Marketer profile: Kerry McCabe talks learning, leadership, and Flight of the Conchords

Kerry McCabe sidestepped a teaching career for the world of media, but an unquenchable thirst for challenge has seen the technophobe repeatedly take on his aversions in the ad tech industry, and we discover that the teacher in him never really died.


According to his LinkedIn profile, Kerry McCabe’s career started 12 years ago in the role of general manager of sales at Eye Corp – but it didn’t begin there, of course.

As an 18-year-old, McCabe was in training to be a primary school teacher, but a night job selling advertising lured him towards the better paying world of media sales. But what drew McCabe to teaching – a passion for teaching and advancing others – is something that has never left him. He founded UN LTD in 2007, and serves as director of the not-for- profit as it continues its mission to tackle youth disadvantage in Australia.

Marketing caught up with McCabe when he was six months into the start-up world. Late last year he became Asia Pacific managing director for ad tech company RadiumOne, after long stints in the corporate world. At RadiumOne, he’s heading the online advertising platform’s growth in this market.


Marketing: Tell us about the stuff that’s not on your LinkedIn profile – prior to 12 years ago.

Kerry McCabe: Twelve years ago, man, it doesn’t seem that long ago. I must be old. I was a trainee primary school teacher, and just loved that whole notion of teaching young kids, new entrants, like five-year-olds. To supplement the fact that I didn’t have any money, I started working at night selling advertising, and got lured into that world, partly because it paid really well and starting out as a 20-year-old primary school teacher on $20,000 a year versus what seemed like working two nights a week and earning triple that as an 18-year-old, I decided to have a crack at the advertising world.


M: So it could have been very different?

KM: Very, yeah. Although, I see a lot of what I do and have done professionally as being teaching, – coaching, anyway. It’s just more adults than five-year-olds. Five-year-olds are a little less complex, but equally challenging.


M: Which is harder?

KM: I don’t know which is harder, they’re both hard, but it’s still that thing about having the ability to help people get to where they’re going. With kids, it’s helping them shape their lives and develop good values and feel that support and encouragement and belief in themselves. Which is a big part of what I do with UN LTD. In the business world, that’s the thing I’ve got the biggest kick out of in any job, which is why I went and did it full-time for 18 months, to plan our own coaching business.

That thing of knowing that for a part of someone’s journey you can understand them, build a relationship with them, see where they’re going and what their aspirations are and help them get there, and I get a massive kick from that.

There is also a value exchange that happens with the company that we’re both at. I used to liken it to a bus driver. That is, people are coming on board and telling you where they want to go and you have the ability to help them get there. I’ve always loved that and always had a view of the world that’s broader than the here and now, but appreciates that if you’re genuine about that intent and leadership, then people will give you more than they usually would in return, in terms of effort, results and productivity. You’ll get the best of them.

I was absolutely driven by the personal satisfaction of playing that role and seeing where people get through their own growth and development, and being able to really challenge people, challenge them to the point of ‘uncomfortability’ – in that I believe that’s where the growth happens.


M: What took you from Eye Corp to Microsoft, and what was that transition like?

KM: Just seeking a bigger challenge, I think. I really enjoy ‘uncomfortability’ as a daily state of being, myself. I don’t like knowing the answers, I don’t like feeling like I have control, and I don’t like feeling like I’m not immensely challenged every day, and so moving into the digital world was scary for me, because I’m, by nature, a technophobe.

It was scary to the point of attraction, and the other thing, professionally, is seeing where the world was heading and wanting to be in the hot bed of that. Not to say I still don’t love the medium of outdoor, I think it’s such a beautiful powerful medium, but that was the motivator.

Also, in terms of scale and impact, the ability in the role like I had in Asia with Microsoft, to see how those skills transition across cultures and across 10 different markets, learning to do business and build relationships and trust in South Korea, when I don’t speak the language and I don’t understand the culture kind of taught me a really valuable lesson in seeking to understand before being understood, if you know what I mean.


M: What did that teach you?

KM: It taught me patience, which is not a natural virtue. But, mate, that was so valuable, having that cultural eye opening. There are so many different ways to do business well, and getting rid of those preconditioned ideas about what it meant to succeed and when.


M: What was the online advertising world like back then? There was display advertising, ad networks were emerging…

KM: Yeah, networks were well and truly thriving. It was the emergence of networks and the big challenge of – no different to today actually – how you protect your premium yields while better monetising all of your inventory in a world where there is certainly no scarcity, it refreshes. Needing to value the audience, prove the value of content and context, developing the whole audience sell at that time when we were starting to see the emergence of marketers wanting to buy audiences rather than websites.

And you know, I think some of that is still the case today, there are just a lot more options. It’s a lot more complicated and it’s a hell of a lot more fragmented. The last thing I would add would be the cross-screen challenge, how we think less about what our audience is or where they are, as a media owner, and more about the consumer now being the boss, being the dictator of media consumption across multiple screens. That’s been a big game change all right.


M: What about in terms of who you hire as MD of an ad tech firm – it doesn’t need to be a tech-head?

KM: I think the automated advertising community does a phenomenal job of making it sound really complicated and complex and having people believe that there are all kinds of smarts involved. I don’t subscribe to that at all.

