Marc Walder is one of the most important figures in Switzerland’s digital media scene. After starting out as a tennis pro and then rising through the ranks of sports journalism at Blick Group, he took a transformative course at Harvard Business School and returned on a one-man mission to turn his home country into a global digital innovation hub. Now, as CEO of media group Ringier AG, founder of the digitalswitzerland initiative and a board member of numerous Swiss tech companies, he continues to push the limits of digitisation with incredible results for the media landscape and for Switzerland as a whole.
Marc Walder will talk about what is a media company nowadays at the FIPP World Media Congress 2020, taking place online from 2-30 September. You can see sessions live throughout September (and ask questions directly to speakers!) or catch up with the On-Demand video library. See the agenda here. See the ticket options here.
Here, Mark reflects on his transition from player to reporter and discusses what the Covid-19 crisis could mean for the future of media.
My father always brought home Der Spiegel, the German news magazine. Much of it went over my head but it brought me into politics. Besides that, I was always reading the sports section of Blick, which happens to be part of the company I run now.
My tennis career wasn’t successful in terms of money, but I was able to live on what I earned on the ATP Tour. Being a young person on the plane for 45 weeks a year, travelling all over the world to play tennis, was unbelievably hard yet I was extremely privileged.
In sports, if you have one little piece within your body that doesn’t work anymore, then you’re lost. I had shoulder problems and got cortisone shots for the pain every 10 days. One day, I was in the locker room after practice, I picked up my bag to put it over my shoulder and the ligament finally broke. That was the moment I realised it’s time to do something new.
I started my journalism career at the bottom. Being a sports professional, you get a new leasing car every year, your clothes from Adidas; every two months there’s a huge package of new stuff in front of your house. You’re treated well. Starting from zero was like being thrown into a cold river and having to swim by yourself. It was tough.
I started, by a lot of coincidences, at the sports section of Blick. I started by writing stories about tennis – my network within the tennis scene helped me, of course – and then switched over to soccer which I liked very much.
Until then I hadn’t realised how important journalism is for the whole sports ecosystem. When I was a player I just thought: “Did they choose a nice picture? Is the article about my match correct? Did they treat me fairly?” All of a sudden, I realised how important journalism is for society. I also learned that journalism has to be independent and you have to sometimes be critical, which created a couple of emotional moments with my former tennis peers.
I was the youngest Editor-in-Chief ever. I had very fast career. I think I was lucky at that time because I was at the right place. Somebody left and then they gave me the biggest magazine in Switzerland, Schweizer Illustrierte.
The whole system interested me. I realised I had always a commercial sense, so I talked to the chairman of the company Michael Ringier, who’s still the chairman, and he said: “If you’re interested in that, then you have to get the management side right.” So, I went to Harvard Business School to learn how to go to the next step.
Harvard had a huge impact on my life. When I was there, it was already the early days of digital transformation. That impressed me very much. I learnt about transforming companies, transforming deals, digitisation in general, waking up management, financial accounting, etc. Then I came out of journalism and into the management.
Taking over as a CEO, I realised this company (Ringier) has to completely reinvent itself. In the beginning, the staff were quite disappointed because they said, “Now we finally have a journalist on top. What is he doing? He is not really focusing on journalism, but he’s doing many other things like digital marketplaces, ticketing, e-commerce, etc.” It was difficult making everybody understand why it’s important that we have to diversify ourselves.
One of the big lessons I took home from Harvard was the cluster principle. If you have a cluster, it actually makes the ecosystem stronger. If you have a financial services cluster, a pharma cluster or a tech cluster such as Silicon Valley, which is the most famous cluster – coming together makes the whole cluster accelerate. My idea was that Switzerland, which is an extremely successful country for many reasons, needs to prove that it is a successful country in the digital world as well.
I asked several CEOs of big international companies if they wanted to join an initiative to make Switzerland one of the global leading countries for digital transformation. They all said yes and that’s how digitalswitzerland started. Today, it’s one of the most important initiatives in this country with almost 200 members.
The Covid crisis has accelerated digital transformation in many ways. We are thinking very much about the new way of working – the Workplace 4.0 or mobile office, as we call it. What worries me most is how to steer the company in a good way. On one hand, we have to be more efficient to cut down costs because Covid is hurting us very much. At the same time, the company has to further evolve to be ready when the world is more or less normal again. To get the balance right between cutting costs and still investing into the future is extremely tough.
Journalism became much more important during Covid and will probably stay more important because of it. I think that is clear for any citizen that without independent media during a crisis like this, you would be totally lost. Even now, there’s big fights around Covid – which studies should believe in? Which epidemiologist should we follow? The media tries to digest all the information to give people the best possible answer to all the questions they have.
Best advice I’ve received? Never stop learning. I’m a big fan of the lifelong learning. I always say to my employees: “A five-year-old asks 100 questions a day. A 45-year-old asks only five questions a day. You should all ask 100 a day.”