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Delivering change requires laser-like focus

Our channels, customers and competitors are all changing, which means the chances are we need to change to. But how do you get large well established teams to reinvent themselves? It boils down to planning and communication, says Michael Brunt.

By Michael Brunt

Delivering change requires laser-like focus

“Yeah, we tried LinkedIn – but it didn’t work,” was the first response batted back at me when, as the newly appointed managing director of circulation at The Economist, I asked a room of regional marketers to share their social media successes.

To be fair, this was back in 2013, but LinkedIn had already been going for a decade and you’d think targeting people on a business-focused social network might be a useful addition to The Economist’s subscription marketing repertoire. To my dismay, the rest of the room nodded solemnly in shared acknowledgement that LinkedIn was a lost cause.

I had got the job of MD of circulation by articulating the need for a department restructure to drive digital growth. Hearing this (universal) dismissal of social media in the first team meeting on my first day in the job reinforced the need for radical change. And the restructure worked: within five years, circulation had become the biggest contributor of both revenue and profits across the Economist Group.

The turnaround in the fortunes of The Economist’s circulation business was entirely due to the support and hard work of the team I had inherited and how they embraced the restructure. Getting their buy-in wasn’t an obvious outcome and required a lot of detailed planning and a lot of communication.

With this in mind, I will cover two areas in this article: first, I will share the approach at The Economist’s circulation business; and second, I will make the case for absolute clarity of message when overseeing a restructure.

I should point out that in 2013, if circulation at The Economist had been a standalone business, it would have made multi-million-pound losses. For many years, the job of the circulation team had been to provide the audience that advertisers wanted to reach. But facing unprecedented declines in print advertising revenues as digital took off, multi-million-pound losses from circulation were unsustainable.

Combining four into one

I inherited four regional marketing teams and was scouting for talent and hunting for best practices to share. There wasn’t a talent deficit. At that meeting when we discussed LinkedIn, I was sharing a room with hard-working, experienced marketers all focusing on their region.

It was clear I needed specialist knowledge of digital marketing channels (we were still felling forests for direct mail back then). And that was the challenge: how do I pivot four regional teams into a single, combined and united global team that made best use of their talent and regional experience? Knowing that I would need to reorganise everyone while delivering some tough targets, one sage senior colleague advised: “You’ll have to live in your house whilst you rebuild it.” True, and all the more daunting for it.

Hiring generalists in marketing makes sense when you’re small or regional. A typical regional marketer in the noughties at The Economist might start the day analysing which lists to use in the next direct mail campaign, then move on to discussing the next out-of-home brand campaign with the agency over lunch, and end the day negotiating partnership deals. At a regional level, the breadth of their marketing knowledge was invaluable, but at a channel level, a lack of specialist experience was holding us back.

Reading this, Musk types might advocate firing the whole lot of them and hiring ready-made specialists. But they should take heed: I learned that bringing talented people along will accelerate change very effectively.

To gain the support of the CEO (and to get the job of MD), I had developed a clear vision for the future state of the business, including the desired outcomes and benefits of a restructure. It was equally critical to gain the buy-in of the team, the majority of whom I intended to retain, with some facing roles that they felt unqualified to do, some experiencing crises of confidence, and with everyone facing uncertainty.

To help us through it all, I followed some simple principles:

  • Never fear over-communication: in my first month, I jumped on planes and hosted multiple town hall meetings, outlining the need for change and clearly articulating the commercial opportunity. When presenting the new departmental structure, questions flooded in, including some from visibly irked colleagues, but I took those on the chin. Town halls were followed up with multiple smaller team meetings so I could better manage expectations and to gain buy-in wherever and whenever possible.
  • Deeply involve the top team whenever possible: no, it wasn’t a democracy: the broad vision was clear to me and I pushed hard to deliver it. But I did encourage feedback from anyone, and in particular sought out and incorporated ideas from my senior colleagues. I aimed to be as flexible as possible, without straying from the vision.
  • Detailed planning: working closely with the HR team, we developed a plan that aligned changes and the timeline to the goals. Every team featured in the plan and skills (and flight risks) among employees were plotted thoughtfully. At the same time, we developed a talent “bench”, identifying the individuals who could pick things up if more senior folk chose not to accept their new responsibilities.
  • Clarity of message: I was reorganising a large international team and other areas of the business, such as editorial, were not directly impacted. However, it was critical to be clear to the wider business about the requirement for change and the desired outcomes. It would be beneficial if everyone knew that I was aligning the marketing operation to grow subscriptions profitably.

