The Sharing Economy meets the Internet of Things

September 29, 2013 Leave a comment

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This post has been reblogged by IBM and is reproduced on their Tumblr sites. The original is available below in its entirety.

Noise over what has been called Collaborative Consumption – and elsewhere The Sharing Economy – has been increasing in volume for some months now. Kickstarter, a crowdfunding business that exists to let people from anywhere in the world donate to singular projects, is a great example of this new philosophy. The company has played roles in funding films, games consoles and civic projects like the construction of bridges. Zeitgeist has made use of sites likes AirBnB and Housetrip to stay in lovely, very affordable apartments in places like Paris and New York. These diverse businesses aren’t necessarily united in a single cause to drive the sharing economy, but they are all trying to make use of what some economies, particularly in the West, excel at producing: surplus.

It’s an acknowledgment that there are physical items we own that we don’t actually need, which are eminently transferable – for a certain period of time – to others, with the market more or less dictating price (it’s this last point that removes any assertions or complaints of the idea being some sort of socialist utopia). At its root, the idea has been seen in media consumption for several years now; we’ve written often about the new customer mantra of ‘access trumps ownership’, where people prefer to stream their content rather than have it on a shelf. This is a bit of a sea-change in how we view ourselves. As a very astute article in The New Yorker pointed out earlier this month, we have often defined ourselves by what we own,

“For most of the past century, Americans have been the world’s greatest consumers. And usually consumption has meant ownership: just before the Great Recession, the average American household owned 2.28 cars, and had more television sets than people. But these days a host of new companies are trying to disrupt the paradigm… beneath all the hype is a sensible idea: there are a lot of slack resources in the economy. Assets sit idle—the average car is driven just an hour a day—and workers have time and skills that go unused. If you can connect the people who have the assets to people who are willing to pay to rent them, you reduce waste and end up with a more efficient system.

Zeitgeist believes that the increasing popularity of another evolution in business – that of connected devices – will dovetail nicely with the sharing economy. The widespread use of connected devices, known as the Internet of Things, is broadly based on the idea of having products that are intelligent enough to know what they are being used for, when they are being used, and how to make sure the user gets the most productivity out them. Connecting said product to the Internet is usually a pretty good way of doing this. At its simplest, it is the much-ballyhooed Smart Fridge, that knows when it’s running out of milk and orders more for you online without having to bother asking you. In reality, it is things like the Nest device, a (very) smart and (very) beautiful thermostat device.

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Zeitgeist was at London’s Bloomberg HQ earlier this week for Social Media Week, a series of events usually dominated by a great deal of hot air. Fortunately this was not the case with the Internet of Things event. It quickly became clear that without the Internet of Things, collaborative consumption would plateau very quickly. There were fascinating projects like Pachube, which relied on crowdsourcing data in real-time via Twitter from an aggregation of sensors, allowing them to communicate with one another and at the same time. This information is not only not proprietary, it is meant to be built upon. It was used during Japan’s Fukushima disaster for crowdsourcing radiation data. 2000 feeds were set up after 10 days; Android apps, SMS alerts were built, all by different people, a great example of product and information being shared and being improved by being open to collaboration. On a more humorous level, Zeitgeist was also privy to hearing about Addicted Toasters, where the toaster is not just connected to the owner’s smartphone, or to the Internet, but also to other toaster’s in the network. If it sees that others are toasting more bread, it gets ‘jealous’. By which we mean of course that if it decides it is being under-utilised, it will decide it is time to go to the next person on the waiting list who wants to use a toaster. It does this by dialling into the FedEx API and getting itself shipped to that next person in line. The speakers, Usman Haque, said this was not just about “remote monitoring or control, but participation with others in how people make sense of local environments and how products are shared”. While the Addicted Toaster may be smart, and ostensibly aware of a network of other toasters, many aren’t holistically connected with a wider infrastructure. The driverless car, which companies like Tesla and Google are road-testing as I type, is set to bring about this next evolution, as described last week in an excellent article in the Financial Times. If we do come to a time when – as was suggested at the Bloomberg event – every product has its own IP address, then it means that every product is a lot more easy to track, and necessarily a lot more easy to lend to others. For, if a device is unique and ‘intelligent’, it should hypothetically recognise your own needs when you need it, and another’s when someone else has need of it. A world with fewer items can be pretty cool, too, if pretty small, as entrepreneur Graham Hill demonstrates with his New York apartment that is one room, or eight, depending on how you look at it.

All this sharing undoubtedly has positive implications for sustainability; a lot less produced means a lot less waste. There are potentially huge lifestyle impacts as well, which may not be as comforting. The New Yorker, again:

“It isn’t just companies and regulators who will have to be flexible, though. Workers will, too, since the sharing economy requires people to function as micro-entrepreneurs… They are all independent contractors, working for themselves and giving the companies a cut of the action. This has certain attractions: no boss, the ability to set your own hours, control over working conditions. It also means no benefits, no steady paycheck, and the need to always be hustling; in that sense, it fits all too well with the free-agent nation we’re increasingly becoming. Sharing, it turns out, is often a hell of a lot of work.”

Cost-cutting consoles

September 13, 2013 2 comments

Zeitgeist finally got around to seeing “Elysium” last night. Typical of the current climate in film distribution, it was disappearing from all of Zeitgeist’s local screens in central London, after a mere 3-4 weeks of release. The above trailer screened before the film. Videogames have been trying to sell themselves as films for years, since the likes of “Metal Gear” and “Max Payne”. (The picture becomes even more blurred as more videogames attempt to make the transition to feature franchises). This tactic was nothing new, moreover it was somewhat underwhelming. The graphics looked pixellated, the movement clunky, and any sense of verisimilitude was lacking. It is difficult to put a finger on what exactly the problem was, but patching polygons together is not the same as making all the parts interact with one another. It was surprising, given that the game is to be made available on the as-yet unreleased Playstation 4, a console which, going from the launch event months ago, is capable of some stunning graphic simulation. The market has gone for longer than usual without a new stream of console launches, so it seemed puzzling that not all that much seems to have changed.

It was somewhat reassuring then to read today The Economist’s Technology Quarterly supplement, which featured as its lead article an overview of the videogames industry, and how high costs have produced diminishing technical returns in the latest bout of releases from Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo. The article states the newest consoles look “surprisingly underpowered”:

“At previous console launches, executives have boasted about their boxes’ whizzy technological innards. Sony in particular was a dab hand at this sort of thing, coming up with names like “Emotion Engine” and “Reality Synthesiser” for the chips that powered its previous consoles. But this time neither Microsoft nor Sony seems very keen to talk up the technical prowess of their new boxes… new consoles will be merely catching up with the current state of the art, rather than defining it. Both consoles… are, for all intents and purposes, ordinary PCs in fancy boxes.”

