Lessons for the future from the 43rd FIPP World Congress

The 43rd FIPP World Congress is over. A month of interviews, presentations, seminars, and virtual networking has yielded a wealth of key learnings which, for some delegates, are already crystallising into actionable takeaways for the future.

In the final panel, FIPP CEO James Hewes spoke to Tom Bureau, CEO, Immediate Media Co., UK, Linda Thomas-Brooks, Consultant and Interim MD, SIIA, USA, and Nikolay Malyarov, CEO, PressReader International, Ireland about how an unprecedented year of challenges and opportunities has impacted on the future of the media.

We have embraced the chaos. We found what we’re good at, and turned things around more quickly than we thought we could do.

Nikolay Malyarov, PressReader

Remote working and accelerated pivots

One of the main points all panellists agreed upon was that dynamic working is here to stay. A healthy work/life balance was already something people wanted, Nikolay Malyarov explained, and the flexibility of the workforce to attend to their daily needs amidst rapid changes such as school closures, is now essential. “We have embraced the chaos,” he added. “We found what we’re good at, and turned things around more quickly than we thought we could do.”

Tom Bureau agreed. On flexible working, he said: “That genie is never going back in the bottle. That tied-to-your-desk thing is never coming back.” Nonetheless, at Immediate Media, teams have been coming into the office when they feel safe to do so. “The benefit of working with other humans is massive,” Bureau added. “We may go back to five days a week eventually, but it’ll be different, with a greater focus on why we are there.”

In addition, Bureau embraces the catalysing effect of the pandemic. “Acceleration is an obvious change we’ve seen,” he said. “The pivot isn’t different, but the pace of the pivot is different.”

He pointed to subscriptions as a pivot that has been given a huge boost. “There are a lot of opportunities in digital, you can innovate around events and that’s great to see,” he said. “But in fact, the thing we’re paying attention to, especially at larger brands like Good Food, is the fact that things have bounced back on the circulation front.” Many brands are now back to doing better than they were pre-Covid, but with a very different mix when it comes to print and digital subscriptions.

What we are seeing now is the first stage of really applying incredible innovation, beyond just ‘what was physical is now digital’.

Linda Thomas-Brooks

Innovation in the events space

The panellists were in agreement that Covid-19 has brought about a whole new way of thinking in the media industry. Linda Thomas-Brooks pointed to innovation around events as a particular highlight, such as Future Plc’s World Wine Awards in the UK. The company went to great lengths to make the Awards – which were held in person across 28 days – Covid-friendly, with temperature checks, special disposable spitoons that contained antibacterial gel, plus physical proximity alarms to alert judges if they got too close. The event is expected to bring in GBP £3.5m, despite the pandemic.

“What we are seeing now is the first stage of really applying incredible innovation, beyond just ‘what was physical is now digital’,” said Thomas-Brooks. She expects to see more and more new ideas as companies adapt.

Continued focus on workforce diversity

In light of Black Lives Matter protests and ongoing social tensions in many parts of the world, aiming for a more diverse, representative workforce is something all the panellists were greatly concerned about. Malyarov spoke of PressReader International’s office as “looking like the United Nations, or maybe like Canada”, adding that “we are where we are as a company because of how diverse we are.”

Thomas-Brooks, meanwhile, emphasised that the desire to change “is not just about making some kind of public statement, but because the product gets better. We can serve our audiences so much better with a diverse team. It’s a proverbial win-win.”

For Tom Bureau, diversifying is still a work in progress. “Although there are exceptions, we’re miles off the mark, to be honest,” he said. “It’s an un-diverse leadership group across the industry.” However, he added, “we’ve made diversity a pillar, and the senior team has really embraced it. We try to cheerlead best practice examples and encourage members to share resources. We had to really understand that where we were was not good enough. There’s a lot more work to do around DnI from a low base, but we want to catch up.”

Downgrading of advertising, rise of reader revenue

On the topic of the publisher-advertising relationship, much discussed throughout Congress, the panellists were enthusiastic about the opportunities advanced by Covid-19 and the bump in reader trust and willingness to pay for high quality content. But ads aren’t going to disappear overnight, said Linda Thomas-Brooks. “Even as ad dollars are trending down, it’s very hard to walk away from, because historically so much attention has been given to the ad side,” she said.

