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Little Grey Cells: Channel 4’s Zaid Al-Qassab on Marketing That’s Altogether Different



The Channel 4 CMO on why the industry needs more Da Vincis, keeping up with the pace of change and the broadcaster’s mission to platform unheard voices

Little Grey Cells: Channel 4’s Zaid Al-Qassab on Marketing That’s Altogether Different
In this edition of Little Grey Cells,  we meet Zaid Al-Qassab, Chief Marketing Officer for the UK’s mighty Channel 4. Zaid explains how his agile in-house creative teams and their rapidly evolving, future-facing approach to marketing keep Channel 4’s communications in pole-position.

What inspired you to pursue a career that embraces marketing? 

Zaid> A combination of laziness and luck.  When I was a student I accompanied a friend to what I thought was going to be a presentation about working for some law or consultancy firm called Procter & Gamble. I discovered it was an interview workshop for a consumer goods company and walked out of it with an offer for a marketing internship. I had nothing else to do when I graduated, so I accepted it. The rest is history.

What are the biggest challenges currently facing your marketing team? 

Zaid> The same challenge as any time in the last 20 years, the speed of change. The digital world provides a myriad of opportunities for marketers, from how to use data for great insight, to targeting, to dynamic creative, to new-to-the-world platforms. But each one of these is a new skill to learn. And personalisation makes work more complex, until you master prioritisation and automation, so the transition is hard.

Science vs Art: With scientific data-driven marketing at one end of the spectrum and genius creative ideas at the other - which side do you lean towards?

Zaid> I always say we need more people like Leonard da Vinci – those who can integrate and excel at both art and science. That doesn’t mean everyone has to be broad, there’s lots of room for specialists. But the leadership roles and the strategic roles need to combine both. If you really push me, I will pick genius creative, because it can still work even without the use of data, whereas all the data in the world without a great idea won’t achieve much. But those who don’t appreciate how to use data to our advantage are missing a trick.

The Metaverse: are you ‘in’, ‘out’ or ‘not sure’? And please tell us why. 

Zaid> Please can we find another word for this! Do we just mean the most immersive online experiences? In which case there’s no difference between how we approach this and any other new media channel. We need to understand how people use it, and find ways to make irresistible advertising in that context. Ads which interrupt online experiences without adding value to the user will not make any friends (or any sales). It’s no more or less important to win in this environment than in any other place our consumers spend time.

How do you adapt a business and marketing strategy to embrace the latest trends and keep ahead of the competition? 

Zaid> At Channel 4 we tend to think we do a good job of this.  It helps that we are a young skewing broadcaster with a remit to innovate in our sector and take risks.  That means that we are always surveying the landscape and coming up with new things to try. We launched our video on demand service, All4, a decade ago, before most people had even heard of Netflix. We embraced social media long ago, and built our digital content operation, 4Studio before others recognised the value of branded content. That’s why we have an over-proportionate share of broadcaster video on demand, and the biggest social media reach amongst young people in the UK. However, it takes real focus. You need to actively spend time looking at what’s going on around you, and working out whether you should test it out, these leaps forward don’t drop in your lap.

What role does your company’s purpose and environmental strategy play within your marketing strategy? 

Zaid> Channel 4 was set up to give a voice to the under-represented and the unheard, so our purpose is central to our marketing strategy, you might even say it is our strategy. That’s why we celebrated all the unheralded Pride events around the UK this year, why we launched the Black to Front project to bring more Black talent to our screens and behind the camera, why we created the BAFTA nominated Hollyoaks Saved My Life digital series, and why we are the Paralympic broadcaster helping to break down barriers and challenge perceptions when it comes to disability. Our Diversity in Advertising Award offers £1m pounds of airtime to a brand with the best creative idea to authentically promote diversity – this year it’s focused on visible and invisible disability. The environment and the climate crisis have of course risen up our agenda too: last year we aired Joe Lycett vs the Oil Giant to highlight the practice of greenwashing.

How important is storytelling when maximising your customers’ engagement with a campaign?

Zaid> I believe storytelling will always be the most powerful tool in the creative armoury. Our award-winning in-house agency 4creative under the guidance of our ECD Lynsey Atkin are masters of this, whether that’s our Derry Girls campaign which used nostalgia for 1980s music and recreated Smash Hits, or our campaign for cyber threat drama The Undeclared War where we recreated a government press conference to announce that the country was under attack. You need to take people on a journey with you by weaving a story which connect with them emotionally. Our Cannes Lions Grand Prix winning work on the Paralympics, showing the journey of sacrifice all Paralympians go through is probably the best example of storytelling which changes people’s minds and makes them act differently. Emotion is far more powerful than logic.

Creative agencies rail against the time and resource spent working on pitches to win accounts: is there a realistic, fair alternative to the pitch process?

Zaid> We are lucky to have two brilliant in-house agencies, so they don’t need to pitch. I do see the value of a pitch in certain circumstances, although I don’t believe it should be a one meeting shoot-out of judging the response to a single brief. If you believe long term partnerships are the way to build a real understanding which leads to amazing creative, then pitches should be rare. And if the purpose is partnership, then it’s actually the skills and character of the whole team which matters, not the ability to work late nights on a single brief on work which will likely never see the light of day. As clients, we ought to be pitching to find people who complement our client skills and have the brilliance and leadership to contribute things which we could never do alone. You can probably gauge that better through chemistry sessions and creative reviews than via a traditional pitch. Having said all that, I did put our media account out to pitch last year - the business was retained by OMD who did a brilliant job of showcasing the unique capabilities they bring to our partnership.

From a marketing perspective, what’s coming up for your brand or business in 2023?

Zaid>2023 will be a huge year for Channel 4. Viewer habits are changing fast.  We are accelerating our strategy to drive most of our viewing and revenue towards coming from digital platforms, be that the All4 app or our social media accounts. We are also creating more short and mid-form content to complement our famous long-form shows. We are scaling up our work in targeted digital approaches. And we are doubling down on our focus on young and diverse audiences. You’ll see some really exciting changes to take our brand forward too, under the Altogether Different positioning. It should be a lot of fun.

This interview was brought to you by Tim Healey (Little Grey Cells) in partnership with Worth Your While (

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Categories: Broadcaster, Media and Entertainment

Worth Your While, Tue, 11 Oct 2022 10:03:00 GMT