Büchi, who was part of a panel discussion about future growth in publishing during the closing session of the 41st FIPP World Congress in London, said most publishers have thus far only succeeded in overcoming the first step of transformation into a digital world. The reality is there is still a very long way to go.
“The next big thing will be the need for expertise in new technologies and in handling data. Without a deep understanding of the smart use of data we will not be competitive in the future.”
Interviewed by James Hewes, president and CEO of FIPP, Büchi was joined by Mike Federle, president and chief operating officer at Forbes in the US and Zillah Byng-Thorne, CEO of Future in the UK.
Büchi said publishers need to take serious note of the huge changes in newsrooms and the fundamental changes which need to take place within publishing companies as they become technology companies.
“We don’t have to become pure technology players but we need a deep understanding of the possibilities of technology. This will involve having experts in the newsroom who will know how to fine-tune the editorial offering based on the data from users. Without bringing in completely new people with completely new profiles into our newsrooms we will not succeed in the future…For most of us there is still a long way to go.”
Having issued this stark warning, Büchi was also positive, pointing out that he is already witnessing this promising culture of change. After 18 years with Axel Springer he is well placed to see these changes, he said. “I see the new people and the new culture. It’s a melting pot where something new can evolve.”
Investing for growth
Asked if growth for large publishing business are driven by more acquisition or organic development, Büchi said both are important. “If you are buying a company of a certain size and you are managing the transformation that we have seen in the past couple of years without acquisitions, it is practically impossible. You don’t grow into a relevant size quickly enough. So – for financial reasons – you have to be creative enough to do acquisitions and hopefully the right ones.”
Büchi also urged publishers to launch more new digital brands, referencing the large number of new print titles being launched in Europe. Too often digital products are print titles being merged into digital, he said. “If we want to call ourselves publishers in the digital world, we need to be able to launch new digital titles. Not merely transform existing brands into digital brands…”
Byng-Thorne, who has overseen a massively successful turnaround strategy at Future, said she started by doing the unthinkable: buying print titles. Her motivation for this was that modern publishing is all about owning specialist content and then shifting it onto other platforms and ecosystem – whether this be events, online, video or any other platform.
“We needed fantastic content and magazines have fantastic content and legacy, which we can now publish more frequently. So buying print titles have underpinned our strategy”, she said.
Federle said there are “endless [investment] opportunities out there, it’s just a matter of how do you pick the right ones and how big an investment can you make…” That’s very difficult and at Forbes they tended to make “smaller bets”, he said, which paid off.
He warned, however, that for publishers to grow business it is not only necessary to acquire new titles or businesses, it is also important to grow existing revenue. Six years ago when Federle joined Forbes, the company was focussed on advertising with a small consumer business slapped onto it.
It was key to get the message across “that we are not just an ad business, we are a consumer business and we have to develop new lines of revenue.” As a result they have seen compounded annual growth rate of double digits… It has involved everything from licensees to branded businesses, which is not add driven.
A place for print
Despite the large swing to digital, Federle said it remains important to retain printed titles as the “front doors” of the brand, so to speak. In the case of Forbes magazine, 80 per cent of the revenue is derived from digital activities, yet, it is the printed magazine and its cover that gets them an invite to the Oval Office to interview Donald Trump, he mentioned as one example.
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