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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.

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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…

 

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.

 

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.

The Business of Fashion – Regulation, acquisition and the slowdown

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When the global financial meltdown struck in 2008, many of those with a vested interest in the luxury market watched nervously; high net worth individuals had surely seen many investments wiped out as the recession struck and would thus be more inclined to austerity. While there was a brief moment of humility and caution over indulgence in life’s finer things, it was brief. The luxury market proved surprisingly resilient. Global spend has increased since the recession by around a third, helped in no small part by the explosion of growth in developing regions, China in particular. Orson Welles once said “If you want a happy ending, that depends of course on where you end your story”. Our story, sadly, does not end here.

It was not a good omen when fashion curator and director of the Musée Galliera in Paris Olivier Saillard said during New York Fashion Week last month, “We are in a moment that’s very bizarre in fashion: there are too many clothes”. Business of Fashion lamented both a lack of quality and vision in contemporary collections,

“Fashion seems stuck between the need to surprise using a new array of communications tools and the urge to deliver novelty at the fastest possible pace. Slowing down might be a solution, but that would be a hard route, which will hardly find followers.”

And it is followers that fashion, and the luxury market as a whole, are in need of. Earlier this month the Financial Times reported on the global slowdown of luxury spending. Behind this slowdown lie two factors. On the one hand, there is what are hopefully short-term influences; geopolitical turmoil is rife. Hong Kong continues to see protests that refuse to simmer down, causing disruption to myriad businesses. The city accounts for perhaps 20% of global luxury spending. The Middle East, whose consumer origin or nationality according to Bain & Co. has the biggest average per capita spend, is similarly in chaos, with Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, Libya all in various stages of unrest. Regions like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are caught between a rock and a hard place. In Russia, sanctions have hit oligarchs and their ilk hard. As a result, shares in luxury good companies have been hit hard. Prada has seen profits slide 20% in the first half of the year. Everyone’s darling of fashion innovation, Burberry, has warned of a “cautious outlook”. Mulberry has issued a string of profit warnings and recently ejected its CEO.

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McKinsey illustrate the drift of luxury growth from developed to emerging markets

So we can reason that these companies are seeing fewer customers. But they are also attracting new ones, albeit with very different expectations of the service they expect from the companies they have relationships with. This is the longer-term challenge. Millennials may have been treated as a distinct niche group with quirky demands from brands, but next year they will outnumber Gen Xers, according to McKinsey. These utterly digitally savvy citizens have embraced and contributed to a digital fragmentation in the consumer decision journey, the production process and the fundamental nature of buyer / seller value exchange.

“[A] confluence of digital, the rising power of street fashion and changing consumer attitudes… are radically altering the industry. [It is a] consumer-led shift away from ostentatious and mainstream mega-brands towards understated originality”

One of the most obvious ramifications of this has been the trend of ‘logo fatigue’. It is likely to hit those like Gucci particularly hard, while benefiting those like The Row, and little-known retailers like L’Art du Basic. For larger brands there are some examples for inspiration though. Yoox, whom we have profiled in detail before, have gone from strength to strength in embracing effective digital strategy. The fashion ecommerce site reportedly sees 42% of its global traffic coming from mobile devices, and has recently made a significant push into experimenting with instant messaging app WeChat. As elaborated by Fashion and Mash, the account allows users to “shop via an interactive look book, and to instant message customer service teams and personal stylists. Content also invites users to exclusive events and provides early access to specific products”. In the physical world, Ralph Lauren’s hosting of a cafe in its Fifth Avenue store in New York may be less immediately strategic but seeks to leverage the same burgeoning trends. Brands will need to do more of this, more often, if they are to find what works best for them in terms of engaging and converting future prospects.

Also this month, Zeitgeist found itself at an event at London’s Four Seasons hotel off Park Lane, hosted by law firm Baker & McKenzie. Threats, tech trends and M&A were the main subjects of discussion. Zeitgeist scribbled down some bons mots which were thought worth recounting here. Last month, McKinsey produced an insightful piece on the future of luxury growth, indicating growth would come for the most part from what they termed global megacities, a large proportion of which were located in emerging economies. But China is facing a slowdown; no doubt one of the reasons it was recommended in the conference that businesses start to think less of China as an independent market of growth and more of ASEAN as a region.

