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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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Media Trends 2016

the-empire-strikes-back-star-warsThe most enjoyable pieces we pen for this blog are our looks ahead to TMT trends in the next year (they also, coincidentally, happen to be our most popular articles). Do check out our 2015 and 2014 trends, too.

We’ll look at trends in the film industry, TV, telco and tech sector. These formerly discrete industries are now all blurring together. This should come as little surprise to most, after years of the word “convergence” being bandied about; AOL Time Warner was a misbegotten adventure on the back of this thesis. However, what is happening now is that these worlds are clashing. Techies push their platforms (e.g. the Amazons and Netflixs of the world), but increasingly follow in the footsteps of legacy media in creating a stable of content to offer viewers. But those legacy media players are fretting, according to the Financial Times,

According to cable industry die-hards who have the most to lose, the digital platforms have not done much to show they are appropriate guardians of media assets like these. According to cable pioneer John Malone, for instance, they do not do enough to differentiate media brands, they make it hard to get feedback about consumers (if the data are not passed on) and they are not conducive to the kind of advertising on which cable networks have long relied. The result is a giant searchable database, like Netflix.

Star Wars and the status quo

It would be difficult to write about the media sector currently without giving Star Wars: The Force Awakens at least a mention. The movie, which Zeitgeist saw last weekend, was huge fun, though we couldn’t help feeling like we were watching a re-imagining of the original, rather than a direct sequel. As fivethirtyeight notes, the prequels are out there now, and not going anywhere; this film faces a steep uphill battle if it is to redeem the franchise from the deficit of awfulness inflicted by the prequel triplets. The amount of money the film has made, and the critical caveats it has received, point to interesting trends in the film industry as a whole.

The Economist rightly points out how Bob Iger, since taking the reins of Disney from the erratic Michael Eisner in 2005, has made wise, savvy strategic moves, not least in content, through the purchases of Pixar, Marvel and Lucasfilm. But while most critics were pleased with the latest product to spring from this studio’s loins, there were some reservations. The FT, while largely positive about the film, lamented there was little in it to distinguish itself from the other tentpole films of the year:

What troubles most is that Star Wars is starting to look like every other franchise epic. Is that the cost of anything-is-possible stories set in elastic universes? I kept having flashes of The Hunger Games and The Lord of the Rings. The characters costumed in quasi-timeless garb (neo-Grecian the favourite). The PlayStation plots with their gauntlets of danger and games of survival.

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Recent releases are increasingly making their way onto the best-performing list, with increasing speed, too. Three films have crossed the $1bn barrier this year alone

There’s no doubt this is a problem. It’s not per se a new problem, as originality has always been something Hollywood has struggled with. Let’s be honest, art has struggled with originality too; Shakespeare’s MO was derivative, and has there been anything new to say in art since Duchamp? But the fact remains that when studios have the technical sophistication to produce any visual feat, and this is executed again and again in much the same mode, the effect on an audience begins to wane, and everything begins to look much of a muchness (if not outright neo-Grecian).

Also somewhat unsettling is the financial performance of these films. Not so much because of the people who will still turn out in droves to see recycled content, but more the pace at which records are now being broken. The new Star Wars made $100m in pre-sales – a record – and went on to make $248m in its opening weekend, beating the previous holder, all the way back in the summer, Jurassic World. The speedy gains of lucre for such fare are increasing. Titanic took three months to reach the $1bn mark at the global box office; Jurassic World took 13 days, beating the previous record holder, Fast and the Furious 7, which had opened only a few months earlier in April. In the ten years after Titanic, only three films crossed the zeitgeist-worthy Rubicon of $1 billion; since 2008, 17 films have done so (see above graphic).

Such potential return on investment ups the ante for ever bigger projects, something Zeitgeist has criticised several times in previous articles, wary of some of the huge, costly flops that have come and gone with little strategic reflection. The latest Bond incarnation, Spectre, was always going to be something of a safe bet. But with so much upfront investment, such vehicles now need to make all the more in order to recoup what has been spent. Or, as Vanity Fair puts it, “yes, 007 made obscene amounts of money. But were they obscene enough?“. Tentpoles have taken on new meaning in an era of Marvel heroes, and even Bond itself has set new benchmarks with Skyfall, which crossed the hallowed billion-dollar barrier referenced earlier. This quickly begins to seem less earth-shattering when you consider the all-in costs for Spectre have been conservatively estimated at $625m. Even with Skyfall, Sony itself made only $57m in return.

