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China – Tech sector and Film industry moves

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“China is at an end”. This lament was heard to echo through the auditorium of London’s Royal Opera House earlier this month, part of the libretto of Puccini’s Turandot. In it, a ruthless, hereditary ruler presides over the nation with a culture of fear, and everyone in the country appears to have a role affiliated with or subject to the state. A far cry from today then.

In this article, we will look at movements in China’s tech sector and film industry.

Tech: Much news is pouring out of China currently as it looks to accelerate its digital maturity and capabilities, prompting varying degrees of concern, particularly as state actors look to influence the strategy and restrict the processes of individual corporate entities. Apple’s concession of building data centres in China is disappointing. No less ominous is China’s continued investment in artificial intelligence. The opportunity is a potential wellspring of innovation, but one likely to be geared toward autocratic ends (e.g. the identification, if not ‘prediction’, of those not towing the party line). Having relaxed the market only in recent years to allow videogames consoles, China’s regulators are now terrified of the impact of such things on children. Tencent saw >$15bn in market value lost in one day earlier this month when they restricted playing hours on their number one game to two hours a day for 12-18 year olds. This move was anticipatory, after much government and media speculation over the game’s addictive nature. As the Financial Times reports,

“Two weeks ago a 17-year-old boy in Guangzhou suffered a stroke after playing nonstop for 40 hours. Last week state media reported a 13-year-old boy in Hangzhou had broken his legs jumping from a third-floor window after his parents stopped him from playing.”

Surely if Tencent is under pressure, no one is safe? So it seems; Weibo became the victim of over-eager government chin-wagging recently, with shares dropping 6% on the revelation that it was banned from showing user videos without the appropriate licence. As with many other social platforms, video is a key revenue medium. According to the FT, 20% of Weibo’s $170m advertising revenue in the first quarter was from video; Chinese social users dedicate 25% of their time on mobile devices to watching video.

Film: 2017 seems to be a year of reckoning for the motion picture industry in China. The market has spent over a decade providing increasingly huge amounts of revenue to Hollywood studios, gradually relaxing its annual quota of releases further as allegations over nefarious dealings had been largely ignored. At one time, China’s box office was predicted to become the biggest in the world at some point this year. That talk has now ceased. PwC recently made a more sober prediction of 2021. The last twelve months have seen:

  • A dramatic slowdown in overall box office in China
  • Domestic product reaching new lows of box office takings
  • Increased visibility of what appears to be widespread fraud at the box office, allocating ticket sales from one film to another
  • A higher share of revenue for Hollywood fare

These four things are, unsurprisingly, connected! There have long been anecdotal stories about how local exhibitors will give cinema-goers the “wrong” ticket for a movie – especially when it is a foreign film – giving the audience receipts for a local domestic film instead, in order to inflate its box office performance. Also known as fraud. There are non-illegal reasons for relatively poor performance too. Local product still tends to be technically and narratively inferior to Hollywood films, as well as often being extremely derivative. Of the top 10 selling films in the second quarter, only two were made at home; in previous years the balance between revenues from domestic and foreign films has been closer to 50-50. The addition of 9,000 screens has not budged the needle. As a result, Variety points out, “Many Chinese movies have opened strongly, but then faded fast”. The Financial Times writes that “China may still see its first drop in ticket sales in more than 20 years in 2017”. Regulators have added salt to the wound (aka opened up the market), scrapping the annual ‘domestic film industry protection month’, where only Chinese films are allowed to be shown in theatres. Hollywood studios should not celebrate their relative success too much; its tactic of vast amounts of Chinese product placement was commercially successful in the fourth iteration of Transformers; less so with the fifth (and hopefully last) iteration.

M&A in the industry has been affected by a wider clampdown on capital outflow, which has put the kibosh on large deals by companies like Wanda, which recently sought to purchase Dick Clark productions. Political tension means associations with Wanda and AMC Entertainment are under scrutiny, in an effort to de-risk opaque dealings, and explains the absence of any South Korean films at the Shanghai International Film Festival earlier this summer. Signs continue of US/China co-productions (such as Marvel’s planned creation of a Chinese superhero). But further international cooperation could be hit by the factors mentioned above, especially when mixed with economic realities. You may have noticed Alibaba Pictures gracing the opening credits of the last Mission: Impossible film. The company’s $141m loss last year may give pause before further such outings.

All this is happening while Xi Jinping is in the midst of important domestic machinations to reorder his Politburo, on the macro level, while also, at the industry-level, seeking to re-negotiate the existing film important agreement. The MPAA has brought in PwC (the dudes that screwed up the Oscars’ Best Picture result) to audit Chinese box office takings for the first time, in order to presumably provide increased leverage in negotiations. Currently, according to Variety, studios get 25% of gross ticket receipts, “half of what theaters usually cough up in other major territories”. Stanley Rosen, a political science professor at USC who specializes in China, is downbeat regarding the potential scope of the audit, “It would be interesting to see what is allowed and what is off limits. My guess is the most egregious forms of box office manipulation will not be investigated.”

 

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Mischief, managed – digital disruptors in need of legacy structures

Magic-Beans“Move fast and break things”. That is the motto of Facebook, and unofficially many of its contemporaries. While much of the most visible impact of new digital organisations has been on how they respond to, engage with and influence user behaviour, just as significant has been the extent to which these organisations have eschewed traditional business models, ways of working and other internal practices. This includes traditional measures of success (hence the above cartoon from The New Yorker), but also of transparency and leadership. Such issues will be the focus of this piece, to compare the old with the new, and where opportunities and challenges can be found.

