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Regulating in the face of digital disruption

April 30, 2014 1 comment

peter-c-vey--these-new-regulations-will-fundamentally-change-the-way-we-get-around-the…-new-yorker-cartoon_i-G-65-6596-IDO2100ZHaving studied policy and regulation at university, Zeitgeist is often compelled to look at many issues facing companies today through a regulatory lens. But even the most dispassionate fan of rules and laws would have to concede that as digital innovation disrupts multiple sectors around the world, the way these new innovations and businesses are governed is an important consideration. In this piece we’ll be looking at regulatory concerns for disruptors like Uber and Netflix, as well as how regulation effects legacy companies like Microsoft and Comcast. As with many of our articles on this blog, we’ll be taking a particular look at the TMT sector. (Bitcoin will have to wait for another article).

Regulators often find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place. Should the emphasis be placed ex-ante, to ensure compliance, or ex-post to apply punitive measures and fix problems once they have become apparent? The former seems wise as it sets initial goals for companies. But it also risks opening loopholes, as well as being overly prescriptive and thus failing to adapt. It can also lead to the development of overly-familiar relations between regulator and industry, leading to what is known as ‘capture’. Currently, the US favours an ex-ante approach, but as Edward Luce detailed recently in the Financial Times, this has led to a “creeping impulse to micro-regulate“. The FDA’s recent announcement that they would regulate e-cigarettes, despite no proof it encourages the take-up of smoking tobacco, is such an example. Ex-post – regulating after an event – seems just as bad, mostly because the damage has already been done at that point. While it means that all problems addressed are real-world and practical, they can also be applied with too much emphasis. Above all, regulation ultimately risks stifling innovation; Edison moved to the West coast because he was fed up of the stringent regulations in the East. A recent lead article in The Economist asserted that, far from too little regulation, the global recession was caused by too much state involvement in the wrong places. Too little oversight though, and companies can be allowed to run wild.

Earlier this month, The New York Times featured an op-ed on regulating the online world. It is written by New York State attorney general Eric Schneiderman. As might be expected, he quickly attacks online start-ups saying it is “amazing” that they think just because their business is online, that “somehow makes them immune from regulation”. This is all well and good, but it masks the fact that clear regulations have not been established. Schneiderman is right to point out that just because a business now has an app instead of a high street store doesn’t mean its responsibilities to the law have changed. It is an apt analogy. But in practice the story is different. As with most innovations, from film to Napster and Airbnb, regulators must constantly be playing catch-up. The complaints of new businesses are not that they should be subject to regulation, rather that those rules are onerous or outdated, applying to a different time. The sharing economy works because it has found cheaper, more efficient ways of offering services that hitherto were more restricted; regulations need to be appropriately dispensed. Sadly, many cities in the US have simply blocked allowing such services to operate. Uber – a car pickup service – is probably not wholly repulsed by the thought of regulation, but they are resistant to rules put in place by entrenched interests and unions. Airbnb might violate the letter of the law, but not the spirit surely. People have always let out their living space to others. The only thing that has changed is scale. Why does scale suddenly make something legally problematic? Schneiderman points out that some lettings are so large, with multiple rooms let at once, that they are essentially hotels. True enough, perhaps, but Zeitgeist has certainly never come across such a property, and they are certainly small in number, and no more represent Airbnb’s ethos than any hotel violating its own (regulated) terms. A recent article in The Economist argued for “adaptation, not prohibition“. Schneiderman’s sentiment is that these start-ups need to work more closely and proactively with regulators, but this fails to recognise that regulators need to also fundamentally change their approach.

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East and West shook up a regulatory framework with the recent release of “300: Rise of an Empire” via China’s Tencent website

Regulation in China has been a hot topic for a while now. This is principally because the region has a low tolerance of free speech. But it extends to cultural concerns as well; the Google Play store, Twitter, and most of Hollywood’s annual product do not make it onto Chinese shores (legally, anyway). What this creates is a secondary tier of companies who take Western business models and run with it. That’s why there are multiple Chinese Android app stores, why Sina Weibo is a fantastically successful service, and why many poor remakes of US films flood the Chinese market. It has been pleasing then to see two recent developments in the way China regulates the TMT sector that should be good news for consumers and Western companies. Today saw the announcement that Microsoft’s Xbox One is to be sold in China. It will be the first foreign games console to go on sale in the country, lifting a fourteen year ban. This would open up the company to the half billion active gamers in China. Additionally, as Michael Pachter, analyst at Wedbush Securities pointed out,

“The middle class in China is pretty large, and positioning the box as an over-the-top TV receiver gives it a lot of appeal to wealthier Chinese.”

Earlier this week, Warner Bros was the latest film studio to partner with Chinese site Tencent. The film 300: Rise of an Empire, is available to rent through the site, while it is still in cinemas in territories like the US. The points of the deal were very interesting. Zeitgeist has for a number of years now advocated an increased flexibility to film platform release windows. Such a rigid structure as the industry has in the US is not as apparent in China. This could help alleviate piracy in the country and separately could pave the way for a relaxing of the quota of US films that are let into the Chinese market every year. Hopefully this will be a precursor to more such moves in Western markets. As someone commented on the news when it was published on the Financial Times website,

“Maybe they can do the same in the rest of the world as well?
Or I could wait 2 months for something to come out on Bluray in the UK compared to the US. Or just pirate it when the US version is available since they won’t let me buy it in my country, but will let other people buy it in other countries.”