The market hasn’t found a way to substantially raise prices on games, while at the same time the cost of developing them has “ballooned”. Moreover, due to rising costs of customised chips and increasing competition from those with lower fixed costs (think videogame mobile app developers, and Ouya), Sony and Microsoft are now using standardised chips in their consoles.  The article was also keen to note that graphics are no longer the be-all-and-end-all of a console’s power and reputation (as it was in the days of 32 and 64-bit machines). Indeed gaming itself is argubaly no longer front and centre of console strategy, as manufacturers seek to diversify into other areas of entertainment. Just in time as well, as a recent report from Accenture predicts the end of single-use devices.

UPDATE (15/9/13): The New York Times points out that often the best games take a while to appear on new consoles, with Nintendo devices tending to be the exception.

The New Normal of the Internet of Things

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The subtle alternative to the tin foil hat

In the wake of PRISM, New York Times takedowns and spying London rubbish bins, people on the Internet don’t feel that secure any more… at all. Business Insider published an article recently saying the days of truly private email conversations are over. A new trend in “countersurveillance fashion” has sprung up (see above image), and New York’s New Museum is opening a ‘privacy gift shop’ for September.

One of the clients Zeitgeist works for is about to get heavily involved in Machine to Machine (M2M) communication, otherwise known as the Internet of Things (IoT). Intel were making themselves heard last month at an event in London’s Spitalfields Market on the subject. And earlier this month, the exemplary blog GigaOm published an article entitled “How can we design an internet of things for everyone (not just alpha geeks)?”. This new development, which includes self-driving cars, fridges ordering milk for you when you run out without being asked, potentially brings with it ideas of a utopian world of interconnected devices that do your bidding.

But such potential is now seen in a different light, post-PRISM. The first two user comments, screengrabbed below, were a grim reminder of the new normal, where such a utopian future has already been tarnished by abuses before it even arrives.

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The likes of PRISM and xKeystroke have arguably completely reversed the libertarian premise of the Internet

The Piracy Pivot – A new heading for copyright enforcement?

August 7, 2013 1 comment

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Pretty much seven years ago to the month, Zeitgeist was putting the finishing touches to his Master’s dissertation. It centered on intellectual property rights, and the infringement of those rights by consumers who were downloading content they weren’t paying for. Zeitgeist conducted multiple interviews, including several with key people at studios and industry bodies in Europe and Los Angeles. It was a time when the industry were trying to curtail piracy using massive fines and jail sentences, at the same time providing few legal alternatives for content consumption online (this latter issue is still a problem today). Needless to say, there were a fair amount of heads buried in the sand. We’ve talked about piracy before, from its murky impact on the bottom line to the stricture of copyright law.

It was refreshing to see the news reported by industry trade mag Variety that Comcast – a large cable operator in the US, which also owns NBCUniversal – is investigating new methods of disrupting piracy online. Specifically, they are planning to push pop-ups to those who are downloading content illegally, providing them with links to alternative domains where the same product can be downloaded legally. There are privacy concerns here, undoubtedly. What was most reassuring about the idea though was crystallised below by journalist Andrew Wallenstein, which for Zeitgeist hits the nail on the head:

Using pirated content as a platform to drive legal transactions reflects an alternate philosophy regarding copyright infringement, one that sees the illegal activity less as a crime that requires punishment and more as lead generation to a consumer whose behavior is borne out of inadequate legitimate digital content options.

The next ‘Ishtar’: Is the film industry nearing “implosion”?

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“A legendary disaster… a cascade of dysfunction”; can the film industry avoid future Ishtars?

This post serves as a companion piece and extended update to our previous article on rethinking film industry strategy, which can be found here.

“For me, the business of tentpoles is about generating franchises. The more tentpoles that are being made, the more risky the first installment of a potential franchise is going to be. That’s why I think everybody needs to be asking hard questions about what is a real tentpole and what is a faux tentpole.”

- Jean-Luc De Fanti, managing partner at Hemisphere Media Capital

Since our last post a few weeks ago on the need to rethink film industry strategy, when Steven Spielberg publicly predicted an “implosion” in the industry, the subject remains in the zeitgeist. As we referenced in our last post, Mr. Spielberg has some familiarity with the industry’s modus operandi, having created the blockbuster phenomenon way back in the 70s with Jaws. Like a mutant in a film of that genre though, the nature of blockbusters has changed since then. Jaws, were it made today, would look very different (i.e. terrible). Despite Mr. Spielberg’s warnings, studios presumably took some comfort in an animated sequel – Despicable Me 2 – becoming, in the words of NBCUniversal chief Steve Burke, “the single most profitable film in the 100 year history of Universal Studios”, more than E.T., Jurassic Park, etc. Not only did it paint a picture of an industry continuing to grow (though presumably the figure did not take inflation into consideration), it must have also quietened any further calls for originality, safe in the knowledge that it was a pretty lowbrow sequel that had triumphed.

The caveat is a large one though, that any proponents of summer blockbusters need to pay close attention to. Despicable Me 2 has made £437 million so far, with a production budget of just £50 million. While on the surface then Despicable Me 2 seems to prove how successful and profitable summer movies can be, it actually provides a lesson in what commercial success can look like with a small-budgeted film. Instead, the rule of thumb during the summer is more likely to involve investing some $200m+ in a film that fails spectacularly – think The Lone Ranger. Though this Disney production is the most visible disappointment of the season, it is by no means alone. The New York Times count “six big-budget duds since May 1“. It is interesting to note that Now You See Me, “the kind of midrange film that studios have largely abandoned as they focus more on pictures that play globally — has taken in $200.4 million worldwide and is still playing”, after costing $75m to make.

Those responsible try to spread the blame. Johnny Depp and producer Jerry Bruckheimer absolved themselves of wrongdoing for their involvement in The Lone Ranger by blaming the critics. Said Depp, “They had expectations that it must be a blockbuster. I didn’t have any expectations of that”. Yet it is easy to see how one might assume the film – created at such expense, with ripe intellectual property to be exploited, with talent involved in the phenomenally successful Pirates of the Caribbean franchise – had all the appropriate ingredients to make it a blockbuster. Studios meanwhile harp on about Twitter, which lets people instantly share their thoughts on a film and is now considered a worrisome bellwether for box office potential. But this is a reaction to poor filmmaking, not a reason why a bad film exists in the first place. They also cite a tight calendar. As The New York Times elaborates, “One or more cinematic behemoths — those loaded with similar-looking computer-generated effects, films that cost $130 million to $225 million to make — have arrived almost weekly since May, fragmenting and fatiguing the audience”. Again, this is no one’s fault but that of the industry. The idea of launching films in a specific time window, when consumers now enjoy time-shifting and device-shifting with their content, is antiquated. It is just as irrelevant in winter, when back-to-back “prestige” films clutter cinemas, desperate for Oscar attention. It is overwhelming for audiences, reduces choice, and in the case of the winter season implies that the voting member of the Academy have no long-term memory.

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Just how many times can we see the White House being blown up?