Trend implication: There is a glimmer of innovation in the Chinese film market, where blockbusters are being crowdfunded through WeChat. But in Hollywood, the focus of money on one type of film – and the attempt to capture only one type of audience – logically leads to a bifurcation in the market, with bigger hits, bigger misses, and a hole in the middle,which The New York Times points out is usually where Oscars are made. A large problem that will not be addressed in 2016 is the absence of solid research and strategic insight; studios don’t know when or whether they “have released too many movies that go after the same audience — ‘Steve Jobs’ ate into ‘The Walk’ ate into ‘Black Mass’, for example”. With Men in Black 4 on the way, Hunger Games prequels being mulled, another five years of Marvel movies already slated and dates booked in, look for such machinations to continue. Bigger budgets, more frequent records being broken and a stolid resistance to multi-platform releases. Even Star Wars couldn’t get a global release date, with those in China having to wait a month longer than those elsewhere to see it, more or less encouraging piracy. Let’s just pray that Independence Day 2 gets its right…

TV’s tribulations

Despite all our claims of problems with the film industry, we must concede its financial performance this year will be one for the record books (particularly with some added vim from Star Wars). The TV sector, on the other hand, has had a decidedly worse year. For while Hollywood’s problems may be existential and longer-term, television must really start fundamentally addressing existing business models, today.

The rise of OTTs such as Netflix – not to mention the recently launched premium content service from Google, YouTube Red – has no doubt contributed to a sudden hastening in young adults who have dropped (or simply never had) a cable subscription. In the US, latest data recently reported from Pew research show 19% of 18-29s in the US have dropped their TV / cable service to become cord-cutters (or cord-nevers). The pace of change is quickening, according to eMarketer, who recorded a 12.5% leap in cord-cutting activity YoY.

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Cognisant of such shifts, organisations have begun seeking remedy. In November, Fox became the first broadcast network to drop same-day ratings provided by Nielsen to the press, recognising that they “don’t reflect how we monetise our content,” and hoping to “move the ratings conversation into the future”. General Electric meanwhile, is stop advertising on prime-time television, instead keeping its budget for live events. This makes sense as it is this type of programming that typically lures large, diverse and timely audiences to content. Most interestingly, however, Disney, who seems to feature a lot in this post, is launching its own digital subscription service, aggregating its film, TV, books and music assets together. The FT notes it will be “the biggest media company yet to stream its content directly to consumers online”.

With the increasing popularity of OTT platforms, some are trying to get audiences to rediscover the joy of serendipity again. A new company, Molotov, aims to combine “the best elements of schedules, streaming and social media… Even if it does not take off, it neatly identifies the challenge facing broadcasters and technology companies: how can TV be better? And is there still life in the television schedule?“. Its UX has been compared to Spotify, allows a personalised programming guide, as well as bookmarking shows, actors and politicians. Moreover, Molotov also lets viewers know which shows are particularly popular on social media, as well as which of their Facebook friends like particular shows. “The idea”, written in the FT,  “is to be a one-stop shop for audiences by replacing dozens of apps on Apple TV, or indeed an entire cable box”. Indeed, China is struggling with the linear world of television and film, uncertain about how to regulate offensive or violent content in a world without watershed or clear boundaries for regulation beyond towing the political line. For its part, the BBC will be fervently hoping that there remains life in the television schedule. With its Charter up for review, the future of the organisation is currently in question, to the extent that anyone can try their hand at getting the appropriate funding for the Beeb, with this handy interactive graphic.

Trend implication: OTTs like Netflix will continue to gain ground as they publish more exclusive content, though there is a risk such actions lead to brand diffusion, and confusion over what audiences should expect from such properties. Business models for content are increasingly being rewritten; excited as we are that The X-Files is returning to Fox in January, the real benefactor is apparently Netflix. Like it or not (we happen to think it’s a savvy strategic move), Disney’s plan to launch a subscription service online is innovative in its ambition to combine multiple media under one roof, and illustrates the company has recognised it has a sufficiently coherent brand (unlike Netflix) that can make for competitive differentiation as it faces off against other walled gardens. Advertising revenues, like cable subscription revenues, will continue to slide; there’s not much anyone, even Disney can do about that. Such slides though are unlikelt to deter continued mergers on the part of telcos; one in five pay TV subscriptions now go to these companies. Molotov sounds like an intriguing approach to reinventing a product long overdue for a renaissance… will such a renaissance come too late for the BBC though?