While China is taking steps forward, the US seems to be faltering in its regulatory approach. We mentioned the impending restrictions on e-cigarettes earlier, and let’s not even go into then-mayor Michael Bloomberg’s crusade against sugar. We’ve written about net neutrality before. The issue has been of interest to Zeitgeist since university days. It was thrust into the spotlight this year when a US court ruled that the FCC had “overstepped its authority” after a legal challenge from Verizon. Last week, new rules were proposed that will undermine the original purpose of the policy of treating all traffic the same, allowing ISPs to charge companies like Netflix more in order to reach consumer with greater quantity or quality, but only on “commercially reasonable” terms. These terms have yet to be defined. These moves touch on a related matter that has also been greeted with consternation by those who favour fairness. This is Comcast‘s proposed merger with Time Warner Cable. Netflix recently publicly came out against the move. It is easy to see why. As The Economist recently elaborated, such a deal would limit competition and reduce any incentive to innovate. It is also one more example of the assumption companies have that their problems can be solved with size. Comcast have admitted they will raise prices for the end user, while as much as conceding there will no be no discernible benefit to them. One might argue there is little more for such companies to do, but average internet speeds in Tokyo and Singapore are ten times as fast on average as in the US. Even the Financial Times, which can often be counted on to be a bastion of support for capitalists, compared Comcast to the Railway Barons of the past.

The sharing economy is creating difficulty for many sectors, and regulatory agencies have not escaped this. Such forces have been to slow to adapt to fundamental changes in the TMT sector, particularly in print, music and film industries. There certainly seems to be a tendency for over-regulation today, particularly in the US. Returning to an article we mentioned at the beginning of our piece, Edward Luce laments that America “no longer feels unusually free”. Perhaps this is part of a cyclical trend. Like the causes of the recession, perhaps the problem is a stifling caused by over-regulation in the wrong places, coupled with a lack of innovation in areas where sensible rules that do not cater to the established are in dire need. It is good to see rules and regulations around consoles and release windows are being relaxed in China, but the furore around regulating the sharing economy needs a similar dose of innovative thinking.

UPDATE (17/9/14): We’ve included some nice examples in this post of innovative thinking paired with light touch regulation going on in China’s entertainment sector. Sadly the pendulum swings both ways; though shows like BBC’s ‘Sherlock’ were made available with authorised translations mere hours after their original broadcast in Blighty, the state is cracking down hard in other ways. The Economist reports that last week, China’s TV regulator said that, from April, any foreign series or film would need approval before being shown online. It is looking for “health, well-made works” that “showcase good values”. This sounds like a vague excuse to arbitrarily censor content it doesn’t like. Explicitly, banned subject matter includes, according to The Economist, “superstition, espionage and—bizarrely—time travel”.

Adjacencies & Disruptions – Amazon, Armani and identifying corollaries

Zeitgeist likes thinking about adjacencies. We’ve written about it before when looking at the art market, but it’s also prevalent in other industry sectors. Think of the UK übergrocer Tesco. The company has expanded into movie distribution – with Blinkbox – as well into banking and mobile, albeit as an MVNO. Why? To diversify its revenue streams; the grocery market is a cutthroat place of late; Morrisons recent conceding that it would be setting off another price war among its peers was hardly greeted with cheers by shareholders. How? By using the equity of trust they have built up with shoppers over the years, they are able to expand into other, similar territories, where their (claimed) competitive advantage of good value and good customer service can be similarly applied.

Amazon has been nothing if not a company constantly on the hunt for the efficient exploitation of adjacencies. A recent article in The New Yorker detailed how CEO Jeff Bezos got into books because he saw the market was ripe for disruption; he saw the Internet was the perfect platform to sell such a product:

It wasn’t a love of books that led him to start an online bookstore. ‘It was totally based on the property of books as a product’, Shel Kaphan, Bezos’s former deputy, says. Books are easy to ship and hard to break, and there was a major distribution warehouse in Oregon. Crucially, there are far too many books, in and out of print, to sell even a fraction of them at a physical store. The vast selection made possible by the Internet gave Amazon its initial advantage, and a wedge into selling everything else.

Zeitgeist remembers buying his first book from Amazon back in 1999. It wasn’t long before the company expanded into music, and from there into myriad other offerings. Like Tesco, Amazon found its original industry to be a highly competitive one – at least in terms of margins. It has become a fairly ruthless behemoth in the publishing industry, acting as monopoly in its rent-seeking tactics. The Kindle was an extension of its strategy to ‘own’ the territory of books, and as a publishing company itself it has so far had mixed success, according to The New Yorker. The Kindle Fire addresses its new media offerings, principally video. Just as a recent Business Insider article identified the Xbox 360 as Microsoft’s short-term ploy to encourage a customer to funnel all entertainment through their device before the launch of its successor Xbox One, so with Amazon and its Kindle Fire before this week’s release of Fire TV. The Financial Times featured good coverage of the device here, quoting an analyst at Forrester,

It is a slightly faster Roku box combined with voice recognition to make search easier and then they have created a full Android gaming device. This puts the product into a whole class of its own.”

It will be interesting to see how the device competes with the much cheaper Chromecast, from Google, itself an exploiter of adjacencies. Google relies less on an equity of customer trust to move into new industries and more an innate belief that tech can be used to solve pretty much any problem. The search engine provides an affordable smartphone OS platform, connected glasses, globe-trotting balloons and driverless cars.

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In the world of luxury, that essence of trust is treated with far greater reverence. This is principally why fashion brands have been such laggards when it has come to embracing digital communications and ecommerce solutions. tIronically, this approach, which by extension neglects a dedicated approach to holistic Customer Experience Management (or CEM) is arguably beginning to have a negative impact on how people perceive and interact with these companies. It is why adjacencies seem to happen less than temporary collaborations, an impressive recent example of which can be seen in BMW’s recent tie-up with Louis Vuitton.