The summer product is so derivative that evidently audiences are pushing back, showing indifference to the “clones” that feature so prominently at Comic-Con. Films are either direct sequels / reimaginings, or strongly resemble other recent projects. Again, The New York Times has an excellent article on this, elaborating,

“Studios showcased another Amazing Spider-Man, another Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs, another Avengers, another Thor and another Captain America… In addition to Godzilla, remakes teased here in recent days included RoboCop… and Riddick,… Even many of the original movies introduced at Comic-Con this year had a been-there-done-that feeling to them, notably Legendary’s sword-and-sorcery picture Seventh Son, which co-stars Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore and Ben Barnes. In thundering snippets of footage shown on Saturday, the movie at times resembled Clash of the Titans, Snow White and the Huntsman and The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.”

Cheering news for Sony came last week when it announced a $35m profit in the last quarter, but turbulence lay beyond that. In our last post, we mentioned the imbroglio that Sony found itself in as investor Daniel Loeb – whose hedge fund owns roughly 7% of Sony – continued to urge Sony to spin off its entertainment assets. Last week, he wrote a third letter to Sony – the most aggressive yet, with the Financial Times calling it “blistering” – comparing the film division’s two recent duds After Earth and White House Down to Ishtar and Waterworld (two of the floppiest flops to ever flop). He wrote that the CEO, Kazuo Hirai was sitting by complacently while the film division remained “poorly managed, with a famously bloated corporate structure, generous perk packages, high salaries for underperforming executives and marketing budgets that do not seem to be in line with any sense of return on capital invested”. It was with some interest then that, this past Friday, Zeitgeist saw that none other than George Clooney had stepped into the fray, calling Loeb an “activist” who “knows nothing about our business”. He lambasted the hedge fund industry in general, saying “if you look at those guys, there is no conscience at work”.

Clooney added that the “climate of fear” Loeb was creating would lead to even more risk-averse productions. It is creative, rather than financial risk, that Hollywood is sorely in need of. Art doesn’t engage audiences when it is timid and derivative. It inspires people when it is innovative, daring and different. Usually such creative thoughts do not spring forth from the mind of a hedge fund manager. Such new thinking – involving a review of a market research firms say is suffering from “overcrowding” – will require a significant course correction, one that is not going to come anytime soon. The summer slate for 2015 currently includes a Terminator sequel, an Avengers sequel, a Smurfs sequel, Independence Day 2 and Pirates of the Caribbean 5.

The “Jaws” of death? – Rethinking film industry strategy

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Steven Spielberg on-set for “Jaws”. The Leviathan gave birth to the summer blockbuster

This past week, Zeitgeist had the pleasure of enjoying a new adaptation of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing”. This adaptation was not performed at the theatre but at the cinema. It was not directed by Kenneth Branagh or any other luminary of the legitimate stage, but rather by the quiet, modest, nerdy Joss Whedon, who until a few years ago was best known to millions as the brains behind the cult TV series phenomenon “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” (full disclosure: Zeitgeist worked on the show in his days of youth). Whedon was picked to direct a film released last year that can, without much difficulty, be seen as the apotheosis of the Hollywood film industry; “The Avengers”. A mise-en-abyme of a concept, involving disparate characters, some of whom already have their own fully-fledged franchises, coming together to form another vehicle for future iterations. “The Avengers” became the third-highest grossing film of all time, and it is a thoroughly enjoyable romp. Moreover, to go from directing on such a broad canvas to shooting a film mostly with friends in one’s own home – as with “Much Ado…” – displays an impressive range of creative ingenuity.

Sadly for shareholders and studio executives’ career aspirations, not every film is as sure-fire a hit as “The Avengers”, try though as they might (and do) to replicate the same mercurial ingredients that lead to success. Marvel, which originally conceived of the myriad characters surrounding The Avengers mythology, was bought in 2009 by Disney for $4bn. Disney for all intents and purposes have a steady strategic head on their shareholders. They parted ways with the quixotic Weinstein brothers while welcoming Pixar back into the fold. They were one of the first to concede the inevitability of closed platforms release windows – something Zeitgeist has written about in the past – they are debuting a game-changing platform, Infinity, which might revolutionise the way children interact with the plethora of memorable characters the studio have dreamt up over the years. However, such sound business strategy could not save them from the uber-flop that was 2012’s “John Carter”, which lost the studio $200m. This summer, the rationale for their biggest release has been built on what appears to be sound logic; taking the on- and off-screen talent behind their massively successful “Pirates of the Caribbean” franchise, and bringing them together again for another reboot in the form of “The Lone Ranger”. The New York Times said the film “descends into nerve-racking incoherence”; it has severely underperformed at the box office, after a budget of $250m. Sony’s “After Earth” similarly underperformed, suddenly throwing Will Smith’s bullet-proof reputation for producing hits into jeopardy.

These summer films – “tentpoles” to use the terminology bandied about in Los Angeles – are where the money is made (or not) for studios. As an industry over the past ten years, Zeitgeist has watched as these tentpoles have become more concentrated, more risk-averse and therefore less original, more expensive and more likely either to produce either stratospheric results or spectacular failures. Paramount is an interesting example of a studio that has made itself leaner recently, releasing far fewer films, and relying on franchises to keep the ship afloat. Edtorial Director of Variety Peter Bart seems to think there’s a point when avoiding risk leads to courting entropy. It’s an evolution that has escaped few, yet is was still notable when, last month, famed directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas spoke out publicly against the way the industry seemed to be headed. Indeed, the atmosphere at studios in Hollywood seems to mimic that of a pre-2008 financial sector; leveraging ever more collateral against assets with significant – and unsustainable – levels of risk. The financial sector uses arcane algorithms and has a large number of Wharton grads whose aim should be to preserve stability and profit. Yet even with all this analysis, they failed to see the gigantic readjustment that was imminent. In the film industry, Relativity Media’s reputation for rigorous predictive models on what will make a film successful is rare enough to have earned it a feature in Vanity Fair. So what hope is there the film industry will change its tune before it is too late? Spielberg pontificates,

“There’s eventually going to be a big meltdown. There’s going to be an implosion where three or four or maybe even a half-dozen of these mega-budgeted movies go crashing into the ground and that’s going to change the paradigm again.”

Instead of correcting course as failures at the box office failed to abate, studios have dug in harder. Said Lucas,

“They’re going for gold, but that isn’t going to work forever. And as a result they’re getting narrower and narrower in their focus. People are going to get tired of it. They’re not going to know how to do anything else.”

Such artistic ennui in audiences is admittedly sclerotic in its visibility at the moment. “Man of Steel”, another attempt at rebooting a franchise – coming only seven years after the last attempt – is performing admirably, with a position still firmly in the top ten at the US box office after four weeks of release, with over $275m taken domestically. It’s interesting to note that audiences have been happy to embrace the new version so quickly after the last franchise launch failed; though actor James Franco finds it contentious, the same has been true with the “Spider-Man” franchise relaunch.

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Is M&A finally out of vogue in the Media and Entertainment sector?