What makes digital-first organisations different

It’s important to acknowledge the utterly transformative way that digital-first companies do business and create revenue, and how different this is from the way companies operated for the past century. Much of this change can be summed up in the phrase “disruptive innovation”, coined by the great Clayton Christensen way back in 1995. I got to hear from and speak to Clay at a Harvard Business Review event at the end of last year; a clear-thinking, inspiring man. There are few things today that organisations would still find use in from the mid-90s, and yet this theory, paradoxically, holds. The market would certainly seem to bear this concept out. Writing for the Financial Times in April, John Authers noted,

Tech stocks… are leading the market. All the Fang stocks — Facebook, Amazon, Netflix and Google — hit new records this week. Add Apple and Microsoft, and just six tech companies account for 29 per cent of the rise in the S&P 500 since Mr Trump was inaugurated.

The FANG cohort are entirely data-driven organisations that rely on user information (specifically user-volunteered information) to make their money. The more accurately they can design experiences, services and content around their users, the more likely they are to retain them. The greater the retention, the greater the power of network effects and lock-in. (Importantly, their revenue also make any new entrants easily acquirable prey, inhibiting competition). These are Marketing 101 ambitions, but they are being deployed at a level of sophistication the likes of which have never been seen before. Because of this, they are different businesses to those operating in legacy areas. These incumbents are encumbered by many things, including heavily codified regulation. Regulatory bodies have not yet woken up to the way these new companies do business; but it is only a matter of time. Until then though, the common consensus has been that, working in a different way, and without the threat of regulation, means traditional business structures can easily be discarded for the sake of efficiency; dismissed entirely as an analogue throwback.

The dangers of difference

One of the conceits of digital-first organisations is that they tend to be set up in order to democratise the sharing of services or data; disruption through liberalising of a product so that everyone can enjoy something previously limited via enforced scarcity (e.g. cheap travel, cheap accommodation). At the same time, they usually have a highly personality-driven structure, where the original founder is treated with almost Messianic reverence. This despite high-profile revelations of the Emperor having no clothes, such as with Twitter’s Jack Dorsey as well as Google, then Yahoo’s, now who-knows-where Marissa Mayer. She left Yahoo with a $23m severance package as reward for doing absolutely zero to save the organisation. Worse, she may have obstructed justice by waiting years to disclose details of cyberattacks. This was particularly galling for Yahoo’s suitor, Verizon as information came to light in the middle of its proposed purchase of the company (it resulted in a $350m cut to the acquisition price tag). The SEC is investigating. The silence on this matter is staggering, and points to a cultural lack of transparency that is not uncommon in the Valley. A recent Lex column effectively summarised this leader worship as a “most hallowed and dangerous absurdity”.

Uber’s embodiment of the founder-driven fallacy

Ben Horowitz, co-founder of the venture capital group Andreessen Horowitz, once argued that good founders have “a burning, irrepressible desire to build something great” and are more likely than career CEOs to combine moral authority with “total commitment to the long term”. It works in some cases, including at Google and Facebook, but has failed dismally at Uber.

– Financial Times, June 2017

This culture that focuses on the founder has led to a little whitewashing (few would be able to name all of Facebook’s founders, beyond the Zuck) and a lot of eggs in one basket. Snap’s recent IPO is a great example of the overriding faith and trust placed in founders, given that indicated – as the FT calls it – a “21st century governance vacuum“. Governance appears to have been lacking at Uber, as well. The company endured months of salacious rumours and accusations, including candid film of the founder, Travis Kalanick, berating an employee. This all rumbled on without any implications for quite some time. Travis was Travis, and lip service was paid while the search for some profit – Uber is worth more than 80% of the companies on the Fortune 500, yet in the first half of last year alone made more than $1bn in losses – continued.

Uber’s cultural problems eventually reached such levels (from myriad allegations of sexual harassment, to a lawsuit over self-driving technology versus Google, to revelations about ‘Greyball’, software it used to mislead regulators), that Kalanick was initially forced to take a leave of absence. But as mentioned earlier, these organisations are personality-driven; the rot was not confined to one person. This became apparent when David Bonderman had to resign from Uber’s board having made a ludicrously sexist comment directed at none other than his colleague Arianna Huffington, that illustrated the company’s startlingly old-school, recidivist outlook. This at a meeting where the company’s culture was being reviewed and the message to be delivered was of turning a corner.

A report issued by the company on a turnaround recommended reducing Kalanick’s responsibilities and hiring a COO. The company has been without one since March. It is also without a CMO, CFO, head of engineering, general counsel and now, CEO. Many issues raise themselves as a start-up grows from being a small organisation to a large one. So it is with Uber – one engineer described it as “an organisation in complete, unrelenting chaos” – as it will be with other firms to come. There is only a belated recognition that structures had to be put in place, the same types of structures that the organisations they were disrupting have in place. The FT writes,

“Lack of oversight and poor governance was a key theme running through the findings of the report… Their 47 recommendations reveal gaping holes in Uber’s governance structures and human resources practices.”

These types of institutional practices are difficult to enforce in the Valley. That is precisely because their connotations are of the monolithic corporate mega-firms that employees and founders of these companies are often consciously fighting against. Much of their raison d’être springs from an idealistic desire to change the world, and methodologically to do so by running roughshod over traditional work practices. This has its significant benefits (if only in terms of revenue), but from an employee experience it is looking like an increasingly questionable approach. Hadi Partovi, an Uber investor and tech entrepreneur told the FT, “This is a company where there has been no line that you wouldn’t cross if it got in the way of success”. Much of this planned oversight would have been anathema to Kalanick, which ultimately is why the decision for him to leave was unavoidable. Uber now plans to refresh its values, install an independent board chairman, conduct senior management performance reviews and adopt a zero-tolerance policy toward harassment.

Legacy lessons from an incumbent conglomerate

Many of the recommendations in the report issued to Uber would be recognised by anyone working in a more traditional work setting (as a former management consultant, they certainly ring a bell to me). While the philosophical objection to such things has already been noted, the notion of a framework to police behaviour, it must also be recognised, is a concept that will be alien to most anyone working in the Valley. Vivek Wadhwa, a fellow at the Rock Center of Corporate Governance, clarified, “The spoiled brats of Silicon Valley don’t know the basics. It is a revelation for Silicon Valley: ‘duh, you have to have HR people, you can’t sleep with each other… you have to be respectful’.”

