“Wine is valued by its price, not by its flavour”
- Anthony Trollope
It would be difficult to argue today that attendance and appreciation of Shakespeare’s plays are not, for the most part, restricted to the large niche of the middle classes. This is a pity, and interesting, given that his works are ridden with ribald language, iconoclastic storylines and slapstick humour. In his time, the plays were attended and enjoyed by the masses, ageless and classless. Such reach is the envy of productions performed today. High ticket prices charged by theatres – in a quest to secure enough funding every season to recoup the cost of production - must bear some of the blame. But does price, apart from acting as an immediate barrier to entry for some customers, also act as its own signifier of what the event entails, and the audience it is appropriate for?
In 2009, BBC’s Question Time hosted writer Bonnie Greer and, among others, Nick Griffin, chairman of the radical BNP. The ordeal was such that Greer was inspired to write an opera chronicling the evening’s events. Performed at the end of 2011, Greer hoped Yes would make an effective contribution to the UK debate on both immigration and racism. Such substantive content is what media like opera need in order to maintain relevance.”It’s relatively recently that opera has been seen as an entertainment for the elite”, Greer commented. “It used to be a populist medium – I’d like to play some role in reinstating that status”. This runs counter to other contemporary productions, such as Stockhausen’s operatic sci-fi saga Licht, recently performed in Birmingham. At one point, a string orchestra ascends into the air in helicopters, while later a cellist performs lying on the floor. It would be remiss not to mention the climax of the production, which, Alex Ross, writing for The New Yorker, fails to describe: ”Space does not permit a description of the scene in which [a] camel defecates seven planets”. It is hard to imagine such fare being everyone’s cup of tea. Indeed, it is this sort of seemingly self-interested, arcane and intellectually challenging art that is likely to turn people off an entire medium. Some institutions recognise this. Earlier this month the Royal Opera House hosted what they called the “first in a new series of live-streamed events to feature debate, performance, and audience questions”, around the question ‘Are opera and ballet elitist?‘.
In the past though, the Royal Opera House and other institutions have been too focused on short term gimmicks, with a focus on price, to get people through the door. The thinking is broadly logical: Why don’t more people come to the opera? / The opera is expensive / Lowering prices will attract more people to the opera. These three thoughts have plausible connections, but in reality little in common. Like ‘vulgar Marxism’, such an approach reduces the problem to its most simplistic attributes. It is a fallacy. Despite this, The Sun newspaper has in the past partnered with the ROH to offer tickets from GBP5-20. The scheme was a lottery system, guaranteeing few winners. It provides little opportunity for conversion into a regular customer. Meanwhile, both The Sun and the ROH achieve their aims of shifting brand perceptions. But there is far more that could be accomplished. The BBC reported positive reactions from those that took up the offer, “What The Sun is doing is fantastic – opening the opera up to people who wouldn’t normally be able to come”. This despite the fact that opera tickets are consistently available for GBP10 at the ROH, every season. Away from price, the English National Opera tried their own tactic in October last year, inviting people to enjoy the opera in “jeans and trainers”. But does the problem of democratising opera really have its answer in allowing people to wear denim? It seems absurd to think that a one-off event of such a nature could really attract new, long-term audiences. Indeed, The Telegraph reported on the affair, saying the ENO was missing the point, that in fact it was the “alluring glamour” of the medium that was what attracted audiences the world over; “It turns opera into an everyday thing, rather than something exceptional and magical”, wrote Rupert Christiansen. He elaborates on the problem,
“[Opera] can make for an atmosphere that outsiders and newcomers find exclusive and intimidating: it’s as though there’s a set of rules that nobody is going to explain or even admit the existence of. This… rubs up the wrong way against the Arts Council’s understandable insistence that the granting of subsidy via taxpayers’ money should mean open access at reasonable prices. Squaring this circle is a formula that nobody has yet managed to crack.”
