of IT? As we are building more and more digital products and platforms that are being used directly by our customers, we are obviously needing to improve the maturity of our digital business. This includes building capabilities in areas such as experience design, product management and customer success – creating cross functional teams with marketing, sales, legal, design and digital representation – and bringing these teams closer to the customer to understand their needs through research and rapid testing and learning. The quality of these digital products and the experiences are certainly improving as we continue to mature in these areas. 

In terms of KPIs, we are putting in place better and more aligned measures to ensure we are quantifying the value of IT. We kicked off our transformation about 18 months ago, so the real focus was on creating a delivery focused mindset. For this reason, we started with OKRs (rather than KPIs) to drive change and align the objectives of tech with those of the customer and the business. These include revenue targets, so teams working on our new digital platforms are focused on achieving direct commercial outcomes.

Now that we are starting to get some elements of what we are doing into more of a steady state, we are looking to put in place KPIs, but the conversation has just started. We didn’t want to complicate things by introducing OKRs and KPIs at the same time.

What does good culture fit look like in your organisation? How do you cultivate it? Historically our countries across Europe operated relatively autonomously with their own technology teams. Just over a year ago we brought all of Tech into one European organisation, so building a common culture to create a single high performing team is one of my highest priorities. We have worked with our team to co-create a blueprint for our culture and the kind of behaviours that we want to exhibit. This is helpful for getting us to think about our culture and to get alignment and buy-in around it. But for me the way to cultivate a culture isn’t by talking about it but by living and breathing it. It is about how we act on a day-to-day basis, to model the type of business we want to be. This is something we need to do as leaders all the time, and something that we need to practice together as teams when we are working and delivering.

What roles or skills are you finding (or anticipate to be) the most difficult to fill? I think it is obvious to everyone working in technology and digital that access to talent is difficult across the board. Some areas that we are finding particularly challenging at the moment are in data engineering, product ownership, cyber-security, data science and also software engineers who’ve worked on customer facing products with a proper digital mindset. This is obviously making us all rethink and reinvent our approaches to talent. One of our challenges is that talent don’t initially see Clear Channel as a company that has digital and tech at it’s centre, so the first step is to create that awareness.

The fact is that if you want to work on:

  • digital products or technologies that are reinventing a business
  • contemporary technologies (e.g. cloud, big data, AI) and patterns (e.g. microservices)
  • using modern delivery approaches (e.g. agile, DevSecOps), in teams that are truly cross-functional
  • in a culture that is fresh and dynamic but at the scale of a NYSE listed business

… then I can’t think of many better places to be. We are now starting to do this with a new Employee Value Proposition under the brand Bring You, Shape Us and are starting to use our own powerful advertising medium to tell this story about tech and digital careers at Clear Channel.

What's the best career advice you ever received? There will always be more to do so you need to know when to stop. My most important role is bringing up my three daughters so that advice helps me focus on that.  

Do you have a succession plan? If so, discuss the importance of and challenges with training up high-performing staff. Having built a new single European tech and digital organisation from 16 local technology teams just over a year ago required a lot of thinking about the type of organisational topology that would enable us to achieve our business goals, build flexibility and redundancy into how we are organised and create a similarly adaptable and loosely coupled technology architecture. Part of this has also involved flattening hierarchies and trying to build more generalist and T-shaped roles. The intent of this is to reduce the number of key person dependencies that require specific succession plans. But we haven’t removed them completely hence we do continue with succession planning and most importantly growth and development of our people. We are currently building career pathways to provide clear growth opportunities for our people, which is much easier to do now everyone is in one large international team rather than in small local teams.

What advice would you give to aspiring IT leaders? Get exposure to as may experiences as you can and make sure you really understand the business, as tech is meaningless if it doesn’t solve a business need. As an technology or digital leader your role is applying tech to these business problems so without a deep understanding of the business you can’t be effective.

Stay on top of trends because over time a number of them will cause disruption, but avoid buzz and hype because if it appears too good to be true then it generally is… particularly in tech.

Focus, there will be always too much demand for tech for you to satisfy everyone so make hard decisions early on, so you get the most important things right.

Your highest priority is your people – attracting, motivating and developing great talent and creating the conditions for them to be successful is when you achieve results.

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