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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.

 

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Big Data needs a Big Strategy

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We’ve written several times over the years about the deployment of Big Data. One of the key challenges with such tools is the seductive risk of treating the data as a catch-all answer to a question not asked. Zeitgeist in the past worked with a large client in the public sector that understood this pitfall and studiously avoided it by knowing beforehand what Big Data meant to them, and how it could be used to improve its strategy and operations.

Without such forethought, applications of Big Data can be ineffectual, if not outright harmful, as the president of eBay Marketplaces said last year in an interview with McKinsey. Governments around the world – particularly in the West – have been using Big Data for some time now to help identify extremists. The jury is still out for some as to how harmful government digital surveillance can be. The deliberate weakening of virtual systems has its root in the fact that the US government originally classified once-arcane cryptography as a munition, which when licensed abroad was watered down. “The idea of deliberately weakening cryptography in the name of national security has not gone away”, writes The Economist. An article published in The New Yorker earlier this year investigated the NSA’s uses of Big Data – specifically mass surveillance of individuals in the US and beyond over cellphone metadata, social media, etc. – and found it wanting. This appears to be partly because there is no pre-determined strategy for what they want the data to do, other than to figuratively chuck it onto the pile with the rest of the data they have, which at some point might be used. The efficacy of such a practice, according to the article, has been minimal. In all of its surveillance, the article claims there was but a single case “where the NSA’s phone-records program was decisive”. It is perhaps telling that most of the perpetrators of terrorist attacks that have occurred on Western soil since 9/11 have been known to the intelligence community. In other words, the data needed was presented, but there was no strategic oversight for how it should be deployed. It is perhaps an inevitable consequence of too little direction and too much volume. The New Yorker elaborates, below:

“Patrick Skinner, a former C.I.A. case officer who works with the Soufan Group, a security company, told me… ‘We knew about these networks,’ he said, speaking of the Charlie Hebdo attacks. Mass surveillance, he continued, ‘gives a false sense of security. It sounds great when you say you’re monitoring every phone call in the United States. You can put that in a PowerPoint. But, actually, you have no idea what’s going on.’

By flooding the system with false positives, big-data approaches to counterterrorism might actually make it harder to identify real terrorists before they act. Two years before the Boston Marathon bombing, Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the older of the two brothers alleged to have committed the attack, was assessed by the city’s Joint Terrorism Task Force. They determined that he was not a threat. This was one of about a thousand assessments that the Boston J.T.T.F. conducted that year, a number that had nearly doubled in the previous two years, according to the Boston F.B.I. As of 2013, the Justice Department has trained nearly three hundred thousand law-enforcement officers in how to file ‘suspicious-activity reports.’ In 2010, a central database held about three thousand of these reports; by 2012 it had grown to almost twenty-eight thousand. ‘The bigger haystack makes it harder to find the needle,’ Sensenbrenner told me. Thomas Drake, a former N.S.A. executive and whistle-blower who has become one of the agency’s most vocal critics, told me, ‘If you target everything, there’s no target.’

This last quotation applies to strategy in general. Without anything specific to focus on as a strategic achievement or direction, one shouldn’t expect any improvement in that area.

The failure of enterprise to prepare for cyberattacks

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Late last month, Zeitgeist went with friends to his local theatre to see “Teh [sic] Internet is a Serious Business”. The play, a story of the founding of the hacktivist group Anonymous, was the most well-publicised dawn of cyberattacks on businesses and governments. The organisation, at its best, set it sights on radical groups that promoted marginalisation of others, whether that was the Church of Scientology in the US or those trying to dampen the Arab Spring in Tunisia. This collective, run by people, some of whom were still in school, showed the world how vulnerable institutions were to being targeted online. We wrote about cybersecurity as recently as this summer, summarising the key points in a recent report from The Economist on what was needed to mitigate against future attacks and how to reduce the damage such attacks inflict. The issue is not going away (and in fact is likely to become worse before it gets better).

It was back in January that management consultancy McKinsey produced a report, ‘Risk and responsibility in a hyperconnected world: Implications for enterprises’, where they estimated the total aggregate impact of cyberattacks at $3 trillion. There is much to be done to avert such losses, but the current picture is far from rosy. Most tech executives gave their institutions “low scores in making the required changes”, the report states; nearly 80% of them said they cannot keep up with attackers’ – be they nation-states or individuals – increasing sophistication. Moreover, though more money is being directed at this area, “larger expenditures have not translated into an increased maturity” yet. And while the attacks themselves carry potentially devastating economic impact on a company, their prevention comes at a price too for the business, beyond the financial. McKinsey reports that security concerns are delaying mobile functionality in enterprises by an average of six months. If attacks continue, the consultancy posits this could result in “a world where a ‘cyberbacklash’ decelerates digitization [sic]”. Revelations about pervasive cyberspying by Western governments on their own citizens could well be a catalyst to this. Seven points are made in the report for enterprises to manage disruptions better:

