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Tech’s impact on business and culture in 2014

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It would be impossible to capture the disruptive influence the latest digital technologies are currently having on the world in a single blog post. But what Zeitgeist has collated here are some thoughts and happenings showing the different ways technology is changing our lives – from the way we do business to the way we interact with others.

Last night saw a highly enjoyable occurrence. No, not the Academy Awards in general, which as ever moved at a glacial pace as it ticked off a list of predicted favourites. Rather, it was a specific moment in the ceremony itself, when host Ellen DeGeneres took a (seemingly) impromptu picture of herself with a cornucopia of stars, tweeting it instantly. The host declared she wanted the picture (above) to be the most retweeted post ever. The previous holder was none other than the President of the United States, Barack Obama, whose re-election message saw over 500k retweets. It took Zeitgeist but a few minutes to realise that Ellen’s post would skyrocket past this. Right now it has been retweeted 2.7m times. Corporate tactic on the part of Samsung though it may have been, Zeitgeist felt himself feeling much closer to the action – being able to see on his phone a photo the host had taken moments ago several thousand miles away – and the incident helped inject a brief air of spontaneity into the show’s proceedings. Super fun, and easy to get definitive results in this case on how many people were really engaging with the content. But can we quantify how much Samsung and Twitter really benefited from the move, beyond fuzzy marketing metrics? Talking heads on CNBC saw room for improvement (see below).

Former WSJ.com Managing Editor Kevin Delaney leads discussions on Samsung and Twitter's presence at the Oscars last night

Former WSJ.com Managing Editor Kevin Delaney leads discussions on Samsung and Twitter’s presence at the Oscars last night (click to watch)

The big news of late in tech circles of course has been Facebook’s $19bn acquisition of messaging application Whatsapp. Many, many lines of editorial have been spilled on this deal already. In the mainstream media, many commentators have found the price of the deal staggering. So it’s worth reading more considered views such as Benedict Evans’, whose post on the deal Zeitgeist highly encourages you to read. Despite the seemingly large amount of money the company has been acquired for – especially considering Facebook’s purchase of Instagram for a ‘mere’ $1bn – Evans sagely points out that per user the deal is about the same as Google made in its valuation when it purchased YouTube. So perhaps not that crazy after all. The other key point that Evans makes is on Facebook’s dedicated pursuit to be the ‘next’ Facebook, or conversely to stop anyone else from becoming the next Facebook. With a meteoric rise in members (see image below, as it outstrips growth by both Facebook and Twitter), Whatsapp was certainly looking a little threatening.

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Whatsapp’s number of active users skyrocketed to 450m in no time, outpacing both Facebook and Twitter (Source: The Economist)

The worry for investors is how Facebook will monetise this platform, when the founders have professed an aversion to advertising. Is merely ensuring that Facebook is the ‘next’ Facebook a good enough reason for such acquisitions? Barriers to entry and sustainable advantages will be few and far between going down this route. The Financial Times, in its analysis of the acquisition, points out that innovation is quickly nipping at the heels of Whatsapp. CalPal, for example, is one example of a mobile application that lets users message each other from within an app. In the markets, there has been a relatively sanguine response to the purchase, but only because of broader trends. As the FT points out,

“External forces have also helped to push the headline prices of deals such as WhatsApp into the stratosphere. A global excess of cheap money, along with a scarcity of alternatives for growth-hungry investors, has boosted the stock prices of companies such as Facebook and Google.”

One of the most visibly exciting developments in technology in recent years is the explosion of the wearable tech sector. But it is Google’s flagship product, Glass, that has met with much ire and distress. An excellent piece of analysis appearing in MIT Technology Review last month hit the nail on the head when it identified why Glass was having trouble winning people over. The article rightly identifies the significant shift in external appearance inherent in making the switch from a device that needs to be taken out of a pocket as makes it clear when it is being interacted with (you need to cover half your face with the product to talk to someone, for example). The article also details the savvy approach Google have taken to the distribution of their product. It’s always sensible to try and mobilise the part of your base likely to be evangelists anyway so as to build advance buzz before a full-blown release. But to get them to pay for the privilege, as Google are doing with their excitable fans, dubbed Explorers, is a stroke of genius for them. However, the key issue, and what the article states is an “insurmountable problem”, is that “Google’s challenge in making the device a successful consumer product will be convincing the people around you to ignore it as well”. It this fundamental aspect of social interaction that is worrying many, and now Google is worried too. As detailed in the FT, the company has acknowledged that the product can look “pretty weird”. Recognising it has a “long journey” to mainstream adoption, it published a list of Dos and Don’ts. Highlights include,