Part of the problem in the industry, some say, is to do with those at the top running the various film studios. In “Curse of the Mogul”, written by lecturers at Columbia University, the authors contend that since 2005 the industry as a whole has underperformed versus the S&P stock index, yet such stocks are still eminently attractive to investors. The reason, the authors say, is that those running the businesses frame the notion of success differently. They argue that it takes a very special type of person (i.e. them) to be able to manage not only different media and the different audiences they reach and the different trends that come out of that, but more importantly (in their eyes) to be able to manage the talent. They asked to be judged on Academy Awards rather than bottom lines. The most striking thing in the book – which Zeitgeist is still reading – is the continual pursuit by said mogul of strategic synergies. This M&A activity excites shareholders but has historically led to minimal returns (think Vivendi or AOL Time Warner), often because what was presented as operational or content-based synergy is actually nothing of the sort. It’s a point Richard Rumelt makes in his excellent book, “Good Strategy / Bad Strategy”. Some companies are beginning to get the idea. Viacom seemed an outlier in 2006 when it divested CBS. Lately, News Corporation has followed a similar tack, albeit under duress after suffering from scandalous revelations about hacking in its news division. A recent article in The Economist states,

“Most shareholders now see that television networks, newspapers, film studios, music labels and other sundry assets add little value by sharing a parent. Their proximity can even hinder performance by distracting management… they have become more assertive and less likely to believe the moguls’ flannel about ‘synergies’.”

So in some ways it was of little surprise that Sony came under the microscope recently as well, part of this larger trend of scrutiny. The company has experienced dark times of late, with shares having plunged 85% over the past 13 years. The departure of Howard Stringer in 2012 coincided with an annual loss of some $6.4bn. Now headed up by Kazuo Hirai, the company has undoubtedly become more focused, with much more being made of their mobile division. Losses have been stemmed, but the company is still floundering, with an annual loss reported in May of $4.6bn. It was only a couple of weeks later that hedge-fun billionaire Dan Loeb – instrumental in getting Marissa Meyer to lead Yahoo – upped his ownership stake in Sony, calling on it to divest its entertainment division in a letter to CEO Hirai. Part of the issue with Sony is a cultural one, where Japan’s ways of working differ strongly from the West’s. This is covered in some detail in a profile with Stringer featured in The New Yorker. In a speech he gave last year, Stringer said, “Japan is a harmonious society which cherishes its social values, including full employment. That leads to conflicts in a world where shareholder value calls for ever greater efficiency”. But Sony’s film division – which includes the James Bond franchise – is performing well; in the year to March 2013 Sony’s film and music businesses produced $905m of operating income, compared with combined losses of $1.9 billion in mobile phones, according to The Economist. It ended 2012 first place among the other film studios in market share. Sony is the last studio to consistently deliver hits across genres, reports The New York Times in an excellent article. The article quotes an anonymous Sony exeuctive, “We may not look like the rest of Hollywood, but that doesn’t mean this isn’t a painstakingly thought-through strategy and a profitable one”. Sadly the strategy behind films like ‘After Earth’ begin to look flimsy when one glances at the box office results. While Hirai and the Sony board concede that have met to discuss the possibility of honouring Mr. Loeb’s suggestion – offering 15-20% of it as an IPO rather than selling it off in full – Mr. Hirai also commented in an interview with CNBC, “We definitely want to make sure we can continue a successful business in the entertainment space. That is for me, first and foremost, the top priority”. In mid-June Loeb sent a second letter, advocating the IPO proposal and saying “Our research has confirmed media reports depicting Entertainment as lacking the discipline an accountability that exist at many of its competitors”. The question is whether selling off its entertainment assets would remove any synergies with other divisions, thus making the divisions left over less profitable, or whether such synergies even existed in the first place. For Loeb, the “most valuable untapped synergies” are still in the studio and music divisions yet after decades as one company they still remain untapped. That point won’t make for pleasant reading at Sony HQ.

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Another problem is the changing nature of media consumption habits. Not only are we watching films in different ways over different platforms, we are also doing much else besides, from playing video games, which have successfully transitioned beyond the nerdy clique of yesteryear, to general mobile use and second screening. This transition – and with it a realisation that competition is not likely to come from across regional boarders but from startup platforms – is largely being ignored by the French as they insist on trade talks with the US that centre on the preservation of l’exception culturelle. Such trends are evident in business dealings. The Financial Times this weekend detailed Google’s significant foray into developing content, setting up YouTube Space LA. The project gives free soundstage space to artists who are likely to guarantee eyeballs on YouTube, and lead to advertising revenue for the platform. From the stellar success of the first season of “House of Cards”, to DreamWorks Animation’s original content partnership announced last month, Netflix has become the bête noire for traditional content producers as it shakes up traditional models. We have written before about the IHS Screen Digest data from earlier this year, showing worrying trends for the industry; as predicted, audiences are beginning to favour access over ownership, preferring to rent rather than own, which means less profit for the studio. As much due to a decline in revenue from other platforms as growth in of itself, cinemas are expected to be the major area of profit going forward to 2016 (see above chart). We’ve written before about the power cinema still has. Spielberg and Lucas pick up on this;

“You’re going to end up with fewer theaters, bigger theaters with a lot of nice things. Going to the movies will cost 50 bucks or 100 or 150 bucks, like what Broadway costs today, or a football game. It’ll be an expensive thing… [Films] will sit in the theaters for a year, like a Broadway show does. That will be called the ‘movie’ business.”

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In a conversation over Twitter, (excerpts of which are featured above), Cameron Saunders, MD of 20th Century Fox UK told Zeitgeist that “major changes were afoot”. Such potential disruption is by no means unique to the film industry, and should come as a surprise to one. Zeitgeist recently went to see Columbia faculty member Rita McGrath speak at a Harvard Business Review event. In her latest book, “The End of Competitive Advantage”, McGrath discounts the old management consultant attempts at providing sustainable competitive advantages to business. Her assertion is that any advantage is transient, that incumbency and success often lead to entropy, unless there is constant innovation to build on that success. Such a verdict of entropy could well be applied to the film industry. The model has worked well for decades, despite predictions of doom at the advent of television, the VCR, the DVD, et cetera ad nauseum. But fundamental behavioural shifts are now at play, and the way we devise strategies for what content people want to see and how they wish to see it need to be readdressed, quickly. Otherwise all this deliberation will eventually become much ado about nothing.

UPDATE (15/4/13): Of course, context is everything. The New York Times published an interesting article today saying investing in Hollywood is less risky than investing in Silicon Valley, though the returns in the latter are likely to be greater. Neither are seen as reliable.

This issue isn’t going away. We write again about it, here.

Selling Luxury in 2013 – Does brand education lead to monetisation?

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At Cannes Lions tomorrow, Burberry’s Chief Creative Officer Christopher Bailey will ask “What if ads didn’t have to look or feel like ads?”. In a guest post, Chloé Hajnal-Corob writes about how luxury goods companies are seeking new and diverging paths in order to engage with their customers. Chloé spent time working at a fashion startup earlier in the year, assisting with the launch of a fashion hub for Vine videos, among other things. She is currently placed at Editd, a fashion data insight company.

