Múirne Laffan, RTÉ’s Chief Digital Officer
25th January 2016
There’s more than semantics to a change in title for one of RTÉ’s top executives. The station’s decision to give former Managing Director of RTÉ Digital, Múirne Laffan, the title of RTÉ’s Chief Digital Officer reflects a fundamental shift in priority.
Words: Áilín Quinlan
“Digital has evolved. It’s constantly evolving,” explains Laffan, who adds that the digital concept is not one division or ‘silo’ within the RTÉ organisation, but an intrinsic element of the operations of the entire network. “Our goal is to work with all elements of RTÉ to support them in developing digital content and in developing products and services that we have, like RTÉ Player and to ensure that we’re engaging with and we are relevant to all audiences,” says Laffan who, as Chief Digital Officer will continue to lead RTÉ’s digital division.
“Technology is about meeting needs and our job at RTÉ is about how we can use technology to meet the evolving needs of the audience. Our job is to ensure we understand what consumers are doing. We help evolve our services to meet consumers’ needs so in 2016 we’ll be building a new player for example.”
Laffan will continue to be responsible for leading RTÉ’s overall digital strategy. In addition to driving more collaboration and innovation across the organisation, she sits on RTÉ’s Executive Board and chairs RTÉ’s Digital Strategy Board.
However, like many high achievers in the tech sector in this country, she is concerned about the future, particularly in terms of the supply of appropriately qualified employees. “We don’t have the numbers to meet either the current demand, or to meet the demand we see coming down the track,” she warns. “Tech is really important for our economy and for the companies we are bringing in. If we cannot meet their demands for a skilled work force it doesn’t bode well.”
Initiatives like CoderDojo, which gets children and adolescents interested in IT are excellent, she acknowledges, but she also point out the number of IT graduates being produced by our colleges and universities is too low: “The number of people completing IT courses generally is quite low – the drop-out rates are high, whether it’s because the courses are too easy to get into or whether the teaching is not effective in getting the students through.”
We need more tech graduates generally and we require higher numbers of women to engage with tech and increase the number of appropriately qualified graduates emerging from third level, she believes. “I think we have to find a way to encourage girls to be more involved, and to get them interested and involved.”
“We have to make sure we have more graduates in the areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM),” warns Laffan, who joined RTÉ in 2001 as General Manager of RTÉ Commercial Enterprises. She believes what’s required is an effective national strategy to promote science, technology, engineering and mathematics as attractive subjects, not just at second level but at primary level too.
Laffan was appointed Managing Director of RTÉ’s newly formed digital division in 2011, a job which made her responsible for the strategic development of a stable of industry-leading digital platforms and services such as RTÉ.ie, RTÉ Player, RTÉ News Now and GAAGO.
Prior to joining RTÉ, the Dublin native spent ten years in New York in senior executive roles with the advertising agency McCann Erickson Worldwide. After graduating with a degree in marketing, she emigrated to London in 1987 in the midst of the then recession in Ireland. It was a bad time; most of her class of about 125 emigrated along with her.
“I was there one week when the stock market crashed,” she recalls. Laffan worked in a bar and at various other jobs until she landed a sought-after position in an ad agency media department. Two years later she set her sights on New York, and in 1991 landed a job with McCann Erickson Worldwide. Once again, she entered a country during a downturn: “There was as a recession in the US generally; an economic blip.”
She started off as International Media Manager, and over the next 11 years held a number of different positions in the company, working with household names like Nestle, General Motors, Johnson and Johnson and Microsoft and eventually being appointed Senior Vice President of Global Accounts.
The death of her father in 1999 was the catalyst for her eventual return to Ireland and when the right job came up at RTÉ she didn’t hesitate. She arrived back in 2001, joining RTÉ as General Manager of its Commercial Enterprise Department. Yet again she started a new job at a difficult time in the local economy: “When I moved back home we had the foot and mouth disease,” she recalls.
And, let’s not forget, only few short years later Ireland went over the economic cliff in one of the worst recessions in the country’s history. “Multinationals tend not to be as affected by domestic economic blips,” quips Laffan, who says Ireland’s relatively small size and vulnerability was brought home to her during the frightening years of the downturn.
“The realisation that you are in Ireland, which is so small – that was quite frightening,” she acknowledges. But we survived, RTE survived, and Laffan survived. “This is a great country to work in,” she says. “There are great opportunities here.”