Over time, it became clear that clarity and consistency of message had underpinned the success of this restructure. Everyone – from shareholders to journalists – understood why The Economist had to become a business which prioritised digital subscription growth.

I cannot stress enough the importance of aligning messages and being clear about the purpose and goals of any restructure. Unfortunately, I have seen numerous examples of (leaked) company memos about restructuring that appear, at least at face value, to articulate different, sometimes conflicting rationales and motivations. While different departments need to understand how they will be impacted more specifically, across all communications there should be no variation regarding the vision and purpose.

Mixed messages

A while ago, I read the memos circulated by the top brass at the Wall Street Journal, referring to ‘WSJ 2020’, the internal name given to a restructure designed to align the newspaper for growth while delivering $100 million in cost savings.

Towards the beginning of a detailed memo announcing WSJ 2020 to all staff, William Lewis, chief executive of Dow Jones, the Journal’s parent company, wrote: “The WSJ 2020 review comes at a time when WSJ has broken through the one million mark for digital-only subscribers. Reaching this key milestone is a tribute to the quality of our journalism and a ringing endorsement of the membership-based business model that supports it… So, we must act – and act now. WSJ 2020 will be our action plan for the next three years – a plan that capitalises on mobile-driven membership efforts and reflects the rebalancing of our revenue streams in the modern media marketplace.”

Building on the already significant growth in digital subscribers (referred to as members in the memo), WSJ 2020 was, when articulated by Lewis, all about aligning resources to maximise digital subscriber growth.

A little afterwards, the editorial department received a memo about WSJ 2020 from the then editor-in-chief, Gerard Baker: “We can be proud of the real progress we have made already in becoming more digital. But with our business model changing quickly as print advertising recedes, and reader habits and technology undergoing major shifts, we have to do more to rethink our business model and newsroom structure, to become more creative with new products and storytelling techniques, and to better serve our consumer and professional readers.”

The memos are not entirely inconsistent. Both reference capitalising on digital successes. However, they then appear to diverge; the CEO tells everyone that WSJ 2020 is about growing digital membership (aka subscriptions) and the editor-in-chief suggests a range of benefits, from better storytelling techniques to more creative new products. I believe a WSJ journalist would have gained a quite different understanding of what was happening compared with their colleagues in the commercial teams.

Do such inconsistencies really matter? I believe they do and must be avoided at all costs.

Laser-like focus

At HBM Advisory, we recently worked with the CEO of MIT Technology Review, Elizabeth Bramson-Boudreau.

MIT Technology Review had experienced solid, if not industry-leading growth, and Elizabeth had recruited a new editor-in-chief from Buzzfeed News, Mat Honan, to lead the charge on editorial transformation. We worked alongside the senior team to develop a joined-up content, product and go-to-market strategy to fulfil MIT Technology Review’s potential. We agreed on an ambitious growth target for subscriber volumes and Elizabeth announced that MIT Technology Review would now be a subscription-first business.

A focused, consistent message has proven critical to aligning everyone to the future success of MIT Technology Review.

Elizabeth summarised her experience: “I have ambitious plans for MIT Technology Review.” This involved, she said, setting “an audacious goal for growth” and articulating “a clear trajectory the whole team could buy into. Laser-like focus on our goal is ensuring that resources are prioritised precisely to deliver it.”

We agree with Elizabeth that however well a reorganisation is executed, even with engagement from the wider team, detailed planning and frequent communication, it won’t succeed unless everyone is clear on the purpose and the goal. And that requires consistency, clarity and simplicity.

And as for LinkedIn? It rapidly became an always-on marketing channel for subscriber acquisition for The Economist, optimised by a fast-learning team working in a matrix of specialist and regional responsibilities. Their continuous focus on social media as a marketing channel supported the incredible turnaround of circulation revenues at The Economist and rapid growth in digital subscriptions.

This article was first published in InPublishing magazine. If you would like to be added to the free mailing list to receive the magazine, please register here.