The last two days at Digital Media Strategies (Kings Place, London, 4-5 March 2014) have been amongst the best that I have spent in a conference hall in a decade. And I have wide experience to call upon! But Neil Thackray and Rory Brown and their team at the Media Briefing company pulled out all the stops to advance the game on their inaugural effort last year, and in the process pulled over 340 delegates and some first class “big names” and an even better class of “previously unknowns” from this diverse industry. And they really set me thinking: where were all these newspaper bosses and magazine tycoons during the long years when “it will never happen here” was the rule. Some still looked a bit nervous – Simon Fox, CEO of Trinity Mirror, caught in the headlights of a tigerish interrogation from Thackray, looked as if he were about to confess to war crimes at HMV and indecent assault on “The People”, but most of his colleagues were self-assured to the point of near-arrogance.
That at least could be an explanation of Mike Darcey, the News Corp CEO and his decision to spend 8 minutes of his own allotted time taking apart what he fancied to be the strategy of the next speaker, Andrew Miller, CEO, The Guardian Media Group. At least this precluded further dwelling upon the comparative failure of paywalls and the comparative lack of impact of digital advertising. And it enabled everyone to say that they were faithfully following the user experience. Yet it had the odd effect of making News Corp into a sort of John the Baptist warm up act for the Guardian, to which one felt that Andrew Miller responded by indicating that he had a better plan, but not revealing fully what he had up his sleeve. To those in the audience inured to the media having no plan at all, this was a tonic. At the moment the Guardian seems to be a connectivity junkie, rightly glorying in its content re-use and the amount of referral traffic it gets, celebrating its brand positioning as a global voice of liberal values and trying to draw the advertising it can get on this pitch. But I get an underlying feeling that they know that advertising is not the answer, and the room sat up when the topic turned to Guardian Membership.
Clearly if the Guardian can monetize its community effectively then it may be possible to get millions of people to subscribe to its values and buy into aspects of its content feed. Andrew Miller showed a picture of C P Scott and laid tributes before the lares and penates of great journalism, as indeed he should (and neither he nor I care that Edward Snowden appears to be a right wing Republican with a wholly eighteenth century view of the rights of the individual). However, if you have large populations of like-minded people with a strong community ethic then you can create – Guardian (Eye)witness. I well remember, while chairing Fish4, the frustration of the regional press competing with Mr Miller as he distributed free AutoTrader software to every used car dealer, enabling them to organize their inventory and upload easily – to AutoTrader. As a Guardian Member will I get the equivalent, thus broadening the scope (and reducing the cost?) of Great Journalism. Too early to say it yet, perhaps ? The editors would be talking quality control and the journos would be talking to the National Union of Journalists, but…
But at least we are all talking now. As a digital participant from 1980 and an internet – watcher from 1993, I am interested by how much of the industry response was fear and loathing. Hearst, at this conference a great example of digital thinking, spent the early years of the internet buying medical databases and B2B applications. Brilliant purchases, but what did they say about management’s view of their existing media futures? In the same terms, DMGT has turned itself in these time periods from being a newspaper company into a B2B player. No harm in that, but could earlier action have preserved the original structures. Or maybe the media is best re-invented not by its current practitioners but buy complete outsiders – great examples in this conference from Buzzfeed and from Business Insider? And then, what do we make of what seems to be a very European trend at present – letting the staff who know the markets create and test the ideas for recreating media and beyond media services.
I had heard a little about Sanoma’s regenerative Accelerator programmes before, and so was full of anticipation when Lassi Kurkijarvi covered the stage with energy and enthusiasm. With both internal and external venture activity he had a lot to cover. It is now fairly common for media players to invest in start-ups and develop incubators (Reed Elsevier have been venture capital investors for a decade; Holtzbrinck have their seed corn funding and efforts like Macmillan Digital Science and Digital Education; Gruner und Jahr spoke of their activities here) but getting 150 employees into a boot camp and encouraging ideation? Only for the Finns? Not at all, said Lassi. Here was a a planned process of open innovation starting with a mass kick off meeting, a webinar-based process, staff making quick pitches to get support for ideas, an initial selection of 20, crowd sourced selection of 5 for a boot camp experience and the result is 3 ideas which the company is now developing. So look out for Spot-a-shop, Huge or ClipScool – they did not come from Silicon Valley or Tech City, Old Street, but they may be none the less valuable as they express the knowledge of customers built up within a diversified media conglomerate like Sanoma.
So what does this mean? That media corporations can be regenerated from within? What would we have given to know that in 1993!