Billboards, Airports & Street Furniture > David Watkins, CFO JCDecaux Australia

The canary in the coalmine that proves we’re through the worst of the economic losses of the pandemic has to be the outdoor advertising industry.

It experienced significant contraction since the start of the pandemic as advertising and marketing budgets dried up amid the economic uncertainty.

Australia’s advertising market contracted by $1.1 billion as the pandemic crunched spending. Out-of-home advertising was one of the worst hit sectors as lockdowns sent audiences fleeing from CBDs and unable to travel.

Large scale advertising across the out-of-home sector was one of the first advertising cuts to be made as brands battened down the hatches.  

For the CFO of the nation’s largest outdoor advertising companies, the early days of the pandemic was a significantly challenging period. Particularly given he barely had time to get his feet under the desk.


JCDecaux is a global out-of-home advertising company with more than one million advertising panels in more than 80 countries and more than 13,000 employees.

Its Australian business includes street furniture and transport advertising. In 2018, it acquired APN Outdoor in Australia and New Zealand, which saw the business add a further 40,000 assets spanning airports, rail, static and digital billboards to the mix.

David Watkins had been with JCDecaux for four years as the general manager of finance and company secretary before stepping up into the CFO role in late 2019. Before he knew it, the pandemic hit and the path that lay ahead looked rocky.

“I spent a lot of time in the first few weeks talking to people in the industry and my peers in other companies as we tried to make sense of it all,” Watkins recalls.

It was a good process to go through. “You could very easily panic without those conversations with others,” he says.

The hardest thing to come out of the pandemic has been the retention of talent. We have had to look at our remuneration structures, how we think about flexibility and other benefits. We need to remain competitive as there’s a strong demand for talent across our industry

David Watkins, CFO | JCDecaux Australia

He leads a finance team of 30 and works closely with the chief technology officer. He’s responsible for a lot of corporate reporting into France, as JCDecaux is a publicly listed company there.

It was clear early on that significant changes were needed, so he stripped discretionary costs from the business and kept investing in assets that enabled the business to prepare for the recovery.

Negotiations with landlords on rents for advertising space was also critical in those early days as this was JCDecaux’s largest fixed cost. “That enabled us to keep people employed, although we would have lost 50 jobs easily across the business, which is around 10 per cent of the workforce,” he says.

JCDecaux also moved people to a reduced working week for a period, while the executive team took salary cuts. “Everyone did their bit to get us through. We ended up still paying bonuses to thank people who had given something up during 2020,” he says.

He admits a hybrid team was challenging, despite there also being productivity benefits. “This is something we’re still working through,” he says.

“My job is to make sure that we’ve got the balance right between investment and recovery. And while we’re on that path, we still have a long way to go, he says.  

“It’s very easy for me to say the business still isn’t where it needs to be, as the business is making less money than it was in 2019. We’ve had to balance the approach of battening down the hatches until we get the revenue back to pre-pandemic levels and investing for the future,” he says.

The hardest thing to come out of the pandemic has been the retention of talent. We have had to look at our remuneration structures, how we think about flexibility and other benefits. We need to remain competitive as there’s a strong demand for talent across our industry.”

Leading from the front

Watkins describes himself as an outcomes focused and driven leader. “I’m not someone who pounds the table. I can’t demand performance because I’ve got to consider team morale, and support people in their roles,” he says.

JCDecaux has been focused on investing in technology and systems to make sales and marketing functions more efficient, and a business intelligence tool. A new procurement and payroll system is also on the cards to improve efficiencies in the back end.

“We want to be responding to briefs quicker. There’s a lot of constraint on our data team. There’s a lot of manual effort that goes into the analysis needed for a campaign proposal. So we’re investing in technology to be more streamlined,” he says.

Prior to JCDecaux, Watkins worked with Ernst & Young as a senior manager in Australia, the UK, US and France. He moved into the mining sector as group financial controller at Evolution Mining, and also worked with Opus Group, a consolidation of specialist print companies in a similar role just after its listing on the ASX.

He’s a Chartered Accountant and a member of the Institute of Company Directors and the Governance Institute of Australia.

He admits he ended up on the finance path a little by accident. He did a Bachelor of Commerce, and soon realised he enjoyed working on the finance side of the business and the visibility it provides of the business as a whole.

“I’ve found myself working in these environments where there’s a need to make a step change in the finance area reasonably quickly. So I’ve needed to go in and put structures and frameworks in place that support that change. It’s pretty stressful, but I’ve always enjoyed pressure and deadlines,” he says.

“I’ve realised that running at 100 miles an hour to get things done and setting unrealistic deadlines doesn’t work. You’ve got to be really focused on what you do,” he says.

Outside of his role, he’s started doing some volunteer work with The Smith Family. He’s also on the Council of Chartered Accountants in NSW.

“I like to think that actually now for the first time, I’ve been able to focus on being able to make time for those things that are important to me so I can put my skills to good use,” he says.

Giving people access to great professional opportunities is an important part of managing people, he says.

“I’m really passionate about developing people’s careers and want to mentor employees through their career journey. If they leave our organisation, hopefully it’s for an opportunity they just couldn’t miss,” he says.