  1. Prioritise the greatest business risks to defend and invest in.
  2. Provide a differentiated approach to defence of assets, based on their importance.
  3. Move from “simply bolting on security to training their entire staff to incorporate it from day one into technology projects”.
  4. Be proactive; develop capabilities “to aggregate relevant information” to attune defence systems
  5. Test. Test. Test again.
  6. Enlist CxOs to help them understand the value in protection.
  7. Integrate risk of attack with other corporate risk analysis

Given the amount of business and social issues that involve digital processes – “IP, regulatory compliance, privacy, customer experience, product development, business continuity, legal jurisdiction” – there is a huge amount of disagreement about how much state involvement there should be in the degree to which enterprises must take steps to protect themselves. This is an important point for discussion though, and we touched on it when we wrote about cyberattacks previously.

But that report was way back in January, things must have solved themselves since then, right? Last week, PwC reported that corporate cyber security budgets are being slashed, even while cyberattacks are becoming far more frequent. The FT reported that global security budgets fell 4% YoY in 2014, while the number of reported security incidents increased 48%. Bear in mind these are only reported incidents. This is potentially no bad thing, if we’re to go by McKinsey’s diagnosis of too much money being thrown at the problem in the first place. At the same time, it’s not exactly comforting.

Only a few days after PwC’s figures were published, JP Morgan revealed that personal data for 76 million households – about two-thirds of total US households – had been “compromised” by a cyberattack that had happened earlier in the year. Information stolen included names, phone numbers and email addresses of customers. It was also revealed that other financial institutions were probed too. Worryingly, the WSJ reports that investigators disagree on what exactly the hackers did. It was also unclear who was to blame; nation state or individual. Such disagreements over the ramifications of the attack, the identity of the attackers as well as the delayed revelation of the attack itself, illustrate just how necessary transparency is, if such attacks are to be better protected against and managed in the future.

For those in London at the end of the month, The Economist is hosting an event for those who apply, on October 21, examining “how businesses can and should respond to a data breach, whether it stem from a malicious insider, an external threat or simple carelessness”. Hope to see you there.

Netflix à la française – Musings on an empire

September 14, 2014 1 comment

Painting : Napoleon at Fontainbleau

A recent essay for Foreign Affairs, “The State of the State”, criticises Western governments for failing to innovate. The authors make an unfavourable comparison with China, which, though still autocratic in nature, has at least looked abroad for ways to make the state work better (if only in a necessarily limited scope). One doesn’t need to look much farther than France to see what happens when the state fails to innovate. President Hollande has done his very best to inculcate a backward ideology of indolence among its workers, but the negative effects of over-regulation have been present in France for some time. One major step that is in drastic need of undertaking is the simplification of France’s opaque labour laws, the code for which runs to 3,492 pages, according to a recent article in The Economist. A stark and laughable example of the limits of such a code is elaborated on below,

“[The code] impose[s] rules when a firm grows beyond a certain limit: at 50 employees, for example, it must create a works council and a separate health committee, with wide-ranging consultative rights. So France has over twice as many firms with 49 staff as with 50.”

France of course also has a strong sense of state oversight and sponsorship when it comes to the media industry. L’exception culturelle has long dominated discourse about what content is appropriate and designated to be high art. Such safeguarding of domestic product has been a thorn in the side of late of the EU / US trade partnership, threatening to derail negotiations. Some have argued that such promotion of homemade productions serves not to diminish foreign imports – a love of Americana has not subsided in France – but rather only to preserve a niche. Regardless, argues a recent editorial in one of France’s national newspapers, it has left the country’s media sector susceptible to disruption.

Today’s Le Monde newspaper features a front page editorial on the arrival Monday to the country of Netflix. The company announced its plans for European expansion at the beginning of the year. It won’t have everything its own way, though. Netflix will have to adapt to a very different market environment. The Subscription Video On Demand (SVOD) market is well-established, and it will see much competition from incumbents (last year annual revenues for companies based in France providing such services exceeded EUR10m). These incumbents charge little or nothing for their services, relative to the $70-80 a month Americans pay to a cable company to watch television, according to The Economist, which states “Netflix struggled in Brazil, for example, against competition from local broadcasters’ big-budget soaps”. Moreover, current government policy dictates a 36-month long window from cinema release to SVOD. We’ve argued against the arbitrariness of such windows before, for a variety of reasons, but here such policy surely negatively impacts Netflix’s projected revenues. Such projections will be curbed further by stringent taxes and a further dictat that SVOD services based in France with annual earnings of more than EUR10m are required to hand over 15% of their revenues to the European film industry and 12% to domestic filmmakers, according to France24. As well as traditional competition, Netflix also faces threats from OTT rivals, such as FilmoTV. One possible way around such competitor obstacles is the promotion of itself as a complementary service. The New York Times earlier this spring elaborated,