“Ask for permission. Standing alone in the corner of a room staring at people while recording them through Glass is not going to win you any friends… If you find yourself staring off into the prism for long periods of time you’re probably looking pretty weird to the people around you.”

It indicates that Google may have a significant ‘Glasshole‘ problem it needs to attend to. The case may be overstated though. One of the problems may just be that potential customers have yet to see any practical uses for it. This is beginning to change. Last week, Virgin Atlantic announced a six-week trial of both Glass and Sony smartwatches. The idea will be for check-in attendants to use the devices to scan limousine number plates so that passengers can be greeted by name and be instantly updated on their flight status.

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In the arts, digital technology has inspired much innovative work, as well as helped broaden its audience. David Hockney, on the England’s greatest living artists, recently exhibited a series of works produced entirely on his iPad at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. He is far from alone. Last week’s anniversary issue of The New Yorker featured work from Jorge Colombo on its front cover, again produced entirely on an iPad. Such digital innovation allows for increased productivity as well as new aesthetics. When done well, art can also involve the viewer, encouraging interaction. Digital technology helps with this too. Earlier in the year The New York Times covered how the New York City Ballet redesigned part of their floor in a new scheme to attract new visitors to the ballet. The result, roughly life-size pictures of dancers arranged on the floor, has seen great success, and an explosion of content on social media platforms like Instagram, where users have taken to posing on the floor as if interacting with the images (see above). It’s a simple tactic that now reaches a far greater audience thanks to new digital technologies.

A recently published book, ‘Now I know who my comrades are: Voices from the Internet Undergound’, by Emily Parker, seeks to demonstrate the ways in which digital technology has made helped to coalesce and support important activism in regions such as China and Latin America. But, as The Economist points out in its review, the disappointing situation in Egypt puts pay to some of the author’s claims; there are limits to how productive and transformative technology can be. In business, these hurdles are plain to see.  A poll taken by McKinsey published last month shows that “45% of companies admit they have limited to no understanding on how their customers interact with them digitally”. This is staggering. For all executives’ talk of the power of Big Data, such technology is useless without the proper structures in place to successfully analyse it. We also perhaps need to think more about repercussions of increased technological advances and how they influence our social interactions. In the recently opened film Her (starring Joaquin Phoenix, pictured below), set in the very near future, a new operating system is so pervasive and seamless that it leads to fraught, thought-provoking questions on the nature and productivity of relationships. When does conversation – and more – with a simulacrum detract from interactions with the physical world? These considerations may seem lofty, but as we illustrated earlier, the germination of such thoughts are being echoed in discussions over Google Glass.

So technology in 2014 heralds some promise for the future. Wearable tech as a trend is merely the initial stage of a journey where our interaction with computing systems becomes seamless. It is on this journey though that we need to make sure that businesses are making the most of every opportunity to streamline costs and enhance customer service, and that individual early adopters do not leave the rest of us behind to deal with a bewildering and alarming new way of living. One of our favourite quotations, from the author William Gibson, is apt to end on: “The future’s already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed“.

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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.

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.

Fit to Print – Recommendations and lessons for print media

March 12, 2013 1 comment

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“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?

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New methods of media consumption have driven consumers to distraction

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.”

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Research has shown that price elasticity does not play a part for newspaper buying. Higher pricing, conversely, improves revenue

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.

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Krug champagne used behavioural economics to alter its place in the market

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.

Making Retail Truly Emotional

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.