It was gratifying to see Giorgio Armani, a company that has carefully crafted diffusion lines as well as adjacencies into hotels and homeware over the years, recently buck the trend, sending out communications over its newest line, Armani Fiori. While style can be eternal, fashion can be quite ephemeral – as with flowers. It’s not clear how much of a market there is for this. That being said, the sector is not exactly brimming with ultra-premium florists. And it might provide a certain level of reassurance for the man purchasing flowers, who can rely on the brand’s prestige to assuage any feelings of whether he is picking a good bunch. Where it might prove especially successful though is in the B2B sector; the lobbies of corporate headquarters and luxury hotels could soon be awash with the fragrance of a designer flower or two.

Adjacencies tend to work best then when they start by identifying qualities inherent in the brand as it currently exists. I.e. what is our current competitive advantage? Is that scaleable or transferable to a related field? Often, as with the cases above, such acquisitions and movements arise when traditional margins are being eroded or under threat of such. Prada, a leader in the luxury sector, has as that leader borne the brunt of strong headwinds recently as the sector as a whole experiences a slowdown. Its own adjacent acquisition? Last month it bought an 18th-century Milanese pastry shop.

Fiori

Threats and Opportunities for the Entertainment Industry in 2014

January 11, 2014 1 comment

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At the start of a new year, what to make of the entertainment sector? It depends where you look. One thing is for certain though; at the close of 2013 that old laggard the music industry upstaged its media cousins. For sheer daring and innovative nous, few initiatives could claim to beat Sony in its launch of Beyoncé’s new album. In the face of increasingly ailing streaming services, the album was released as a fixed bundle on iTunes, with no marketing behind it. The news of the release thus came as a last-minute surprise to the industry and consumers alike, creating a short but extreme burst of anticipation. The artist posted a message on Facebook saying she wanted to recreate the “immersive experience” she used to have listening to music. The album sold 80,000 copies in three hours. It is difficult to envision Sony’s film division at Columbia Pictures doing anything similar.

Near the end of last year, Zeitgeist was fortunate enough to be able to attend the 5th Annual GlobeScreen Conference at London’s May Fair Hotel. Eve Gabereau, the co-founder and MD of Soda Pictures lamented “nurturing a film is not possible any more… there is less opportunity for a film to find its audience”. Word of mouth, she said, had to be very good, and happen very quickly, in order for it to have an effect. Simon Crowe, founder and MD of SC Films International, disagreed with another speaker, who asserted that filmmakers were being hampered by a lack of data, in that they did not know who they were making films for. He dismissed the need for data, and, most worryingly, stated the primary focus should not be on the bottom line. This is dangerous thinking. Films may be art, but if the medium is to continue then it needs to be profitable. So the primary focus has to be ‘How will this product turn a profit?’. Zeitgeist asked him afterward about the viability of VOD (video-on-demand) as a channel; Crowe was not optimisitic about its future as a significant revenue producer, calling films that have found success on such platforms – such as Arbitrage and Margin Call – outliers. Zeitgeist offered that Netflix had not been considered a significant distribution channel for a while, until suddenly it was. Did he foresee a similar situation with VOD? “Don’t know”, was his retort. It was well worth staying late to receive such gems as answers. The whole conference spoke of an ignorance of the insight data can provide, a shunning of profit-focused management, and a general yearning for bygone times when the industry – not to mention the champagne and other substances – was flowing more freely.16-old-hollywood-is-dead-and-old-tv-is-dyingSuch anecdotal frustrations found company in the form of hard data. To cap off 2013, Business Insider published an article entitled ‘The US 20: Twenty huge trends that will dominate America’s future’. Number 16 was ‘Old Hollywood is dead…’. It noted that inflation-adjusted box office receipts were down around 8% from their 2004 high (see chart). Industry trade mag Variety reported recently that UK box office fell 1% in 2013, which was the first drop in ten years and the biggest in more than twenty. Of course, part of the reason for this was because 2012 had a rather suave helping hand from James Bond, in the form of Skyfall. When Zeitgeist prodded Cameron Saunders, Managing Director of 20th Century Fox UK, about the news over Twitter, he was quick to leap to into the fray, noting that it was “still the second biggest box office year on record”. He also went on to concede though that “UK admissions however have flatlined, despite lots more films = fewer people seeing each movie”. The same scenario is happening in the US. China is one of the few bright spots in the world of film, and has seen an explosion in the number of physical screens installed in the country over recent years. But even the Chinese film industry has medium to long term challenges it will need to overcome, if, as some predict, it is to become the world’s largest film market – overtaking the US – by 2019. It is still at the mercy of a government with strict controls and vague whimsical notions about what makes for permissible content; the state is involved at almost every level of production and distribution. Moreover, though the quota on foreign releases in the market has been relaxed slightly, it is by no means open season for Hollywood. In much the same way as the banning in China of Google’s app service and videogames consoles led to poor knock-offs, so with film. The restrictions have spawned poor remakes of American films that didn’t see a release on China’s shores, which inspires little creativity or excitement.

It was not all doom and gloom in the cinema of late of course. Gravity continues to light up screens across the world, and seems poised to do well come Oscar night. Its only obstacles come in the form of other films that critics and audiences have been similarly impressed with this season, including 12 Years a Slave and Captain Phillips. But such artistic achievements can hardly make us forget what was a poor summer for the film industry. We have written before about how films in development are increasingly either mega-blockbusters or niche arthouse films. Producer Kevin Misher, talking to The Economist last month, echoed our thoughts; “Hollywood is like America: the middle class has been squeezed”. The article went on to lament the unique situation the film industry finds itself in, relying on outsiders for both ideas (“imagine if Apple or Toyota did this”) and funding.

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Will more content producers partner up with those infringing intellectual property?