The outgoing director of the ROH, Tony Hall – on his way to assume a new post at the BBC – wrote diary entries published last weekend in the FT. He wrote about the recent partnership established with the Theatro Municpal in Rio. Like the ROH, they are also looking to attract new audiences: “An idea I particularly like is where every seat in the house for a day a year is sold on the day for a real (about 33p)”. On the face of it this sounds noble and effective. Who wouldn’t want to see any form of entertainment, let alone an extravagantly produced opera, for a mere 33p? But let’s think about it. Doing this one day a year is miserly. It hardly encourages upselling, or long-term commitment. What it most assuredly encourages is that one day a year the opera house attracts plenty of press coverage as people line the streets queueing for such cheap tickets. Cheap tickets for one day a year is an act that smacks of condescension. And what of the price itself? Zeitgeist has written before about the power of behavioural economics. McKinsey have an interesting article on the study. To wit, for most people, consciously or otherwise, price is an overriding symbol of value. Price is used often, especially by premium brands, as a means of framing the product versus its peers. We often make irrational purchases on big-ticket items (a car being chief among these). Conversely, when something is cheap, especially when perceived as ‘too’ cheap, the consumer questions why it is at such a price, acting with suspicion. At its simplest, pricing tickets to the opera at 33p implies that it might not be something you would enjoy. The first reaction – often the most powerful – instilled in the consumer is one of trepidation.
Just as with the current government’s wrangling over minimum pricing policies for alcohol, the approach from the arts to occasionally allow the unwashed masses into their buildings misses the point. In the case of alcohol, the scheme was mainly invented to curb youth drinking, especially among the ‘working class’. But, as The Economist points out, “People on the lowest incomes, who are most price-sensitive, are surprisingly abstemious anyway; those in rich parts of the country, such as the south-east, consume copiously”. Shakespeare’s Globe does a good job of making the Bard’s plays accessible, with standing tickets for GBP5, something that Zeitgeist has taken advantage of several times over the years. It is one of the few artistic houses to have preserved this manner of watching a performance. It upholds tradition while at the same time ensuring the plays have access to a broader public. The Royal Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square offers a few standing tickets for every performance for a mere 10p. It’s a great idea to have this option as a constant as, apart from anything else, it increases the likelihood of having returning customers who can be upsold to – or cross-sold to in the bar downstairs. Zeitgeist imagines however that the theatre could easily get away with charging ten times the amount for a standing ticket, with zero depreciable effect.
There is no doubt that a certain amount of price elasticity indeed exists with items like tickets to the opera. But occasionally releasing cheap tickets is not the whole answer. There are larger questions here on arts funding and the absence of dedicated, large-scale philanthropy in the UK that have not been discussed here, but will be important in encouraging accessibility to the arts. Earlier we mentioned the recent debate the ROH hosted asking whether people thought opera and ballet to be elitist. The problem with such a question is it immediately consigns the word ‘elitist’ to a pejorative category. One of the greatest points Jon Stewart ever made – now some years back – on The Daily Show, was that the word ‘elite’ should in some contexts be a good thing, something to be embraced. That some people excel in a certain discipline is something to be celebrated. That some art transcends others, is beautiful, challenging, creative and stimulating is something to be cherished. Instead the word and concept have become uniformly demonised. Though one could easily question ‘canon’ texts in any medium, there should be no need to mask something that is perceived as being ‘high art’, rather attention should only be paid to debunking any preconceptions about its exclusivity. Quick price gouges are most certainly not the answer to improving access to these forms of art. It takes time, relevance and above all a security in the knowledge that not everyone has to enjoy every type of entertainment. Just provide them with opportunities to be sufficiently exposed to it, without making it seem like you’re deigning to include them.
“Breaking an old business model is always going to require leaders to follow their instinct. There will always be persuasive reasons not to take a risk. But if you only do what worked in the past, you will wake up one day and find that you’ve been passed by.”
- Clayton Christensen
What do Dell, The New Yorker and the music industry have in common? All three are currently grappling fundamentally with their business models in the face of creative destruction at the hands of digital disruption. The CEO of Dell is struggling to take it private at the moment – in a proposed $24.4bn buyout – in an effort to ensure its strategy looks away from the short-term needs of investors while it restructures with a new, long-term strategy that will shift focus away from its core PC business. An issue of The New Yorker hardly makes for a quick read, but has been one of the more innovative companies among its peers to embrace and experiment with digital. We wrote about their initiatives last summer. Recently, for their anniversary issue, the publisher offered digital issues for 99c, an offer that Zeitgeist took them up on, and it was pleasing to see how well the digital edition mirrored with print one, while at the same time adding some features that took advantage of being on a digital product. Last week, The Economist published an article on the music industry, which is beginning to see glimmers of hope in its revenues from digital sales. “Sales of recorded music grew in 2012 for the first time since 1999“, although only by an anemic 0.3%. This is still better than Hollywood, which had to settle for celebrating a flattening of home entertainment revenues, after years of decline. After almost being destroyed by it, a third of the music industry’s revenues now come from digital, but they are barely keeping up with the decline in physical sales, which makes up the bulk of other revenues. Lucian Grainge, chairman and chief executive of Universal Music Group, spoke to the Financial Times at the weekend,
“The industry needs transforming. It’s for others to decide whether they want to get stuck in the past or whether they want to come on the journey… We’ve learnt an awful lot, but it’s like being in a commercial earthquake and the reality is it takes time to get out from beneath the desk where you’re protecting yourself and move forward.”