Meanwhile, another CEO stepped down recently in more forgiving circumstances, recently but which still prompted unfavourable comparisons; Jeff Immelt of General Electric. As detailed in a stimulating piece last month in The New York Times, Immelt has had a difficult time of it. Firstly, he succeeded in his role a man who was generally thought to be a visionary CEO; Jack Welch. Fortune magazine in 1999 described him as the best manager of the 20th century. So no pressure for Immelt there, then. Secondly, Immelt became Chairman and CEO four days before the 9/11 attacks, and also had the 2008 financial crisis in his tenure. Lastly, since taking over, the nature of companies, as this article has attempted to make clear, has changed radically. Powerful conglomerates no longer rule the waves.

Immelt has, perhaps belatedly, been committed to downsizing the sprawling offering of GE in order to make it more specialised. Moreover, the humility of Immelt is a million miles from the audacity, bragaddacio and egotism of Kalanick, acknowledging, “This is not a game of perfection, it’s a game of progress.”

So while the FANGs of the world are undoubtedly changing the landscape of business [not to mention human interaction and behaviours], they also need to recognise that not all legacy structures and processes are to be consigned to the dustbin of management history, simply because they work in a legacy industry sector. Indeed, more responsibility diverted from the founder, greater accountability and transparency, and a more structured employee experience might lead to greater returns, higher employee retention rates and perhaps even mitigate regulatory scrutiny down the line. The opportunity is there for those sensible enough to grasp it.

Media & Tech firms on corporate governance and shareholder responsibility

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In this post we’ll be looking at a variety of firms in the media and tech sector as we examine how their vision impacts on the broader economy.

  • Short-termism and misdirection (Amazon and legacy players)

In March, Zeitgeist was privileged enough to attend an intimate dinner (well, fifty guests or so-type intimate), hosted by the CEO of a major media company. Much of his speech during our meal was focused on his relatively pessimistic outlook for global growth. One of the key causes of this, he noted, was firms and their fanatical focus on what is known as “short-termism”.

Much editorial ink has been spilled on this concept, one which is hardly new. The argument being that, because of a public company’s fiduciary responsibility to shareholders – who are becoming increasingly activist in nature – the C-suite in turn must increasingly focus on quarterly activities that deliver fat returns for said shareholders. This, at the expense of a longer-term vision or strategy that creates, for example, more sustained competitive differentiation, better margins or improved products. Indeed, in Zeitgeist’s view, many organisations, particularly those in legacy industries, are caught in a difficult Catch 22 situation; they need to maintain investor confidence in order to keep share prices stable while simultaneously investing heavily for the medium term in order to reinvent their business and avoid disintermediation from start-ups. Sony is a great example of this We won’t mention any names here of particular examples, of course…

However, what was interesting was that in February, The Economist published an editorial in its Schumpeter section, detailing how “short-termism” was not only a vague term but also misdiagnosed the root cause of the problem. One symptom of short-termism is share buybacks; the article argues that this is more to do with the fact that larger companies are growing more successful (a worrying trend we have touched on before, which puts paid to the idea that digital disruptors are in themselves value-laden orgs). As a consequence of their increasing success, they have more cash than they know what to do with (look at Apple), and so don’t spend it in a constructive way (look at Apple’s acquisition of Beats). These profits, as the article puts it, are “put to no use”. This won’t change unless competition policy improves; that is unbelievably unlikely to happen in a Trump administration.

Of course there are outliers to every argument. Thankfully there is one to be found here in the shape of Amazon. We mentioned The Economist earlier; the company appeared on the cover of last week’s issue, depicted as a fleet of enormous drones from some future time and place. Amazon’s investors seem to be made of an unusual crowd of people with an exclusively long-term outlook. As the article points out: “Never before has a company been worth so much for so long while making so little money: 92% of its value is due to profits expected after 2020“. While nothing seems to be getting in the way of Amazon’s approach for now, regulation will inevitably come into play (though, as mentioned above, perhaps less so in the US), as it becomes an ever more dominant, global force.

  • Accountability and Purpose (BuzzFeed, Snap)

While incumbents are hammering out an approach, newer firms are trying to wind their way to going public. News of an IPO for BuzzFeed recently has raised many eyebrows. As the Financial Times pointed out last year, the company has “missed revenue targets in 2015 and halved its projections for 2016 from $500m to $250m”. Not a shining endorsement. Even without its prior performance taken into consideration, its business model is not guaranteed to woo investors, who are not usually won over by ad-supported models, or by firms that make viral videos, which rely on the fickle interests of the masses to make them profitable.

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At the other end of the spectrum was the frothiness and exuberance that greeted Snap’s recent, enormous, IPO (albeit, as above, with some skeptical heads). This despite its existential challenges as platforms like Instagram et al seek to emulate what currently sets it apart from its rivals. In addition to this, there has been concern over the opacity of the company’s structure and shareholding rights, indicative of what the FT called a “21st century governance vacuum”. Snap’s IPO was the first ever in the US to issue shares with no voting rights at all. The newspaper elaborated,

By any standard Snap’s governance arrangements are flawed and its directors minimally accountable. Anne Simpson, a leading governance expert at the California pension fund Calpers, dubs this “a banana republic approach” to corporate governance.

Though the worst sinner, it is also indicative of a larger, worrying trend that is particularly common at tech companies (see Google, Facebook and Alibaba). The reason for going public has changed. As the FT points out, the principle reason for doing so now is so that “fresh equity fills the yawning gap between revenue and expenditure”. A lack of investor oversight means that accountability is less prevalent than ever.

On the bright side, some companies are looking beyond simply maximising shareholder returns to see how they can benefit society. Last year, Boston Consulting Group wrote an unusually whimsical thought piece on the impact businesses could have if they imbued themselves with purpose, acknowledging that with globalisation and technology trends, there are sometimes losers. Deloitte worked with the UK government to publish a report (also last year), detailing how businesses with a purpose beyond traditional financial returns – aka “Mission-led” – were more successful than those without.

