The economic, social and political environment has never been so uncertain. At the CBI conference on 21 Nov in London, government, business leaders and insurgent tech firms discussed how to embrace technology disruption and foster innovation. The scope of the debate covered all sectors of the economy, and the role of government, but I believe there are plenty of lessons and ideas relevant to the media sector.
The turbulent backdrop
The pace of technological change, and in particular the availability of online information and communication, is driving revolutionary change in most industries. It is making the world more interconnected, and fuelling the growth of the newer economies in Asia and Latin America, shifting the global balance of power. But some populations in the formerly dominant West have felt marginalised and left behind by globalisation and growing inequality. Their rejection of the “establishment” has led to Brexit and the election of Trump, ushering in greater economic and political uncertainty for any business that trades across borders.
A modern industrial strategy
Teresa May signalled that the government is prepared to support business in this time of political and technology transition; aiming for a “smooth” transition to Brexit rather than a trade cliff edge, increasing investment in R&D and supporting start-up firms and small businesses who are innovating. The inequality problem in the UK is exacerbated by the imbalance between London and the regions, so there is greater focus on infrastructure, education and regional investment to build up the skills base and economy in our second tier of cities.
Building on UK strengths
The UK is strong in many sectors: aerospace, life sciences, AI, professional services, finance and (last but not least) the creative industries, all of which are valued internationally. The digital economy is now 12% of total GDP (according to Matt Brittin of Google), which makes the UK one of the world’s digital hotspots, with a strong tech community and skilled people. British Universities have a strong reputation for science and technology research with global applications, and are increasingly working with businesses.
Creating a culture to deal with disruption
The rate and scale of technology change is still accelerating, so organisations have to become aware of potential disruption early and be flexible and agile enough to respond quickly. Nicola Mendelsson, VP EMEA of Facebook, believes that their open and transparent culture, with data shared internally, and dissent and feedback encouraged at all levels, helps them react swiftly to change. For example, the shift to mobile, which contributed no revenue in 2012, and now makes up 80% of revenue, or the move to video, with 100m hours now viewed daily.
Learning from and partnering with disruptors
Established businesses can learn from start ups who use technology to establish a connection with customers quickly. In finance, the new Atom bank has grown fast by building a relationship with its customers over digital channels, rather than a face to face branch network. Hello Fresh, which delivers personalised ready-to-cook meals gathers direct information from customers, analysing over 250k data points per month to evolve their products. Matt Brittin of Google firmly believes that it is the small businesses of the UK that are leading the way digitally.
Channel 4, now part of the broadcasting establishment, has used its digital channels to build a direct relationship with 15 million customers, offer personalised services and collect data to allow ads to be sold at a premium. They also co-produce with Amazon and Netflix, who could be considered as competitors. Hays, a recruitment firm, decided to partner with Linked In, and share data on prospective candidates, whilst its staff added the personal, human touch. According to Martin Sorrell of WPP, for whom Google and Facebook are the no.1 and no.3 customers respectively, media businesses should be concerned about the growth of e-commerce giants like Amazon and Alibaba, whose direct customer relationship allows them to bypass traditional media outlets. There was a clear message that it is better to consort with, learn from and even partner the digital insurgents and disruptors than ignore them.
Developing new skills and exploring AI
Machine learning and artificial intelligence is quickly automating repetitive tasks, from manufacturing to data gathering and even writing stories. Rather than panic about the implication for current job roles, a better approach is to redesign the overall workflow, so “robots” tackle the tasks they are best suited for, while humans add the soft skills: persuasion, negotiation, emotional intelligence. So while the economy definitely needs more people equipped with STEM skills, there is also a value in the skills developed through studying the arts and humanities. Deloittes quoted research that concluded 65% of today’s primary age children will do a job as an adult that hasn’t yet been invented. Certainly many media businesses are now hiring more developers, UX experts and data scientists than journalists. Education and retraining in digital skills won’t of course just be for young adults, as many in the workforce will need up-skilling. Google has a new initiative delivering free digital training to small businesses in 100 towns and cities across the UK.
Backing the big trends
In a time of political and economic turbulence, it’s easy for larger organisations to get stuck in indecision, be too concerned about making the wrong investment, and move too slowly. Matt Brittin of Google advised backing the big trends, the growth in access to information and communication. His eminently sensible three point plan was as follows:
- Show up – get involved in digital and technology personally, and discover what’s being said online in your market
- Wise up – take a close look at the data that is being created, test and learn and keep experimenting
- Speed up – customers are impatient, the pace of change is accelerating, companies have to deliver a good service quickly
So the message on dealing with technology disruption, and encouraging innovation, is to create an open and flexible culture, stay aware of disruptors, learn from their approach and even form partnerships. Plus to use data to understand customers, and be prepared to experiment, test and learn. And to help teams acquire the new skills to adapt to different ways of working, combining automation with essential human “soft skills”. Finally, to be flexible enough to reinvent a business model to adapt to a changing customer base.
If you’d like to discuss further your own digital strategy and how you could learn from the experiences of other media businesses, please contact me for an informal chat over the phone or over a coffee.
About the author
Carolyn Morgan has over twenty years experience launching, growing, buying and selling specialist media businesses across print, digital and live events. Carolyn now advises publishers large and small on their digital strategy and writes and speaks on the topic of digital publishing strategy for media sector publishers and events.