Indeed, one of the biggest issues industries must address is when is the right moment to risk their current business model in order to address change and adapt. Grainge talks about the industry need for a “constructive collision” between musicians, content owners, distributors, entrepreneurs and investors. To what extent this is happening is unclear, but it is certainly thinking outside the box, and could well be applied to other areas similarly suffering at the hands of such change. As goes the music and film industries, so goes the print industry too? How do print titles develop profitable models for generating profits in the face of such volatility in changing consumption habits and digital disruption?
In December 2012, consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG) published a report entitled ‘Transforming Print Media’. The report begins on a sour note, admitting that the conventional wisdom is that newspaper and magazine publishing is “a dying business”. This is a hard assertion to counter though, and the consultancy’s own graphics show a rather alarming lack of growth in developed countries. Emerging markets, conversely, are seeing growth in both print advertising and circulation, for both newspapers and magazines. For instance, while between 2006 and 2011, the US has seen a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) decline of 12% in print advertising, China has seen an 8.5% uptick, and India a 13.9% growth. One of the immediate problems the report addresses, and one which Michael Dell is looking to neutralise is that of concentrating on short-term gain at the expense of long-term restructuring with a rigorous focus on which adjacencies work well and which do not. This can be immensely hard to justify in an environment of quarterly earnings reports and instant CNBC updates. BCG suggests implementing a strategy that will instill long-term change while also providing medium-term gains to keep investors happy. The report proposes a 3-5 year plan, and, interestingly, notes that success will rely “more on execution than insight”. Zeitgeist would counter that without both being optimal, the strategy is bound to fail. Moreover, knowing exactly who you want to target and how their methods of media consumption and interaction have altered / are altering is a critical tool for success. It also points out that new business models should not be about “trading print dollars for digital pennies”, something that the music and to some extent the film industry are both grappling with currently.
David Carey, head of Hearst Magazines, commented last year that, in publishing, “you need five or six revenue streams to make the business really successful”. One of the key points that recurs throughout the BCG report, which Zeitgeist, while working on developing strategic recommendations for the Financial Times last year, was also in favour of, was in extending the reach of the business in new directions. These directions leverage the brand equity of the company and extend into areas adjacent to the company’s expertise. For the FT, opportunities exist to extend the brand name into complementary areas of luxury with which the paper is already associated. Monocle has made in-roads into diversification by starting a radio station, which it says is very attractive to advertisers because they have a clear idea of their audience; the type of high-earning consumers who never normally listen to radio. As well as new revenue streams, Zeitgeist also focused on customer retention. One important consideration was that of both vertical and horizontal cohesion. The business as a brand must speak in a relevant, cohesive way across channels, and, in the case of the FT, speak in the appropriate way to its many different readers around the world. BCG advocates “reassessing vendor relationships; stream- lining editorial, content sharing, ad pricing, and production processes; and pooling advertising sales across titles or clusters… the right changes to financial policies— particularly to debt levels and ratios, dividends, and buybacks —can create a clear and compelling case for long-term health, can lift stock prices, and can attract more patient investors.”
Price is a fundamental consideration too. For the FT, Zeitgeist extemporised on the importance of price. Referencing behavioural economics, price for the FT acted as an anchor. It framed the paper more by juxtaposing it with its cheaper peers than by giving it any inherent value. In reports from the last few years taken both in Europe and the US, several major broadsheet newspapers were studied. They had all raised their prices. Some of them had seen their circulation decrease. But all of them had seen increases in revenue, even the ones that had lost circulation. Zeitgeist presented the FT with an analogy; the champagne label Krug, some years ago, hiked up its price, with little notice and for no perceived reason. Production, pricing and taste had not changed. The company lost some suppliers because of this change. But overall, their revenues increased. Krug was now in the upper echelons of the luxurious world of champagne, done to coincide with a global rebrand that appeared in all the right places. BCG alludes to the price increases in its report, saying consumers will “perceive greater value in the product than the amount it is costing them… there is the ability to increase these prices by as much as 70 to 100 percent…”. The report addresses paywalls, which Zeitgeist have written about several times in the past. The key it seems is in making these paywalls permeable, not inflexible. This is one issue the FT will need to address, one its peers, like the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), The New York Times and The New Yorker, have taken steps in the direction of already. The WSJ has frequently taken down its paywall during times of emergency (such as Hurricane Sandy), or for sponsored promotions. Advertisers still play a significant role in US print advertising – a $34bn role – but it is diminishing. The New York Times reported last year that advertising revenue had dropped below subscription revenue. As worrying as this is, it should provide an opportunity for companies to focus more on producing content that the actual readers want, rather than what the advertisers want to see. Broadly, the difficulty lies in getting consumers to see the worth of a digital product versus a hard copy. Obviously this issue is not restricted to the publishing industry.