  • Next steps

Such thinking and work needs scaling, and needs to be evangelised beyond the traditional boundaries of Davos seminars. Without it, increasing deregulation and opaque public offerings are likely to hasten the end of an already long-ish period of global economic growth. Media and technology firms of today tend to provide products that are mostly services, i.e. intangible to the end-user but imbued with value. It would be prudent for them to think about where transparency and accountability adds purpose to their vision, structure, strategy and communication.

 

TMT Trends 2017 – Oscars Oversight, MWC Mediocrity, Publishing Problems, M&A Mistakes Avoided

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Nostalgia as the name of the game

Nostalgia has been the name of the game for many in the world of TMT [technology, media, telecommunications] for a couple of years now, as TV series are rebooted and eras brought back to life (think Fox’s The X-Files and Netflix’s Stranger Things, FX’s The Americans respectively), movie franchises are retooled (think Kong: Skull IslandBeauty and the Beast) and books also drag people back to the 80s (think Entertainment Weekly’s number 1 book of 2016, The Nix).

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Nostalgia is almost certainly an appealing emotion for many media executives today too. In entertainment, they may look back to fond days before PwC screwed up who won an Oscar and who hadn’t; in technology, vendors are leveraging “digital detox” trends as an excuse to remake old products and in publishing many are surely screaming for the days before digital, when staff at the likes of Conde Nast were still allowed to throw “hissy fits” (to quote British Vogue’s Lucinda Chambers from the recent BBC documentary on the magazine). The empire is having to fast come to grips with a world of declining print revenue shared by all in the industry, as comprehensively covered in a recent piece by the Financial Times.

The one outlier to this trend, fortunately for them, is Viacom, which recently decided that instead of seeking refuge in the past (and in sheer scale) by re-teaming with CBS after splitting over ten years ago, it would instead streamline its operations down to six “flagship brands”. Undoubtedly the wiser move (if only based on the above cheat sheet from The Hollywood Reporter).

This article will focus on those first two issues, last weekend’s Academy Awards and last week’s Mobile World Congress event in Barcelona.

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Oscars oversight

Talk about your burning platform. Last night Zeitgeist sat down to watch Deepwater Horizon, last year’s film an avoidable disaster in an event involving a lot of due diligence, seemingly little of which was executed properly.

So it was – far less catastrophically – with the 89th Academy Awards last weekend. PwC were caught out for the first time, having overseen the awards ceremony’s handing out of winning envelopes, among other things, for 83 years. In their apology, the firm explicitly made reference to the fact that a) such an incident had been foreseen b) protocols had been prepared, in case of such a rare eventuality c) these were not followed through quickly enough on the night. As with many cases of significant error, the fault appears to be with an excess of comfort.

  • Firstly, PwC as a firm, it could be argued, had become too comfortable in the role of auditor. In an interview before the ceremony with one of the two partners involved, it was revealed the opportunity to be auditor for the awards had never gone out to tender. This is poor due diligence on the part of the Academy.
  • Secondly, Brian Cullinan, one of the PwC partners, seemed himself to have acquired too much comfort with his role. Whether this was tweeting (hastily deleted) pictures of Emma Stone at the moment he should have been concentrating on his work (see picture above), as Variety revealed, or – as the same publication also uncovered the other day – that he wanted to have an on-stage presence, involving a skit with the host, Jimmy Kimmel.
  • Thirdly, we would also add that – having worked for Deloitte in a strategy role in days gone by – PwC should never have let these two individuals stand in the limelight. Any project, however glamorous (or not), should always have only one face, that of the company as a whole, not an individual.

The eventual winner, Moonlight, was praised by The Economist (among many others) for being a wonderful film, and one that deserved to win the coveted Best Picture award. Interestingly, it noted how it had been made for “a tenth” of the budget of films that had won in the past several years. This is a worrying trend, as these prior winners were already considered to be of a small budget; minnows that did not attract the attention of the studios, who increasingly find themselves in the comic-book franchise game, rather than the Oscar race. It bodes poorly in the medium-term for the release and backing of films that try to tell human stories about real life; art that may actually have an impact on others. It is these types of films that, with current political turmoil, are needed right now.

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MWC mediocrity

Innovation in mobile is becoming harder and harder to come by. If, as Forrester reported recently, smartphones are in the hands of 40% of the global population (even including those people hanging out with penguins in icy tundras and running away from lions on barren plains) then such a product is in need of something new to differentiate the market for consumers. At the annual Mobile World Congress, such things were in short supply. This week’s Economist quoted Ben Wood of CCS Insight summarising the event as a “sea of sameness”.

Indeed, ZTE (as above), had a gloriously twee “fairy garden” on display, which seemed very very similar to the one we saw at MWC in 2016. From a product point of view, Nokia (yes, Nokia) seemed to generate the most buzz for its revamped 3310, a resurrected product from a bygone mobile age. A feeling of sameness hung in the air from those reporting from the ground too; cynicism was prevailing.

Last year, Zeitgeist found that if you didn’t have Oculus at your stand (for any reason, no matter how inconsequential), you were a nobody. You also needed to be talking about 5G (no matter how vaguely). The same seemed to be the case this year, except more so. This, despite the fact that Oculus has squandered an eighteen-month lead in the market, now with a position of third in the VR marketplace by revenue. VR in general has yet to transfer to a mainstream pursuit, to the surprise of analysts. 5G, on the other hand, saw some glacial movement. While operators in Japan and South Korea had already begun investment and deployment of the networks before standardisation, the UN’s ITU body has now set those standards, laying the way for other markets to begin upgrading their networks. Their challenge is a formidable one, and to be honest they should not expect it to be anything other than a thankless task. Their main approach to this eventuality at the moment seems to be bigging the technology up beyond all recognition, which has started a backlash of sorts among the more experienced in the sector.

