Mobile navigation


AOP Digital Publishing Summit

On 12 October, the AOP held their 2012 digital publishing summit at the Westminster Bridge Park Plaza hotel in London. The theme of the day was ‘unleashing your inner startup’. James Evelegh went along to find out more.

By James Evelegh

Digital giants Facebook, Google and Yahoo were not the products of large corporations but were initially the brainchilds of small teams of geeky developers.

The online world is being dominated in large part by companies and brands that started life as small, nimble startups, able to launch and respond quickly to the market, unhindered by any of the legacy overheads faced by most large publishers.

How can large, unwieldy companies ever hope to compete? How can they beat the nimble pure-players at their own game?

This theme ran through most of the day’s sessions, particularly looking at how large publishers could create a culture where entrepreneurship and innovation would thrive.

There were loads of clues, hints and tips scattered throughout the day and I have tried to pull them together into a top eleven tips for agile publishing:

1. Set the tone.

It is the responsibility of the person at the top to set the tone and direction of the whole enterprise. This means setting a clear mission which everyone can subscribe to and measure their endeavours against. Part of successful leadership is the process of continual communication and reinforcement, and in this, CEOs rely on senior managers to help spread the word. This senior management level is a vital resource that must be nurtured and invested in. UBM’s David Levin described how their Leadership Development Program, which he launched soon after joining in 2005, was absolutely fundamental to the success of the company. The most promising managers are selected for the program and they do inspirational things. This is not a cheap option; flying them all out to San Francisco, as happened last year, is a lot more expensive than sitting them all in a room and telling them how wonderful they are.

2. No more Mr Nice Guy.

Probably unsurprisingly, a ruthless streak is required. Ideally, your senior management will sign up to the CEO’s mission and help drive it forward. Sometimes they will not, and these ‘blockers’ need to be identified and rooted out. Levin mentioned that of the senior management tier at the company when he took over, few, if any, remained. Some “had left of their choice, some had left of mine”.

AOL’s Noel Penzer found that when they were trying to change the strategic direction of the company, they encountered the ‘we can’t do this because’ brigade. Try persuasion, but force the issue. If they don’t buy into the plan, then bring in new talent. Bring in a different breed of people.

3. Become a bottom-up company.

Telegraph executive editor, digital, Edward Roussel said that the future of the corporation was bottom-up. Large companies had to facilitate the flow of ideas from bottom to top, and the job of the bosses was to provide the necessary support.

4. Foster open communications.

Another of David Levin’s initiatives at UBM was the Hub, a wiki-based intranet which had grown into an indispensible resource for the company, a fantastic pool of continuously updated learning. 2,000 UBM staff are highly engaged contributors, and, said David Levin, the “biggest thing is that people talk about what doesn’t work”. A well run and active ‘hub’ is a brilliant way of breaking down the silo mentality that exists in so many companies and it helps ensure that learning is retained within the company.

5. Foster entrepreneurship.

It’s one thing to say that you want your staff to be entrepreneurial; it’s quite another to take the practical steps to encourage it. If you want ideas to germinate and thrive, then staff must be given the space and resource to innovate. If their day job keeps them tied up 24/7, then it is almost impossible for them to also be entrepreneurs. Google’s Eze Vidra told us about their 20% program, whereby employees are allowed to spend 20% of their time on pet projects. Tie this into an internal ideas board, where new ideas are posted, voted on by their peer group, with the best ideas taken forward by the company, with the time and resource being made available to take the product to market, and you have the makings of a dynamic workplace. A hack day is another great way of generating new ideas and the only cost, apart from staff time, is large quantities of Coke and pizza; a small price to pay for a rich harvest of new ideas.

6. Budget for failure.

Not all the ideas you get from your newly empowered workforce will be successful. But that’s ok. Just as a gambler would be a fool to put all his chips on Red 15, said David Levin, successful companies spread the risk. Launch ten ideas. One might succeed, the other nine are simply the cost of doing business. And, as Eze Vidra says, “failing is good, failing teaches you.”

7. Stop polishing and get it out there.

There is a tendency is some companies to delay launch until the product is absolutely perfect, partly because they think this will increase the chances of success but also through a misplaced fear that anything less than perfection will damage the company’s reputation.

Your product does not need to be perfect when you launch it. Indeed, it should NOT be perfect. You should work to develop a MVP (minimum viable product), launch it early and then iterate. This will also reduce overheads; if you’re going to fail, try to fail cheaply.

8. Reduce your chances of failure.

Yes, failure needs to be accepted as a fundamental part of doing business, but there’s no harm in trying to minimise your chances of failure. When you’re launching new products, leverage your strengths; build on your core competencies in markets you’re familiar with.

9. Encourage incremental change.

New product development is one thing, but how do companies foster a culture of continuous development in their existing portfolio? For IPC’s Kevin Heery, it was all about encouraging incremental change. Make small changes, measure them and move on. In large companies, the bigger the plan, the more people will be needed to sign it off; the whole project can easily get bogged down and none of the many, probably good, ideas contained within the plan ever get actioned. The result: inertia. Instead, identify small changes, make them, measure the results, then move onto the next small change. The result is a continuously evolving product. A policy of incremental change not only ensures change actually takes place, but also helps control risk.

10. Consolidate and simplify.

In a large multi-brand company, there are likely to be a multitude of different suppliers and platforms being used. Many companies have encouraged this approach in the past, so as to reduce over-reliance on one supplier and to help drive down costs. It was also a by-product of the cottage industry approach taken by many large publishing companies where each brand was its own profit centre and given a great deal of autonomy. Whilst there remain some arguments in favour of this approach, the fact is that digital innovation and measurement is made that much more difficult when central IT teams have to retain an expertise in, and devise different approaches for, many different platforms.

The rise of open source software, and what Google’s Eze Vidra calls the ‘democratisation of innovation’, greatly facilitates innovation, because it removes unnecessary hurdles. Developers can focus on developing the functionality of their product rather than having to fret over unproductive back-end stuff.

News International’s director of digital products, Nick Bell, described how, when he joined the company, he was confronted with hundreds of platforms and suppliers and that only through a process of consolidation and simplification of the different systems, could the central IT team be relieved of much of the basic system maintenance burden and be repositioned as a creative team.

11. Get the basics right!

When you’re in a product development / launch phase, make sure the seating plan is right! Everyone involved in the project needs to sit together.

Before you launch, define by what metrics you will measure the success of the project. Agree your KPIs and make sure they are measured and analysed throughout the launch phase.

Keep the project team small. Start-up guru Rob Fitzpatrick said that twenty people was the ceiling above which things started to grind to a halt.

That’s it – eleven easy steps to commercial supremacy in the online world!