The challenges extend further. Though Kodak suffered from other problems too, one of the things that prevented it from ever laying down a long-term strategy to embrace digital photography was the revolving door of executives at the top. Hollywood is similarly afflicted. In the past 18 months, according to The Economist, four of the six main studios have seen change at the top. Perhaps some longevity in senior roles would have encouraged these companies to embrace new ways of delivering films to eager customers. Instead, most films, particularly the ones glutting the summer schedule, still cling to an outdated distribution strategy of staggering releases across platforms. Studios resist doing this – save for the odd arthouse release – because it risks the ire of exhibitors. We’ve written before about the antiquated nature of such thinking. Every delay in getting to a consumer increases the chances that customer will resort to piracy. Companies like Netflix are reporting that intellectual property rights infringement dips once legal alternatives are made available to people; there are signs of hope.

Piracy is of course playing a role in television, too. In Poland, consumers have to wait months after the US broadcast for their dose of Homeland. It is thus one of the more popular shows to be pirated. Making the most of this trend, a publishing company responsible for a new book detailing Carrie’s life before the start of the series has been inserting adverts into the subtitles for the show. The MD of the publishing company told TorrentFreak, “We decided to advertise via subtitles because we wanted to show the book to all the fans of the Homeland series in Poland, no matter where they watch the show”. You can’t argue with placing a promotion for where you know your likely customers are. It will be interesting to see if any other unlikely coupling between pirates and content producers emerge. For, as amusing as this news is, it does point to a fragmentation in audiences, and thus in places for advertisers to reach them. It should have come as little surprise then when, last month, the Financial Times reported that TV’s share of advertising spend will slip this year, after three decades of uninterrupted growth. Jonathan Barnard, ZenithOptimedia’s head of forecasting, warned, “After television ad spending has grown pretty consistently for at least the last 35 years… there will be quite a lot of disruption to come over the next 10 years.”

Of course, disruption will come to other sectors of the entertainment industry, too. This was apparent at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, where Samsung and Sony, among others, held court. It wasn’t the best of showings for Samsung, where famed producer / director Michael Bay walked out seconds into a presentation on curved televisions after the autocue failed. Sony had its disruptor product to tout, a cloud TV service. Beyond the glitz and glam of such new product releases, a big question remains: Can Sony use what assets they have and combine them effectively? A great article in the FT probed deeper, asking whether all these new products and services – we would be remiss were we not to mention the PS4, currently outstripping the Xbox One in sales – can be successfully integrated into an ecosystem that Sony is desperately trying to create. The corporation dabbles in film distribution, film production, smartphones, music as well as videogames and is slowly trying to tie them all together. All this while seemingly trying to disrupt itself, with cloud gaming doing away with the need for a console and image projectors doing away with the need for physical screens (Sony loses about $80 on every set it sells currently). As the article concludes,

“[CEO] Mr Hirai is trying to pick up the pace as Sony searches for its digital destiny. But the familiar questions remain: can it execute on the plan, how fast can it move – and how much pain is it prepared to take along the way?”

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Where next for Sony?

Certainly if companies like Samsung and Sony wish to succeed in the coming years, they will have to do away with the obsession of focusing on hardware. It is plain now that, in consumer’s eyes, technology has reached a tipping point where the specifications of an object are no longer a unique selling point; they are a redundancy. This became clear at the Mobile World Congress in 2012, when PC Magazine published its event wrap-up under the headline “The End of Specs?”.

There are some companies that are embracing disruption, or at least, trying to hire those who started it in the first place. Disney, which often seems to have a strong strategic head on its shoulders, recently made the eminently sensible move of hiring the chairman of Twitter Jack Dorsey to join the Walt Disney board. This was no isolated occurrence for Disney, who had previously had Steve Jobs on the board and who have also hired Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. Elsewhere, the canny Weinstein brothers, who rarely miss an opportunity to make impressive artistic works that turn a decent profit, reteamed with their old company Miramax to develop further iterations of their film library. Seeing the opportunity for increased creativity in television, as well as new channels like Netflix and Amazon, they will also be developing new television series. And while online takes away advertising spend from other channels under the promise of reaching the right people at the right time, new local television development in the UK promises to do similar as it targets localised areas. Still, the film industry as a whole seems to be outright resisting any changes to the calendar; schlock in the summer sun, followed by arty pretense come Oscar time. Repeat. A writer in the New York Times elaborates,

“And then, after the Oscars, the machine picks up speed and starts excreting ghastly product like Oz the Great and Powerful, one of the worst movies of 2013 and the eighth highest domestic grosser of the year. Then the fall hits, and we cling to movies like Gravity and insist that, really, it isn’t all bad. And it isn’t, of course, even if creating a Top 10 list is finally an exercise in exceptionalism.”

The worry is that any shift in the schizophrenic nature of film scheduling and creation will probably involve at least a short-term hit to the bottom line. And a recent dismissal hints that no such shift is underway at the moment. In October, the great James Schamus of Focus Features was let go by Universal. Schamus was instrumental in bringing director Ang Lee to the US, distributing his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon before going on to make The Pianist, Far From Heaven and Brokeback Mountain, among many other extraordinary films. Doug Creutz, senior media and entertainment analyst for Cowen & Company, told the New York Times in December,

“The major media companies are so big that nothing but a blockbuster really makes sense. Say you make a low-budget comedy and it brings in $150 million. So what? That doesn’t move the needle. You make a blockbuster… You can do the sequel and the consumer products and a theme park attraction. The movie itself is almost beside the point. All Disney is going to be doing is Marvel, Star Wars and animation.”

That would be a great shame for those who like artistic diversity, as well as sensible financial returns, in their film studio output. Current business models seem to be producing diminishing returns. This is true for videogames, movies and music. Experimentation, such as that by Sony’s music division mentioned at the beginning of the article, must be more widespread to engage with new consumer habits and to rekindle jaded minds. Consumer engagement and feedback as a whole is largely missing from much of the strategy with which the entertainment industry steers itself. Shareholder returns and operational logistics occupy most of their time. A far more rigourous approach to data – collecting and analysing it – and a more open ear to one’s customer base, might prove beneficial.