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This spring, the House of Dior descended upon Harrods in London, one of the world’s premier department stores, for their “So Dior” exhibition and café. Last month, for one week only, Hermès had their “Festival des Métiers”, at London’s Saatchi Gallery. These two events represent a recent trend for providing luxury experiences, and though they are markedly different in some ways, they share a common goal: to drive revenues via brand education.

The “So Dior” exhibition, café and pop-up boutique took over a large designated area of Harrods alongside their usual concessions. Their presence was felt throughout, and Harrods have described the takeover as “a luxury-charged adventure combining French Savoir Faire and British charm”, the premise of which is to showcase the brand’s relationship with the store, and Christian Dior’s personal affiliation with the capital. Zeitgeist and I paid a visit, after seeing the social media hype from opening night. The event did not disappoint. On arrival, we were offered a private tour of the exhibition. What followed was a complete education into the history, heritage and identity of the brand and designers (Christian Dior, as well as Yves Saint Laurent, John Galliano and now, Raf Simons). The assiduousness and attention to detail demonstrated in the event were striking, and the quality of the experience was exceptional. It stands in particular favour given it was a free event, especially when compared with similar exhibitions such as the recent Valentino show at Somerset House, for which entrance was £12.50. We wondered if Dior and Harrods would set a precedent for luxury experiences where no fee is charged. Enter Hermès’s Festival des Metiers, which has been touring the world in a travelling circus of craftsmen, demonstrating their skills, and charging nothing for the privilege of seeing them. This harks back to how customers at high-end boutiques are treated, but without obvious intent to purchase. We are rewarded for our passion for the brand, not simply our contribution to sales.

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Dior’s exhibition excelled at presenting a linear history grounded in contextual relevancy

What is the ROI for these free events then, when the cost of execution is so high? Both exhibitions come after a lengthy stream of brand “experiences” (as noted in a previous Zeitgeist article) that represent the latest luxury market strategy for driving revenue and footfall to retail spaces, in attempt to allay fears of a mass exodus of shoppers from the street to the website. However, Dior’s CEO, Christian Toledano reportedly told vogue.co.uk at the launch party of the event: “This isn’t a marketing tool… It’s a transmission of Couture”. But these are not mutually exclusive concepts; rather they are means to the same end, and arguably an education into the brand is simply the chosen method of marketing. Indeed, Hermès openly acknowledges the lucrative repercussions these luxury experiences have. An article in the FT cites that the event, in each city, draws around 30,000 visitors, which in turn increases footfall to brick and mortar stores. A twenty percent increase, to be precise, in the week following the festival in Seattle, Washington. In a far more low-key event than Dior, these are impressive figures, particularly given that no attempt at sales was made on the exhibition site. A bespoke, or even generic, selection of products on sale at the event would likely have been very popular.

Both events encouraged significant online chatter, though neither seems to have been particularly driven by the host brands. Dior at Harrods was littered with high impact branded totems, ripe for the social media picking, and as usual, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram were filled with images and comments from the event, and now Vine, twitter’s 6-second video app, provided the ideal way to document the experiential nature of the event. It is interesting that Dior made no attempt at harnessing or leveraging the veritable mass of attention the event garnered. On investigation, I found only a limited amount of content around the event on Dior’s twitter feed and Facebook timeline. There was no official hashtag for the event and no evidence (that I could find) of any engagement with consumers who were talking about it. Hermès, though a far more low-key affair, “discreet to the point of invisible branding”, were no less well-represented in the social media space, but were almost equally poor at engineering and engaging with their online audience. The hashtag #festivaldesmetiers seems to have been widely adopted but it is completely unclear whether this was brand-driven, and Facebook interaction was limited to a single status update announcing the event. For brands that exert meticulous control over themselves in the physical space (something that was made patent in the exhibitions), it is strange that they are not attempting to implement this in the digital space, where barriers are borderless and the opportunity for damage is massive. This is a bold (perhaps naïve) move in the current climate, albeit that both events seem to have been highly successful.

It is somewhat ironic that Dior’s exhibition was held at Harrods – an obviously commercial venue, where special Dior products were available to buy – choosing to assert their mission as education rather than marketing. By contrast, Hermès chose an established art space to host their Festival des Metiers, albeit one that is often known for its consumer links, and have clearly acknowledged the potential of education as a means of marketing. Neither space is less appropriate then the other, but both are indicative of the kind of events hosted. Harrods, with its lavish window displays, reputation for luxury and labyrinthine layout, was apt for Dior’s fantastical and grandiose display, not to mention that it was intended to draw on the relationship between brand and department store. The Saatchi gallery’s minimal open space provided a neat backdrop for hosting “a rendez-vous with the Hermès craftspeople”, and apparently, sought to appeal to a younger demographic than perhaps the Hermès customer would ordinarily be. It is appropriate too, to present what can only be described as a fine art and craft, in an artistic space. It’s a notion that rival (and owner of Dior), LVMH, clearly thought worth cashing in on, since they have subsequently launched a similar initiative: the Journées Particulières, which this year will see it open 40 of its ateliers to the public for a weekend.

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Hermès attracted large crowds with its silk screen printing demonstrations

Both Dior and Hermès certainly made good attempts at getting people to engage physically (as well as virtually). The “So Dior” exhibition, and of course the café, were multi-sensorial. Beyond visual aesthetics, short films with headphones were provided, touch-sensitive technology was exploited and food inspired by Dior’s cookbook made for a wholly engrossing experience. Perfume was a key focus of the exhibition, explored from many different angles; not content with simply handing out the usual sticks of paper to smell, Dior and Harrods provided a telephone box (grey and white, in-keeping with brand décor, naturally) emitting one of Dior’s signature scents. Hermès was less immersive but more intimate; the possibility of viewing and interacting with those who create the product (and by extension the legacy), and even partaking in the sewing of scarves or ties, successfully created a feeling of exclusivity and privilege that the event no doubt strove for.

Toledano stated of the “So Dior” exhibition, “We need to explain why and how we do what we do. I want people to understand the passion, the innovation and our commitment to excellence.” In a similar vein, Guillaume de Seynes, great grandson of Emile Hermès explained: “We want to demonstrate that for us, craftsmanship is something that happens everyday.” Both brands sought to educate the consumer about themselves – Dior by making comment on the ideas and inspiration that produce the end product, and Hermès by demonstrating their commitment to the heritage of the brand by maintaining the quality of garments through skill of craftsmanship. Were they successful in their mission? Certainly; both provided real insight and inspiration. In doing so, Dior and Harrods, and Hermès’s Festival des Metiers, created an opportunity to become part of a legacy, and with this, the aspiration to turn something memorable into something wearable.

Before and after Prism – On liberty in a digital age

First aired on PBS in 1985, filmmaker Ken Burns’ documentary on the Statue of Liberty was on Zeitgeist’s TiVo watch list this weekend. It’s really quite staggering to note how issues being discussed then are even more relevant three decades on.