“Analysts say Netflix, which has primarily focused on older content more than on recent releases, could also survive in parallel to European rivals that have invested heavily in new movies and television shows. Netflix in some ways serves as a living archive, with TV shows like “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” from the 1990s or movies like “Back to the Future” from 1985. Such fare has enabled the company in Britain, for example, to partner with the cable television operator Virgin Media, which offers new customers a six-month free subscription to Netflix when they sign up for a cable package.”

Such archive content will come in handy, particularly given that, as Le Monde points out, Netflix had previously sold the rights to its flagship series ‘House of Cards’ to premium broadcaster Canal Plus’ SVOD service Canal Play (which itself is investing in new content). The article hesitates to guess how much of a success the service will be in France – something Citi has no problem in doing, see chart below – instead looking to the music industry for an analogy, where streaming has become a dominant form of engaging with the medium. As in other markets, streaming services have met with increasing success, particularly with younger generations. For Le Monde, the arrival of Netflix will undoubtedly ruffle a few feathers, but the paper also hopes it will blow away the cobwebs of an industry that has become comfortable in its ways; it hopes the company will provide a piqûre de rappel (shot in the arm) for the culture industry. Netflix’s ingredients – by no means impossible to emulate – of tech innovation, easy access and pricing and a rich catalogue, should be a lesson to its peers. The editorial only laments that it took an American company to arrive on French shores for businesses to get the message.

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Citi foresees huge takeup of Netflix in tech-savvy UK, but relative to other territories France is expected to see strong growth too in the coming years

UPDATE (16/9/14): TelecomTV reported this morning that Netflix has partnered with French telco Bouygues. The company will offer service subscriptions “through its Bbox Sensation from November and via its future Android box service. Rival operators are refusing to host Netflix on their products”.

Cyberattacks and espionage – Risks and Prevention

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It’s not quite as cool as Bond in his Tom Ford suit leaning on his wonderful Aston Martin while he plots his next move to unseat some despot. All the same, Germany’s recent apparent spate of typewriter purchases points to a renewed sense of fear of being overheard and compromised in an era of digitally pervasive content, vulnerable networks and indelible conversations. Spying and intelligence concerns coalesced with subject matter we’ve previously written about – including online privacy, governance, security and the internet of things – in a special report in last week’s The Economist, which produced eight articles on the subject of security in a digital landscape. Some highlights:

  • Cybercrime is costly. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies estimates the annual global cost of digital crime and intellectual-property theft at $445 billion – a sum “roughly equivalent to the GDP of a smallish rich European country such as Austria”.
  • Focus on prevention rather than reaction. As with many things, the best way to make sure cyberattacks aren’t too damaging to your business is to make sure they never happen in the first place. It’s more difficult (and costly) with digital security because the process can easily feel like a Sisyphean struggle; businesses invest in new technology only to see it circumvented by more hacking, perhaps exposing a different loophole or vulnerability. But an iterative approach is better than leaving the door open and spending more money after the fact.
  • Honesty is the best policy. After being hacked, a company can find it hard to admit it. This is understandable. Not only is it somewhat embarassing, it admits to customers and shareholders that the company is vulnerable, but it also suggests that their data is not safe with said company; perhaps they should shop elsewhere. However, transparency in such a situation is paramount if others are to learn how to combat such attacks. One suggestion is that the US government “create a cyber-equivalent of the National Transportation Safety Board, which investigates serious accidents and shares information about them”.
  • Who to complain to? The perpetrators of cybercrimes are no longer limited to the teenaged hackers of yesteryear. Though ideological groups like Anonymous serve as a disruptive influence, often the biggest problems are caused by the governments charged with protecting things like individual privacy, security and freedom of speech. From the US to China, authorities “do not hesitate to use the web for their own purposes, be it by exploiting vulnerabilities in software or launching cyber-weapons such as Stuxnet, without worrying too much about the collateral damage done to companies and individuals”.
  • External trends point to a worsening of the problem. The Internet of Things as a trend will have billions of devices connected to each other via the Internet over the next few years. With one of the fundamental ideas being that the user isn’t really aware of the connection, the likelihood of spotting a hacked device becomes all the smaller. This isn’t a huge problem in cases like a connected fridge receiving spam email, but it becomes more of a problem when hackers can gain remote control of your car. One of the barriers to improved security for everyday devices is that the margins are razor-thin, as are the chips to connected to the devices, in order to keep the product small. Any added security software or hardware and the cost and size of the product increases.

