Inside Turner’s plans for international digital expansion

Aksel van der Wal 

Turner Broadcasting is scouring Europe and beyond for people to staff its new international digital division which will officially launch on January 1.

The Time Warner division, parent of CNN and Cartoon Network, is making London the base of its new “Digital Ventures and Innovation” unit. Current international CFO Aksel van der Wal will be its chief, and staff for the new unit will also be spread across other international offices.

Details on the exact nature of the operations are scant, but in an internal memo seen by Digiday, Gerhard Zeiler, president of Turner International, said the goal of the new unit is to forge new direct relationships with consumers — likely a renewed priority for many media owners in 2017.

“As you know well, our industry faces massive challenges. Major components are the digital disruption and the changing consumer behavior that comes with new services. As a result, data is becoming increasingly relevant,” Zeiler wrote in the memo.

“We will adapt to these changes in the most effective way. We will realign our organization similar to how start-ups are built to compete effectively. We will get a deep understanding of our audiences to ensure that consumer insight is at the heart of all the decisions we make about new products and services.”

Van der Wal will work closely with Turner’s international chiefs to develop its existing smartphone products and services, whether it be in the shape of games, apps or over-the-top services. A big part of his remit will be to pull on the massive audience data pots to help inform future product strategy.

Another mandate is to ramp up Turner’s “non-linear” ad sales business, essentially any form of advertising outside of traditional TV ads.Van der Wal will also decide if and when Turner should invest in or acquire any digital businesses to gain the kind of growth it needs to evolve.

With an ungainly new title of “executive vp, digital ventures and innovation for Turner’s international operations,” the Dutch native will be responsible for the unit’s technology and operations across the main regions outside of the U.S.: Europe, Middle East and Africa, Asia Pacific, and Latin America. Staff for the new unit will be spread across those countries.

The fact Der Wal and a large part of the new division will be based out of the Turner London office will be a boon for brands that may not have as strong a name recognition internationally, like Adult Swim. That network, which is among 18 – 34 year olds in the U.S., may be “given a rethink” to find its ideal platform in the U.K., surmised Tom Harrington, broadcast analyst at media analysis firm Enders.

Harrington added that Turner, like its competitors, has to keep thinking laterally about how to reach consumers. “It will be worried about cord-cutting and unbundling and it has followed the trend of attempting to bulk out its cable channels, like TNT, with original programming, to recharacterize them as go-to destinations rather than forgettable repositories of syndicated reruns,” he added.

And yet, like any media owner grappling with the aggressiveness of digital media, Turner’s new unit will face challenges. “Not everybody is renowned for memorable, distinctive content, like HBO. Consumers are increasingly being given more choice as to what programming they actually want to pay for, rather than just being charged for a whole heap of stuff that they never asked for,” he said. “Content, brand, and access have never been more important.”

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