A four step plan for dodging the media meltdown

Curiosity killed the cat, but asking 'why' may stop us from going to the dogs, writes Vincent Heeringa.

For the past eight years, my magazine business has been under siege from the evil twin sisters of the GFC and the internet.

I can’t blame anyone. Change is the only constant, they say, and I did choose this job. But it’s been a struggle and quite of lot of personal money has been lost along the way.

It’s comforting, in a Schadenfreude kind of way, to know that we’re not alone and certainly not the worst affected. For newspaper publishers the results are becoming catastrophic. The book, music and film industries are fellow passengers and it’s just starting for retailers, education providers, travel agents and research companies. Don’t think you’re immune. Like the next Die Hard movie, it’s coming soon to a theatre near you.

Still, I remain optimistic. We can see our way through this seismic shift into a very glorious future indeed. I want to share our strategies for handling the change – I think they may be relevant to more than just media.

The biggest change for us has been the explosion of media channels, meaning we’re much less valuable to our readers and advertisers. When Air New Zealand has more Facebook friends than the NZ Herald has circulation, why would they advertise in print? Why buy a broadcast ad when Google can deliver thousands of relevant eyeballs at a fraction of the cost? Why buy Who Weekly when you can read Perez Hilton online – with sex tapes! A predictable response is to flog our sales staff harder, argue the value of our channel and bitch about US companies who pay no tax and hollow out our industry. And we’ve done all that. Still doing it.

A smarter response is to do four things:

Find relevance. My old mentor, the late Howard Russell, was famous for asking: “Are you in the hot water bottle business or in the warm bed business?” It’s the perfect question. Sleepers don’t care about improvements in bottle rubber once they’ve experienced an electric blanket. If the original question from my media clients is, “How do I connect with consumers?” then that’s my business. Not magazines, not TV, not newspapers.

Welcome the power of ‘and’. In the past, my solution to all marketing problems was a magazine ad. But a multichannel world requires a multichannel solution, so over the past five years our company, Image Centre, has been buying and building a multi-armed beast – the Vishnu of communications. We now provide content, billboards, websites, apps, car wraps, point-of-sale posters, digital signage, video, TV, shop design and this and that and so on and so on. If the strategic question is singular (‘How do I connect?’), tactical answer is ‘and’.

Be the disruption. The best way to anticipate disruption is to do it to yourself. We’ve been running a fairly disciplined programme (it could be more formalised, to be sure) to place our heads in the future and legs in the now. This means multiple intelligences and the programme codifies this as IDEA, standing for Inventors (the crazies), Designers (interpreters), Evaluators (finance mostly) and Actors (the doers). The innovation teams must deliver a business case before there’s any commitment, but that’s not always based on predictable revenues. For example, knowing what’s about to happen to outdoor advertising we launched a digital signage company, nGage, which has patchy income but strong prospects.

Embrace the why. At every part of the value chain we need to ask, ‘Why are we doing this?’ ‘Why’ leads to a smarter ‘what’. For example, if we’re making a video for web, then why are we working with broadcast equipment? Or if we need better engagement with fishermen (we own a fishing magazine), then why are we not running fishing competitions? If a client asks for a brochure, a little digging may discover that what they need is an iPad app.

Curiosity may have killed the cat but I’m convinced a habit of asking ‘why’ will stop us from going to dogs.