It goes back to an article we wrote recently on the US government’s more legitimate efforts to collect data. These myriad agencies are working so fast to see whether it’s possible to collect this or that piece of data on someone, they are not stopping to think whether they should, and what the long-term implications are. By long-term, we mean what such a “Faustian bargain” means for the civil rights of citizens – particularly of course in the relation of the right to privacy – and what such machinations do to the long-term standing of the country as a whole – particularly from the outside looking in.

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How certain is our moral footing on criticising Chinese cyber-attacks when we are hacking ourselves?

“Spying in a democracy depends for its legitimacy on informed consent, not blind trust”, wrote The Economist in this week’s lead article. Not so anymore, seemingly. The recent revelations that the NSA have been collecting masses of data from Facebook, Twitter, Google et al., with little thought for due process and with a focus on communications outside the US, and that at least one telco, Verizon, was ordered to provide significant amounts of user data to the government, is disconcerting to say the least. Zeitgeist wrote a letter, recently published in the Financial Times, before this story broke, that attempted to convey that the true worry for those opposed to such overreach is the high possibility of neglect or abuse, rather than intentional Machiavellian manipulation. Government ineptitude is more likely, and far more dangerous. Clarity and transparency are the enemies of such ineptitude.

As former New York governor Mario Cuomo admits in the clip at the beginning of this post, it can be very tempting to squash a little liberty here and there in return for added security. The situation, which arises at a time when the US is supposed to be taking China to task over its own extensive cyber-espionage (see above graphic), where we are, as one CNBC commentator described recently “hacking ourselves”, must give us pause, and begs us to re-examine what our notions of liberty are in an age of digital disruption.

The New News – Monetising Journalism in 2013

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“What the Internet has done is made a million sources of information available. It’s only a click away… The Internet has disrupted many industries. The newspaper business has been destroyed. It’s beginning to happen, arguably, to television. Consumer behaviour is changing!”

- Henry Blodget, editor-in-chief, Business Insider

Great minds may think alike, but they’re now consuming media on a plethora of different devices. Legacy media companies have been struggling in recent years to protect old revenue streams as the onslaught of digital disruption has rendered previous business models less than adequate. Recently, though, there have been signs of hope.

In television, Hulu and Netflix are increasingly showing themselves to be lifesavers of the long-format viewing, in an era where we are being increasingly distracted with short-term fixes, evinced by the success of social gaming product from companies like King. Hulu added 1 million paying subscribers in Q1 of this year and streamed over a billion videos. Netflix, after bravely investing in producing its own content with House of Cards, recently reported it has already recouped the sizeable $100m investment it made in the first season. It’s interesting, reassuring and quite logical to note the news that when Netflix enters a new market, piracy in the region drops. Let’s hope that legacy media companies are finally recognising the oblique connection here (and ponder less the millions of dollars lost over the years to pirated content at the expense of no legitimate alternatives). Though Borders has disappeared and Barnes & Noble may be in trouble, the book business is doing well, with 2012 being a “record year” for the industry. Digital downloads were up 66%, with physical purchases down only 1%. In music, the industry is slowly embracing a future (now very much a present) that has been staring them in the face since the start of the century with Napster and its myrmidons; digital sales rose 9% last year, helping overall sales to rise for the first time in a decade (see The Economist’s chart below). In South Korea, a region traditionally awash with pirated content, startup KKBox has come up with innovative ways to get people to pay for music again. They emphasise a sense of community – much like the one users felt they belonged to on Napster – bringing subscribers “closer to the regional music scene… Users can listen in real time as music celebrities make playlists of their favourite songs. There is also a KKBox print magazine and an annual awards show and concert, and it sponsors regional music festivals”. In other words, the offering goes beyond simply providing product to be streamed; it creates a cohesive world around the product.

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In 2012, music industry sales held steady for the first time in years. Digital sales continued to grow.

This cohesive world is in vogue at the moment; it represents most business justifications for investment in social media, and on a granular level again for investing in multiple networks, be they Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, etc. This cohesiveness also allows for the exploitation of new revenue streams, something we’ve written about before. It’s a point that’s recognised by those in the newspaper industry. David Carey, head of the Hearst Magazines empire, has stated unequivocally that today “you need five or six revenue streams to make the business really successful”. It’s why companies like Monocle, which produces a high-end cultural magazine, has started a radio service that has been “profitable from the start, since normal commercial radio stations never deliver the kinds of listeners its high-end advertisers want”. And as advertising revenue dips below subscriber revenue, as it did recently at The New York Times and will do if it has not done so already at the Financial Times (FT), these new business models need to be set up and utilised, fast.

These discussions and others were up for debate at an event two weeks ago, hosted by the Media Society at the offices of the FT, examining the effects and implications of digital disruption. On a macro level, the problem has been with trying to get people to value content that is no longer physical. From the looks of it – not least from the evidence above -this is broadly starting to be achieved in the music, book and television industries. The problem, according to Laurie Benson, formerly of Bloomberg, was that the newspaper and magazine publishers took the genie out of the bottle, and “panicked”. For, unlike television content producers that seemingly buried their hand in the sand, those in the newspaper business immediately shoved all their content online, for free, in an effort / vain hope that advertising would continue to provide. Nic Newman, who spearheaded the BBC iPlayer initiative, said companies were still fundamentally struggling with mobile, which is especially important now it is considered “the first screen”. Moreover, social media, as well as providing an opportunity to construct a cohesive environment for the product being sold, has also, said Nic, hugely changed the way we find and discover news. The irony of his statement, given at the headquarters of the Financial Times, a paper with arguably the most opaque paywall in the industry – and with a zero-sum Facebook strategy – was not lost on Zeitgeist. On that note, Rob Grimshaw, managing director of FT.com, spoke up, saying he was “very comfortable” with the paywall as it currently was. He admitted he was “worried” about what Twitter would do to their model (the tense should perhaps be what it is doing). Rob mentioned Forbes, which is now allowing direct outside contribution. This obviously makes the platform somewhat more exciting, and certainly more accessible. But what does Forbes mean now as a publication; what is their editorial position, asked Rob. Though many interesting questions were posed, answers were few and far between at the conference, and few initiatives were proposed.

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On a more granular level, what are businesses doing now to try and maximise revenue in print? We’ve discussed recommendations for print media before. Unsurprisingly, some of the more innovative – and perhaps controversial – models are coming from those publications outside the mainstream. Business Insider, and Vice, are two such examples. Insights into both publications (although defining these companies as only publications perhaps limits the perception of their offering) were covered in the same issue of The New Yorker last month.

