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Change is the new stability

Last Thursday, the European Information Industry Network Conference took place at the Emirates Stadium in London. The theme of the day was ‘digital growth, speed and agility’. James Evelegh was there taking notes.

James Evelegh

Posted on: 29 October 2015

The keynote panel, from left: Dietmar Schantin, Richard Adams, Alex Martinez, Nick Morgan and Trevor Fenwick


Julian Turner, CEO of Electric Word and chairman of the Information Industry Network kicked proceedings off with two thoughts (‘change is the new stability’ and ‘real value lies in the quality of execution’) which set the tone nicely for the day ahead.

I came away from the conference with twenty pages of frantically scribbled notes, which I have condensed down into four key takeaways for any aspiring media business:

1. Find a vision

If a company is not clear about where it is heading, how can it expect its staff to be?

Too many corporate mission statements lack a clear and consistent vision, says the Institute for Media Strategies’ Dietmar Schantin. Too often, they are blurry and give no sense of direction.

“We want to be number one in our sector!”, isn’t helpful. Dietmar has yet to meet a company that doesn’t want this.

A vision should state where you want to get to and give some clue as to how you plan to get there. It must be communicated to staff in such a way that they can clearly understand it themselves as well as articulate it to others. It should also be concrete enough to “help guide staff actions tomorrow, whilst not being too restrictive”.

Bloomberg Media’s mission statement (“to be the most influential brand in global business media, by helping business professionals make smarter faster decisions”), as told by Adam Freeman in one of the afternoon sessions, neatly establishes the goal whilst giving Bloomberg staff an idea of what is expected of them.

Given that there are not many Steve Jobs’ out there and some CEOs struggle with what the first President Bush once referred to as “the vision thing”, Dietmar tries to bring it down small. Try to visualise where you want your company to be in two years’ time, and then work back from there.

A vision should state where you want to get to and give some clue as to how you plan to get there.

2. Be radical

Tinkering at the margins, faffing around desperately trying to bolt on little bits of extra functionality to your creaking legacy business won’t cut it.

Successful media companies are reinventing themselves. As Euromonitor’s Trevor Fenwick explained at the closing keynote panel session, “the word ‘publishing’ no longer accurately describes what the majority of companies in this room actually do”. Certainly in the B2B space, the big players are becoming a fusion of technology and content.

In his list of ‘seven pitfalls of digital transformation’, Dietmar Schantin ranked ‘bolting things together on top of existing structures and workflows’ at # 4. Don’t do it! The old and new ways of working are just not compatible. The practice of bolting on is not only very expensive, but it never works because nothing ends up being optimised. The best approach, he said, is to abandon old ways of working and to rethink from scratch.

A related problem was the tendency of some media companies to take an “atomistic view” when looking at the challenge of digital transformation – to focus on one small part of the problem and lose sight of the whole.

For Stylus Media Group’s Marc Worth, it was also important for media companies to be proactive and to look outwards, beyond the boundaries of their own industry. Marc’s example of a firm with a reactive strategy was Kodak (poor old Kodak; now a staple of every business management course in the western world) and of a proactive strategy was … The Guardian, which, he said had gone from being the ninth most read newspaper in Great Britain to now being the third most read in the world, a position it had achieved through its digital-first approach.

Trevor Fenwick: “the word ‘publishing’ no longer accurately describes what the majority of companies in this room actually do”.

3. Nurture talent

Your people are your competitive advantage. Dietmar Schantin recounted a story of the CEO of Schibsted Media Group talking at a business conference in India. One of the delegates was surprised about how open the CEO had been about Schibsted’s goals and strategies. Aren’t you taking a risk? Someone here might steal your ideas. To which the Schibsted executive smiled serenely and said, “I know you don’t have the people”.

Attracting the best people is vital. Sigaria’s Alex Martinez’s recruitment strategy is simple: “we buy the best people we can afford”.

But top talent has got to want to join your company in the first place. For Outsell’s Kate Worlock, this meant that media companies needed to “differentiate themselves to get that talent”. “Why would you want to work for me?” is a question every recruiter needs to have thought through!

Part of the challenge, particularly for some of the more traditional media businesses, like newspapers, was that the brands themselves are not seen as innovative, and, consequently not an attractive career path for top young talent. To make matters worse, at some companies, structured career development programmes are the exception not the rule and when budgets get cut in hard times, training is usually one of the first things to suffer; a shot in the foot if ever there was one.

Recruitment is now mission critical. In the final panel session of the day, Wilmington’s Richard Adams, when asked what he thought was the biggest threat facing any media business over the next five years, answered, “the inability to attract the right talent”.

Attracting good people is a start, but just as much thought needs to go into keeping them. As Alex Martinez said, “the culture you create is massively important.” Well thought through and rigourously implemented employee engagement strategies, with proper career plans are a must. Stopping them in the corridor every once and a while and asking them how they’re getting on, is not enough.

But let’s not forget that having the right people in place is not just a question of hiring; there’s a role for firing too! Too many media companies have the wrong people in the wrong position. Some publishers don’t like making those hard decisions, but, says Dietmar Schantin, “if you have someone who does not want to go on the journey with you, you either have to get rid of them, or you go down with them.”

“Why would you want to work for me?” is a question every recruiter needs to have thought through!

4. Focus on the customer

Whilst virtually everything in the media world has turned upside down over the past decade, one thing remains constant. The route to success ultimately lies with the degree to which you are customer focused.

When asked what advice he would give any aspiring entrepreneur, Marc Worth (who sold his company WGSN to Emap for £140 million in 2005, so has earned the right to be listened to) had two pearls of wisdom; firstly “stick to what you know” and secondly, ask yourself: do I have a product looking for a market or a market looking for a product?

If you never lose sight of your customer, make sure you react to, and even anticipate, their changing needs, you will not go far wrong.

In the final panel session of what had been a fascinating day, both Alex Martinez and CRU Group’s Nick Morgan had the same answer when asked for their recipe for future success: stay very close to your customers.

It’s funny; I remember hearing precisely the same advice when doing my marketing diploma, ahem, twenty five years ago. It really isn’t rocket science.

Marc Worth: “do I have a product looking for a market or a market looking for a product?”

About James Evelegh
(Details last updated: 21 March 2018)

James Evelegh is the editor of InPublishing. Previous roles have included circulation consultant, group circulation manager at Centaur Media and circulation manager at DMG Trinity.

Tel: 01322 865 984

Email: Send a message to this author


Twitter: @InPublishing

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