3D printing was a matter of much conjecture, but it was pleasing to see that the regulation of such materials was already being considered. One speaker offered the technology would be a greater problem for toy manufacturers than luxury, but cautioned that fast fashion and high customisation were a potent mix. Current UK regulation allows for printing any designs (of one’s own creation or not) at home for personal use for no gain. Such laws may have to be re-examined as 3D printing becomes more widespread. It is difficult to protect the IP of a fashion designer’s work, and difficult therefore to know where to draw the line between inspiration and infringement. The case of the red shoe, specifically between Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Louboutin, has illustrated such difficulty. In the case of 3D printing, one speaker suggested that printing could be limited via restriction similar to how publishers use paywalls, or a more sophisticated version of the DCMA. The importance of protecting the source code of 3D printing designs looks set to be important; Pirate Bay already has a section for such product. Social networking as a new source of IP was also discussed. David Yurman sought opinions on styles to be included on a Valentine’s campaign; users could drop hints to their partner. Bergdorf encouraged fans to design Fendi bags over social, too. But there have been slip ups; Cole Haan offered to pay fans $1,000 for taking pictures of their shoes, without making it clear it was part of contest where someone would win and that the company was sponsoring the activity. They got off with a warning from the regulator, but luxury brands must treat that as a cautionary tale as they continue to experiment. “The law is not keeping up with the technology”, as one speaker sagely confessed.

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David Yurman’s Facebook campaign suggests new IP possibilities for businesses in the future

The M&A chat was equally of interest. Speakers ruminated on the rise of vertical integration as LVMH et al seek to own the whole process. It’s a brave step for companies that traditionally haven’t involved themselves with supply chains or distribution, according to those speaking. Acquisitions were taking two forms: one was spotting missing gaps in the portfolio. For LVMH, the hole in their portfolio was jewellery, which lay behind their purchase of Bulgari in 2011. More recently Giorgio Armani – or as one speaker referred to the man himself, “King George” – reclaimed control of Armani Exchange as it attempts to leverage fast fashion trends. The other form was that of acquisitions in support of brand development – innovation, technology, CRM in Mandarin, social media, etc. More of these sorts of acquisitions were expected on the horizon.

How do these deals play out today? Private equity buyers have a lot of capital and access to cheap debt, but traditionally many of the targets of a buyout have been family-owned businesses who were not ready to relinquish control to a PE firm. These firms are much quicker and more aggressive at deals; they can quickly globalise a brand, can improve the supply chain and stretch the brand up and down from the original price point. Of course, adding new assets, like social media, makes due diligence – and knowing how to allocate risk to a mercurial medium – much harder. Owning supply chains carries risks of more exposure (see Apple and Foxconn). One of the most thorny issues that speakers envisioned was for a luxury good empire known for provenance and quality to be acquired by a a company in a jursidiction that is not known for such things. What if Alibaba bought Balenciaga from Kering, for example?

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Digital is expected to drive, on average, 40% of projected luxury sales growth from 2013 to 2020

Next year will see the return of John Galliano to the runway stage to the helm of a fashion house, this time at Martin Margiela. A recent article on the designer’s flameout while creating works of wonder for Christian Dior emphasised the way in which Galliano “had been cloistered off into a strange protective bubble. Sometimes, we isolate (and elevate) talented creatives so much in the fashion industry that they lose connection with reality”. It is arguably a similarly protective bubble that the fashion industry itself has often been accused of being in, and we would argue it is in now with regards to the need for greater digital sophistication and a more significant investment in digital strategy as it concerns customer insights and the law. It is plain to see that the luxury industry continues to face disruptive challenges, be they at the hands of digital, demographic or geopolitical trends. Some of these disruptions will hopefully, as mentioned earlier, be more temporary in nature. The more fundamental shifts in consumption, though challenging, also present myriad opportunities for businesses that are brave and agile enough to test what works best to capture and retain the customer of the future. Last month Exane BNP Paribas published a report illustrating just how important digital sophistication will be (see above chart), and naming those most likely to benefit from such changes. They could do worse than start by reading our previous post on the future of retail.

