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Digital transformation – a question of priorities

At the heart of a successful transformation is the ability to ask the right questions, set clear goals and take the organisation with you. Ciar Byrne talks to DC Thomson’s Rebecca Miskin about the changes she is helping to bring about at the Dundee-based media company.

By Ciar Byrne

Digital transformation – a question of priorities
“The strength of DC Thomson comes from the pillars that make it so much greater than the sum of its parts.”

At the start of the pandemic in 2020, Stylist lost its audience of 400,000 commuters overnight and had to pivot from a free magazine to a reader revenue model with a premium digital offering. Two years on, revenues are stronger than they were pre-Covid. Rebecca Miskin, the new CEO of DC Thomson, the company which owns The Stylist Group, points to this as an illustration of the transformation the entirety of the 117-year-old business is undergoing.

Miskin was appointed CEO of DC Thomson’s media portfolio in December 2021, after joining the family-owned company in summer 2020 as chief strategy and transformation officer. In her new role, she is responsible for all of the company’s media operations including Beano Studios, Stylist and Puzzler, as well as communities spanning energy, local and national news, teaching, crafts, sport and radio.

She says: “That tells you the best of DC Thomson and the Stylist team. From one day to the next, we found ways of distributing a paper copy, the surge in digital was extraordinary, we helped people with working from home. We helped them with being able to vent their frustrations, or talking to their peers, or quick tricks if they’re juggling work and home to manage their time better or help with the kids. To now be in a position where revenues are stronger than pre-pandemic, that’s an inspiring story.”

Common experiences

Miskin has a track record of implementing digital transformation at major media companies, including as digital strategy director at Hearst, general manager at NBC Universal and commercial director at Time Inc. She believes there are shared tenets of transformation which can be applied to all of these companies. “Knowing what success looks like, knowing that’s not the end, it’s a bump on the road, when to double down and accelerate, the types of people to recruit and how to create a learning environment. There are a number of things that are similar, managing the triangle between business, creativity and technology and how to embrace the traditional whilst also embracing the newer path and not creating one-upmanship on one side or the other.”

Rebecca Miskin: “We are in growth mode, which is a good place to be.” Pic: Grainge Photography

When she arrived at DC Thomson, there were 13 or 14 different management teams, each with their own set of requests regarding resources, technology, data insight and investment. A major plank of her strategy has been to consolidate, so that there are now 12 members of the board, each representing a different function.

“Beforehand, we didn’t have someone who owns newsstand across the whole organisation, someone who owns subscriptions, someone who owns product development and brand marketing. Now there’s an ability to look at revenue streams, margins and career development within functions. We’ve brought together technology and product and insight. What that’s doing is giving people the opportunity for careers, rather than having one or two-man bands all over the organisation. It’s also given us insights into where there’s massive growth happening, where we’re more challenged, where we need to be investing more, what we want to prioritise.”

Goal setting

Identifying priorities is so key that Miskin has set up a customer-focused ‘prioritisation group’ asking macro and micro questions, ranging from how big the potential market is, to how good the product is, how consumers will find it and how it can be improved.

“In a transformed organisation, you have people at every level constantly spinning out models to see what works, what doesn’t, sharing those learnings quickly across the organisation and that’s a very different way of working,” says Miskin.

She adds: “There was an amazing stat where we had more projects than people when I first came on. If someone doesn’t prioritise, then how does an individual know which is more important if they’ve got ten different people asking them to do ten things?”

An example of this in action is the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine. Using this prioritisation approach, the board looked at what they could do to help from a philanthropic perspective. Within four days, they had salary sacrifice in place, they knew who within the organisation was offering to house refugees and gave them five days leave to help traumatised individuals get used to their new environment. In addition, DC Thomson’s printing plant had the idea of printing the Ukrainian flag with a picture of a dove on it to be distributed with copies of their local newspapers in Scotland, which include the Dundee Courier and the Aberdeen Press and Journal.

“Within five working days, you could walk round different parts of Dundee and Aberdeen and see the flags in people rooms,” says Miskin.

