Ah, the Theatre of the B2B marketplace! After two days at the Briefing Media Digital Media Strategies event, I feel I have seen every Shakespearian death rattle in the book. From noble senators quaffing the offered hemlock with disdain to the King falling publicly on his sword. Above all, the sense that honeyed words and sweet poison poured in the ear in the form of complacency in the face of extinction is a stoic exit in the context of inexorable change. O for some raging in the dying of the light!

Or perhaps I am being a bit too theatrical. There were positive elements and signs of a new industry appearing. But not in the ruins of the old, where playing the new game as if the old rules still mattered is disastrous. Take Piers North (Strategy Director, Trinity Mirror) and Stefan Bitzold (MD Digital, BILD). They told a panel on adblockers that it is all about Hard Power and Soft Power. The user must be told to behave. If not, the privilege of getting free or even paid for information will be withdrawn. This may make the audience in the room feel happy, but it avoids simple and inconvenient truth: the user is in control and not the supplier and this has been the case since 1993. And the news is now fully commoditised. If news vendors do not accept that, then Google AMP and Facebook Instant Articles should convince them.

Monty Python had a dead parrot. We had the “Boy Stood on the Burning Deck”. Simon Fox, CEO of Trinity Mirror is such an evidently nice guy that one has to wonder what crimes in a previous life sentenced him to this. His counter strategy is to go back into print with his New Day product. Only eight ad slots and no classified. Written by men and women for women and men (this, apparently is a first!). They sold 150k at launch last week and have now increased the price to 25p en route to 50p. No need for a digital strategy here, because there is no digital. Hello, wake up and smell the coffee, it really is 1945 all over again! But Trinity Mirror have their presses to optimize, their editorial headcount is down to 25, quality maintenance must be a nightmare, and it’s getting harder to maintain margins by cutting overheads. Consolidating LocalWorld (the regional papers of DMGT’s Northcliffe) into Trinity Mirror’s locals can again lead to consolidation to maintain margin, but has nobody noticed that while the newspaper market has leaked advertising and circulation for 20 years now, decline gets steeper towards the end? It may be too late now to rediscover what all those people on the commuter trains are doing on their smartphones in the morning.

Much less sad was David Pemsel, MD of the Guardian Group. Getting a global footprint for a liberal minded commentary on the news has plainly worked. He will use Google and Facebook as a channel to market for branded content. The problem here is a business strategy for holding the losses and satisfying the mandate of the Scott Trust to keep the not for profit going. Will membership do it? It’s a hedge against the decline of advertising was the answer. Not too hopeful but at least there are options. Will print end soon? Possibly – a print free Guardian could be envisaged but not nearly yet. The game was more niche markets, more editions, more specialised writing directly at targeted audiences. The Guardian staff is over 900. It has major experiments in citizen journalism. It appears, as a nineteenth century creation, to be busily about its task of finding a new role for the 2050s. There will not be many survivors in the pasteurised news market – only the strongest brands with a reputation for accuracy and a twist on their commentary position can hope to do so.

Hope came from even more unlikely places. LADbible has a good value exchange position. I was disappointed that sex, celebrity and body shape came as low as fourth is its audience priority but with a reach of 150 m in the 13-24 age range, and with 30% of its readers female it seemed to have created a real niche in a wholly digital world. It’s CEO, Mimi Turner came through Northern and Shell to this role, clearly a valuable apprenticeship in a market where communications must say it all in under 12 seconds, and the vital frontline is 6 seconds of attention span. so the notification to the Lockscreen does become the vital attention grabber. But no print heritage here to worry about, and a declining amount at Immediate Media. Francois-Regis Coumau, Group Managing Director, is ex-eBay, so obviously sees no problem about buying a TV merchandising channel for selling jewellery and creating a web presence around it. All media plays, using the best way or combination of ways to reach specialised audiences, suits the old BBC Magazines and Magicalia group, another rare example of post-print life after death.

But, alas, life in the morgue went on relentlessly. Duncan Painter, CEO of Ascential (sorry, it will always be EMAP to me however many times they change its name) told us he was only 4% ad dependent. And now, just before the recent float, he had turned off all print, since it was now an “unviable platform”. 80% of subscribers at that point were digital. But the larger issue looming over the conversation concerned the decision to abandon all print, even that which still makes money. Did that sweeten the float by suggesting that all legacy problems had been resolved? And why would you float 43% (post debt some 25%) if you could sell it? Or is this one of those instances where failure to sell at a premium to a third party resolves into using the public markets and the private investor as a fall back position?

And the last interment, given the high hopes when Ashley Highfield went to Johnston Press, was sad for some listeners like me. Jack Moriarty, Chief Digital Officer, made a game showing, but failed to explain to me at least why this group bought the Independent’s I newspaper for £24m. And the idea that they cannot use Independent or Evening Standard derived material digitally adds to the queries. The idea that users will accept copy branded Scotsman or Yorkshire Post in its place seems very odd, even if these brands had any resonance to a smartphone user of a service like this. A glance had their new service developments like wow24/7 also fails to reassure. It makes LADbible look sparkling! Where is the Alfred Lord Northcliffe of our times who will rethink the connection between content, aspiration and media? Unfortunately his name is Zuckerberg and he does not work on the Northern Echo.