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”.

How Apple flaunts precedents

September 10, 2014 Leave a comment

Apple unveils new gadgets

If a market sector hasn’t seen a great deal of activity or customer engagement, after several attempts by respected companies, it might be deemed a bit of a risk for a business to enter the market. Why try where others – with the benefit of first-mover advantage – have failed?

For Apple, the opposite is the case. Sony was already trying to make laptops look beautiful with Vaio before the success of the iMac, Creative Labs and others had been selling MP3 players for years before the first iPod launched in 2001. Microsoft had tried its hand at smartphones with the Pocket PC before Apple wowed the world with the iPhone and Intel made a tablet in 2001 that saw little success. So it was curious to see the below quote yesterday from Ben Bajarin, analyst at Creative Strategies, on the eve of the release of Apple’s Watch device.

“There really isn’t a market for wearables yet… You struggle to find the value proposition and the reason for Apple to do it.”

The reason for doing it is precisely because so many of Apple’s peers and pretenders have failed to create a market for wearables, just as they failed to create a market for the tablet, the smartphone and the MP3 player.

On past and future innovation – Disruption, inequality and robots

How to define innovation, how has it been studied in the recent past, and what does future innovation hold for the human race?

Sometimes the word innovation gets misused. Like when people use the word “technology” to mean recent gadgets and gizmos, instead of acknolwedging that the term encompasses the first wheel. “Innovation” is another tricky one. Our understanding of recent thoughts on innovation – as well as its contemporary partner, “disruption” – were thrown into question in June when Jill Lepore penned an article in The New Yorker that put our ideas about innovation and specifically on Clayton Christensen’s ideas about innovation in a new light. Christensen, heir apparent to fellow Harvard Business School bod Michael Porter (author of the simple, elegant and classic The Five Competitive Forces that Shape Strategy) wrote The Innovator’s Dilemma in 1997. His work on disruptive innovation, claiming that successful businesses focused too much on what they were doing well, missing what, in Lepore’s words, “an entirely untapped customer wanted”, created a cottage industry of conferences, companies and counsels committed to dealing with disruption, (not least this blog, which lists disruption as one its topics of interest). Lepore’s article describes how, as Western society’s retelling of the past became less dominated by religion and more by science and historicism, the future became less about the fall of Man and more about the idea of progress. This thought took hold particularly during The Enlightenment. In the wake of two World Wars though, our endless advance toward greater things seemed less obvious;

“Replacing ‘progress’ with ‘innovation’ skirts the question of whether a novelty is an improvement: the world may not be getting better and better but our devices our getting newer and newer”

The article goes on to look at Christensen’s handpicked case studies that he used in his book. When Christensen describes one of his areas of focus, the disk-drive industry, as being unlike any other in the history of business, Lepore rightly points out the sui generis nature of it “makes it a very odd choice for an investigation designed to create a model for understanding other industries”. She goes on for much of the article to utterly debunk several of the author’s case studies, showcasing inaccuracies and even criminal behaviour on the part of those businesses he heralded as disruptive innovators. She also deftly points out, much in the line of thinking in Taleb’s Black Swan, that failures are often forgotten about, and those that succeed are grouped and promoted as formulae for success. Such is the case with Christensen’s apparently cherry-picked case studies. Writing about one company, Pathfinder, that tried to branch out into online journalism, seemingly too soon, Lepore comments,

“Had [it] been successful, it would have been greeted, retrospectively, as evidence of disruptive innovation. Instead, as one of its producers put it, ‘it’s like it never existed’… Faith in disruption is the best illustration, and the worst case, of a larger historical transformation having to do with secularization, and what happens when the invisible hand replaces the hand of God as explanation and justification.”