“Lots and lots of files” – Privacy, data and a new currency

December 28, 2013 1 comment

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One of the seminal television shows of the 1990s, The X-Files played on myths, legends and government paranoia to worldwide critical and popular acclaim. One of the key episodes of the series found the lead characters, FBI agents Mulder and Scully, happening upon an abandoned mining facility. Contained inside were row upon row of filing cabinets. Inside, thousands of names spilled forth. The sheer number of file drawers is a visual feast for the viewer. But there is more; one of the agent’s names is in those files. Personal data on her (in the form of a tissue sample) has been taken without consent. Down the rabbit hole we go…

We have always operated under the assumption that governments must surveil in order to protect its citizens. The difference today, as Edward Snowden has so plainly shown, is firstly that you are the one being watched, and secondly that the sheer extent of the surveillance and the pervasive nature of its collection is staggering. The pervasiveness of all this is a key point. Not much in the way of policy has changed really in the past fifty years, it’s just that spying on swathes of the world’s population has become increasingly easier and cheaper. Back in 2006, the UK’s Information Commissioner’s Office warned that the country was moving “towards pervasive surveillance”. Such a prophecy seems to have turned into reality. It creates an uncomfortable feeling that those in charge do not have our best interests at heart, or at least that the ends do not justify the means.

Some of the finest publications in the world have been struggling to make sense of what all this means; Zeitgeist is using this post to highlight some of those key thoughts and issues covered. Back in September, The New York Times reported, paradoxically,

“Even agency programs ostensibly intended to guard American communications are sometimes used to weaken protections. The N.S.A.’s Commercial Solutions Center, for instance, invites the makers of encryption technologies to present their products to the agency with the goal of improving American cybersecurity. But a top-secret N.S.A. document suggests that the agency’s hacking division uses that same program to develop and ‘leverage sensitive, cooperative relationships with specific industry partners’ to insert vulnerabilities into Internet security products.”

Zeitgeist remembers dining alone in New York in September poring over the news. The NSA tried to ask for permission to legally insert a ‘backdoor’ into all digital encryption, but were denied. So they went ahead and did it anyway. They influenced government policy that led to fundamental weaknesses in encryption software. Last week, a federal judge considered the constitutionality of the US’s surveillance programmes. He called the technology used by the NSA “almost Orwellian” and ordered it to stop collecting the telephone records of two plaintiffs. It is one of several cases currently underway.

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Click to see The New Yorker’s infographic on what personal data is made available to social networks and their advertisers

Of course, such spying would have not have been possible without the consent – tacit or otherwise – of companies in the private sector. There is clamor in the US, UK, Brazil and other countries for more restrictive regulation that makes it harder to collect consumer data. Such policy could make data analysis and collection onerous and might have a significant impact for those businesses that make a living out of using such data. As The Economist puts it,

“Should all this make it harder and costlier for companies to gather information, that would hurt the likes of Facebook and Google, which depend on knowing enough about their customers to ping them with ads that match their tastes.”

The New Yorker recently featured a fascinating article complete with unnerving infographic (excerpted image above) showing just how much information we display on our various social networks is then shared with the platform and its advertisers. This month, a new film, Her, arrives in cinemas, from the director of Being John Malkovich. The heroine is a disembodied voice – acted by Scarlett Johansson – who serves as operating system. The line between her servitude and rapid consumption of all her user’s data quickly becomes blurred. As the reviewer Anthony Lane puts it, also for The New Yorker,

“Who would have guessed, after a year of headlines about the N.S.A. and about the porousness of life online, that our worries on that score—not so much the political unease as a basic ontological fear that our inmost self is possibly up for grabs—would be best enshrined in a weird little [film]?”

Unsurprisingly, the results of a recent YouGov poll in the UK showed consumers were now far less willing to part with their own data. Almost half would be less willing to share their personal data with companies in the next five years. A mere 2% said they would be more willing to do so. Part of the problem lies in a lack of transparency: who is using my data, which piece of information exactly, and how does it benefit them? More importantly, what am I getting in return for surrendering my data? Steve Wilkinson of Ernst & Young offered little in the way of cheering news, “Many customers have recognised that businesses are using their personal information to help increase revenues, and are starting to withdraw access to their private data… In spite of this, there is a reluctance to adopt incentives that encourage consumers to part with personal data”.

Writing in the FT yesterday, Evgeny Morozov penned an excellent article claiming the media was spending far too much time on the intricacies of government involvement rather than how the whole cocktail mixes together. The overreach, according to the author, is being treated as an aberration, that will disappear in the face of tighter controls and the harsh light of day. It should instead, Morozov argues, be treated as part of a worrying trend in which “personal information – rather than money – becomes the chief way in which we pay for services – and soon, perhaps, everyday objects”. The article continues,

