Legion's Happy Burden Steals Reality Shows

Legion's Happy Burden Steals Reality Shows, by Andrew Dodd
Credit: The Australian - 5th January 2004

DAVID Burden has plenty to smile about when star-crazed teenagers vote for their favourite Australian Idol pop star or Big Brother house mate.

In fact, the chief executive of Legion Interactive probably has more to gain than the ultimate victors of these new-style TV shows because, no matter who the fans are voting for, he always comes out the winner.

Mr Burden is one of three managers who together own 46 per cent of Legion Interactive -- a company that specialises in media-based interactive competitions.

Legion's clients include the Seven and Ten networks, as well as Fairfax, Murdoch magazines, Southern Cross Broadcasting, 2GB and Austar.

Legion appears to be thriving. All those one-eyed fans who are caught by the allure of so-called reality shows such as Big Brother have proved a bankable resource, delivering the private company enough cash to allow it to expand rapidly into new spheres.

It now operates interactive services on email, the internet, SMS and telephone, and packages a wide range of soft-sell marketing ideas for corporate and media clients.

The company has just opened a new office in Auckland and there's talk of taking the Legion model to the US to replicate its Australian success.

Mr Burden started out as a mobile telephone salesman when the phones were first launched in Australia. In 1989 he worked in 0055 numbers -- although, he stresses, not the sex lines.

Ten years ago, he joined Legion and started pitching ideas on how to harness new communications technology for marketing and making money.

"Our business is going through an enormous growth phase currently, "he says, referring to Legion's purchase of Blue Sky Frog, which he describes as `Australia's largest mobile content retailer'.

Blue Sky Frog was purchased from Vodafone in September 2002 and specialises in the stuff that teenagers understand and their parents pay for, such as `polyphonic java games and wallpapers for mobiles'.

`Our other expertise is very much our ability to interact with mass consumers at the same time, like when we do some of these large TV events,' he says. Frustratingly, Legion doesn't reveal just how many mass consumers it reaches through events such as World Idol because the show's producers, Fremantle, and the Ten Network would rather not say how many people are coughing up 55c each time they vote for their favourite contestant. If Legion revealed the true numbers of votes it received, it might even manage to substantiate the on-air spruiking on such shows. Currently there's no way of knowing whether a presenter who claims that voting is close is telling the truth or merely doing what it takes to keep the calls coming and the revenue flowing.

Mr Burden says that's frustrating too. But, he argues, that's a price he has to pay.`It would be a wonderful thing (to allow more transparency) but when you work in this sort of environment, it's very important that we respect our clients' confidentiality.'

Venture capital firm Equity Partners purchased 54 per cent of Legion as part of a management buyout two years ago.

Mr Burden says the company is now half way through a four-year plan, leading to the exit of Equity Partners. After that there's the possibility of a public float. `We've certainly been flattered by a number of offers of late. But we are continuing to execute our strategy.' `Currently we're looking for growth and we're working very hard to take our model and put it into the US where this sort of technology is a couple of years behind ours, so we think we've got some fairly good opportunities to replicate what we've done here in the US.' But don't expect Mr Burden to nominate Legion's market value or give away trade secrets about its revenue. `We're not talking too much about its value at the moment because we don't have a need, but it's significantly grown in revenues and we're actively looking for more acquisitions in this market or overseas,' he says.


The Australian

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