UPDATE (25/3): James Surowiecki, writing in The New Yorker, has a good piece on jcp’s trials and tribulations, here.

Super Safe Super Bowl

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The Super Bowl, an annual orgy of excess for those seeking to tubthump their products on television, where a 30-second spot can cost up to $4m, is taking an increasingly holistic approach to promotion, using social media to make for a more integrated offering. In the end it was Twitter that came to the fore during this year’s event, when a power cut during the game created a captive audience for savvy brands (such as Oreo) to take advantage of.

It was interesting yesterday to hear the talking heads of CNBC reviewing the success of the advertisements that played during the game (click the headline image for a link to the discussion). Zeitgeist’s thoughts were provoked particularly on the question of whether the risk of outrage from social media backlashes was now so great that advertisers were becoming far more risk-averse than in the past, preferring instead to tug at heartstrings with ads like Budweiser’s, below, which was admittedly Zeitgeist’s favourite.

The state of retail

January 6, 2013 5 comments
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The love of the bargain is what drives them… Click for CNBC’s coverage

It’s a common fallacy to think of a time before a change in status quo as somehow being magically problem-free. A Panglossian world where all was well and nothing needed to change, and wasn’t it a shame that it had to. Similarly, we cannot blithely consign the retail industry of the past to some glorious era when everything was perfect; far from it. The industry has been under continual evolution, with no absence of controversy on the way. It was therefore a timely reminder, as well as being a fascinating article in its own right, when the New York Times provided readers recently with a potted history and a gaze into the future of Manhattan department store stalwart, Barneys. Not only is their past one in which the original proprietor sought to undercut his own suit suppliers, creating a bootlegging economy by literally ripping out their labels and replacing them with his own, but it was also one where department stores served a very different purpose to what they do today. They had less direct competition, not least unforeseen competition in the form of shops without a physical presence. Moreover, today they are run in an extremely different way, with an arguably much healthier emphasis on revenue (though some might say this comes at the expense of a feeling of luxury, in a lobby now brimming with handbags and little breathing room). The problems and opportunities for Barneys could serve as an analogy for the industry of which it is a part.

Despite brief reprieves such as Black Friday (click on headline image for CNBC’s coverage), as well as the expected post-Christmas shopping frenzy, can one of the main problems affecting retail at the moment simply be that it is undergoing an industry-wide bout of creative destruction? Zeitgeist has written about the nature of creative destruction before, and whether or not that is to blame for retail’s woes, the sector is certainly in the doldrums. In the UK, retailers are expecting a “challenging” year ahead. Recent research from Deloitte shows 194 retailers fell into administration in 2012, compared with 183 in 2011 and 165 in 2010. So, unlike the general economy, which broadly can be said to be enjoying a sclerotic recovery of sorts, the state of retail is one of continuing decline. How did this happen, and what steps can be taken to address this?

Zeitgeist would argue that bricks and mortar stores are suffering in essence due to a greater amount of competition. By which, we do not just mean more retailers, on different platforms. Whether it be from other activities (e.g. gaming, whether MMOs like World of Warcraft or simpler social gaming like Angry Birds), or other avenues of shopping (i.e. e-commerce, which Morgan Stanley recently predicted would be a $1 trillion dollar market by 2016), there is less time to shop and more ways to do it. The idea of going to shop in a mall now – once a staple of American past-time – is a much rarer thing today. It would be naive to ignore global pressures from other suppliers and brands around the world as putting a competitive strain on domestic retailers too. Critically, and mostly due to social media, there are now so many more ways and places to reach a consumer that it is difficult for the actual sell to reach the consumer’s ears. This is in part because companies have had to extend their brand activity to such peripheries that the lifestyle angle (e.g. Nike Plus) supercedes the call-to-action, i.e. the ‘BUY ME’. The above video from McKinsey nicely illustrates all the ways that CMOs have to think about winning consumers over, which now extend far beyond the store.