Ken Auletta’s article about Business Insider, and its “disgraced Wall Street analyst”-turned editor, Henry Blodget, states that the blog “draws twenty-four million unique monthly users, more than CNBC”. Overhead is one clearly one of the main areas that such companies have over their legacy rivals, whose roots are in ink and paper; Business Insider could never hope to, nor would they wish to have 1,700 full-time staff, as the WSJ does. One of the innovative, intriguing and controversial things about the editorial of BI is it’s blending of hard news – “7 signs household finances are getting stronger” – with more off-the-wall, attention-grabbing, low-brow content – “3 teeth-whitening products that actually work”, “Here’s what NBA players looked like before they had stylists” and “The porn industry has already dreamed up some awesome ideas for Google Glass“. Blodget, who continues to write many stories himself, is seemingly as comfortable writing about budget-cliff negotiations with an accompanying eighteen charts, as he is writing about the experience of flying home economy class from Davos. Andrew Leonard, on Salon, called the latter “the stupidest article to be posted to the Internet in the year 2013 – and possibly the entire century”. The content may have indeed been questionable, but it’s part of an interesting strategy to cater to multiple mindsets of the same audience; Blodget says he wants to “put the fun back into business“. The New Yorker article describes how BI produces original content through research, including how Goldman Sachs lost the chance to be the lead under-writer in Facebook’s IPO, and questioning whether previously undisclosed emails showed that Zuckerberg really had stolen the idea for Facebook from the Winklevoss twins. A lot of the time though, BI links to reported news “and then adds its own commentary, as well as reactions from others”, what Blodget calls “halfways between broadcast and print… it’s conversational”. It’s also unquestionably lazy, but provocative, which is what – along with many slideshows, with each slide on a different page – earn the blog so many clicks. 85% of BI revenue comes from advertising, a dangerous ploy in a time when rates and interest in online platforms are either slipping or more generally failing to account for costs. Most of the rest of the pie comes from paid conferences, something that other publications – incumbent or otherwise – should take note of. People pay with their time, and sometimes money, for your expertise and opinion, so expanding this engagement into other adjacent opportunities is a wise move. To this point, the company has also hired analysts to create research reports on telco trends. The New Yorker comments, “The result is something like a private magazine that several thousand individuals and businesses receive, for $299 a year”. Other companies are experimenting with various monetisation methods. Andrew Sullivan’s publication The Dish is soon to be made subscriber-only, with no ads, as $20 a year. The good news is that people are starting to willingly pay for other digital content, such as books, music and film. But aside from BI’s small subscriber-based research section of the site – an exception on blogs – the greater worry is what the type of engagement we have with content online means for the type of content that is produced in order to cater for those tastes. Are we reaching the end of an era of nuance? The New Yorker again,

“Lengthy investigative pieces are rare on all-digital platforms. They are expensive to produce and, given a readership that has an average of four minutes to spare, not likely to attract a large audience. As economically beleaguered newspapers invest less in long-form reporting, digital publications are unlikely to invest more.”

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Journalism for Vice means creating content to be reported on, rather than simply reacting to developing news

Lizzie Widdicombe’s article on Vice magazine shows there is far more innovation to be developed in the publishing industry, as long as one is willing to stop thinking of oneself as publisher. Vice is by no-means an upstart, at least in the magazine world, but recently found itself on the global stage after having the sheer tenacity to organise Dennis Rodman to go to North Korea for an exhibition basketball game, sitting alongside the Dear Leader himself Kim Jong Un. The story ran with the headline, “North Korea has a friend in Dennis Rodman and Vice”. Immediately we see the lines between reportage and editorial, between analysing events and creating them, begin to blur considerably. The headline looked particularly careless when shortly after the ‘basketball diplomacy’, North Korea “scrapped its 1953 armistice with South Korea and threatened preemptive nuclear attack on the United States”. The Vice article detailed the “epic feast” they were treated to, which again seemed callous given the generational malnutrition that has led to stunted growth in the North Korean population. Journalism stalwart Dan Rather called the whole episode “more Jackass than journalism”. This is a very different type of journalism indeed. The company has 35 offices in 18 countries, with websites, book and film divisions as well as an in-house ad agency. Since 2002 it has operated a record label with albums from the likes of Bloc Party. The New Yorker article says “these ventures are united by Vice’s ambitions to becomes a kind of global MTV on steroids, [but] unlike MTV – which broadcasts a monolithic American vision of youth culture – [the international aim is] to ‘localise’ their sensibility”. According to Shane Smith, Vice’s CEO, ‘The overall aim, the overall goal is to be the largest network for young people in the world… to make content that young people actually give a shit about’”. Vice employees sometimes refer to the brand as “the Time Warner of the streets”.

It has made significant forays into video, with a channel on YouTube that attracts more than a million subscribers. Like Business Insider, Vice also blends the highbrow with the lowbrow in terms of content. On YouTube, the New Yorker reports, videos range from ‘In Saddam’s Shadow: 10 Years After the Invasion’, to ‘Donkey Sex: The Most Bizarre Tradition’. The company’s revenues are estimated at $175m for 2012. In 2011, Vice was valued at $200m, “and last year Forbes speculated that the company might someday be worth as much as a billion dollars“. Its newest venture is a show on HBO (owned by Time Warner), with the tagline ‘News from the edge’. The show “takes on subjects from political assassinations in the Philippines to India’s nuclear standoff with Pakistan”. It engages in what it calls ‘immersionism’, where Vice employees are sent out to these locations and more or less told to engage in practices of varying degrees of danger. The New Yorker says this type of reporting harkens back to that of Hunter S. Thompson, who pioneered “participatory journalism… Vice claims to have a similar objective. Introductions to the HBO series announce that it’s out to examine ‘the absurdity of the human condition’”. One of the reasons companies like Time Warner, News Corp (see image below) and Conde Nast have all made the pilgrimage to Vice’s offices in Brooklyn is that they are all terribly envious of the way the company has managed to engage and monetise their audience. As well as the HBO show, Vice also create supplementary material fro HBO.com that shows how the show was made. Its Internet presence is diverse, and this is where the multiple revenue streams and advertising opportunities come in, as The New Yorker elaborates,

“Web sites, including Vice.com; an ad network; and its YouTube channel… Vice makes more than 85% of its revenue online, much of it through sponsored content… Besides selling banner displays and short ads that play before its videos, Vice offers it advertisers the option of funding an entire project in exchange for being listed as co-creator and having editorial input. Advertisers can pay for a single video, or, for a higher price – $1-5m for twelve episodes… – they can pay for an entire series, on a topic that dovetails with the company’s image… At the highest end of the sponsorship spectrum are [content] verticals, in which companies can sponsor entire websites.”

