Lying on my back this last month, recovering from spinal surgery while keyboarding with difficulty, I have had plenty of time to reflect on the industry while not quite having the energy to respond to what I read. Yet amidst the flow of fatuous nonsense that surrounds the interesting and insightful, the faux management guru who pronounced on how hard it was for a leader to be an insurrectionary, and how change could not be expected from businesses that had “transitioned”, got my goat so royally that I am still vibrating with indignation, even now that I am mercifully sitting upright again. And to compound this I missed all the countless award ceremonies and suchlike so I feel out of it. So here come my own awards – For Insurrectionary Leadership of Traditional UK Information Companies in 2014. These awards have not (I hope) been checked for compliance with diversity, gender equality, or any other of the social requirements of modern life. But they do reflect my absolute conviction that the right people in leadership positions can change everything; that from business model to innovation style, everything can be re-invented; that real leadership attracts support, from colleagues and investors, only if it is prepared to question the fundamentals at each phase of our discovery of the challenges and opportunities arising from living in a networked society/economy.

So, without more ado (drumroll), let me introduce my joint winners of this distinctly un-prestigious award. Neither of them work in sharp and shiny Shoreditch start-ups, but in companies which, when last sold by their traditional owners, were seen as commoditised smokestack businesses which had run their course. Today both of these companies are seen as leaders in their respective sectors, reaching global markets with brand enhanced prestige. Significantly, both of these companies were able to recruit senior management in 2014 at a very high level because they were perceived as change agents. Equally impressive, especially for me (having railed at traditional players who did not understand their new users for 30 years), both of these companies are widely seen as being close to users in service value and understanding. Yet, when I first knew these companies in the 1970s, both were subscription based publishers who seldom encountered a user in the flesh, so safely were they protected from reality by library and institutional subscription services. Both had an advertising base which they have had to re-invent. Neither had an automatic access to investment capital and both had to earn their inputs either from private equity or within a corporate ownership where there were other choices.

So as well as a restless questioning of the way business was done, and an ability to get into the place of the end-user and visualize value, both of my winners needed tireless advocacy, and the ability to win hearts and minds and trust. I am sure (omelettes/eggs syndrome) that each has made some mistakes, and that some who got moved on or out – in the disruptive course of change – will feel cause to argue my choices. But at the beginning of 2015 I see no companies that stand higher in the estimation of their users than Macmillan Science and Education, and the newly renamed TES Global. My awards therefore go jointly to Annette Thomas and Louise Rogers.

Of course, there is always more to do. The Education side of Macmillan, for example, remains in transition. But for a company founded in the second half of the nineteenth century, its renaissance in a digital world is remarkable. In 2015 I really appreciated how the use of Macmillan’s Digital Science as a greenhouse for investment in start-ups critical to the future role of researchers was blossoming into the development of investments like ReadCube as hub technologies around which other players, like Wiley in one example, could develop their own access and distribution strategies. In other words, do not compete with your old rivals: work on capturing the new value points. Users will recall 2014 as the year when their subscription value to Nature and its journals reaped additional value through the release of access controls for subscribers. And many of staff will recall the year as their first on an integrated campus site in Kings Cross which brings benefits in communication, and understanding of the whole customer base. Things will continue to change, especially as Digital Education as well as Digital Science, makes a contribution, but for the Holtzbrinck family investors, who bought from the Macmillan family when their nerve failed and whose courage has backed Annette and her talented team, there must be great satisfaction at the value enhancement here, as well as the return.

At TES Global the picture is very different. The Times Educational Supplement and its smaller sister, the Times Higher Educational Supplement, were sold by Murdoch’s News International when he persuaded himself that advertising teaching jobs in the UK would be done on government websites and was thus a dead duck. Two private equity owners have since made real money from this supposed write-off, and a third is shaping up to do the same. Not only have traditional markets been held but taken online and increased. TES Connect, a resource sharing innovation developed to allow teachers to share their own work and lesson plans, commands a global marketplace and has a joint venture with a major US teaching organization. 2014 will be recalled as the year when the new PE owner decided to back management in buying relevant tech companies in Silicon Valley to support this global growth and delver fresh layers of value as a way of getting a leverage on the value added through the resource sharing process. And to widen the market by acquiring agencies in areas of recruitment that the company never previously considered. Here is another company, a child of the great age of late nineteenth century print dominance, which has shown how determined questioning of the status quo can recreate value. As expansion opportunities now appear, 2014 saw several high level managers with new skill sets arrive to take up the challenges. And it was the year when it changed its name – to better reflect the TES brand it has so completely rebuilt.

My two award winners are very different, but share much in common. One has a background as a science researcher, the other as a B2B magazine publisher. Yet both understand the culture of users online in a way that has evaded many of their contempories. Both understand the workflow of their users and how their services must add critical value. Both have been prepared to take historic business models and shake them until they worked, or new ones were ready for adoption. But for me, the award goes to them because they were both prepared to lead change from the CEO position. They have demonstrated that they are prepared to dare to be wrong. This quality is called courage, and there is less of it about in the information industry than we need at a time when the speed of change is ever quickening.


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2 Comments so far

  1. Freddie Quek on January 6, 2015 23:03


    You are well placed to judge, and your considered thoughts here can provide good road markers for the publishing industry as it continues to find ways to transform its future and fortune. I will look forward to your two picks every year from now!

  2. Peter Lake on January 9, 2015 15:01


    What excellent choices and what a splendid way to start 2015’s reflections. What has always seemed so impressive at Macmillan – and I am sure at TES Global- is how unsatisfied they are at just doing what they do better. It’s not just the courage to change but also the commitment to build and do more.