Young blood on the boardroom floor
Beth Shirley investigates whether the supposed ‘juniorisation’ of media industry boards has resulted in the decline of the effectiveness of important industry bodies.
The juniorisation of newsrooms in South Africa is well documented. Media industry thought leaders have lamented the subsequent decline of professionalism, and indeed, the easy target the media has become to imminent draconian government regulation.
“I have found that senior people will send juniors to represent them on association boards like the South African Advertising Research Foundation (SAARF), but these juniors are not mandated to make decisions on behalf of their companies.”
But it is not only the journalism slice of the media pie that has come under scrutiny for ‘juniorising’ operations, but also important industry associations. It is believed that the boards of media bodies are comprised of too many junior people representing their respective companies. The result is that important decisions are waylaid and the associations’ efficacy and viability declines.
“I have found that senior people will send juniors to represent them on association boards like the South African Advertising Research Foundation (SAARF), but these juniors are not mandated to make decisions on behalf of their companies,” says Sarel du Plessis, the Marketing Association of South Africa (MASA) chairman. “So it ends up taking ages for things like policies, proposals and budgets to be passed. It appears as if nothing ever gets done and that is why people believe many of our industry bodies are in crisis.”
Du Plessis notes that neither MASA, nor Print Media South Africa (PMSA) are plagued by the juniorisation issue. “MASA is a small operational body and PMSA has a big organisational structure, so their boards consist of senior people. But SAARF does not follow suit, which is problematic, considering their annual budget exceeds R100 million,” says Du Plessis.
He adds that apart from being able to push a faster decision-making turnaround time, senior people add greater value to boards simply because of their extensive industry knowledge. “What seems to not be understood is that boards are responsible to a large stakeholder base who expect boards to truly nurture their best interests.”
Du Plessis notes that hardly anyone sitting around a SAARF boardroom table is able to mandate a decision. “It once happened that the SAARF budget was not approved in time for the beginning of the fiscal year because company boards had not yet met to pass a decision on the budget. Then, there are senior people who do not sit on the board, but who criticise the content and length of the AMPS questionnaire! These kind of conflicts could be avoided.”
He understands that it is not always possible for chief executives or chairmen to represent their companies, but “there are only a few meetings a year”, Du Plessis says “and much of the laborious toing and froing would be eschewed” if the most senior people were seated at the board.
A media owner, on condition of anonymity, says that certain industry bodies, such as those representing the outdoor advertising industry, are “frustratingly” ineffectual due to the apparent juniorisation of the associations. “Perhaps media owners don’t take the associations – which represent them on broader political, economic and social platforms – seriously enough,” the media owner says.
Du Plessis suggests that if juniors must be representatives of their companies, then they should be mandated with making decisions. “It would be good for the juniors’ growth – being on a board is a fantastic learning curve.
“But there are really crucial issues such as the levy collection that need to be addressed by senior people. And if senior people are not aware of the seriousness of these challenges, then there needs to be a more concerted awareness campaign on behalf of SAARF and the ACA,” Du Plessis says.
Hoosain Karjieker, CEO of Mail and Guardian and chairman of PMSA, says that in the past, PMSA was plagued by inefficiency and that the juniorisation of committee members was a large part of the problem. “So companies would send juniors to represent them, and then when decisions were made at a committee level (such as at PMSA marketing committee or finance committee meetings) they would often be overturned by our board members. I really think it is because the juniors sitting on those committees are not wholly aware of the complexities of the matters we have to deal with,” he says.
Like Du Plessis, Karjieker believes that industry body representatives have to ensure they are empowered to make the best decisions they can to fulfil the industry associations’ mandates.
However, media agency stalwart Gordon Muller says that it is not as simple as mandating junior people to make decisions. Even directors of companies sitting on association boards have to ensure that due diligence is carried through, hence a longer decision-making timeframe. “An association like SAARF is a legal entity and its directors are subject to the rules of corporate governance, just like any other legal company. If they don’t have the authority to sign off SAARF’s budget and SAARF engages the services of third parties, which has happened, it does raise the issue of irresponsible trading. It’s a lot more than just the annoyance factor (of a slower decision-making process). There are serious issues of liability,” says Muller.
Paul Haupt, CEO of SAARF, does not believe that a lack of senior representation is “such a train smash”.
“We just have to accept it. We are asking people to be volunteers who take up company’s time. CEOs and senior managers are under enormous stress and we cannot expect them to always be present at our meetings,” says Haupt. “There is also the problem of skills. Senior people are very stretched and simply can’t wear all the hats.”
He notes that even though more junior people are sent in their place, senior people take SAARF very seriously. “They are not at all casual about it and expect their juniors to feedback important and relevant information; after all SAARF is crucial to their business.”
“Perhaps media owners don’t take the associations – which represent them on broader political, economic and social platforms – seriously enough.”
Indeed, Du Plessis says that at a recent plenary session hosted by MASA, which was attended by many senior people in the industry, there was an overriding sentiment that media industry associations are crucial to the health of the sector, and indeed, to democracy. “There was renewed commitment to the future of the industry and senior people’s responsibility in that.”
An announcement was made at the time of going to press that Sarel du Plessis had resigned as chairman of MASA.