If we look at the in-store experience for a moment without considering externalities, there is certainly opportunity that exists for the innovative retailer. Near the end of last year, the Financial Times published a very interesting case study on polo supplier La Martina. The company’s origins are in making quality polo equipment, from mallets to helmets and everything in between, for professional players. As they expanded – a couple of years ago becoming the principle sponsor of that melange of chic and chav, the Cartier tournament at Guards Polo Club – there came a point where the company had to decide whether it was going to be a mass-fashion brand, or remain something more select and exclusive. As the article in the FT quite rightly points out, “Moving further towards the fashion mainstream risked diluting the brand and exposing it to volatile consumer tastes.” The decision was made to seek what was known as ‘quality volume’. The company has ensured the number of distributors remains low. Zeitgeist would venture to say this doesn’t stop the clothing design itself straying from its somewhat more refined roots, with large logos and status-seeking colours and insignia. Financially though, sales are “growing more than 20% a year in Europe and Latin America”, which is perhaps what counts most currently.

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Louis Vuitton’s ‘L’ecriture est un voyage‘ is a good example of experimental thinking and missed opportunities

In the higher world of luxury retail, Louis Vuitton is often at the forefront (not least because of its sustained and engaging digital work). While we’re focusing purely on retail environments though, it was interesting to note that the company recently set up shop (literally) on the left bank of Paris; a pop-up literary salon, to be precise. Such strokes of inspiration and innovation are not uncommon at Vuitton. They help show the brand in a new light, and, crucially, help leverage its provenance and differentiate it from its competition. Sadly, when Zeitgeist went to visit, there was a distinct feeling of disappointment that much more could have been done with the space, which, while nicely curated (see above), did little to sell the brand, particularly as literally nothing was for sale. The stand-out piece, an illustrated edition of Kerouac’s On the Road, by Ed Ruscha, Zeitgeist had seen around two years ago when it was on show at the Gagosian in London. Not every new idea works, but it is important that Louis Vuitton is always there at the forefront, trying and mostly succeeding.

So what ways are there that retailers should be innovating, perhaps beyond the store? One of the more infuriating things Zeitgeist hears constructed as a polemic is that of retail versus the smartphone. This is a very literal allusion, which NBC news were guilty of toward the end of last year. “Retail execs say they’re winning the battle versus smartphones”, the headline blared. What a more nuanced analysis of the situation would realise is that it is less a case of one versus the other, than one helping the other. The store and the phone are both trying to achieve the same things, namely, help the consumer and drive revenue for the company. Any retail strategy should avoid at all costs seeing these two as warring platforms, if only because it is mobile inevitably that will win. With much more sound thinking, eConsultancy recently published an article on the merits of providing in-store WiFi. At first this seems a risky proposition, especially if we are to follow NBC’s knee-jerk way of thinking, i.e. that mobile poses a distinct threat to a retailer’s revenue. The act of browsing in-store, then purchasing a product on a phone is known as showrooming, and, no doubt aided by the catchy name, its supposed threat has quickly made many a store manager nervous. However, as the eConsultancy article readily concedes, this trend is unavoidable, and it can either be ignored or embraced. Deloitte estimated in November that smartphones and tablets will yield almost $1bn in M-commerce revenues over the Christmas period in the UK, and influence in-store sales with a considerably larger value. That same month in the US, Bain & Co. estimated that “digital will influence more than 50% of all holiday retail sales, or about $400 billion”. Those retailers who are going to succeed are the ones who will embrace mobile, digital and their opportunities. eConsultancy offer,

“For example, they could prompt customers to visit web pages with reviews of the products they are considering in store. This could be a powerful driver of sales… WiFi in store also provides a way to capture customer details and target them with offers. In fact, many customers would be willing to receive some offers in return for the convenience of accessing a decent wi-fi network. Tesco recently introduced this in its larger stores… 74% of respondents would be happy for a retailer to send a text or email with promotions while they’re using in-store WiFi.”