The importance of the transition to digital is hard to overstate. As well as issues of pricing and paywall strategy, there is also social media to consider. Here, the FT is a good example of a brand that is playing it safe, operating for the most part with a very top-down messaging strategy that leaves little room for collaborative communication. But digital production and the expectation of instant news also means that companies are having to change the way they produce content. Speaking at the Future of Media summit at the Broadcast and Video Expo recently, Editor in Chief of Time Out London Tim Arthur said their changes were “led partly by necessity and partly by desire”. BCG outlines three models that are emerging: “dedicated print and digital editorial teams, integrated teams that operate throughout the print and digital platforms, and full editorial integration”. There are several advantages to be leveraged through digital as well. Research is a big one. Time Out’s Tim Arthur admitted they never used to carry out research until their recent transformation, which included an overhaul of their digital strategy, as well as making their hard copy paper free. It was great then to hear how the company was now using multiple channels to collate data and engage audiences at the same time. Unlike the FT, Time Out was no longer engaging in a one-way conversation, and they were operating with “less arrogance”. The company changed from a content-stacked, “trickle down” approach to one that recognised different audience needs over different platforms, which is a key insight. Furthermore, the opportunities to make advertising more engaging are also quite evident. iAds for example, allow more interaction. A recent ad in The New Yorker promoted a new book with a ‘tap to read a chapter’ function.
“These considerations inevitably lead to a series of hard choices about the degree of diversification that publishers can realistically undertake”, so summarises the BCG report, which suggests controlled experimentation to work out the best model. On an internal level, the company must convince employees that this change will be for the better and for the long-term. It must also convince shareholders of the benefits, while showing real value as early as possible. Such a transformation provides opportunities for streamlining technologies and future-proofing ways of working. It should make the brand think about what its equity is, and where else it can push out to in order to drive new revenue streams. Digital is not something to be feared, it should be embraced. The opportunities for more targeted, engaging advertising, not least through the use of consumer data, which also can help provide more tailored and attractive content – content that is “useful to others” as Arthur says – will be fundamental steps to take. The music industry, which was ravaged by Napster and its myrmidons at the end of the 20th century, took an age to wake up to realisation that money could be made from the millions of people who were already downloading songs online. The film and television industries have reacted slightly faster, and initiatives like Hulu, Ultraviolet and Tesco’s Clubcard TV will help stem the tide. Print on the whole is more on top of the game. Companies like the Financial Times and Time Out are driving innovation in the sector, but must still more readily embrace change if they are to really connect with future readers. Time will tell.
A great ad featured during a commercial break in the Academy Awards broadcast tonight on ABC. There’s no shortage of data out there pointing to the decimation of the retail sector, and we have written on the subject before. Stores cannot be promoted from a practical viewpoint any more; the internet has put paid to that. The irrational, emotional connection is what companies like JCP – after enduring troubles with another rebrand – are counting will bring customers into store. It’s a nice ad that feels genuine.
UPDATE (28/2): Great advertising sadly can’t always save a company from poor financial performance. The stock dipped today by over 20% as the company backtracked on a previous strategy, deciding to hold daily sales after completely swearing them off a year ago. Walter Loeb, a retail consultant and former senior retail analyst at Morgan Stanley, proclaims the company “lost its core customer during the transformation”. Oops.
Zeitgeist has found himself leading projects several times over the past year. The prospect can sometimes be a challenging one, and the received wisdom is that looking to the past can help shed light on the future. Looking at both recent and ancient history, however, says one thing more than anything else; leaders are a victim of circumstances. Any strategy must adapt to context.
