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.
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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