These kind of features all speak more broadly to improving and simplifying the in-store experience. They also illustrate a trend in the blending between the virtual and physical retail spaces. Major retailers, not just in luxury, are leading the way in this. Walmart hopes to generate $9bn in digital sales by the end of its next fiscal year. CEO Mike Duke told Fast Company, “The way our customers shop in an increasingly interconnected world is changing”. This interconnectedness is not new, but it is accelerating, and the mainstream arrival of 4G will only help spur it on further. The company is soon to launch a food subscription service, pairing registrants with gourmet, organic, ethnic foods, spear-headed by @WalmartLabs, which is also launching a Facebook gifting service. At the same time, it must be said the company is hedging its bets, continuing with the questionable strategy of building more ‘Supercenters’, the first of which, at the time a revolutionary concept, they opened in 1988.

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One interesting development has been the arrival of stores previously restricted to being online into the high street, something which Zeitgeist noted last year. This trend has continued, with eBay recently opening a pop-up store in London’s Covent Garden. These examples are little more than gimmicks though, serving only to remind consumers of the brands’ online presence. Amazon are considering a much bolder move, that of creating permanent physical retail locations, if, as CEO Jeff Bezos says, they can come up with a “truly differentiated idea”. That idea and plan would be anathema to those at Walmart, Target et al., who see Amazon as enough of a competitor as it is, especially with their recent purchase of diapers.com and zappos.com. It serves to illustrate why Walmart’s digital strategies are being taken so seriously internally and invested in so heavily. Amazon though has its own reasons for concern. Earlier in the article we referenced the influence of global pressures on retailers. Amazon is by no means immune to this. Chinese online retailer Tmall will overtake Amazon in sales to become the world’s largest internet retailer by 2016, when Tmall’s sales are projected to hit $100 billion that year, compared to $94 billion for Amazon. The linked article illustrates a divide in the purpose of retail platforms. While Amazon is easy-to-use, engaging and aesthetically pleasing, a Chinese alternative like Taobao is much more bare-bones. As the person interviewed for the article says, “It’s more about pricing – it’s much cheaper. It’s not about how great the experience is. Amazon has a much better experience I guess – but the prices are better on Taobao.”

So how can we make for a more flexible shopping experience? One which perhaps recognises the need in some users to be demanding a sumptuous retail experience, and in others the need for a quick, frugal bargain? Some permutations are beginning to be analysed, and offered. Some of these permutations are being met with caution by media and shoppers. This month, the Wall Street Journal reported that retailer Staples has developed a complex pricing strategy online. Specifically, the WSJ found, it raises prices more than 86% of the time when it finds the online shopper has a physical Staples store nearby. Similar such permutations in other areas are now eminently possible, thanks in no small part to the rise of so-called Big Data. Though the Staples price fluctuations were treated with controversy at the WSJ, they do point to a more realistic supply-and-demand infrastructure, which could really fall under the umbrella of consumer ‘fairness’, that mythical goal for which retailers strive. Furthemore, being able to access CRM data and attune communications programmes to people in specific geographical areas might enable better and more efficient targeting. Digital also allows for a far more immersive experience on the consumer side. ASOS illustrate this particularly well with their click-to-buy videos.

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As the Boston Consulting Group point out in a recent report, with the understated title ‘Digital’s Disruption of Consumer Goods and Retail’,  “the first few waves of the digital revolution have upended the retail industry. The coming changes promise even more turmoil”. This turmoil also presents problems and opportunities for the marketing of retail services, which must be subject to just as much change. If we look at the print industry,  also comparatively shaken by digital disruption, it is interesting to note the way in which the very nature of it has had to change, as well as the way its benefits are communicated. It is essential that retailers not see the havoc being waged on their businesses as an opportunity to ‘stick to what they do best’ and bury their head in the sand. This is the time for them to drive innovation, yes at the risk of an unambitious quarterly statement, and embrace digital and specifically M-commerce. What makes this easy for those companies that have so far resisted the call is that there is ample evidence of retailers big and small, value-oriented to luxury-minded, who have already embraced these new ideas and platforms. Their successes and failures serve as great templates for future executions. And who knows, the state of retail might not be such a bad one to live in after all. Until the next revolution…

On the contemporary art market – Expertise, Marketing and Money

December 18, 2012 1 comment
“If all signs are autonomous and refer only to one another, it must seem to follow that no image is truer or deeper than the next, and that the artist is absolved from his or her struggle for authenticity.”
- Robert Hughes, 1989

Tom Wolfe, one of America’s greatest living writers, recently had his latest work, Back to Blood, excerpted in Vanity Fair. In it, the author excoriates the miasma of power, money, influence and ignorance that surrounds the contemporary art market. Wolfe describes the billionaires descending on Art Basel Miami as a “raveling, wrestling swarm of maggots”. What has become of art, its pursuit and its collection?