“Now that every piece of data, no matter how trivial, is also an asset in disguise, they just need to find the right buyer. Or the buyer might find them, offering to create a convenient service paid for by their data – which seems to be Google’s model with Gmail, its email service… [W]e might be living through a transformation in how capitalism works, with personal data emerging as an alternative payment regime. The benefits to consumers are already obvious; the potential costs to citizens are not. As markets in personal information proliferate, so do the externalities – with democracy the main victim. This ongoing transition from money to data is unlikely to weaken the clout of the NSA; on the contrary, it might create more and stronger intermediaries that can indulge its data obsession.”
Morozov also questions the meaning behind such data, as Zeitgeist has done in a previous article. Such information risks becoming seen as an objective answer without providing a solution or insight.
“Should we not be more critical of the rationale, advanced by the NSA and other agencies, that they need this data to engage in pre-emptive problem-solving? We should not allow the falling costs of pre-emption to crowd out more systemic attempts to pinpoint the origins of the problems that we are trying to solve. Just because US intelligence agencies hope to one day rank all Yemeni kids based on their propensity to blow up aircraft does not obviate the need to address the sources of their discontent – one of which might be the excessive use of drones to target their fathers. Unfortunately, these issues are not on today’s agenda, in part because many of us have bought into the simplistic narrative – convenient to both Washington and Silicon Valley – that we just need more laws, more tools, more transparency.”
Touching on similar points and themes, the most enjoyable recent article on the subject was written by famed author Margaret Atwood for The New York Times earlier this month. It had recently emerged that intelligence agencies had been using MMO games like World of Warcraft in an attempt to discover terrorists and other less enjoyable parts of the internet. Atwood has predicted just such a thing in her books, written some twelve years ago. Atwood struggles to make sense of her thoughts coming to life, wondering whether to treat it as comedy or tragedy. She elaborates, crystallising all our fears about the empty truth behind data,

“I hope for the comedy… I suspect the horror. Possibly in the future you’ll no longer be permitted to be who you think you are, or even who you’re pretending to be: You will be who they say you are, based on your data-mined, snooped-upon online presence. You’ll be stuck with that definition of yourself. You won’t be able to take off the mask.”

Such disconcerting thoughts on having your own personality dictated to you might once have been the stuff of science-fiction, apt for an episode of The X-Files. Besides adages of truth being stranger than fiction, the clarion call of these publications appears to be that people should be sitting up and taking notice of what has been going on over the last ten years with extensive policy / data / consumerism creep. It is not just the NSA, but the way society intertwines information for monetisation that must be scrutinised if we are to avoid having to worry about trivial things like playing videogames in peace.

Cost-cutting consoles

September 13, 2013 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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

The New News – Monetising journalism today

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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.

Creative Destruction in Electronic Arts

Super Famicom box

The videogame industry, like many of the protagonists in the games it creates, is under attack. The competition is fierce. Not only is there healthy competition amongst legacy companies – including Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft – but new devices are increasingly distracting consumers, and digital disruption elsewhere is changing the way these companies do business.

Part of the problem is cyclical; the market has gone longer than usual without a major new console launch from either Sony or Microsoft, which in turn makes game manufacturers hesitate from making new product. But the industry needs to be wary that their audience has changed, in multiple ways. Sony are now starting to talk about their PS4 (due to be released in around six months’ time), beginning with a dire two hour presentation recently that failed to reveal price, release date, or an image of the console. And the word over at TechCrunch? “A tired strategy… [O]verall the message was clear: Sony’s PS4 is an evolution, not an about-face, or a realization that being a game console might not mean what it used to mean.”

We’ve written before on creative destruction in other industries, and talked before about shifting parameters for companies like Nintendo. The inventor of NES and Game Boy is currently struggling with poor sales of its new console, while at the same the chief executive of Nintendo America recently stated that digital downloads of videogames were becoming a “notable contributor” to their bottom line. Companies like Apple are surrounded by perpetual rumours of developing their own videogame platform. New companies in their own right, such as the Kickstarter-funded company producing the $99 Ouya, is among several players shaking up the industry. The upshot of such turmoil – a “burning platform” as the Electronic Arts CEO described the situation in 2007, referring to the dilemma of holding onto the burning oil rig and drowning in the process, or risk jumping off into who-knows-what – is a loss of market share. Accenture in January published a report predicting the demise of single-use devices such as cameras and music players whose revenues would be eaten into as more and more consumers flocked to tablet and other multi-purpose gadgets. Videogame console purchase intent was not researched, but it is not hard to make the analogy.

It was enlightening and reassuring then to read McKinsey Quarterly’s interview recently with Bryan Neider, COO of Electronic Arts. Some interesting take-outs follow. First, in 2007, the company recognised there was a problem: “game-quality scores were down and our costs were rising”. The company wanted to shift from having a relationship with retailers to having one with gamers. This meant having a focus on digital delivery. This fiscal year, digital is forecast to represent 40% of the overall business. Neider recognises this closeness to the consumer makes them even more susceptible to their whims and preferences, so they’re relying far more on data-backed analysis than they have before, including a system with profiles of over 200m customers. This data is used for everything from QA to predicting game usage. Neider elaborates,

“Key metrics answer the following questions: where in the game are consumers dropping out? What is the network effect of getting new players into the game? How many people finish a game? Did we make it too difficult or too long? Did we overdevelop a product or underdevelop it? Did people finish too fast? Those sorts of things are going to be critical… However, the challenge is that parts of the gaming audience are pretty vocal—they either really like a game or they really don’t like it. The trick is to find ways to get feedback from the lion’s share of the audience that is generally silent and make sure we’re giving these people what they want.”

Interestingly, the company’s structure was changed to reflect individual fiefdoms according to franchise – be it FIFA or Need for Speed – the needs for which are managed in that line of business. Each vertical competes with the others to deliver the highest rates of return, while also being able to draw on central resources (marketing, for example). Electronic Arts, as a developer of software for other manufacturers, will to some extent always be at the mercy of which devices are in vogue and the cycle of obsolescence. It is impressive though to see that the company has recognised the need to change the way it does business. The operational and technological sides of business don’t seem to have distracted Neider from the key insight in the industry, “Ultimately, we’re in the people business“.

Beyond the Linear – New ways of entertaining

January 20, 2013 1 comment

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The days of P.T. Barnum, and the sense of spectacle an audience received from seeing a live performance have long passed; codified, commodotised, sanitised and made instantly available. Or have they? The way we entertain ourselves nowadays has changed greatly, and keeps changing. But are our tastes evolving or revolving? Is there hope for such seeming anachronisms as the TV, the live performance and even the book?