Three things Netflix can do right now to improve CX

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The debut of House of Cards back in 2013 seems like an age ago now, and for Netflix, it was. The service was then in its relative infancy, or perhaps adolescence, emerging from their more traditional role, provider of hard copy movies via post (how quaint that sounds now!). The entity in 2017 is truly global (in more than 130 countries with over 80m subscribers [April 2016]) and has commissioned myriad original content, including the popular Stranger Things.

That new content comes with a $6bn price tag though, and low margins.

Fortunately, there is much more to be done though. Here are 3 quick things that Netflix can do quickly to dramatically improve the Customer Experience.

  1. Zeitgeist has been wondering for months why Netflix had not been supporting the ability for offline downloading and viewing. Yes, there are piracy concerns such a new approach would bring, but piracy is pretty pervasive anyway. Presumably there are contractual arrangements to be made / re-negotiated with content partners to allow viewing in a different mode. As it is, before we could post, Netflix sagely announced at the end of November that offline viewing would be a thing, though only available on Apple and Android mobile and tablet devices for now. Reassuringly, their public statement for doing so was due to customer demand, not anything regarding retention efforts or value chain management (i.e. shareholder-facing spiel). Titles not currently available for download include, unsurprisingly, content from Disney, which is trying to build its own walled garden with Disney Life.
  2. Transparency forms a key part of the next two points. Netflix needs to be much more upfront about what content is going to be available when. This is in a studio’s interest too. A filmgoer might want to see a film again after seeing it at the cinema. But why risk buying it as a single copy when Netflix might have it in their library soon thereafter? Why not keep the Netflix subscriber base more informed about films that are being considered, or better yet, allow people to have a say. If I search for a title not in the Netflix library, then let me submit it to be bought. Once a certain number of vote are received, they could, like HM Government, establish a threshold that would then commit them to considering it.
  3. Lastly, in a more niche way, Zeitgeist, in travelling in 2015 in France, Canada and the Middle East shone a light on the remarkably different stable of content each Netflix library holds. From an internal, local market strategy point of view, each region has different tastes and different priorities. But from a subscriber point of view, the presence of – for example – West Wing in North American libraries but not in European ones seems arbitrary at best. The problem exists even within markets. In one country, you can stream Toy Story 2 and Toy Story 3 but only order the first film through the mail. It borders on Kafka-esque, and Netflix needs to do a better job of explaining why this is the case.

This is an important time for Netflix. Series like The Crown have helped further solidify its reputation as the go-to innovative player in the market, the new HBO. It must tread carefully though. Nomura reported last year that the service’s price hikes could have created a churn of 500,000 customers in the US alone. Netflix must ensure it communicates the value of what people are paying for. Otherwise, the stellar package of content, paid for like you pay a utility bill may risk becoming similarly commoditised.

Answering the call to greater engagement (and revenues): WhatsApp, WeChat and chatbots

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’39 Steps’ to more revenues

Not that we like to dwell on “I told you so” situations, but Zeitgeist has been rambling on about the missed opportunities of WhatsApp – relative to its Asian counterparts like Line and WeChat – for at least a year now. The platform, owned by Facebook, has had a real opportunity to borrow a page from its analogous peers in the East, particularly with regard to B2C opportunities, for some time now. It was hugely gratifying therefore when last week it was announced that WhatsApp will allow businesses to send messages to users of the platform.

Whatappening in business

The Financial Times suggests example messages along the lines of “fraud alerts from banks and updates from airlines on delayed flights”. It’s about random companies sending you somewhat-tailored messages. Snore. The potential here is so much more monumental. Think of the potential for a fast-food service, or a news publisher (we said think; we’re not going to do all your work for you). What the platform won’t do is start serving banner ads in the app. Firstly because Facebook surely acknowledge what a horrendous impact this would have on UX; secondly because WhatsApp strongly pushes their e2e encryption feature.

Interestingly, the way this will work is that Facebook will get access to your phone number (if you haven’t succumbed to their pleas asking for it already). It will formalise the link between your old-school Facebook account and your not so-old-school-but-not-quite-Snapchat-either WhatsApp account, as suggested by New York magazine. Apparently Facebook will also be able to offer you friend suggestions. Whew, yeah because that’s a tool I really am concerned about and wish was more useful and efficient.

The potential we referred to earlier (we’re still not going to do all your work for you) is around chatbots. Chatbots and this new era for WhatsApp surely make sense. And people are clamouring for them. According to eMarketer’s data from May, nearly 50% of UK internet users say they would use a chatbot to obtain quick emergency answers if the option were available. About 4 in 10 also said they would use a chatbot to forward a question or request to an appropriate human.

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Whatsappening in the rest of the world

But to say WhatsApp has been missing the boat in terms of additional data insight or revenue streams outside Western markets is a touch unfair. As the FT detailed at the beginning of the month,

“Whether you are in the market for a nicely fattened goat from the United Arab Emirates or freshly caught fish in the port of Mangalore in India, you can place your order on WhatsApp”

Indeed, it seems though outside Western markets the app is used in an entirely different way. Even within Europe there are differences. In Spain it is extremely common to make and receive calls over WhatsApp. In the UK, many a caller has been befuddled by my attempts to reach them via the platform. The likes of WhatsApp though are particularly crucial in emerging markets like India, where many citizens have never registered for and may never now register for an email address. If this sounds ludicrous, it means you’re old. It’s why the aforementioned pleas from Facebook for your phone number, why Twitter occasionally does screen takeovers when you open the app asking for it, and why in a recent project engagement I managed, we recommended a major international film and TV broadcasting company that they do the same for their own login feature. The data below for emerging markets shows the astounding reach WhatsApp has managed (and the foresight in its purchase by Zuck):

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While Benedict Evans of Andreessen Horowitz says the platform has struggled to acquire new customers for businesses versus Facebook and Instagram, it undoubtedly has been successful in strengthening relationships with existing customers. This is fine in Zeitgeist’s eyes. Retention is cheaper than acquisition; if you create a good CX you don’t need to worry about getting new customers. The emphasis should be on engendering loyalty, not on scrambling to reach the newbies all the time.