The pursuit of excellence can sometimes can be a quixotic quest, all the more so when dealing with something as ephemeral as art, and particularly with the contemporary art market today. But how does excellence, or authenticity, in art cope with a nexus of questionable experts and highly liquid but bifurcating market, in a world where promotion is all?

Part of this problem resides in the question of expertise, its influence and its value. If one thinks of artists in the period of the Italian Renaissance, the quality of the fresco or sculpture is mostly self-evident in the verisimilitude of the work. Moreover, the media worked with often necessarily involved painstaking, long-term commitment and toil. What artists like Marcel Duchamp began and Andy Warhol perfected was the thought that works of art should be valued by their conceptualism. In other words, not necessarily how much time or effort was put into making an object, or whether it was any “good”, aesthetically speaking, but with more emphasis on the power of the underlying idea – representation – behind the work. “Art can be expressed purely as a thought or action”, wrote the FT recently. This postmodern concept has not evolved since the time of Warhol. Without being able to critique the amount of expertise in the manufacturing of an object, it becomes harder to address the worth of an object, unless you are in the presence of a designated ‘expert’. The situation risks creating an echo chamber of unedifying art that speaks to no-one and is so self-reflexive it loses all meaning. It also allows for an artificial inflation of prices, creating a false market that shuts out all but the ultra-rich, whose tiny but influential numbers can significantly skew the market. One need only look at how much the Chinese taste for wine is influencing global production to see such an instance in action.

Such points were neatly summed up recently by the prestigious art critic and lecturer Dave Hickey, when he announced he was leaving the art world:

Writers, dealers, curators, advisers have become “a courtier class – intellectual headwaiters to very rich people”. For this 0.01%, “art is cheaper than it’s ever been” but “nobody cares if it’s any good, and everybody hates it when something’s really great”

The ‘experts’ who assign value to contemporary art objects have come full circle. Rightly recognising that there is art worth shouting about beyond an arbitrary, Westernised canon, it has now gone too far in the other direction. As a brilliant FT article on the subject recently pointed out, “The market loves theory because it spares the need for discrimination.” Making matters worse, the article quotes gallerist David Zwirner lamenting, “connoisseurship is really not valued, sometimes it is even looked down upon”. All of which leads to a highly fragile concentration of expertise and financial capital sitting with a select few. If we look again at the wine industry, American wine critic Robert Parker was at one time so influential that growers in France began changing their product purely to suit his taste so as to earn a higher rating on his guide. Zeitgeist asked art critic Brian Sewell at a debate earlier this year whether influential patrons such as Charles Saatchi and Francois-Henri Pinault were playing a similar role in the contemporary art world; shifting value perceptions of art and artists according to their personal whim. It helps little when major collectors like Frank Cohen admit publicly that they have “bought a load of bullshit”. The quotation may sound flippant, but it underscores the massive influence the bullshit they have bought has on the broader prices in the art market.

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Auction turnover returns to pre-recession highs… just in time for slowing growth in BRIC regions?

Art adviser Lisa Schiff spoke openly about this recently to Forbes magazine, saying she was “worried that there are a lot of young artists that could really take a nosedive”.This influence is being felt keenly right now with small but highly influential – and influenced – groups of buyers in Russia, Brazil and China. But as the BRIC regions continue to stall, what will happen to arbitrarily in-demand art and artists if these markets suffer further losses or even a sudden shock? Such problems are further compounded by the massive rise and fear of litigation, as previous, bona fide experts able to certify works as being genuine are being scared away by the threat of legal action.

