Lessons from Week One of FIPP World Media Congress

Every year at FIPP events, industry leaders from all corners of the world gather to share insights about media and publishing, and how they’re adapting to changes in consumer behaviour through innovative practices. This year, for the first time, Congress is being held online across four weeks – and delegates are tuning in from every time zone. Here are the key lessons we learned in Week One.

The FIPP World Media Congress takes place through all September, with 80+ media leaders sharing insights and knowledge from around the world. Sign up to view sessions live or On-Demand. See the list of speakers here. Get access here.

1. The media needs a mission

The media world has had a difficult year, and like many other businesses, publishers are having to face up to unprecedented challenges. This, as many of our speakers said this week, calls for a renewed strategy, sense of purpose – and a mission.

During his opening address, President and Chief Operating Officer at Condé Nast, Wolfgang Blau, said: “To build the media company of the future we have to ask what is the dream, what is the purpose and mission of a media company and journalists today,” he said.

In the same way, Claire MacLellan, Chief Operating Officer at Future PLC, consistently referred to the primacy of the company’s multi-year strategy when making big decisions around acquisitions and expansion.

“We set out to become global and to have multiple revenue streams,” she explained. “In acquisitions, we look for ways of bringing in expertise that align with the strategy and really add to the business’s strengths.

2. Covid-19 has changed everything

During every session at Congress this week, Covid-19 has featured as a topic of discussion. A clear picture is emerging: almost every decision at every level – from whether it is worth paying for office space, to reevaluating overall strategy – is being impacted by the pandemic.

“We may be calling this the new normal but the only thing that is new and normal now is that change of all kinds, in all areas of our business, is accelerating,” said Wolfgang Blau. “The good news is that humans are incredibly adaptable and inventive and if you look at the history of some of the world’s long established media companies many of them have made it through much, much greater challenges.”

And as this week goes to show, many media companies have managed to ride the storm of the global pandemic – with some even emerging stronger. Anna Hill, General Manager at WW UK, emphasised that despite the undeniable horrors of the past six months, for WW UK, there is a silver lining.

“As a business, it has pushed us to do things sooner,” she said. “Before coronavirus, we were running 4,500 workshops per week, in person, all over the UK. Overnight, we couldn’t do that. But within six days, we had moved all of those workshops online, using Zoom. The pandemic gave us the urgency we needed to make changes.”

In the Philippines, too, Covid-19 accelerated projects already in the pipeline for digital lifestyle network Summit Media. The company added to its portfolio of brands not once but twice, even as global lockdowns were in place, explained Ashish Thomas, its CEO, at a panel. “We launched two new titles with the whole team working 100% remotely,” Thomas explained. “And both are showing early signs of success.”

The takeaway? “Our culture of preparedness and agility proved really helpful during the COVID-19 crisis,” said Thomas. “The new titles were already in the pipeline, but the pandemic accelerated it – the driver was the consumer shift precipitated by COVID and how to capitalise on it.

3. The role of the media has been reinvigorated

Many speakers highlighted how their brands pivoted quickly to meet consumer needs as the virus spread across the globe. Feeling anxious and spending more time at home, consumers surged online and sought more content from their favourite brands and came into contact with new publishers, too. This has opened up some opportunities.

“There have been real challenges with Covid-19, but the significant point is that our audiences required something different through this time, so we had to pivot quite quickly to create content that mattered to them during some of the most difficult times of their lives,” said Claire MacLellan. The pandemic has augmented the role of the media in people’s lives, and “scale brings opportunity”, she emphasised.

Scott Havens, Chief Growth Officer and Global Head of Strategic Partnerships at Bloomberg Media, USA, noted the same thing. “The type of journalism that we do became incredibly valuable to folks that are working in the markets, worried about their investments but also their health,” he said. “We’re the largest newsroom in the world with 2,700 journalists, so we’re covering a breadth of topics that are important to people.”

Wolfgang Blau used the success of Vanity Fair in Italy as an example. The magazine has seen an 80 per cent increase in single-copy sales, after it became a platform for Italy’s leading artists discussing how to get through the pandemic. “We learnt that if your journalism is being perceived as essential for those interested in that brand’s subject matter, they have a strong future,” said Blau. “But if it is seen as generic and something you can also find somewhere else, you will inevitably struggle.”

Lihui Zhang, President at Caixin Media in China, spoke of how her brand – known for its independent, investigative journalism – has benefited from the renewed sense of trust that the public are placing in newsrooms.

“Covid-19 is a wake-up call for the media industry; young people believe in traditional media again,” she said. “Professional journalism is in high demand in China because of the pandemic.”

