William Eccleshare is to step down as global chief executive of Clear Channel after 12 years during which the outdoor media owner has moved from a traditional poster company to a digital-focused business.
Eccleshare, who left the agency sector after stints as BBDO, Y&R and JWT to join Clear Channel as international CEO in September 2009, will hand over to Scott Wells, the chief executive of the Americas division, in January 2022.
“It’s been a fantastic run,” Eccleshare told Campaign. “Moving from agency to media owner was a big call but a really good call in terms of the experiences I got. It meant I moved from being just an ad man to a business man.”
He described outdoor as “the original – and best – advertising medium” and said now was the right time to step down after steering Clear Channel, the world’s second biggest out-of-home media owner after JCDecaux, through the pandemic.
Eccleshare, who turns 66 later this year, will stay involved as executive vice-chairman of Clear Channel on a part-time basis and has several non-executive roles, including at Britvic, Centaur Media and the Donmar Warehouse theatre.
“I’m looking to build on that portfolio in the future in both business and the arts,” he said, adding: “I won’t be taking another big CEO role, I can promise you that.”
Eccleshare’s agency roles included chairman and CEO of BBDO in EMEA, chairman of Y&R in Europe and global strategic planning director of JWT, plus he spent three years at McKinsey.
In an interview with Campaign, he also talked about coping with former parent company iHeartMedia’s debt problems before he relaunched Clear Channel on the New York Stock Exchange in 2019 and his optimism about the future for outdoor, despite the tech giants having taken a huge share of the ad market over the past decade.
You’ve already been CEO internationally and globally for 12 years. Were you thinking of stepping down before the pandemic hit?
I wanted to see the business through the pandemic. I felt that the pandemic was not a moment when one could step aside as a CEO and it was really important for our people and our business that I led it through that crisis. We are clearly now coming out of the crisis. We are posting some really outstanding results today. We are forecasting to be within a smidgen of 2019 numbers by the end of the year and that seemed like an appropriate time to say: thank you very much, time to move on.
How has Clear Channel changed since 2009, when you joined during the depths of the financial downturn, and now?
It was a disparate collection of outdoor companies that had been acquired over the previous seven years and it was a very old-fashioned business in an old-fashioned medium. Everybody in advertising told me they all loved outdoor but they couldn’t quite see why anybody would leave a great role at BBDO to go and run a poster business.
What I see now is a business that actually does operate as a single, global business. We have got one way of operating, one way of selling, one way of building our inventory. So, we are a much more unified and cohesive business than we were then.
But the industry, led by us, I believe, has gone through a true transformation: from being the most old-fashioned medium, it has become a truly digital, technology-led business. It’s not just the digital screens, although that has been a huge driver of change, but it’s also the way that we sell, the way that we measure and the way we think about the business is now fuelled by technology and it really does make me excited and proud to see a business that has huge self-confidence, is growing faster than any other traditional medium and is coming out of the pandemic in a robust state.
When we look at Clear Channel’s revenues, they were about $2.8bn in 2010 when you started and about the same in 2019 pre-pandemic. How much do the numbers reflect what has happened?
They exclude some significant divestments like Australia and more recently China. We’ve really been focusing on growing the US business, which runs at a higher margin than the international businesses. In terms of the business and the financials, we’ve improved margin over the decade. We’ve become a significantly more efficient business and we’ve also resolved some strategic questions about our global footprint [by exiting some markets].
Clear Channel had tremendous debt problems in the past linked to the old parent company, iHeartMedia. How difficult was that?
There were times under the previous structure when there were significant concerns about liquidity. The moment when iHeart, our parent company, went into Chapter 11 [bankruptcy protection] was certainly an interesting time. But the upside for me was being able to take Clear Channel into full public ownership. Ringing the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange was one of the career-defining moments for me.
It’s true always that, when you look at a career, you have highs and lows and the highs often come quickly after the lows and sometimes as a result of that.
In some ways, it’s been a challenging decade for advertising, especially at a media owner, because when we look back, even at the financial results of the tech companies this week, Google and Facebook have taken so much revenue and share. Now a lot of businesses are reducing their dependence on advertising. As someone who has dedicated his career to advertising, what’s your take on what’s happened to advertising in the past 10 years?
I love advertising. I define myself – despite a career that has moved into business as much as advertising – I still define myself as an ad man and it’s an industry that I do have huge affection for. You’re right that it’s gone through a very challenging time, but brands remain hugely valuable assets for companies, and advertising – by which I mean public, visible, paid-for support – is still the only real way to create the emotional connection between brand and consumer and I think it will continue to be a hugely important part of the armoury for marketing leaders. So I think advertising has a fantastic future.
What is absolutely clear is that in the last 10 years it has fundamentally changed, so there is now the divide between public and private media. What the online behemoths are doing is creating a much more private form of media, which has a different function in the marketing mix.
What I’ve loved about my role at Clear Channel is that outdoor has been able to demonstrate its real value in that marketing mix because of its very public, prominent position. We talk about it as the last broadcast medium. That fact of being public and mass reach is part of building that emotional connection between brand and consumer.
The fact that outdoor has actually grown its share of media over the 10-12 years that I have been involved has made it a really exciting place to be.
What has been your favourite outdoor ad?
The British Airways’ "Look up" campaign, where the child pointed to the planes flying overhead. It was a brilliant idea and a fabulous demonstration of the technological transformation of out of home – and we made it happen.