So there’s an expertise fallacy here, one which is not restricted to the world of art. Elsewhere, marketing, something that admittedly has always been part of the selling of art to an extent, is becoming increasingly essential for a successful artist or studio. The Montoya exhibition currently on at The Halcyon Gallery in London represents the epitome of this new trend. Full-page ads in The Economist and 30-second spots on CNBC (see beginning of article) are being taken out for the exhibition, placed seemingly without irony at the feet of the very audience the art seems to be mocking, or at least parodying. It is the increasing lack of ironic awareness that creates an emptiness in the purchase and reputation of some of today’s bigger artists, including Jeff Koons, Richard Prince and Takashi Murakami. Interestingly, the latter two have both seen stratospheric success that goes beyond the confines of the art world, helped in part by collaborations with luxury goods company Louis Vuitton.

Richard Prince's oft-repeated Nurse motif was used for the Spring/Summer '08 Vuitton show

Richard Prince’s famous Nurse motif was used for the Spring/Summer ’08 Vuitton show

The marketing of art is at its most visible at contemporary art fairs – of which there are now more than 200 annually around the world – mentioned earlier as a subject of Tom Wolfe’s new work. Frieze, which takes place annually in London, is one of the most well-known. It was intriguing to see that this year saw the debut of Frieze Masters, which some saw as an attempt to breathe new life into an event that had begun to lose its ability to surprise. It was also seen as a deliberate attempt to focus attention on more established names in order to avoid some of the volatility the market has seen with newer, less-known artists. So the market isn’t so insular that it doesn’t recognise the need for significant change.

Collecting art is something that few of us can turn into a committed past-time. Moreover, the vagaries of art over the past ten years-plus have been such that only a select few would be able to decipher the worth of a current artist’s produce. The value of their art has been dulled by demographic shifts and concentrations, by overly-excessive marketing tactics and by a reduction and muddling of the nature of what it means to be an expert. Regulation of the sector seems overdue, as conflicts of interest and an oligopolistic marketplace seem to cry out for legal oversight. Some of these problems are not restricted to the art world and it will be interesting to see if a paradigm shift sits on the horizon. The Internet is providing some antidote to this. Recent online-only auctions by Christies – one of ArtInfo’s top ten stories that moved the art market in 2012 – have made the process of bidding for items extremely popular, and small art-sellers like Exhibition A are illustrating there is room for innovation in the industry. Is the art market in an aesthetic and financial bubble, and will it burst? Time will tell.

Ai Weiwei Exhibition A

On movie release windows – I love the sound of breaking glass

December 1, 2012 4 comments

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It’s fair to say that in the past ten years, the pace of technology has evolved at an ever-increasing rate. The way in which devices have changed, and with it our use of them, was humourously summed up in the above cartoon from The New Yorker. Digital trends have affected the way we communicate, the way we consume media, and indeed the way we consume goods and services, i.e. shop.

So it is a little surprising to many – your humble correspondent included – that we still have to put up with a film being released in one country one day, and in another months later. That we still have to wait a certain number of months for a film to amble its way from the cinema screens to our home, whether on Blu-ray / DVD or on VOD. It’s interesting to note that vertical integration isn’t a key issue; Disney recently launched the second subscription video on demand (SVOD) service in Europe, with a library of constantly refreshed titles that can be viewed on platforms ranging from TVs to Xbox to iPads. Indeed, Disney’s CEO Bob Iger announced way back in 2005 in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that he foresaw a day of collapsed release windows, when a film came out the same day at the cinema as it was available to watch in the home:

We’d be better off as a company and an industry if we compressed that window. We could spend less money pushing the box office and get to the next window sooner where a movie has more perceived value to the consumer because it’s more fresh.

