Vodafone in for shake up

Competition between Vodafone and Spark is already one of the country’s most intense business battles. Now it has gone up a notch with former Spark executive Jason Paris stepping into the top job at Vodafone. Newsroom’s Mark Jennings looks at what impact Paris’ leadership will have on the company and the competition. 

When Jason Paris was head of television at MediaWorks, he entered what many marketing and television people regard as a no-go zone. 

He came up with a comparative advertising campaign. 

It compared 3 News’ coverage with One News and boasted that TV3 would not be beaten on any news story. 

3 News had been having a strong run at the time, outgunning One News with its coverage of the second Christchurch earthquake and the deadly Japanese tsunami.  

Comparative advertising has so much potential to backfire that few chief executives or marketing managers risk it. 

The idea sent shivers down the spines of 3 News’ bosses, and was resisted by the network’s marketing department. Paris insisted it go ahead and it worked on multiple fronts. 

The advert had cut through because it was different, and the news department lifted its game as a result. 

The ratings lifted, although they did not sustain in the long run. 

Paris is a risk taker. He is also a marketer, and Vodafone’s marketing team and creative agencies will already have felt the force of his focus.  

In a round of media interviews in his first week as CEO, Paris has been stressing Vodafone’s New Zealand “point of difference” - namely, its ability to use its parent companies' global assets to help New Zealand businesses. 

“We are the Nike of telcos, we can unlock digital services for the businesses that want [to] scale up and take their products to the world. 

“We (Vodafone) are in 26 markets and we can mobilise our global assets for New Zealand’s benefit. Spark can’t do that.” 

Paris, of course, knows his competitor, Spark, intimately. He used to be the head of home, mobile and business at Vodafone’s local rival. 

“I did my Simon Moutter (Spark CEO) apprenticeship. Among other things, I learnt how to take cost out of a business. When I was at Spark, I had to do it.” 

According to Paris, Moutter was happy for him when he got the job as Vodafone’s chief commercial officer based in London. 

“Simon told me it was ‘a great opportunity’ and wished me well," Paris told Newsroom.  

Before he left New Zealand, Paris said he got a phone call from Vodafone telling him that the NZ CEO Russell Stanners was stepping down and he was to take the job. 

“They didn’t ask, they just told me. When I told Simon, all he said was ‘mmm’." 

Under Moutter, Spark has become a leaner, more aggressive competitor.   

Vodafone, on the other hand, seemed to lose some of the vitality that saw it take shares from Spark’s earlier incarnation, Telecom. 

New Vodafone CEO Jason Paris. Photo: Supplied

Paris has already changed “the vibe” at Vodafone’s new headquarters at the Smales farm precinct on Auckland’s North Shore. 

A staff member tells me on the way into the building, “you can feel the new energy he is bringing. He is also very clear that he expects total transparency. Not that Russell (Stanners) didn’t, it is just that Jason is making a point of saying it.” 

Paris says that when he arrived, staff told him “we are very busy, but we feel we are not that productive”.  

He says he thinks that some silos have developed, and decision making may have slowed down because of that. 

“I would rather people ask for forgiveness than permission.” 

Paris employed the same “just get on with it” approach when he was at TV3. 

Vodafone staff will find themselves becoming a key part of Paris’ marketing strategy. 

“I am a huge believer in brand and the most powerful marketing channel is the people that you have in your own organisation. 

“It is the conversations they have with people on the sideline at kids’ rugby on a Saturday morning that build your brand. We have 3,000 staff that can do that.” 

Paris likes to spend time on the shop floor, it suits his affable style. 

When the Christchurch earthquake happened, Paris appeared in TV3’s very busy Auckland newsroom and asked, “is there anything I can do to help?” Someone mentioned coffee. Paris disappeared and came back with trays of flat whites for the production teams. 

Paris will be at home in the call centre as he will be in the c-suite. 

Whether this personal warmth can galvanise a company that is struggling with commodity pricing and low growth is another matter, but Paris is already talking about “placing some big bets”. 

He says the data Vodafone collects from its customers will open up new business opportunities.   

“Things like Agritech present big opportunities for us. Dairy farmers running their irrigation systems, effluent disposal and milk production from smart phones.  

“The Vodafone team in South Africa has been working on IOT (Internet of things) and have developed a tool that controls lighting and heating in schools. Most schools in Florida are using it. It's free but Vodafone gets 30 percent of the savings they make in reduced electricity charges. 

“I’d like to bring that here. We are a digital services and connectivity company.” 

Over at Spark, Simon Moutter is making some big bets of his own. The company’s dive into sports coverage got deeper this week when it picked up the rights to international hockey to go with the English Premier League, and the 2019 Rugby World Cup.  

Spark also announced a joint venture with NEP, a big American broadcast company, to produce live sport in New Zealand. It is a significant step into content production. 

Paris is not enamoured of the content business, admitting that he recently described it as a “mugs game”. His experience in executive roles at TV3 and TVNZ will have informed his thinking.   

The two great rivals are adopting different strategies. The battle between the master and his former apprentice will be interesting to watch. 

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