Abigail Thomas leads the crack team at the ABC that gives Mark Scott his glory strategy. It’s in her office that the broadcaster’s digital media ideas are first conceived, and where the commercial networks would love to plant a spy camera.
“The ABC is really influential, they inspire others, they show other people what can be done,” says John Butterworth, CEO of the digital media’s key association AIMIA. “People follow in their footsteps.”
As head of ABC Innovation, Thomas is no household name, and she’s not on the speaking circuit. But this British guru’s work to develop the national broadcaster’s key digital media projects — including its iPhone and mobile apps, virtual reality games and online documentaries — makes her even more powerful in digital media than her tech-savvy boss who established the Innovation unit in the first place.
Thanks to Thomas, the ABC was the first to broadcast a digital television channel, to launch a catch-up television service (iView) and to put out real content-rich mobile and tablet apps. You can see why it irks the rest of the industry. “They win all the awards,” one industry source tells The Power Index. “It’s not fair.”
Sure, the ABC has a few competitive advantages: the guys over at Yahoo!7, News, Fairfax and NIneMSN have to tailor their products to be commercially viable, while the public broadcaster can focus on the delivery of content alone.
“Equally we have another disadvantage in that we don’t have huge amounts of money to play with,” Thomas tells The Power Index. “The ABC is always under pressure for funding. The kind of stuff I do is under pressure too. We have to argue the case.”
Thomas takes The Power Index’s call from Portugal where she and her family are on a four-month vacation, which includes a self-imposed ban on technology: no Twitter, Facebook or instant messenger. She does, however, admit to a new-found addiction to TripAdvisor.
Born and raised in London, she does not speak the language of a software developer, nor the corporate creative “blue-sky thinker”. Although she uses the word “ideation” once during our conversation (with a laugh), Thomas is straight-forward, articulate and concise with her answers to The Power Index‘s questions – handy skills for communicating the business case for a new idea. She’s charming too, and patient when connection problems interrupt our Skype conversation. She admits she’s no early adopter of technology.