So there is money to be saved in such an exercise. Yet seven years later, such a situation is still mostly a fantasy for major films. Studios have undoubtedly dipped their toe in the water, and some moderate success has been seen on the indie scene, specifically with recent films like Margin Call, Melancholia and Arbitrage. The former film was released simultaneously in the cinema and on VOD (seemingly only in the US, however), eventually recording strong results, months after its initial release at Sundance Film Festival. Again, what is the justification for such a change in platform release timings? Not meeting consumer desires and addressing piracy, but simple cost savings. Variety reports:

“We’re a star-driven culture, and on a crowded (VOD) menu, what are you going to be drawn to?” posits WME Global head Graham Taylor, who adds that with marketing budgets skyrocketing, the ability to use a single campaign across closely spaced bows on multiple platforms is an important cost savings.

The whole situation is quite frustrating for any fan of film or television. It is a frustration shared by Frederic Filloux, co-author of the excellent blog Monday Note, which Zeitgeist strongly recommends to anyone with an interest in insightful thoughts and reasoning on media industry goings-on.

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Their most recent post also happened to detail the author’s frustrations with such seemingly arbitrary release windows. One of the most pertinent charts displays the achingly slow rate of change in platform release changes, that is so at odds with the pace of change in other media (above). The content of the post has rational recommendations, which at first glance seem eminently appropriate and overdue for implementation. Some of the recommendations though fail to account for the fact that the film industry and its machinations are often governed by winds of irrationality.

To summarise, Filloux recommends a global day-and date, shorter, more flexible window of time between cinema and home release. There are a number of obstacles to these ideas though. Firstly, exhibitors must be placated. They hold such a sway over studios that they cannot easily be ignored. Bob Iger, in the interview mentioned earlier, mentions exhibitors as being a key obstacle. Think about it, why on earth would a cinema want their film to be available in the comfort of their audience’s home any sooner than it already is? It wants to enforce scarcity, so that when the film’s marketing machine is at its height, the cinema is the only place you can see it. As already mentioned, indie films have had some success with multi-platform releases, but even these have met with consternation from exhibitors, as a recent example in Canada shows. The consternation becomes outright war for larger films. Zetigeist reported when, in 2010, many exhibitors refused to show Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland when the studio, Disney, flirted with releasing the film to home release less than four months after its theatrical debut. After much back and forth, exhibitors eventually relented, and the film went on to gross over a billion dollars at the global box office. Exhibitors are not going to be convinced about flat release windows anytime soon. They are perhaps the largest roadblock to such a move, and the largest point of advocating a return to vertical integration of production, distribution and exhibition that was the case until the Paramount Decree in 1948.

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Studios can only flatter exhibitors for so long

Moreover, while the argument about having flexible, shifting window releases depending upon a film’s success is logical, it does not acknowledge the existence of sleeper hits, films which do not open to huge returns but gradually accrue it over months of release (as illustrated by Margin Call, mentioned earlier). It would also be hard to define when a movie “succeeds” or “bombs”. You could use box office as a figure, but would this be without context, as a ratio of the film’s budget, or against its current peers? Using box office fails to take awards – principally Oscar – coverage into consideration, which invariably adds its own box office bump to a movie when it is nominated or wins.

The recommendation for simultaneous worldwide release is also a valid point. Zeitgeist has written before on the ridiculous prices pirated films go for in markets that have no access to the official product. To their credit, studios are moving further toward a “day and date” system. However, doing so exclusively would be dangerous. Releasing some films market by market allows the studio to gauge audience reaction, and if necessary tinker with the marketing or the film itself. Staggering release dates is also necessary for cultural events, such as the World Cup, which may be more relevant to some countries than others.

It is the last point made in the article, that of making TV shows “universally available from the day when they are aired on TV” that Zeitgeist could not agree more with. Apart from audience frustration – and recent technological development such as DVR show how the opportunity can shape viewer habits – such a move would also surely divert people from resorting to illegal downloading.

To conclude, while there are caveats and significant roadbumps to be addressed, and some progress has been made over the years, the film industry has a long way to go in a short time if it wants to catch up with consumer habits. Flat release windows should be an inevitability, and a priority. Moreover, they should not be seen purely as cost-saving measure, but as an important way of keeping an increasingly technologically and globally savvy customer base happy.

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