HR for a generation

Mark
Allen’s career has taken him from playing professional football to developing a
premier league HR business strategy at MTV. DeeDee Doke reports

Leave it to the world’s leading youth brand to create a physical link
between its HR division and its business strategy. At MTV Networks Europe, Mark
Allen (pictured) is that link.

Not only is he the London-based senior vice-president for HR, but as
managing director for broadcast services, he also heads a key money-making
operation, providing studio use, post-production, dubbing and transmission
facilities to third parties. And what’s more, he holds board positions for both
roles. "So there’s one less seat," jokes Allen, a Cardiff-born former
professional football player who holds a post-graduate HR qualification from
the University of Glamorgan.

For the HR professional, the music video and entertainment network may seem
like the dream environment where retention is strong, there’s no dearth of
eager recruits, and issues like the Working Time Directive have already been dealt
with before they became directives. Staff turnover is less than 3 per cent a
year and more than half the workforce has worked there more than four years.
However, despite its lead as a youth brand, more than 50 per cent of its
workforce is over 35. No-one cares what their co-worker or boss wears to work.
Unpaid interns have been known to work their way up to head of pan-European
departments in less than a decade. And if you’ve worked late, no-one will wait
at the front door with a stopwatch to ask why you weren’t there at 9.30 sharp
the next day.

In the past two years, the competitive stakes have been raised, and market
pressures have increased on MTV in Europe, and particularly in the UK, to
maintain its long-term grip on its audiences and advertising revenues.
Publishing giant Emap has entered the fray with half a dozen music channels,
including Kerrang!, Smash Hits, Kiss TV, and The Box; and in April, Sky Digital
will launch three new music channels.

"The whole digital environment is a challenge for everybody – new
stations launching, new operations," concedes Allen, "but that gives
us opportunity."

So far, MTV appears to be managing the "opportunity". The company
will not release annual turnover figures, but says it "achieved
double-digit revenue growth" in 2002 and received its highest ever UK
viewing figure last December, with 15.1 million viewers. Allen’s broadcast
services role and operation reflects MTV’s capability to predict, adapt to and
diversify in ever-changing market conditions – as well as his own ability to
grow and adapt with the business, which he joined in 1993 from terrestrial TV
company HTV in Wales.

His 10-year career at MTV has undergone several switches between technical
roles and HR positions as MTV itself has evolved from a single pan-European
channel to 31 across the UK and the Continent with regionalised offerings and
operations.

His situation is admittedly unusual, even within MTV. Whether someone else
holding his HR role would have the identical opportunity to run a money-making
division in the business at the same time is not certain. "It is a
difficult one, because I come with two separate skill sets that I’m able to
sort of juggle between," Allen says. "That’s not to say that nobody’s
indispensable, but I think it is quite a unique situation. I think it might be
a guideline, though, in understanding the value that HR can bring if you align
it with the business. That’s what I’ve been able to bring to the table – the
ability to align business strategy with HR strategy and create, effectively one
strategy, which is the business strategy."

Moving easily between different worlds is nothing new to Allen, however. He
won a scholarship to the US International University in San Diego, California
at age 19 to play soccer, and ultimately earned a bachelor’s degree in business
administration with accounting. On his return to the UK, he played
professionally at Swindon Town before turning his attention to business. And it
was while he was employed in a technical management capacity at HTV that he
decided to earn his HR qualification.

When he accepted MTV’s offer to run its London broadcast facilities, he
thought perhaps he had turned his back on a future in HR.

"Bearing in mind that at that time, MTV was in its infancy. So once
everything was set up and running, I was looking around saying, ‘What else can
I do?’," he says. Fortunately, the company was in a transitional period,
and the chance came for him to join HR. "I said I would love to have a
crack at it," he says.

MTV has developed a pan-European HR structure for its burgeoning regional
operations to provide policy and procedure guidelines, but its regional
networks also have the freedom to adapt to local legislation, cultures and
language.

One constant across the network system is a performance management/career
development programme. Also common to all the regions is MTV’s ‘First Choice
Place to Work’ initiative.

MTV is also launching a major diversity initiative in the spring across its
European networks to ensure the company does all it can to attract and retain
staff from ethnic backgrounds, older employees and the disabled.

"We will be going back and asking ourselves how diverse a company we
are. We don’t take anything for granted. We don’t assume that we are what we
are just because it’s associated with a brand," Allen says.

"Part of MTV’s success is that it has realised there is no one age, no
one culture, no one race or creed; and if you look at MTV universally, you’ll
see that it’s a hybrid of a mix of all those qualities," Allen adds.

Asked for one tip to share with fellow HR professionals, Allen says:
"I’m not a great jargonist. I just think simple language helps. It’s what
I think staff, your peer group and your superiors want to hear. Sometimes I think
people get frightened by the jargon because they get lost in it. ‘What does it
mean? How does it affect me? I don’t really understand it, but I’m afraid to
ask’. So simple de-jargonising of HR is a big part of how we do things here.
And to do that, I think you have to understand the business."

HR Factfile

MTV Networks Europe

– Europe-wide workforce of 900

– Regional operations in UK, France, Germany, Italy, The
Netherlands, Nordic territories, Poland, Romania, Spain

– European channels: 17 MTV, 3 TMF(The Music Factory), 8
Nickelodeon, 3 VH-1

– In the UK: MTV UK & Ireland, VH-1 UK; VH-1 Classic, MTV2,
MTV Base, MTV Hits, MTV Dance, TMF-UK

– Demographics: MTV, 16-24 year-olds; VH-1, 25-29 year-olds;
TMF, entire family

– European reach: 107 million homes

– Corporate owner: Viacom

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