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The X-Files returns to the Fox network in January, but it is Netflix that will really benefit

Tech opportunities and pitfalls

The tech sector as a whole, which continues to spit out unicorns, was deemed to be heading for a burst bubble, according to The Economist: “There are 144 unicorns valued at $505bn between them, about five times as many as three years ago. Most are unprofitable”. Equally disconcerting for the sector must have been Donald Trump, who has been consistently dismissed by mainstream media types since the summer but continues to roll on through the Republican presidential primaries. In his most recent itchy trigger-finger solution to the world’s woes, he suggested simply turning off the Internet in certain places. Apart from our understanding and appreciation of the Internet as one of the world’s liberating platforms that is one of the most tangible examples of man’s desire to communicate as one, this would apparently also be quite difficult.

Trend implication: Startup valuations do seem to be increasingly on the wild side, and there’s a good case to be made about the double-edged sword of such high valuations that dissuade companies from going public. There may possibly be a correction sometime next year; look for it to separate the wheat from the chaff. And while the idea of turning off the Internet is not without precedent, when did Iran last do something that the rest of the world thought was a good idea to emulate? Depriving people of the internet necessarily deprives people of information. On a macro level this can only be a bad thing. Its technical complexity and ethical murkiness make this an unlikely candidate for impact in 2016.

Amazon is having a rare sojourn in the black of late, with two consecutive quarters of profit. This is a rareity not because of any malpractice on Jeff Bezos’ part, rather because the mantra of the company has consistently been over the years to reinvest revenues into new development. Its brief profitability comes as the company’s cloud services, Amazon Web Services [AWS], become increasingly popular. As the Financial Times notes,

“In the latest quarter, [AWS profits] came to $521m on revenues of $2bn. That is roughly equivalent to the operating income of the entire core North American retail unit — a business with eight times the sales.”

Trend implication: Amazon’s growth may give some investors with a short-term eye succour for 2016 and a more profitable Amazon. But they should not be taken in so easily. Bezos’ long-term strategy remains investment for the future rather than a quick buck.

Facebook has been in the news for things positive and otherwise as it pushes the limits of innovation and unsurprisingly finds itself coming up against vested interests and the remits of regulatory bodies. It must also combat the same issues faced by other maturing companies, that of lower engagement and rising age groups. For example, 37% of users shared photos as of November, down from 59% a year earlier. In the meantime it is deploying some interesting tactical maneuvers, including more prominent featuring of events you are going to go, as well as ones you might be interested in attending. It also suggests events directly into status updates. Other timely reminders, reported in the WSJ, include “On Sept 27, it displayed an image of a crescent moon as a prompt about the supermoon lunar eclipse. In October, it worked with AMC Network Entertainment LLC to remind fans of “The Walking Dead” about the show’s season premiere”.

And while its partnership with Uber – embedding the service directly into its Messanger platform – is to be commended (WeChat’s ARPU by contrast is $7), it has struggled abroad. In India, one of several regions where it has agreed to zero-rated services with operators, net neutrality proponents are lobbying to have its Free Basic services shut down (while also raising noise about T-Mobile’s similar Binge On service in the US). Meanwhile, Whatsapp, the platform Facebook now owns, whose use has exploded in popularity in Jakarta, recently saw its service shut down for 12 hours in Brazil, affecting around 100 million people. Telco operators have been lobbying the government to label OTT services as illegal, but it seems that the government shut the service down in order to prevent gang members from communicating. This provoked much derision.

Trend implication: As Facebook’s audience continues to mature, macro engagement may continue to dip. Data on metrics such as average pieces of content shared by a user per month have not been updated since the company’s IPO. Facebook, as well as other OTT plaforms will continue to struggle in some respects in 2016, as both traditional players (e.g. telecom operators) and regulators seek to contain their plans. Operators in particular will have to increasingly lay ‘frenemies’ with OTTs that may offer value-add and competitive differentiation with the right partnership, yet at the same time eat away at their revenues. Continued security threats, whether cyber or physical terrorism, may mean, that, like Trump’s comments above, services continue to see brief disruption in 2016 in various regions. Net neutrality rulings in the US and Europe will also have an impact on the tech sector at large. It is likely to be laxer in Europe, which The Economist predicts will hurt startups.

Similarly impactful was the recent video of a drone crashing to the ground at a World Cup ski competition this week, which missed a competitor by what looked like a matter of feet and would have caused serious injury otherwise.

Trend implication: Despite such potential for grievous harm, there should generally be a quite liberalised framework for drone use. However, this needs to start with more prescriptive regulation that identifies the need for safety while recognising individual liberty

Oh, and Merry Christmas.