Vanessa Picken is What the Australian Music Industry Needs
Better late than never right? On June 15, 2022, Sony announced that Vanessa Picken would become Sony Music Australia’s new CEO.
This is an inspired choice by Rob Stringer, and although I was extremely critical of Sony taking so long to appoint a new chief, if it took that long to think through all the options and land on an appointment like Picken, then I’m happy to admit that I was too harsh and impatient.
Well done Stringer.
On one hand, Picken’s appointment may seem out of the box – it certainly surprised our industry. On the other hand, the appointment was entirely predictable and makes sense. Her resume, after all, has a lot of similarities with Denis Handlin’s as both have made a name for themselves in PR and marketing before taking the leap as executive of Sony Music Australia.
The difference is, Handlin climbed the major label corporate ladder internally, whereas Picken got to the same position as an entrepreneur and business owner from outside of the major label system.
Picken has been running her marketing business Comes with Fries for nearly a decade, taking her business from a one woman show to a multinational company with staff in Australia, USA and London.
Building a business from the ground up like this is, without a doubt, far more impressive than climbing the corporate ladder, and will give Picken a unique perspective to her contemporaries at Warner and Universal.
No corporate experience compares to the match practice you get of being a ground up founder, Picken’s last decade of experience will give her a unique lens to navigate the complexities of HR, P&L, marketing, sales, comms and trade marketing all at once.
It is true that CEOs in every business manage those faculties, but having started a business from nothing gives you an extra edge, and founders develop the kind of business coalesces you can’t get if you’re on someone else’s payroll.
Picken’s success as an entrepreneur means she will have the kind of tenacity and hard edge that you can’t develop without having started a business and having its entire success or failure resting on your shoulders.
Vanessa Picken, the Marketer
As a music industry, we are very poor at marketing when we compare ourselves to the level of talent and sophistication in other industries, however Picken could hold her own as a CMO in any consumer products boardroom around the world.
I haven’t met any marketer in the global music industry who is as well researched and strategic as Picken.
She is the only marketing person I speak to from within our industry that I learn from with every encounter. This is going to be the huge competitive advantage Sony Music Australia now has.
What kind of leader will Vanessa Picken be?
When Dan Rosen first took the top job at Warner Music Australia, I asked him what kind of leader he would be. I pointed to Handlin who was a highly involved leader. Handlin demanded to be across every small detail of the projects he cared about and nothing happened without his blessing. In contrast, George Ash at Universal acts more as an investor, both in people and companies. Ash is known for giving his leaders free rein to do their jobs as they see fit.
Handlin and Ash couldn’t have more opposite management styles.
Rosen’s response to my question? He said he wanted to be right in the middle of both and take the best of both approaches.
This leaves me to wonder how Picken will answer this question when I ask her. One thing is for sure, she is a hustler, and an incredibly hard working well informed leader, so whatever her management style is leading an organisation as big as Sony Music Australia, it won’t come with a lack of ambition, and that is what is most needed for the Australian music industry right now.
Picken needs rope to take risks
Stringer has made a great decision in appointing an entrepreneur like Picken, now he needs to give her the rope to make the company her own. This might mean a few years of big mistakes or commercial risks that don’t come off, but Stringer would be doing himself a disservice if he doesn’t give Picken the confidence and security to take big chances even if they don’t come off.
I said the same thing about Rosen when he took the top job at Warner Music. I hope they give him a fair shake and allow him to make mistakes.
Chugg/Mushroom’s Susan Heymann once defined Michael Chugg management style as “empowerment with a safety net.” Picken needs empowerment with a safety net from Stringer.
National executives need to be able to make big bets with the confidence they won’t lose their jobs if they don’t bear fruit. Otherwise, they stop innovating. And when innovation slows as a consequence of an executive losing job security (or passion), largely it’s the artists that lose out the most.