WeChat’s inimitable template

At the start of the piece we mentioned China’s WeChat (or Weixin) messaging platform, of which Zeitgeist is a big fan. Others are too, which is why by some estimates it’s worth $80bn. One of the advantages inherent in both WeChat and WhatsApp is that users have naturally gravitated to these applications without the need for them to be incentivised or “walled garden”ed into such interaction. And such engagement doesn’t start before you’re old enough to even lift a mobile device, again, you’re too old. As The Economist detailed in a piece earlier this month,

“[Four year-old Yu Hui] uses a Mon Mon, an internet-connected device that links through the cloud to the WeChat app. The cuddly critter’s rotund belly disguises a microphone, which Yu Hui uses to send rambling updates and songs to her parents; it lights up when she gets an incoming message back”

For the child’s mother, WeChat has replaced such antiquated features as a voice plan, as well as email. The application also integrates features for business use that mimic that of Slack in the US. According to the article she even uses QR codes to scan business associate profiles more than she uses business cards. QR came a little late to Western markets and despite the intentions of agencies like Ogilvy in the 2010s, has failed to take off. Its owner, Tencent, has used its powerful brand and powerful authentication convince millions to part with their credit card details. The likes of Snapchat and WhatsApp have yet to make the convincing case for this. It is this crucial element that allows the father of said family to use the app for eCommerce, contactless payments in store, utility bills, splitting the bill at restaurants, paying for taxis, paying for food delivery, theatre tickets and hospital appointments, all within the WeChat ecosystem. It is then no surprise that a typical user interacts with the app at least ten times a day.

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Although we mentioned no incentivisation has been necessary, a state-backed campaign last Chinese New Year saw a competition for millions of dollars in return for people vigorously shaking their handset during a TV show, the way to both have the app interact with a TV programme as well as the way for users to make new friends who are also users, according to The Economist, which reported that “punters did so 11 billion times during the show, with 810m shakes a minute recorded at one point”.

McKinsey reported last year that 15% of WeChat users have made a purchase through the platform; data from the same consulting firm this year shows that figure has now more than doubled, to 31%. Can such figures be replicated in the West? Time and culture have led to WeChat’s pervasive effectiveness and dominance. Just like QR codes have never taken off in the West, so SMS and email never took off in China, so there was never a competing platform to ween people off when it came to messaging. What some people had used was Tencent’s messaging platform QQ, the successor of which became WeChat. QQ contacts were easily transferable. Gift-giving idiosyncracies, leveraged and promoted with a big marketing push, as well as online games (from where over half of revenues derive) are both still nascent behaviours and territories for consumers and platforms, respectively, in the West.

Next steps

It’s fascinating of course that none of these apps for a moment consider charging for voice calls; that would anachronistic and simply bizarre. With WhatsApp’s latest announcement, it takes a step in the right direction, opening up additional revenue streams while also trying to develop a more cohesive ecosystem for its user base. Whether users in Western markets will be comfortable with a consolidation of features on one platform – owned by a company that is viewed by some as already having consolidated too much data on them – is an open question, and surely the first hurdle to begin tackling.

UPDATE (30/9/16): While messaging platforms are great, there are other opportunities to consider too. Shazam, the app that was a godsend for Zeitgeist while at university wanting to know what song was playing in the club, has been around for a while. It’s impressive then that is has managed to double its user base in the past two years, continuing its expansion into TV content. Product placement in the US has helped, and Coca-Cola worked with them on a big campaign last year. The company is breaking even for the time since 2011. An interesting platform to consider, for the right partner…

 

New realities of competitive advantage

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This week’s purchase of Yahoo suggests Verizon’s strategy department thinks much the same way as myriad other organisations; “size matters”. Whether it’s about minimising risk or increasing economies of scale, such logic has steered many companies to successful tenures. However, there are new trends in the marketplace that make such aphorisms more and more contentious.

It was a couple of years ago now that Rita McGrath wrote about “the end of sustainable competitive advantage”. Prior to this, the arrival of digital was, in general, supposed to have done away with such things. But perhaps the most recognisable face of the digital revolution over the past decade has been none other than Facebook. Facebook has consistently maintained competitive advantage through a savvy use of lock-in via network effects and an aggressive proclivity to buy out any competition (see Instagram, Whatsapp). Users spend about 50 minutes per day across these platforms.

What about organisations outside of TMT? For several years now, Zeitgeist has seen qual data showing the waning power of branding. As we’ve written extensively about in previous posts, this is partly to do with information asymmetry. In the early days of advertising, it wasn’t easy for an average person to be able to know much about a product like Colgate; a brand identity was a quick way to communicate what expectations a consumer should have. Nowadays, almost entirely due to the internet and digital communication, we are able to quickly ascertain what products meet our requirements (what size tube do I need), which are bullshitting (how much whiter teeth?) and which our friends use (still ranked as the most important data point for trying a new product). Companies like Colgate sit in the Consumer Packaged Goods [CPG] category, where most of the world’s most instantly recognisable brands reside. But according to research from Boston Consulting Group, between 2011 and 2015, CPG companies lost nearly three percentage points of market share in the US. Nestle has missed its sales growth targets for the past three years.

Part of what’s hitting the CPG sector is a sustained enthusiasm for “local”. Zeitgeist first saw this trend emerging in 2011 when he worked in a strategic capacity for retailers who were increasingly looking to tailor their store design and offering to the area they were in. This is happening in media too, where local content in the Chinese market is quickly adapting to the pyrotechnics and thrills of imported Hollywood fare, and reaping the rewards. Many of China’s businesses are built on being the home-grown version of x foreign product. Uber’s recent deal with Didi Chuxing is an example of this. Moreover, if you’ve decided you’re happy to pay a premium for a product, it is increasingly unlikely you’ll choose a mass produced one. A real treat would be buying a nice cheese from Jermyn Street’s Paxton & Whitfield, not from one of the thousands of Waitrose stores in the country. Deloitte report that US consumers would pay at least 10% more for the “craft” version of a good, a greater share than would pay extra for convenience or innovation.