North Face, for example, partnered with Vice to sponsor ‘Far Out’, where Vice employees visited “the most remote places on Earth”. CNN is attempting similar feats, in an effort to legitimise the partnership – for example with Jaeger Le Coultre – by producing content that has a connection with company’s brand values. Some of Vice’s content verticals are softer than others, so that they can be more advertiser-friendly. It is seen by some at Vice of returning to the original soap opera days, when P&G would sponsor a serial show. This has led to some longtime fans declaring the publication has become too safe – gone are the early magazine covers featuring lines of cocaine, for example. The New Yorker comments the result “can feel like a strange beast, neither advertising nor regular content but something in between”. Vice also have a Creators Project, “devoted to the intersection of art and technology”. They partnered with Intel, and content has included an article on a cinema hackathon, as well as an event where a non-profit and VFX company partnered with techies to develop new forms of “interactive storytelling”. Intel sponsored the event, the video of the event, the blog post and the entire Creators Project website. Over three years, the company has paid Vice “tens of millions of dollars annually… to fund and publicise similar projects”. It is part of Intel’s attempt to have itself perceived as more of an experience brand, a la Disney and Apple. Said the CMO, “We want to see Intel coverage in Vanity Fair and Rolling Stone“. The video of the event is also put in YouTube, a company that is “crucial to Vice’s ability to expand” and which two years ago began paying Vice to make shows as part of a broader strategy to upend traditional TV – seen elsewhere in their recent Comedy Week. Such efforts from Vice form a feedback loop of good news that encourages investment from other individuals (such as former media mogul Tom Freston) and companies (such as Raine Group and advertising conglomerate WPP, a former employer of Zeitgeist). Vice is also planning a global, 24-hour news channel. Smith told The New Yorker, “Let’s say, hypothetically, you become the default source for news on YouTube. You get billions of video views, WPP monetises it. Then you are the next CNN“. This would be a dramatic shift in the way it makes its money now, from those sponsorships mentioned earlier. Quixotic efforts such as the North Korea trip, as well a recent bungling of a story on John McAfee, on the run from police, where Vice inadvertently gave his location away, would have to be curtailed. “If Vice does become a global news network, it might have to rethink some aspects of its prankster approach to reporting”.

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Murdoch and other CEOs have much to learn from Vice’s business model

It’s becoming abundantly clear then that what news publishers need to do to survive is embrace a diversity of platforms. This will be a long road for legacy incumbents. The FT now produces a great deal of video content, but it is still largely lost on the app and on the website. There is no hub where videos are categorised in any way. Few if any publications allow someone, upon purchasing a hard copy of the newspaper / magazine, to have access to that same content online, if only temporarily. These are simple but fundamental things that companies like this must do if they want to present their audience with a cohesive experience. That’s about operations and user experience. From a content perspective, journalism also faces new challenges. Fareed Zakaria, who Zeitgeist has been an avid reader of since the reporter’s days writing for Newsweek International, says Vice’s TV show for HBO has “loosened the format” of television reporting, as it tries “to get a news audience interested in the world”.

What are the implications of such a loosening? Vice CEO Shane Smith defended the company’s North Korea trip to The New Yorker, going on to say, “Is it journalism? It depends on what the definition of journalism is”. Um, well, yes, quite. If we’re to maintain any distinction between content that is supported and promoted by advertising, editorial that has a particular bent, and unbiased news rather than sensationalist reportage, we need to start having a serious conversation about what journalism is. In particular we need to discuss what the balance is between the desire to entertain and the task of informing the populace. If the onus is truly on the latter, then it becomes a genuine public good that must, at worst, be subsidised by public money. The issue The New Yorker raises in its article on Business Insider crystallises the dilemma; the medium in which people consume news has changed, thus so have their habits. They are now less likely to dedicate time to reading long articles; so writing these kind of articles is increasingly an unprofitable exercise. An end to thorough investigative journalism would surely have dire consequences. While fears over the death of journalism have been greatly exaggerated, a dramatic shift is underway, and perhaps for the worse. And that’s true no matter what your definition of journalism is.

The Big Data Fallacy

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The latest issue of Foreign Affairs features the cover article “The Rise of Big Data” by Kenneth Cukier and Viktor Mayer-Schoenburger, which mostly details some of the incredible ways companies like UPS, Google and Apple have come to rely on vast arrays of numbers in order to run their businesses better. But data has always provided a problem in that it gives a substantive assurance of certainty that has a propensity to foster overconfidence in those relying on it. The article attempts to address this:

“[K]nowing the causes behind things is desirable. The problem is that causes are often extremely hard to figure out… Behavioural economics has shown that humans are conditioned to see causes even where none exist. So we need to be particularly on guard to prevent our cognitive biases from deluding us; sometimes, we just have to let the data speak.”

The sentiment here is admirable, and the context perceptive. But the final part of the quotation (my emphasis) assumes wrongly that data can speak objectively, that there is a fundamental ‘truth’ in a number. All too often though the wrong things are measured, or not all variables are measured. What data does not record, or worse, cannot record, can often be overlooked. While ostensibly data is there to provide assistance with building models and predicting future trends and movements, it sometimes leads to a very narrow view of one particular future, and fails to account for possibilities, that, though while unlikely, could potentially be devastating. This is what Nicholas Taleb writes about in his by turns unreadable but seminal work, Black Swan. The fictional, paranoid loner Fox Mulder of the hit series The X-Files had it right fifteen years ago when he lamented “in a universe of infinite possibilities, we may find ourselves at the mercy of anyone or anything that cannot be programmed, categorised or easily referenced”. The financial system before 2008 was a victim of such narrow thinking. 

Hendrik Hertzberg, in his Talk of the Town column “Preventive Measures” in this week’s The New Yorker, made the adroit analogy with the 2002 film Minority Report in our quest to categorise and predict acts of crime. Hertzberg points out that in reality this “turns out to be a good deal more difficult than investigating such an act once it occurs”. Indeed, such prediction methods are being implemented, just with somewhat less efficacy than in the Tom Cruise movie. The stop-and-frisk procedure currently employed by the New York Police Department points to a sustained effort to engage in preventative measures to reduce crime, effectively what Cruise and his myrmidons were doing, albeit without the help of psychic imagery as in the film. While the psychic “Pre-Cogs” turned out to occasionally disagree, the success rate with stop-and-frisk is even less attractive. “In the final months of 2012″, writes the New York Times, only 4% of stops resulted in an arrest. But what is this low figure telling us…?

Hertzberg also alludes to the dilemma of mountains of data, produced without concern for oversight or management; producing more just because it’s possible to produce it, rather than thinking about the implications:

“This fall, the National Security Agency, the largest and most opaque component of the counter-terrorism behemoth, will [open] a billion-dollar facility [analysing] intercepted telecommunications… each of the Utah Data Center’s two hundred (at most) professionals will be responsible for reviewing five hundred billion terabytes of information each year, the equivalent of twenty-three million years’ worth of Blu-ray DVDs… that’s a lot of overtime.”

The other problem this data poses – and increasingly this goes for many industries that are jumping on the Big Data bandwagon – is that intelligence departments and businesses alike are now technically able to put quantifiable targets and figures to what they want to achieve, without considering whether such targets are actually applicable. Police claim the low stop-to-arrest ratio implies that they are preventing crimes by stopping someone before they act. There is nothing to argue otherwise. The New York Times article alludes to the debate over what ratio or percentage the Supreme Court would be comfortable with under the tenet of “reasonable suspicion”. This leads down a dangerous path where we treat data as an answer to a question, rather than as supporting evidence to an answer.

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