I think it’s actually quite simple and anybody in the market-facing world can learn those skills. They need to want to, but they can learn them really quickly. Of course there is a shift in terms of the more tech engineering and algorithmic sides of the business, and skilling up more with individuals who have those capabilities, without doubt, but when you look at the sales force at large in this area, they are not a large number.

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There is this myth at the moment that salespeople are going to be replaced by machines, but I don’t buy into that for a minute, because the best advertising still starts with a great idea, and understanding of human connections and an understanding of audiences and creativity. Technology, in my mind, is an enabler of it, executing that and doing it more efficiently than in the past. And so, I guess that alarm that machines are taking over from human salespeople but… Have you ever watched Flight of the Conchords?


M: Yes.

KM: ‘The Humans are Dead’ – I always think of that song.

I wanted to play that at a conference, but I didn’t think people would get it. Will there be a reduction in market-facing salespeople because of the efficiencies of technology? Yes, there will be a bit of it. Will a single person who sells advertising today, if they’re any good, lose their job tomorrow? No way, they’ll adapt and evolve as they always have.


M: I’m curious where your passion for mentoring comes from – if you had any mentors, unofficially or officially?

KM: Where did it come from? I think it’s a bit inherent, you know. I don’t remember, because I’m so old now, but I imagine what had me wanting to be a teacher is that desire, so I think it was just kind of there.

If I think about mentors, the one who really stands out for me is a guy called Father Chris Riley. He runs an organisation called Youth Off The Streets, and when I very first moved to Sydney, 15 years ago maybe, I wanted to give back and contribute to something that helped disadvantaged kids. I met him and said, “Hi, I’m a billboard salesman, can I help you?” and he said, “Well no, I don’t want to buy any billboards, but come and have a chat anyway.”

Anyway, I just fell in love with that man. He’s the most selfless individual I’ve ever met. He’s the most single-minded, stubborn, dogmatic doer and remover of bureaucracy and red tape that I’ve ever encountered.

He’s a priest for one, and he works to help kids in pain and give them hope and support and safety and security and the things that I believe that every child in this country deserves as a right. I started seeing the way he thinks, the way he operates, the way he galvanises people, and he has been to this day a mentor, which is interesting given the worlds we operate in could not be more different.

I think the principles and the ‘how’ and the purpose are relevant to both, so I often find myself thinking sometimes when I’ve got really big decisions to make, ‘What would Chris do?’


M: What makes a great leader?

KM: What makes a great leader, from those I’ve seen, are essentially three things, and in the coaching work I’ve done I’ve really focused a lot on these things: great self-awareness and presence, not gravitas presence, but the ability to be present.

[Second], the ability to create a shared vision: not their vision or my vision, a shared vision, a sense of journey and togetherness and heading somewhere.

And third, an ability to understand what motivates each person in your team, and I think that’s a really important one that most leaders miss. They believe that what motivates them and makes them tick, is or should be, the same for those that they lead rather than acknowledging that it’s not, and to know the intrinsic and extrinsic motivators of an individual, I think, is the key to unlocking and leading successfully. Because if you don’t know what makes them tick, how on earth are you going to hit their hot buttons, deliver for them, manage them in the right way?


M: What was the motivation behind UN LTD?

KM: Well, where it actually came from, it was at the time of the Boxing Day tsunami. It dawned on me that our industry actually, in terms of readership and viewership, profits from disaster and misfortune. We make money from that, which was a fairly negative realisation at the time.

I was on holiday in a luxury resort in Fiji living my privileged life, right, and it dawned on me at that time that we do not have, as an industry – the media, marketing and advertising industry, which is this $25 billion behemoth – a collective conscience or representative body that brings us, as an industry, together to do good.

Lots of organisations do good – I’m not at all questioning some fantastic work that individuals and organisations do within the industry – but I saw the opportunity to create something that was an ‘us’ thing, where we could pool our collective talents and might and power to help, in this case, the plight of disadvantaged young people. It’s a massive problem, a broad problem. Over 600,000 young people are considered disadvantaged.


M: How do you make time for everything?

KM: I don’t know. The coaching staff I’ve stopped, so I’m just honouring a couple of existing contracts there with a few clients, so my focus is primarily RadiumOne, and UN LTD, where I’m one of quite a few people. We’ve got a great board, we’ve got great committees, we’ve got such a fantastic support base of people who do the work.

But, you know what it’s like too, when you love something it’s energising time. Every minute I spend on UN LTD is exciting and I’m passionate about it and it reminds me of a lot of things too. It helps me stay centred and balanced and grateful for this lot. It’s like with the coaching, I could do eight unbelievably intense coaching sessions in a day and feel more energised at the end of it than when I started. I’ve sat in jobs where five minutes is exhausting and painful and frustrating and depressing. Microsoft. Death by a thousand cuts.


M: Would you go back to corporate?

KM: I don’t know, it’s not a natural fit, but for me it’s about, ‘What’s the opportunity, what’s the challenge, what am I going to learn?’

Who I’m going to work with is a big thing. Am I going to love being with these people doing this together? Those are really important motivators in looking at what to do.


Peter Roper
BY Peter Roper ON 10 September 2014
Editor of Marketing. Tweets as @pete_arrr.