Two years ago, Zeitgeist wrote a brief article on the nature of contemporary consumption of media. It began with the headline that 8-18 year olds in the US spend a quarter of their media time with multiple devices. Furthermore, almost a quarter of that age group use one other device most of the time while watching television. In 2013, this preference for multiple stimuli has only accelerated. 80% of UK smartphone owners (making up over half the phone-owning population) use their phones while watching the TV. Similar figures were reported in the US, and similar figures were also reported for tablet owners.  Such figures give marketers pause for thought as they begin to approach these complementary devices as ways to extend their brand from the television onto the second screen. JWT Intelligence has a great report on this.

However, it is easy to overstate the arrival of shiny, new devices, and the apparent death of television. The blame for this misconception lies partly with the media itself; journalism is less engaging when it merely reports on the maintenance of the status quo (i.e. ‘people are still watching TV’). Far more interesting to hear about what new objects are showing a bit of ankle at CES, and that us mere mortals might one day dare to dream of owning ourselves, at which point all other material objects become unnecessary. All the more so when the journalistic integrity is compromised by corporate meddling, as was the case with CNET’s reporting this year. It was refreshing then to read TechCrunch’s recent article with the headline, ‘TV still King in Media Consumption’. The article, quoting a recent report by Nielsen, was particularly interesting in noting the prevalence of TV when it referenced that almost half the homes with TVs in the US owned four or more sets. Startling. More startling, the average household spends six days a month watching television, far ahead of other media consumption (using the Internet on a computer, at a little over 28 hours a month, came a distant second). The FT writes,

Over the past decade, despite the proliferation of video content on the web, TV consumption in the UK has remained steady with the average person watching about four hours a day. Almost 80 per cent of this viewing is on the top five channels, virtually unchanged from 10 years ago.

Creative destruction is something Zeitgeist takes an active interest in and has written about several times before on this blog. It takes hold in some industries (and households in this case) more quickly than in others. The same Nielsen study found that over 55% of US homes still had working VCRs. Moreover, despite much editorial to the contrary over recent years, the PC has not yet been wiped out by creative destruction and remains a staple for several reasons in both Western and emerging economies. According to Deloitte’s recent publication, “Technology, Media and Telecoms Predictions 2013″, although the attraction of tablets – and now ‘phablets’ – mean powerful computing and a cheaper cost, allowing the potential for leapfrogging of PCs in emerging markets, qualitative research shows a small but significant demand remains for PC ownership. Moreover, many businesses in the West, currently struggling with the implications of BYO devices, are not about to jettison the PC either. Switching costs, Zeitgeist suspects, are at play here, as with those stubborn VCR owners. Click here for more of our thoughts on switching costs.

VCR owners though will one day cease to be in the majority. New avenues of distribution and consumption are opening up, though not as quickly as first thought in some cases, particularly in that of live, streaming TV, which has faced many regulatory hurdles. Variety elaborates, “Loudly trumpeted efforts have fallen short, victims of poor design decisions, overpriced services and/or confusion about the target audience”. Yet alternatives are there. One of the more interesting streaming TV options in the US currently is that of Dyle, with 90 stations in 35 markets. It is run by a partnership that includes Fox, NBC, Hearst Television and others. The really interesting thing about the service is that it neutralises the problem many smartphone users will have of returning data caps by streaming off a separate network spectrum, which doesn’t impact on data allowances. Nice thinking.

Is the increasing popularity of streaming, and the content they prefer to watch over such a channel, already beginning to effect the types of films being produced?

Is the increasing popularity of streaming, and the content viewers prefer to watch over such a channel, already beginning to effect the types of films being produced?

Though new technology has not created new tastes in content or viewing habits, it has undeniably acted as a catalyst to desires already present. Zeitgeist remembers hearing a LoveFilm representative speak last year at AdTech in London about the increasing share streaming films took in the marketplace. Nothing too extraordinary in that statement, especially from a purveyor of streaming content. The rub came when he went on to elaborate that people tend to stream films when they are in the mood for instant gratification, in the form usually of an action film or romantic comedy. The increasing popularity of streaming, and therefore the increasing popularity of these particular genres, means the way the medium is distributed may very likely have a very significant influence on the type of content in the future that is commissioned. It was no surprise then to see, on a recent cinema trip, trailers for three films that neatly fit into that category for instant gratification (see above). Zeitgeist wrote at length on the need for film studios to address arbitrary platform release windows at the end of last year. Our article was mentioned in the lead editorial of entertainment trade paper Variety. Part of our argument is beginning to be addressed already. The FT recently published news that studios had managed to stem the six year decline in home viewing figures for films last year. The article elaborates that this is in part due to the strength of digital downloads, with films sometimes being available for digital distribution before they were available on DVD. Taken 2, a superb candidate for streaming given the previous statement by LoveFilm, was released Christmas Day in the US on digital platforms, “weeks before its release on DVD”. Such thinking goes hand-in-hand with the new UltraViolet format, to which several studios are subscribing. This allows those purchasing a movie on DVD – such as the recent Dark Knight Rises – to watch it with ease on multiple platforms. Mashable carried an article last week stating that several electronics firms have now also signed up to the UltraViolet partnership. Consumers will receive ten free movies when they sign up to the service, as incentive.