This was a combative and vital meeting of DMS. In my country village childhood funerals were always red letter days. But we know that when print declines, it goes slowly for years then plunges rapidly towards the end. I expect soon to attend all digital meetings here in a sector which is consolidating rapidly around a workflow and data analytics driven view of the world. News is vital there, but only when it changes something, and the user reading it may be less important than the machine knowing it.

Here is a really great moment to celebrate. A readable UK government report with a real impact on markets (https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/492972/gs-16-1-distributed-ledger-technology.pdf). It tells us what Honduras and Estonia are doing that we are yet to fully consider. Yet it fingers a new area of creativity that some authorities liken to the dotcom boom – a new configuration that we relaunch B2B inventiveness in the network around commercial workflows in a way that will take us much further than conventional network technologies. So far it has been the instrument of the crypto currency businesses, but this is far more than that, and the U.K. Office of Science paper, prepared by a team reporting to the Government Science Advisor, Sir Mark “Open Access” Walport, deserves the very widest attention, especially in Shoreditch, Tech City and other parts. There is enough here to launch a whole raft of B2B start-ups.

So let’s start a bit closer to the beginning. When Bitcoin was launched in 2008 the thought was that if a shared, encrypted database could be installed and mirrored across the network, then transactions updated to each ledger and validated would form a useful way of circumventing the use of cash by creating a means for secure asset transfer. Data thus added in each instance of the transaction thus created a data “block”, and as transactions grew more numerous and blocks thus chained together more widespread it became even safer – intervention and alteration of data would have to take place on thousands of machines at the same instant, even if the encryption was circumvented. These Distributed Ledger Technologies (DLT) have seemed like the white hope of interference-free financial transactions, but despite the fame of Bitcoin have been very hard to move into popular focus.

But this too is a characteristic of the Internet age. Technologies arrive, get used on a narrow front, get half-forgotten, and then come sweeping back in to answer questions that were never even thought about when they were invented. This appears to be the fate of DLT. When the Hondurans wanted a new land title system that was not open to third part falsification and could be updated by parties to a land deal or ownership change, then this was obvious. When the Estonians sought a way of leveraging one of their areas of expertise – the use of PKI (public key) encryption technologies – the DLT provided the answers. Amongst the case studies in the report is one after my own heart – an angel investor service network called Funderbeam which uses DLT to allow investors to turn their investments into a trade able currency and move money from investment to investment, preserving investor liquidity while avoiding the lock-in normally experienced by start-up investors.

So DLT has real benefits where asset classes are being exchanged. But we have not been in the data game for the last 30 years without knowing that data itself is an asset. This week, during an eye examination and an annual routine Heart examination, I found myself wishing for DLT in healthcare. What if my records were automatically updated, and any of my health advisors, authorised by me, could see every alteration in drugs or treatment decided by other practitioners treating me? And if I sell my house or trade in my car, can the whole intermediary network please be informed at the same time, including the bank, the insurer, the new owners and the registrars in government who need to know these things?

In the early days of the Web we spoke earnestly about Disinter mediation. Then many of us spoke equally confidently about re-intermediation, as we saw how markets moved fresh digital agents into place in digital marketplaces. It may be harder for the middleman to reinvent himself in the brave new world of DLT technology, however, and taking jobs and increasing productivity will become the focus of inventiveness in this area. Before the last election the UK government made a half-hearted attempt to privatise its own Land Registry. That organisation enters records by hand as well as digitally and employs 5000 people in the business of admits ration and verification. Now imagine it Honduran-style: land transfers are entered by sellers and verified by buyers and their lenders, insurers and other concerned parties, and archived in a block chain where all transactions are archived and held. While we may need an office of Land Transfer Governance we may never again need the current structures. Anyone reading this report in the Shareholder Executive should sell government agencies fast.

All this sounds like redress for the problems of Big Government. But there are other aspects that could affect every business in the land. If we look at business relationships as an asset, then the report suggests that Smart Contracts are likely to become the way in which we action and police business deals:

“Smart contracts are being considered for a wide variety of uses, particularly for regulatory compliance, product traceability and service management, and also to defeat counterfeit products and fraud in the following sectors:
• Food
• Financial Services
• Energy
• Pharmaceuticals
• Health
• Aerospace
• Aviation
• Telecommunications
• IT and communications
• Transport
• Utilities
• Agriculture
• Oil and gas”

So if we are content to sit back and relax, thinking that the technology behind Bitcoin is a “sometime, maybe” phenomenon. This technology is as potentially disruptive as the Web was once perceived to be, it will spark a host of start-ups and within a year every one of us will be thinking about how it applies to what we do – and how we live. And this technology centres on the SmartPhone! Happy New Year!

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