The DC Thomson ethos

The communities it serves are at the heart of DC Thomson’s philosophy. During the pandemic, they aimed to support those communities by continuing to put out radio programmes and getting newspapers into readers’ hands.

“Our delivery teams of amazing, caring boys and girls did an exceptional job at keeping many vulnerable people connected during lockdown, by delivering them a newspaper or a magazine; they were also sometimes bringing a pint of milk, or just checking in and waving at the window.”

Puzzler Media, part of DC Thomson, created free puzzles for care homes to help them feel more connected during the pandemic, while the company also provided free advertising to local businesses struggling financially during the lockdowns.

The Beano, the company’s flagship comic, has also undergone a transformation for the 21st century with TV series in the UK and the US. Meanwhile the comic has also been at the forefront of children’s literacy campaigns by putting 15,000 copies in libraries to encourage children to read, particularly difficult to reach young boys.

As a family run business, DC Thomson is in a unique position to be able to help the communities it serves through investing in the circular economy.

“I think the strength of DC Thomson comes from the pillars that make it so much greater than the sum of its parts. There’s this extraordinary trust [The Northwood Charitable Trust] that does excellent work in terms of local communities. DC Thomson cares about shareholders, but also our customers and our staff, so decisions are made taking the long-term view. That family ethos runs completely through the entire organisation,” says Miskin.

Podcast success

Audio and video are now important parts of the company’s offering. The group has already built on its existing radio business to create a range of podcasts which were downloaded more than half a million times in 2021, almost double the number compared to the previous year. These include The Dirt podcast from Grow Your Own magazine, Health and Wellbeing magazine’s Walk to Wellbeing, the Bunkered Golf Podcast, the People’s Friend podcast Reading Between the Lines and Scottish politics podcast The Stooshie.

“Everyone’s obsessed by, is it digital or is it print? Actually, it’s quality journalism and it’s up to us to get that quality journalism to the audiences who want it. Podcasting is an amazing vehicle to be able to do that,” says Miskin, although she adds there is still an issue with the discoverability of podcasts.

While the company’s roots are firmly in Dundee, geography is no longer a barrier to working there. Stylist is based in London and there are parts of the business in Aberdeen, Colchester and Reigate. Miskin herself is based in London.

“Geography is not a barrier to any career development today. In the last two years, we’ve all learnt hybrid working, so whatever you start on in your particular geography doesn’t limit the scope of what you could be doing.”

Further learning opportunities ahead

In the future, she says, DC Thomson will “continue to be an acquirer of businesses”. Predicting a difficult couple of years ahead with rising costs for paper, printing and energy, she believes there will be a shakedown of the media industry with the survival of the fittest and some new entrants.

“I think there will be fewer brands in the next few years, but also stronger brands, and some new ones. I don’t think everyone will make the transition. We’re going into a potentially hard one to two years because of inflation and pricing and I think that either makes a business stronger or alternatively weakens it to palliative care level, but I do believe that every business I’ve ever been part of transforming has done so with an event that has helped it do it. The same way we’ve all discovered hybrid working because of the pandemic, the next two years will have another chapter of learning and make us stronger through it.”

New revenue streams at DC Thomson, from subscriptions, digital advertising, events, consultancy and their insights business, are now outstripping the decline in traditional revenues from newsstand and print advertising – “we are in growth mode, which is a good place to be”.

Last year, DC Thomson said its goal was 75k subscribers in five years’ time. Miskin explains the figure was intended to help motivate teams internally and she is now confident they will surpass that by quite some way. News brands are now truly bimedia and subscriptions are ‘sky-rocketing’.

“We recruited around the newsroom so as to bring journalists equipped with the skills to understand digital. To do a transformation, you can parachute someone in to ransack the business and leave it with just digital, you can set up a business alongside like car manufacturers with electric cars, or you can take the organisation with you. With the DC Thomson DNA, it was always going to be about taking the organisation with us so as to upskill and ensure there’s an opportunity to learn. My objective in the next few years, is to have one of the most poachable teams in the country who choose to stay.”

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