Of course, as mentioned earlier, digital has had a profound impact on lowering barriers to entry. From The Economist,

[New entrants] can outsource production and advertise online. Distribution is getting easier, too: a young brand may prove itself with online sales, then move into big stores. Financing mirrors the same trend: last year investors poured $3.3 billion into private CPG firms, according to CB Insights, a data firm—up by 58% from 2014 and a whopping 638% since 2011.

Digital’s impact has also been to dovetail with the trends already mentioned. Consumers’ turning away from brand messaging and interest for local is a quest for authenticity in a crowded market. Rightly or wrongly, no other tactic has proved so successful to communicate a roughshod authenticity as the viral video over the past ten years. New entrants are communicating using different channels but also in different ways, that make incumbents uncomfortable. As pointed out though in an editorial from the FT this weekend, “It is tempting to see these young companies as miracles of branding. In fact, they expose outdated industry structures and offer dramatically more value to consumers.”

Large organisations, sensing the eroding advantage, are responding in different ways. P&G is increasingly focusing on its top tier brands, selling off or consolidating around 100 others. Unilever recently bought the famous Dollar Shave Club, and VC arms are popping up at companies like General Mills (think Lucky Charms) and Deloitte, which like other firms is also thinking about how to avoid disruption.

At the start of this piece we mentioned two reasons that going big could lead to sustained advantage: minimising risk and establishing economies of scale. In our eyes, the former is more at risk than ever, as firestorms on platforms like Twitter and Periscope can eviscerate a brand more quickly than ever; VW’s vast operations have not saved it from significant reputational damage. Economies of scale are also a risky proposition, as The Economist points out “Consolidating factories has made companies more vulnerable to the swing of a particular currency, points out Nik Modi of RBC Capital Markets”.

But what about Facebook? At the start of the article we talked about its ongoing rule of the social world, but that definition seems too narrow for what the platform is trying to accomplish. Zuckerberg has talked about Facebook becoming a “utility” as part of a long-term vision over the coming decades. This is interesting given this is exactly what every mobile phone network operator in the world is trying to avoid. Reflecting on Yahoo’s demise last week, the Financial Times wrote that “the Achilles heel of each new wave of technology is that it eventually turns into a utility”. Teens don’t tend to find utilities exciting, and perhaps then it is no surprise that Pew reports declining usage and engagement with the platform from this age group. For Facebook then, commoditisation is as much a risk as disruption by a new entry.

 

On new distribution strategies in film

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“Any media company is a laboratory right now. There is no established way to do anything.” Thus spoke Adam Moss recently, in his role as editor in chief of New York magazine. The publication has altered its cadence and is expanding into the worlds of cable television and live events. His comment referred to print media but it might just as well have been applied to the entertainment industry at large.

The film industry, in particular, could benefit from more experimental, “agile” thinking and delivery. Over the weekend, The New York Times ran an article that was laden with anxiety over the state of cinema-going. As with all popular past-times that have been ingrained in our culture, we have a tendency not only to sentimentalise the activity but also to remove such activities from their contextual moorings. Going to the cinema has not been a consistent experience, as A.O. Scott sagely illustrates,

“The nickelodeons of the earliest days gave way to movie palaces, which were supplemented by humbler main-street Bijoux and Roxys. In the ’30s, the major home-entertainment platforms were radio and the upright piano in the parlor, and movies offered a cheap, accessible and climate-controlled escape. And millions of people went often, less out of reverence than out of habit, returning every week to take in double features, shorts and serials, newsreels and cartoons…

In the postwar years, the rise of car culture and the growth of the suburbs planted drive-ins in wide-open spaces, while grindhouses, art houses and campus film societies flourished in the cities and college towns. Moviegoing has never been just one thing.”

Much has been made of Sean “Napster and Facebook” Parker’s Screening Room initiative – offering newly released films at $50 for home viewing – that has very publicly split Hollywood in two. It has been referred to as “weaponised VOD“, in tones not dissimilar from those who worried about the end of cinema back when TV arrived on the scene. Such a technology, and more importantly such a way of consuming media, is hardly new. Millions of people have been watching films in this way (i.e. at home while the film sits in scarcity-inducing cinemas) for years, just without a legal way of doing it for the most part (shining exceptions include platforms like Curzon At Home).

The unfortunate trap this article falls into is to assume that any money spent on watching films using platforms such as the Screening Room platform is money necessarily lost by exhibitors. This thinking is overly simplistic and lacks any basis on quantitative data. It is the same argument made against those, referred to above, who pirate content. In reality, data from 2014 show that “people who illegally download movies also love going to the cinema and do not mind paying to watch films“.

Current industry inertia is not merely preventing new innovative consumer products and platforms from arriving, it is also hurting existing business models. While a sizeable minority of independent films are increasingly turning to day-and-date SVOD releases, they remain a minority, in an industry where risk is baked into multi-year franchises at $300m a go, but is nowhere to be found when considering if a film might need to be released in a tailored manner. Films showing up in such fashion look more often to be those that the studio don’t mind breaking even on, rather than a film that might hit home with a demographic who would be more likely to pay a premium to stream it from home. Last week, The New Yorker wrote about the antiquated distribution strategy of “limited” and “wide” release. This is where cinema can play a proactive role: in supporting independent cinema

“Because there’s no comparable venue now, far fewer independent films get proper releases; some of the best of the past few years… are still awaiting release.”

The article points out that such definitions of release, in an era of instantly available content, is not only anachronistic but harmful to films.

There are thus several opportunities for new revenue streams to be explored in the film industry. These can be adopted with a more experimental attitude toward distributing films; the kind of attitude that gave birth to the industry in the first place. It also requires that some of the risk of potentially destabilising tentpole film franchises be redirected into exploring the potential of films to reach a much, much wider audience.

