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Navigating the media whirlpool

It’s a scary world out there at the moment. It’s a really confusing mix of opportunity and threat, writes Jim Bilton, swirling round in what looks like a very random and dangerous whirlpool.

By Jim Bilton

Navigating the media whirlpool
“…a crazy and unpredictable place…”

Wessenden’s mediafutures benchmarking project has twelve years of publishing metrics to track the business dynamics of an industry, which is fragmenting and changing faster than ever before, but which also still has patterns and predictable trends. This article summarises the mediafutures “Q1 2022 Update”. This gauges the temperature of the water in terms of confidence and attitudes going forward, but also details the hot topics which are on the minds of the senior executives who are running the media business at the moment.

Putting it all into context

The “Update” outlines three different timelines:

  • The long-term view of media company evolution, from print-only through to digital-only. This journey is continuing to take place, but at different speeds for different companies. Many (particularly in consumer magazine media), will never reach the digital-only endgame, where many B2B operations have already been for some years.
  • The medium-term pandemic perspective is a logical and trackable journey for the smarter operators. These companies have robust (and sometimes very optimistic) confidence levels, mainly because they have change programmes in place. Yet they have also learnt how to change course at high speed in a “test & tweak” culture. However, there are a number of companies which have slipped back into panic mode as the cost crunch really bites.
  • The short-term view, which is picked up in the “Update”, is all about navigating the current whirlpool.

The 2022 whirlpool issues

The issues and priorities facing senior media executives at the moment fall into four key areas:

1. The old ongoing issues from 2021: There are four big issues which have followed everyone into 2022:

  • The imperative to diversify revenues, but safely and profitably.
  • The need to drive operational efficiencies through the whole organisation. Yet this means investing in productivity gains rather than just cutting costs.
  • The staff challenge: organisational structures, skills & training, recruitment & retention.
  • The priority of tech investment across every department, whilst getting staff to buy into and actually use the new automated platforms and processes.

2. Old issues which have accelerated:

  • Fragmentation everywhere means that business models must be brand-by-brand and not just company-by-company. They must also be driven by what our users actually want, not what we think they want, or what we would prefer them to want.
  • Internationalisation: accelerating overseas growth, but safely and profitably.
  • The blurring between Consumer & B2B, driven most powerfully by ecommerce and the development of trading marketplaces.
  • Collaborations & partnerships in order to speed change and grow scale – pooling First Party data is a prime example.

3. Newer priorities which need sorting:

Most of the mediafutures participants admit to being much less well progressed in these areas than they want to be and are still feeling their way through a number of them: * Really nailing down what the New Workplace looks like, whilst integrating working-from-home. This is creating real tensions in many companies currently.

  • Building a “sustainable” and “diverse” business has many more wrinkles and complexities (and shamelessly self-serving PR opportunities!) than most had thought.
  • Building scale and proficiency in first party data.
  • Assembling consistent metrics and user-friendly tools to guide the business.
  • Negotiating the increasing political and social interventions in running a media business.

4. The “known unknowns”:

  • Finances & cashflow. Are there sufficient rations and resources aboard the ship to last the voyage, especially as the Cost Crunch continues to bite?
  • M&A. This is both a controllable tool and an uncontrollable crosswind: both tactical and strategic. M&A is reshaping every part of business and goes way beyond publishing into other media sectors and into supplier / vendor markets.

What does it all mean?

Our current “Whirlpool World” is a crazy and unpredictable place. Yet it does have patterns and trends. And underpinning it all are good business practices and metrics. What the mediafutures “Q1 2022 Update” shows is that beneath all the apparent chaos and turbulence, behind the “to do” lists that seem to be getting longer and longer, there are good business processes that will keep the boat afloat in the surging waters.

All this comes back to business models: flexing and morphing, but robust and logical. Yet 2022 is all about hybrid models. It is clear that the balance between ads versus content revenues or print versus digital are not simple “either / or” decisions. We’ll take our money wherever we can get it! It is also being very clear about the distinction between what our own supply-side drivers are (paper costs & availability being a prime example) and what it is that our users actually want, rather than what we think they want.

Yet there is another key factor in all this which is much more subjective: attitude. Resilience and optimism; energy and creativity; agility and flexibility; the simple will to keep on keeping on. Add in sufficient cashflow to keep the boat moving… and a good dose of luck… and we’ll all be alright!

mediafutures is an annual benchmarking survey of the industry undertaken by Wessenden Marketing in partnership with InPublishing. Now into its twelfth year, it covers Consumer Media, B2B, Live Events & Exhibitions, News Media and Customer Media. It maps the key drivers and metrics that are transforming the shape and direction of the media business.

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