Such were the ramifications of the piece, that when questioned on it recently in Harvard Business Review, Christensen confessed “the choice of the word ‘disruption’ was a mistake I made twenty years ago“. The warning to businesses is that just because something is seen as ‘disruptive’ does not guarantee success, or fundamentally that it belongs to any long-term strategy. Developing expertise in a disparate area takes time, and investment, in terms of people, infrastructure and cash. And for some, the very act of resisting disruption is what has made them thrive. Another recent piece in HBR makes the point that most successful strategies involve not just a single act of deus ex machina thinking-outside-the-boxness, but rather sustained disruption. Though Kodak, Sony and others may have rued the days, months and years they neglected to innovate beyond their core area, the graveyard of dead businesses is also surely littered with companies who innovated too soon, the wrong way or in too costly a process that left them open to things other than what Schumpeter termed creative destruction.

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Your new boss

Outside of cultural and philosophical analysis of the nature and definition of innovation, some may consider of more pressing concern the news that we are soon to be looked after by, and subsequently outmaneuvered in every way by, machines. The largest and most forward-thinking (and therefore not necessarily likely) of these concerns was recently put forward by Nick Bostrom in his new book Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies. According to a review in The Economist, the book posits that once you assume that there is nothing inherently magic about the human brain, it is evidence that an intelligent machine can be built. Bostrom worries though that “Once intelligence is sufficiently well understood for a clever machine to be built, that machine may prove able to design a better version of itself” and so on, ad infinitum. “The thought processes of such a machine, he argues, would be as alien to humans as human thought processes are to cockroaches. It is far from obvious that such a machine would have humanity’s best interests at heart—or, indeed, that it would care about humans at all”.

Beyond the admittedly far-off prognostications of the removal of the human race at the hands of the very things it created, machines and digital technology in general pose great risks in the near-term, too. For a succinct and alarming introduction to this, watch the enlightening video at the beginning of this post. Since the McKinsey Global Instititute published a paper in May soberly titled Disruptive technologies: Advances that will transform life, business, and the global economy, much editorial ink and celluloid (were either medium to still be in much use) has been spilled and spooled detailing how machines will slowly replace humans in the workplace. This transformation – itself a prime example of creative destruction – is already underway in the blue-collar world, where machines have replaced workers in automotive factories. The Wall Street Journal reports Chinese electronics makers are facing pressure to automate as labor costs rise, but are challenged by the low margins, precise work and short product life of the phones and other gadgets that the country produces. Travel agents and bank clerks have also been rendered null, thanks to that omnipresent machine, the Internet. Writes The Economist, “[T]eachers, researchers and writers are next. The question is whether the creation will be worth the destruction”. The McKinsey report, according to The Economist, “worries that modern technologies will widen inequality, increase social exclusion and provoke a backlash. It also speculates that public-sector institutions will be too clumsy to prepare people for this brave new world”.

Such thinking gels with an essay in the July/August edition of Foreign Affairs, by Erik Brynjolfsson, Andrew McAfee and Michael Spence, titled New World Order. The authors rightly posit that in a free market the biggest premiums are reserved for the products with the most scarcity. When even niche, specialist employment though, such as in the arts (see video at start of article), can be replicated and performed to economies of scale by machines, then labourers and the owners of capital are at great risk. The essay makes good points on how while a simple economic model suggests that technology’s impact increases overall productivity for everyone, the truth is that the impact is more uneven. The authors astutely point out,

“Today, it is possible to take many important goods, services, and processes and codify them. Once codified, they can be digitized [sic], and once digitized, they can be replicated. Digital copies can be made at virtually zero cost and transmitted anywhere in the world almost instantaneously.”

Though this sounds utopian and democratic, what is actually does, the essay argues, is propel certain products to super-stardom. Network effects create this winner-take-all market. Similarly it creates disproportionately successful individuals. Although there are many factors at play here, the authors readily concede, they also maintain the importance of another, important and distressing theory;

“[A] portion of the growth is linked to the greater use of information technology… When income is distributed according to a power law, most people will be below the average… Globalization and technological change may increase the wealth and economic efficiency of nations and the world at large, but they will not work to everybody’s advantage, at least in the short to medium term. Ordinary workers, in particular, will continue to bear the brunt of the changes, benefiting as consumers but not necessarily as producers. This means that without further intervention, economic inequality is likely to continue to increase, posing a variety of problems. Unequal incomes can lead to unequal opportunities, depriving nations of access to talent and undermining the social contract. Political power, meanwhile, often follows economic power, in this case undermining democracy.”