The example of Netflix is an interesting one in trying to understand the balance between consumers’ desire for multiple media and instantly-accessible content, and content owners desires to drive maximum revenue from their product. The company has been making a bigger push into providing TV shows of late, and is being rewarded for it, particularly with regard to older shows. A cultural trend many a pundit has put their finger on since the credit crunch began to bite back in 2008, nostalgia has manifested itself in consumers’ desire for old shows, including Midsomer Murders and Rising Damp, reports the FT. This long tail effect is turning a tidy profit for Netflix, as well as the original broadcaster, ITV. As a complement to this, the company is also fostering new partnerships, first with Disney in December, giving it “exclusive rights from 2016 to movies from Disney, Walt Disney Animation Studios, Pixar Animation Studios, Marvel Studios, and Disneynature”. Then, at the beginning of this year, it inked a deal with Warner Brothers, to show new and old TV shows from the studio. It should be noted however, as with all these new deals and technological developments and marches into previously uncharted territory, regulatory wranglings have ensued, in this case with sister company Time Warner Cable. The problem in this situation is not perhaps so much that Netflix is trying hard to push its availability into lateral markets, but that it is not trying hard enough to create a cohesive platform that is available across all complementary platforms and devices.

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Research from Accenture illustrates a declining demand for single-use devices

One thing which Netflix will want desperately to escape being accused of – and it has done so with much success thus far – is being a niche provider of content. Sadly, the days of the point-and-shoot camera, the dedicated games console, etc., are numbered, according to a recent report by Accenture. It is evidently with such a strategic outlook in mind that Disney have recently announced their Infinity gaming platform. Variety describes it as an “online treasure chest”, featuring a plethora of Disney characters from over the years that can be interacted with over multiple platforms, whether on mobile or on videogame consoles. Importantly, the concept is designed to be an iterative, one that will grow and add characters over time, presumably as new IP is created. It certainly pays heed to the second screen phenomenon by recognising the need for multiple device access. It also plays off the trend started by the game ‘Skylanders’, which involves both physical toys and digital interaction. The same principle will apply with new toys developed for Infinity, which can then be used to create unique stories and drive narratives. The idea of having disparate characters from different Disney franchises is potentially a frightening one for those in charge of the individual brand essences of said titles, but the potential for success can be found by looking no further than the Toy Story films, which feature an assortment of different genre toys that mix well in situ.

We’ve discussed the changing models of consumption for most of the article, but it is worth noting briefly how our cultural tastes are also changing, brought on by technology (again), but also globalisation. Pundits are often quick to point out nowadays that there is a substantial demand for the live experience. Yet if we look at music, one of the most profound things to experience live, recent figures showed attendance to concerts had dipped. At the end of last year, in an insightful roundtable, The New York Times interviewed several talking heads, asking them to round up their thoughts on 2012 in the music industry. One of the more interesting points repeatedly made was that of the abundant opportunity that the Internet now provides for musical talent. Moreover, the Internet at large has become just as viable – if not a more viable – starting place for an emerging artist than signing with a record label:

“Now this year something’s been proven: Pop performers can become truly famous by building their careers themselves online, maybe more efficiently and faster than a major company can help them to do.

… you look at the first-week sales numbers of someone like Kendrick Lamar, who had an independent album that was digital only and is now on [the major-label] Interscope, but basically has no major radio hits, even if he is well-liked by mainstream hip-hop. He comes out and sells about 240,000 in his first week. A couple weeks later Rihanna comes out — not her first album and at the height of her pop fame — and sells a few thousand less than Kendrick did.”

The other trend, globalisation, has meant that voices increasingly other than those that are Western, are more easily heard. The irrepressible Psy had the honour of being the performer in the first YouTube video to cross one billion views. Conversely, in his home country of South Korea, ‘Gangnam Style’ has accrued a pitiful “$50,000 from CD sales and $61,000 from 3.6m downloads”. The point remains, however, that the fallacy of the West as the cradle of pop culture is being exposed. Christopher Caldwell illustrates this masterfully, writing for the FT in December.

Boston Consulting Group digital services 2015

Zeitgeist has written before about the upheaval new trends and preferences for media consumption – impacted significantly by the arrival of the Internet – have wrought on financial growth in the media and entertainment sector. Digital, in the form of Napster and its myrmidons in particular, has a lot to answer for. There was some relief then that at the beginning of the year when UK digital sales topped GBP1 billion for the first time (though still failing to off-set the physical media decline). Moreover, Boston Consulting Group predicted last month – in an excellent report entitled Changing Engines in Midflight: The 2012 TMT Value Creators Report – that by 2015 the digital services ecosystem will reach $1 trillion by 2015 (see above).

It is interesting to see where the ownership of content starts and ends across layers, and how content owners are trying to monetise these platforms and grab as much market share as possible from their competitors. Amazon recently began offering digital downloads of any CD you have purchased from them since 1998. It would be a great surprise to see if they do the same for books anytime soon. Fortunately, reading still constitutes an avenue of entertainment, for those of all ages. A recent piece by The New York Times reported that digital reading was on the rise for children. The article notes the numbers give some room for discrepancy, but states “about one-fourth of the boys who had read an e-book said they were reading more books for fun”, which is a desperately important emotional connection to maintain. While e-reading is a commendable past-time, is there any merit in pushing further, and advocating for interacting with a medium that does not involve a digital display? Such a turn of events, perhaps aided by the trend for nostalgia mentioned earlier, is presenting itself in the luxury hotel market, with physical libraries returning to shelves. It has been termed ‘rematerialism’.

So what does this all mean for consumer entertainment? There are evidently lots of new technologies being released, from smart TVs to new gaming devices, that will attempt to capture eyeballs. These devices, far from having to think of their natural competitors, still have the common television – and, as we have seen, even VCRs – to compete with and overthrow first. TV commands such a huge slice of viewing time, but it is under threat from distracted viewers who are now very comfortable – and more importantly socially accepting – of using a tablet, laptop or phone during a show. There are also regulatory implications t consider, which will most likely be shaped, ex-post, along the way. Taking consumers on a journey across multiple platforms and media in a seamless way will be key. Disney’s Infinity platform, when it is released, will hopefully serve as an excellent example to others of how to combine physical and digital entertainment.

The state of retail

January 6, 2013 7 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…

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