However, subscriber and other reader revenue has quickly moved into the vacuum created by Covid-19. And, “those that have had success with additional subscription revenue know that you have to invest time, effort, and probably money in the editorial product, or readers won’t pay. You really need to be serving your readers.”

The sustainability of the “Covid bump” is questionable, therefore, and something that Nikolay Malyarov is focused on. “Structurally, we know some things are here to stay long term and we recognise also the things that are gone,” he explained. In particular, he feels that PressReader International has moved away from just following the latest fad, to now looking more at results and streamlining its core competency: creating quality content. “Then we can say that something like podcasts may work for someone else, but it doesn’t necessarily work for us as a media group – and that’s okay,” he said.

Similarly, the process of “lift and shift” that brings readers from websites to apps, where they can be offered a subscription, works well for news media – but not necessarily for magazines, said Tom Bureau. He recommended asking what the niche/nugget is that people will actually pay for, and then focusing on products with a lot of value exchange.

The crisis made everyone reassess what they find important; we all live and die, so how do we unlock the brilliance and ideas of our people while we are here? That’s the opportunity.

Tom Bureau, Immediate Media

Urgency of the sustainability agenda

Bureau also spoke about the pandemic’s effects on sustainability, pointing out the “enlightened self-interest” that is driving a lot of conversations right now. “The thing is, if you’re not supporting green credentials you’re an investment risk,” he said. “Covid is forcing us to change. In the past there’s always been a reason not to do it but now, look at those bushfires rage … there are so many reasons to alter things for the better.”

Thomas-Brooks agreed. “I’ve taken zero flights this year rather than 100 or so,” she said. “Covid has meant we’ve moved closer to that long-distance goal of sustainability in the industry, and a hybrid future seems possible.” She stressed how the impact of media dollars should be looked at by companies as part of their ESG or CSR goals. “You should be asking: where are your raw materials from? Can your packaging be recycled?” she said.

There’s a strong social and political dimension to this, too: “Advertisers especially should look at the impact of their media dollars. If you don’t want something out there, stop funding it! Advertisers need to move their money, because money talks,” she added. “We can wait a long time for legislation, but we can disrupt the economic model right now by not funding bad actors in the media market. I’d like to see this be part of the broader sustainability agenda.”

Never waste a good crisis: what happens now?

To end, the panel gave some final thoughts on what can be done to nurture recent gains in the media industry. For Nikolay Malyarov, the biggest challenge will be in sustaining the good things that come out of the pandemic; short-term highs do not necessarily lead to durable success. “Netflix famously said its biggest competitor is sleep,” he said. “I’d argue that the fight for attention is going to be for us. How do we rise above the crap, basically, and build on the heightened willingness to pay and brand recognition brought about by Covid-19?”

Tom Bureau has been humbled by the importance of Immediate Media’s brands in people’s lives during this crisis. For him, the priority is unlocking the potential of his workforce: “The crisis made everyone reassess what they find important; we all live and die, so how do we unlock the brilliance and ideas of our people while we are here?” he said. “That’s the opportunity.”

For LindaThomas-Brooks, the challenge and the opportunity are the same. “We need to shore up the business model that supports incredible journalism and high quality content, to take advantage of that spike in people being willing to pay for it,” she said. Furthermore, collapse in trust in social media “is a huge opportunity. The business that we’re in really really matters to society at large – we’re supporting an industry which is fundamentally critical for our society. All the challenges feel worthwhile. It’s motivating and fantastically exciting.”

As for FIPP, partly an events organisation, this may permanently change the way we do events and engage with members across the world, for the better. Thank you to all of our team, speakers, and delegates for helping make this the most wide-ranging, far-reaching Congress in its 43-edition history. We’re delighted to have connected with so many people across the world. Thank you for sticking with us as we tried out this new format. We hope you have found these weeks informative, interesting, and inspiring going forward, whatever your role in the industry.

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