Zeitgeist believe the risk to IoT devices will be one of the key areas that businesses and regulators will need to focus their efforts in the future. Because it is still a relatively fledgling sector, the issue is not being discussed yet in many places. Deloitte, in association with the Wall Street Journal, recently reported on the nature of cyberrisks and how companies can help mitigate them. Well worth a read.

Threats and Opportunities for the Entertainment Industry in 2014

January 11, 2014 1 comment

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*Our 2015 trends for the sector can be found here*

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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.

Before and after Prism – On liberty in a digital age

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

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

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

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

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

Turning two negatives into something positive

October 2, 2012 Leave a comment

We all know that catching cancer early can improve our chances of survival. For some charities, such as Coppafeel, the primary aim is to encourage people to know their body and get checked out as soon as they suspect there may be something wrong. Yet our inherent behaviour means we often put off seeing our doctor.

The reasons for stalling are varied, from wanting to ignore reality, a dislike of doctors and hospitals to simply putting it off until tomorrow.

One of the barriers is that you can’t get to see a doctor immediately. You have to book an appointment and then organise your life around it.

All of which makes the Get to Know Cancer pop-up clinic initiative in the Centrale Shopping Centre in Croydon such a great idea. Shoppers can pop in and ask questions to specialists and nurses from the Royal Marsden and Cancer Research UK (for whom Zeitgeist recently did a half marathon – sponsorships still kindly accepted).

Why we like it

It’s obvious to anyone strolling through a UK town that the economic downturn has lead to a depressing number of empty properties along the high street.

The most recent high profile closure was JJB Sports who went into administration last week with the loss of thousands of jobs. The retailer followed a number of famous names, including Clinton Cards, Blacks, Peacocks and Game to either disappear or be sold off to new owners.

For some, the traditional high street is beyond salvation.

In his new book, Sold Out, the former Iceland and Focus DIY CEO  Bill Grimsey, writes that the high street is “as good as dead already“.

He believes that repeated failures by government, online shopping and the recession have created a perfect storm and lambasted the review of sector by the retail expert Mary Portas as “all a waste of money and resources”.

As for cancer, the consequences of this terrible disease are known to us all, lives taken and lives destroyed.

Saving lives and money

Recognising our natural inertia and the need to get illnesses diagnosed as soon as possible the shop interrupts people and overcomes many barriers. And like all great ideas, it’s simple. Now that it exists, it’s strange to think that it has taken so long for such an idea to be implemented.

Aside from the human cost, cancer costs the state around £11bn a year. So quite apart from the emotional benefit of saving lives, the clinic could save us all money.

Bill Grimsey might be right. The traditional high street may well be gone forever. If it has, our challenge is to find new ways to use the empty spaces left by defunct retailers.

Let’s hope that the Croydon trial is a success and the start of the renaissance.

An Olympic Reputation

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Dost thou know what reputation is?

I ’ll tell thee,—to small purpose, since the instruction

Comes now too late.

Upon a time Reputation, Love, and Death,

Would travel o’er the world; and it was concluded

That they should part, and take three several ways.

Death told them, they should find him in great battles,

Or cities plagu’d with plagues: Love gives them counsel

To inquire for him ’mongst unambitious shepherds,

Where dowries were not talk’d of, and sometimes

’Mongst quiet kindred that had nothing left

By their dead parents: “Stay,’ quoth Reputation,

‘Do not forsake me; for it is my nature,

If once I part from any man I meet,

I am never found again.’

– Duchess of Malfi, III, ii

Zeitgeist went to see Duchess of Malfi at the Old Vic last month, a brilliant production, and was reminded of this fantastic quotation when thinking of the upcoming Olympic Games soon to descend on London. Though arguably less ephemeral than the brand of today’s salubrious celebrities – written about recently in Vanity Fair – the Games can hardly be said to provide any quantifiable burgeoning of brand to host countries of the past (except perhaps for Barcelona). As The Economist adroitly put it the other week, “When asked why the United States is a fine place, few would instinctively mention its hosting of the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.”

Are Britain’s current economic woes related to anything that might be solved by hosting an Olympics? Probably not. Will the Games, much like the bloody affairs of ancient Rome, serve to please and distract the hordes? More likely. The Games themselves will have to be good enough to overcome the pre-event controversies of massive over-spending, Zil lanes, anti-missile protests and Olympic torches on eBay. Otherwise, as the above quotation describes, the reputation of many will be lost forever.