As a 20-something Londoner with money to burn, Zeitgeist naturally found himself on Saturday night sitting at home, reading The New Yorker. The fascinating review by Dexter Filkins of recent biographies on David Petraeus, former CIA director and responsible for the execution of the ‘surge’ in Iraq and Afghanistan, painted an interesting portrait of what leadership is about. He recognised that the system in place in the early days of Iraq of rounding up countless civilians in order to ferret out insurgents was not an efficient one, nor was it especially effective. Rather, as Filkins points out, “I witnessed several such roundups, and could only conclude that whichever of these men did not support the uprising when the raids began would almost certainly support it by the time the raids were over”. Leadership, then, in this case, came in the ability to spot a deficiency, and then building on it by offering a better solution. Petraeus, who liked to say that “money is ammunition”, focused on the civilians they wanted to protect, rather than the enemy they wanted to kill. This was a drastically radical notion at the time in the military. True leadership narratives are often riddled with anecdotes of absolute maverick behaviour of this kind. The fallacy is that, and this is one of Taleb’s main points in his book on uncertainty, Black Swan, the stories of those whose maverick ideas did not work out rarely make for interesting books or films. Few songs will be written about those guys.
Just as Petraeus was able to leverage the time in which he happened to be serving in order to spot something that he could perceive to be at fault and have the opportunity to amend, there is then an element of luck involved too. “I have plenty of clever generals”, Napoleon once said, “Just give me a lucky one”. Petraeus’ luck began with being around at the right time in order to see how things could be different. It continued when he managed to shepherd his idea for the ‘surge’ to fruition. While at the time the idea of deploying an extra 25,000 soldiers to Iraq was greeted with some mixed reactions to the say the least, it can certainly be said to have paid off in large part. It was another example of a maverick move that panned out well. However, as Filkins points out, the timing of it all was what made it such a success. The Awakening, a phrase given to Sunni-orchestrated truces with US troops that began before the surge, was instrumental. Filkins writes, “Could the surge have worked without the Awakening? Almost certainly not”. The Awakening most assuredly featured tactically in the execution of the surge, but you can be sure it was never part of the strategy. Perhaps it was the failure to notice this, and the attractiveness of the holistic narrative – another fallacy that Taleb notes in his book – that led to a surge being attempted, with far less success, in Afghanistan. What works in one place at one time, might not work again.
Zeitgeist is also currently wading through the Marie Antoinette biography by Antonia Fraser. It is quite extraordinary to note how many times the autocratic aristocracy are a victim of circumstances, rather than being able to dictate their own fate through their own policies and leadership. In the long-term, though greeted with warmth at the start of her reign, Marie Antoinette was always treated with a modicum of suspicion by the people of France, hailing from Austria, a country of lukewarm political relations and which culturally left many an ordinary Frenchman cold. It was long-gestating prejudices such as these that helped blacken the Queen’s name. The phrase ‘Let them eat cake’ had been ascribed to various monarchs going back over a century before Marie Antoinette ascended to the throne. In the medium-term, the support France provided in the American war of independence was pivotal. The Treasury spent an enormous amount of money funding the war, which was seen as a proxy battle with England. This action alone nearly bankrupted with country. But, away from finances, there was the ideological lens to consider as well. Landed gentry like Lafayette, who left nobly at the King’s command to support the war, returned not only as lauded heroes, but as heroes who had been fighting with a group of people who yearned to be free of a suppressive, royalist regime. Such thinking proved infectious, and was not forgotten when men like Lafayette returned home. Finally, in the short-term, an absolutely ruinous stroke of weather stunted harvests, creating mass famine across the country in the lead-up to the revolution. All such things were manageable to an extent by the royalty, but truthfully the origins of such influences were out of there hands.
CEOs today are seen as less wizard-like than they were five or ten years ago, when moguls, particularly in the media industry, bestrode the globe, acquiring companies at their whim, creating ‘synergy’ where none really existed in the first place (think AOL Time Warner). The paradigm shift of course has been in the global recession that few – including many a lauded business leader – foresaw. Confidence in such people has been shaken. What history tells us about the ways to handle leadership then can be summarised as the following: 1. Know your environment. Externalities and trends are likely to influence your business, and not always in obvious ways. 2. Be mindful of context. What works somewhere might not work in the same way again. 3. Appearance, rightly or wrongly, counts for a great deal. 4. When you choose to do something can sometimes be as important as the thing you are trying to do itself. 5. A small amount of luck can go a long way.