She spoke about Caixin’s “public confidence committee”, unique amongst Chinese media companies, which is composed of academics and high-profile economists (including former President of the World Bank, Larry Summers). Independent of Caixin’s management team and board of directors, it “secures our journalistic independence”, explained Zhang. Always an important part of Caixin, this has become invaluable in 2020.

4. A chance to renegotiate relationships with platforms

Following on from the above, another thing that emerged was a refreshed sense that publishers’ true power lies in delivering high-quality, context-specific storytelling for their audiences – something that has become more noticeable during the pandemic, as people turn to the outlets they trust most.

This gives publishers an opportunity to renegotiate their (sometimes tricky) relationships with sites like Google and platforms such as Facebook. At a time when such platforms are having their own issues with public trust, now might be a good time for publishers to rely on them less as a key revenue source and build on the traffic coming directly to their own sites.

Platforms still play an essential role, though. CEO of Summit Media, Ashish Thomas, explained that he sees platforms not as “frenemies”, but as part-collaborators, part-rivals. “We need to be very clear on where we will compete with them, and where we will partner with them,” he said. “Don’t get me wrong, platforms are very close partners. But they also know that we are reducing our dependence on them (a reduction from 70 per cent last year to 48 per cent this year). We need to do this to be relevant in the market, as publishers.”

Thomas also stressed the importance of identifying where publishers can get ahead of platforms. “We think about how we can build our own capabilities ahead of the platforms, for example in data capability or augmented reality,” he added. This means there’s a little more I can give to my advertiser; it gives us a competitive advantage.”

5. Digital-first has become digital-only (for now)

In some cases, the pandemic has meant that digital offerings are not only the first way people access content, but have actually become the only viable way for publishers to reach an audience – at least for the time being. “In six days, we transformed from a physical business to a digital one,” said Anna Hill, General Manager at WW UK.

At news organisations, demand for COVID-19 coverage led to enormous and rapid growth. “Both the traffic to the website and subscriber numbers were off the charts in March, April, and May,” said Bloomberg’s Scott Havens. “We’re talking about a doubling of our website figures in that period, to 120m people.” Like the FT, Bloomberg made a lot of its pandemic coverage free to read, which allowed them to reach new audiences.

As of September 2020, the company is still seeing elevated levels of traffic and subscribers. It is also – perhaps surprisingly – experiencing a better year than usual in terms of digital advertising, with a resurgence over the summer. “The hope is that we have jumped up to another level now,” said Scott.

Whether this trend continues remains to be seen, but almost every Congress speaker stressed that online events and other virtual offerings would remain a part of their ongoing strategies. As the pandemic is far from over, accessing content digitally will become cemented as the preferred mode for many consumers.

6. Innovation pays off – if you’re brave

Another key theme that emerged this week – and one which is ever-present at FIPP events – was innovation. Some innovations have been completely transformative: WW (formerly WeightWatchers) has metamorphosed into a broader health and wellness brand, but the company is still facing challenges in getting the message out to consumers.

“We’ve got a long way to go when it comes to brand-building,” admitted Anna Hill of WW UK. “A lot of people don’t realise how much content we have on the app, and just think we’re based on physical meetings. But I believe that the numbers will come if we do more of the top funnel: our journey, our name change, our app, our storytelling. We need to get the balance right between brand-building and sales.”

In one panel, Spiegel Verlag’s Head of Innovation Management, Dr. Kerstin Fröhlich, spoke about how the German media giant is baking innovation into its organisational culture. Despite everyone agreeing that innovation is something they want to prioritise, its value must be consistently reiterated.

“There are no ‘enemies’ of innovation, but it is a question of complacency and inertia, of innovation perhaps not being top of mind. I hear often ‘we’ve never done it that way’ or ‘we’ve always done it that way’,” she said.

Questioning long-held beliefs may be uncomfortable, but it is inherent to Caixa Media’s approach, too. As the first mainstream media company in China to introduce a paywall, there was a lot of doubt in the company before the decision was made. “But it worked, and people adapted. We mustn’t be complacent, people’s consumption habits change and we have to be ready when they do,” said Lihui Zhang.

Fröhlich agreed with Zhang that the role of an innovation leader in a company is to foster new ideas wherever possible. “It’s also a strategic role,” Fröhlich said. “Innovation leaders should be making big decisions while empowering their people.”

So what’s on the horizon for media companies? Zhang anticipates continued revenue diversification away from reliance on ads, perhaps through data services. Fröhlich expects dynamic paywalls, even more personalisation, and exploring options for direct consumer revenues to be some of the near-term shifts. “A lot of this stuff is already happening,” she said.

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