There are those who say such fears of a rise in inequality and the whole destruction through automation of whole swathes of the job sector are unfounded, that many occupations require a certain intuition that cannot be replicated. Time will tell whether this intuition, like an audio recording, health assessment or the ability to drive a car, will be similarly codified and disrupted (yes, we’ll continue using the word disrupt, for now).

Tech’s impact on business and culture in 2014

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It would be impossible to capture the disruptive influence the latest digital technologies are currently having on the world in a single blog post. But what Zeitgeist has collated here are some thoughts and happenings showing the different ways technology is changing our lives – from the way we do business to the way we interact with others.

Last night saw a highly enjoyable occurrence. No, not the Academy Awards in general, which as ever moved at a glacial pace as it ticked off a list of predicted favourites. Rather, it was a specific moment in the ceremony itself, when host Ellen DeGeneres took a (seemingly) impromptu picture of herself with a cornucopia of stars, tweeting it instantly. The host declared she wanted the picture (above) to be the most retweeted post ever. The previous holder was none other than the President of the United States, Barack Obama, whose re-election message saw over 500k retweets. It took Zeitgeist but a few minutes to realise that Ellen’s post would skyrocket past this. Right now it has been retweeted 2.7m times. Corporate tactic on the part of Samsung though it may have been, Zeitgeist felt himself feeling much closer to the action – being able to see on his phone a photo the host had taken moments ago several thousand miles away – and the incident helped inject a brief air of spontaneity into the show’s proceedings. Super fun, and easy to get definitive results in this case on how many people were really engaging with the content. But can we quantify how much Samsung and Twitter really benefited from the move, beyond fuzzy marketing metrics? Talking heads on CNBC saw room for improvement (see below).

Former WSJ.com Managing Editor Kevin Delaney leads discussions on Samsung and Twitter's presence at the Oscars last night

Former WSJ.com Managing Editor Kevin Delaney leads discussions on Samsung and Twitter’s presence at the Oscars last night (click to watch)

The big news of late in tech circles of course has been Facebook’s $19bn acquisition of messaging application Whatsapp. Many, many lines of editorial have been spilled on this deal already. In the mainstream media, many commentators have found the price of the deal staggering. So it’s worth reading more considered views such as Benedict Evans’, whose post on the deal Zeitgeist highly encourages you to read. Despite the seemingly large amount of money the company has been acquired for – especially considering Facebook’s purchase of Instagram for a ‘mere’ $1bn – Evans sagely points out that per user the deal is about the same as Google made in its valuation when it purchased YouTube. So perhaps not that crazy after all. The other key point that Evans makes is on Facebook’s dedicated pursuit to be the ‘next’ Facebook, or conversely to stop anyone else from becoming the next Facebook. With a meteoric rise in members (see image below, as it outstrips growth by both Facebook and Twitter), Whatsapp was certainly looking a little threatening.

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Whatsapp’s number of active users skyrocketed to 450m in no time, outpacing both Facebook and Twitter (Source: The Economist)

The worry for investors is how Facebook will monetise this platform, when the founders have professed an aversion to advertising. Is merely ensuring that Facebook is the ‘next’ Facebook a good enough reason for such acquisitions? Barriers to entry and sustainable advantages will be few and far between going down this route. The Financial Times, in its analysis of the acquisition, points out that innovation is quickly nipping at the heels of Whatsapp. CalPal, for example, is one example of a mobile application that lets users message each other from within an app. In the markets, there has been a relatively sanguine response to the purchase, but only because of broader trends. As the FT points out,

“External forces have also helped to push the headline prices of deals such as WhatsApp into the stratosphere. A global excess of cheap money, along with a scarcity of alternatives for growth-hungry investors, has boosted the stock prices of companies such as Facebook and Google.”

