It is now a little over 8 months since I left Incisive Media. At some point in the future I will do a ‘reflections on a post-corporate world’ post, but for the time being I wanted to share some thoughts on what has happened to the media industry this year. I’d also like to discuss where we might be going & highlight some bright spots.
Looking back, I am still amazed that there was any debate about whether this media downturn was cyclical or structural. Patently it was both but companies that didn’t accept this early are undoubtedly the ones who are now panicking the most.
Having said that there are no easy answers here. No-one really knows how the business models are changing online. Even those organisations who waded straight in to structural change have struggled. I remember one commentator describing the process as being like ‘changing the tyres on a moving truck’ – a pretty apposite analogy.
Over the course of the last few months I have been in a lucky position to step back from the coal-face and observe. My work as a board member of SIPA and my tours round medialand in both the UK & US have allowed an interesting perspective. I have seen both the struggles and success stories first hand and, probably because I am not currently affiliated to any company, I think that I have had more open and honest discussions with media business leaders.
The tone of most of those conversations has been one of steely determination to get through it combined with underlying fear that they’re not sure how.
Whichever way you dress things up we’re going into unknown territory. The shift from an analogue to a digital world of content, collaboration and communication is gathering pace. The skill-sets required by media employees are ever changing and the power that many once formidable media brands had is on the wane.
So, should we sell up, give up, go and do something else?
Some would already seem to have chosen that option. Private equity players are suddenly less keen on the sector. Business Week was confirmed to be ‘on the block’ this week. There has even been talk about a sale price of $1 in spite of having nearly one million paid readers!
Reed Elsevier have made no secret about wanting to sell RBI and have now started selling bits off piecemeal & I am speaking to a lot of the media brokerage businesses about publishing assets that are in the pipeline. But, at the same time…
… I am still hearing very positive stories from a lot of publishers whose businesses, while affected by recession, are structurally sound and doing very nicely.
These are the businesses that, on my travels, everyone wants to pick my brains about and so I thought I would point to a few and try to categorise what has made them more robust:
- Privately held niche business intelligence providers – here I am talking about companies like Business Monitor and Euromonitor. These companies have always worked at the premium information end of the market, often on a subscription basis with renewable revenue streams. They generally are not affected by downturns in advertising spend or event travel. I admire greatly the operations of both of these companies and the entrepreneurs behind them. Their transition from print to online and electronic site licence deals have been transformational & was probably the reason that Informa shelled out such a huge amount of money for Datamonitor a couple of years ago.
- Online-only membership sites – there are a few that spring to mind but the best ones I can highlight are eConsultancy & SEOMoz. Both of these sites operate in the digital marketing and tech space and practice what they preach, with a full understanding of what it takes to build a successful information business online. The concept of membership rather than subscription is one that I really like because it successfully builds in a lot of the community elements of niche publishing. Combined with this they are increasingly offering bespoke tools to help their members do their jobs better. The Racing Post has also launched a membership offering this week that I think is well crafted.
- Magazines that really work their brand – here I would highlight Monocle magazine. A consumer lifestyle magazine that seems to be full of advertising, sponsored reports and has even started opening shops with branded merchandise. There was a recent write up from a fan of the magazine here. From my previous corporate life I would also point to Risk & MEED magazines as examples of business publications that has cleverly built a massive complementary business around their mother brand.
- Data and work-flow publishers – I have written before about some of these developments in publishing but they are usually at the top end of publishing & put together by the behemoths of the media world.
These are just a few examples of media brands which are well positioned in the current economy. There are plenty of other niche and smaller players I have come across that are also growing nicely. It is undoubtedly a challenge but not all doom and gloom.
So, coming back to my original question, should those who currently work in the media all give up and go home?
Some probably should. If you work in an old school media business, and haven’t got the energy to reinvent yourself and your products on an almost continual basis, the next few years aren’t going to be much fun. You should probably look to go off and do something else instead.
If, however, you can learn some lessons from the examples I have listed above then the publishing and media world remains a great place in which to work & an environment which is full of opportunity. I’m looking forward to leaving home and getting back into the fray.
(Photo credit – Columbusneon)