Overestimating digital disruption’s impact

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On the face of it, organisations around the world seem – to borrow a phrase from last year’s Bond film Spectre – like “a kite dancing in a hurricane” as they try to counter the creative destruction that is being wreaked on them by new customer trends, sales channels and competing entrants, facilitated by digital.

In February, McKinsey published a podcast entitled Achieving a Digital State of Mind, saying that digital profoundly impacted “business models, customer journeys, and organizational agility”. That same month, Boston Consulting Group, another consultancy, upped the ante. For those lost at sea in a world of hashtags and start-ups, BCG offered Navigating a World of Digital Disruption. In it they continue the naval navigation analogy, warning of the impending third – and most destructive – wave of digital disruption about to hit, with “profound implications not only for strategy but also for the structures of companies and industries”.

So what to make of news in The Economist this week that indirectly shows the rather pathetic impact  – not to mention particularly calm seas – of all this disruption? While stories of Uber disrupting Luddite taxi firms around the world are commonplace, The Economist reports that things are only getting better for the successful legacy companies at the top: “A very profitable American firm has an 80% chance of being that way ten years later. In the 1990s the odds were only about 50%”. How to account for increased chances of long-term, consistent success in a world where your USP and customer base are stolen from right under your nose by a newer, nimbler, digital doppelganger, supposedly the moment you turn your back? The article continues:

Unfortunately the signs are that incumbent firms are becoming more entrenched, not less. Microsoft is making double the profits it did when antitrust regulators targeted the software firm in 2000.

The Economist reasons that increasingly concentrated ownership, coupled with an onerous regulatory environment, are to blame. It is sad to see that while digital takes on work cultures, shapes strategy and provides new opportunities, it cannot compete with themes as old as business itself: monopolies and red tape.

Tech frailty in 2016

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In the course of history, many smart people have been scared by the rapid progression of technology and its impact on the way we live. Forget the printing press; Socrates was concerned that even the technology of recording via written documents (i.e. writing) would “create forgetfulness in the learners’ souls, because they will not use their memories”. One need only look at the graphic above, representing swings in market share for tech titans, to see significant change in just the past 35 years.

January has been a difficult month for the stock market, with share prices around the world taking a tumble. A lot of the liquidity in the market rests on the valuation of a growing number of technology firms, whose route to profitability varies wildly. The oft-written about “Unicorns” are seemingly due for some market correction – no bad thing for the tech sector – but what about the bastions of the industry, how are they looking?

Twitter – The firm would have breathed a sigh of relief at the end of last year, when original co-founder Jack Dorsey committed to returning to the company. There were promising sounds at first, but recently it has been mulling a move away from the 140-character limit that defines its modus operandi. It has the potential, according to Forrester, to repackage such long-form fare in the mode of Facebook’s Instant Articles. But attempting to emulate what has already been done cannot hold any hope for actually catching up with its rival. An article in The New Yorker this week derides the social network, calling out its lack of direction, and questioning its relevance in a growing pool of competitors. Twitter’s US penetration has been flat for the past three quarters, and Snapchat is nipping at its heels in terms of engagement. While overall Twitter is seeing steady growth, it’s rate of growth continues to decline

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Facebook – By contrast, Facebook is doing well, particularly concerning its financial performance. Its increasing collaboration with telcos as it explores new revenue opportunities pave the way for sizeable rewards in the medium term. And it is slowly learning from the likes of WeChat and Kakao Talk in Asian markets on how to better integrate various functionality into its Messenger app; it’s first foray is working with Uber to allow users to hire a car without leaving Messenger. (This week Whatsapp also begun to get the message, no pun intended). We commented in our last article about how the social network is fast having to adapt to an ageing user base and lower engagement, but Facebook is attempting to combat such trends with numerous tactics. Sadly, its attempt to provide free internet services in developing markets has run into obstacles. In both Egypt and India, government regulators have interceded to stop the network from running its Free Basics service, under the guise of net neutrality (which in our opinion stretches the definition, and the spirit, of net neutrality).

Yahoo – The troubles for this company are more than we can summarise in this short review. Let it suffice to say that Marissa Mayer’s wunderkind sheen has been significantly tarnished since her arrival at the company in 2012. In an editorial in the Financial Times last month, the company was described as a “blur of services and assets of different values”. As her inescapably significant role in the organisation’s lacklustre performance becomes increasingly apparent – hedge fund Starboard Value has issued an ultimatum for her to either leave peacefully or be replaced by shareholder vote come March reports are that Mayer will have to lay off around 10% of the company. The FT puts it well,

[R]ather like AOL, it is considered a service stuck in internet dark ages. It is what grandma uses to look up the weather. It is not for Snapchatting teenagers. And it is not what investors crave most of all: the prospect of growth.

Amazon – Until this week the company had been faring extremely well, and its most recent concern was not getting investors too excited about its recent profit announcement. And while it’s reporting this week of a 26% YoY rise in sales was welcome, its fourth-quarter profits of $482m were one-third lower than what Wall Street analysts were expecting; the stock plunged 13% as a result. The disparity between rising sales and profits that don’t align to such a rise are nothing new for the company, unfortunately.

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Holistic sector frailty – Two excellent articles in The Economist this month reveal a sector that is experiencing growing pains as the current digital era reaches a period of relative maturity. As the hype dies down, what hath such new ways of thinking, making and working wrought? The first article examines the seemingly glamorous role of a techie working in a startup firm, and the pitfalls that come with it. The article reports that “Only 19% of tech employees said they were happy in their jobs and only 17% said they felt valued in their work”. In looking at the explosion of demand for the inadequately named Hoverboard, the second article identifies that globalisation has vastly sped up a product’s journey from conception to delivery at a consumer’s home, at the expense of a proper regulatory system; it is unclear with so many disintermediated players who should shoulder the burden of quality control. The Economist sees such risk as a parable for the tricky place the sector as a whole finds itself in.