One of the most visibly exciting developments in technology in recent years is the explosion of the wearable tech sector. But it is Google’s flagship product, Glass, that has met with much ire and distress. An excellent piece of analysis appearing in MIT Technology Review last month hit the nail on the head when it identified why Glass was having trouble winning people over. The article rightly identifies the significant shift in external appearance inherent in making the switch from a device that needs to be taken out of a pocket as makes it clear when it is being interacted with (you need to cover half your face with the product to talk to someone, for example). The article also details the savvy approach Google have taken to the distribution of their product. It’s always sensible to try and mobilise the part of your base likely to be evangelists anyway, so as to build advance buzz before a full-blown release. But to get them to pay for the privilege, as Google are doing with their excitable fans, dubbed Explorers, is a stroke of genius for them. However, the key issue, and what the article states is an “insurmountable problem”, is that “Google’s challenge in making the device a successful consumer product will be convincing the people around you to ignore it”. It is this fundamental aspect of social interaction that is worrying many, and now Google is worried too. As detailed in the FT, the company has acknowledged that the product can look “pretty weird”. Recognising it has a “long journey” to mainstream adoption, it published a list of Dos and Don’ts. Highlights include,

“Ask for permission. Standing alone in the corner of a room staring at people while recording them through Glass is not going to win you any friends… If you find yourself staring off into the prism for long periods of time you’re probably looking pretty weird to the people around you.”

It indicates that Google may have a significant ‘Glasshole‘ problem it needs to attend to. The case may be overstated though. One of the problems may just be that potential customers have yet to see any practical uses for it. This is beginning to change. Last week, Virgin Atlantic announced a six-week trial of both Glass and Sony smartwatches. The idea will be for check-in attendants to use the devices to scan limousine number plates so that passengers can be greeted by name and be instantly updated on their flight status.

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In the arts, digital technology has inspired much innovative work, as well as helped broaden its audience. David Hockney, one of England’s greatest living artists, recently exhibited a series of works produced entirely on his iPad at London’s Royal Academy of Arts. He is far from alone. Last week’s anniversary issue of The New Yorker featured work from Jorge Colombo on its front cover, again produced entirely on an iPad. Such digital innovation allows for increased productivity as well as new aesthetics. When done well, art can also involve the viewer, encouraging interaction. Digital technology helps with this too. Earlier in the year The New York Times covered how the New York City Ballet redesigned part of their floor in a new scheme to attract new visitors to the ballet. The result, roughly life-size pictures of dancers arranged on the floor, has seen great success, and an explosion of content on social media platforms like Instagram, where users have taken to posing on the floor as if interacting with the images (see above). It’s a simple tactic that now reaches a far greater audience thanks to new digital technologies.

A recently published book, ‘Now I know who my comrades are: Voices from the Internet Undergound’, by Emily Parker, seeks to demonstrate the ways in which digital technology has made helped to coalesce and support important activism in regions such as China and Latin America. But, as The Economist points out in its review, the disappointing situation in Egypt puts pay to some of the author’s claims; there are limits to how productive and transformative technology can be. In business, these hurdles are plain to see.  A poll taken by McKinsey published last month shows that “45% of companies admit they have limited to no understanding on how their customers interact with them digitally“. This is staggering. For all executives’ talk of the power of Big Data, such technology is useless without the proper structures in place to successfully analyse it. We also perhaps need to think more about repercussions of increased technological advances and how they influence our social interactions. In the recently opened film Her (starring Joaquin Phoenix, pictured below), set in the very near future, a new operating system is so pervasive and seamless that it leads to fraught, thought-provoking questions on the nature and productivity of relationships. When does conversation – and more – with a simulacrum detract from interactions with the physical world? These considerations may seem lofty, but as we illustrated earlier, the germination of such thoughts are being echoed in discussions over Google Glass.

So technology in 2014 heralds some promise for the future. Wearable tech as a trend is merely the initial stage of a journey where our interaction with computing systems becomes seamless. It is on this journey though that we need to make sure that businesses are making the most of every opportunity to streamline costs and enhance customer service, and that individual early adopters do not leave the rest of us behind to deal with a bewildering and alarming new way of living. One of our favourite quotations, from the author William Gibson, is apt to end on: “The future’s already here, it’s just not very evenly distributed“.

HerJonze

Cost-cutting consoles

September 13, 2013 2 comments

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

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

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

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

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