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Vertical company strategies must give way to horizontal structures

By Geoff Tan

SPH Magazines

Singapore, Singapore


For those who have been following my blog posts over the last few years, you will have noticed I was off the radar for quite a few months.

Many things were bothering, puzzling, and, to a certain extent, frustrating me with regard to where the media business is heading. What I thought was the natural progression required of industry practitioners in re-orientating themselves for success in the digital full-spectrum era that we clearly operate in still seems so excruciatingly foreign to so many.

Media companies must be nimble and willing to integrate new ideas, just as start-up companies do.
Media companies must be nimble and willing to integrate new ideas, just as start-up companies do.

I am sure many of you reading this will agree with me that the adage “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!” is Jurassically passé and painfully laughable in this day and age. Yet many people I know in the business are unfortunately caught up in this staid mindset, knowingly or unknowingly.

The “complacency” virus present amidst a large populace of media folks is a resilient and resistant strain that simply cannot be rid of by gradually administering gentle “change” potions.

“I used to sell only one product, now I have to sell so many, and it’s so stressful.”

“I am a specialist writer for one publication, now they want me to write for a few titles. This is not the way it’s done!”

“Not only do I have to write my story for next month’s issue, but now my editor wants me to finish an extra three advertorials for the sales team. This is not what I was hired to do.”

“I used to sell ads for newspapers. Now my bosses want me to also sell radio, outdoor, digital, events, and more! It’s more work for the same salary.”

I’ve spoken with enough practitioners across media organisations around the world to attest that these expressions, both spoken and unspoken, are common across the publishing industry at large. Scarily, these mindsets and more are not necessarily entrenched in older employees. Younger colleagues who allow themselves to be sucked headlong into traditional business practices can, within a short time period, adopt a very “old” mindset.

I have since realised that businesses founded on legacy roots cannot avoid going through the above scenarios. Once obscenely successful, companies in this cohort that are now hugely challenged by extremely nimble, ideas-infused, no-holds-barred start-ups need to change. Moreover, they need to change in the right manner and at lightning speed to have a chance at continuing to be a relevant player in this new age.

It was only toward the end of the third quarter of my first fiscal year in my new role that the barrage of initiatives I had wantonly thrown into the fray started to pay off. But that didn’t happen before sustaining wounds from fighting extensive but necessary battles on the editorial, sales, and marketing fronts.

Negatively infused, walled-garden mindsets had to be brought down with a firm but delicate mix of both top-down decision-making and on-the-ground evangelising of the magazines 3.0 ideology.

This was accompanied by strategic staff hires and sales strategy augmentation. Training on ideation and how to specifically sell digital were implemented. Sales staff members were taught to structure all their proposals with the customer’s customer in mind.

As we are a B2B business targeting advertisers, brand owners, and advertising agency personnel, it is vital we understand who our clients are addressing before coming up with engagement ideas that effectively connect their brands and products with respective target audiences.

Instead of organising events in the same way we did last year, staff were challenged to up their game, deliver greater customer delight, and, at the same time, substantially drive top-line contributions up.

We took bold decisions and cut off projects and publications that did not deliver profitability. Branding events are initiated only if sponsorships can be secured. We brainstormed novel ideas that brought in new revenues. We implemented yield management strategies. We restructured our incentive schemes to support effective integrated selling efforts.

The vertically oriented business architecture inherent in many media organisations around the world must give way to a more horizontal one soon. Instead of having individual single titles fueled with their own content, sales, and marketing teams, “central kitchens” in the form of integrated sales, integrated marketing, and integrated editorial “organisations” are ideal to effectively sell, organise, and write for all titles in the group.

Single production/multiple deployment across advertising and content structures is becoming the order of the day more and more every day. The establishment of central repositories for stories, profiles, data lists, and case studies has contributed to drastically boosting efficiency levels.

Regardless of how much we invest in infrastructure, technology, training, systems, and more, the most fundamental touch-point organisations need to focus on the mindset of its people. Once you can get this right, I like to think the rest of the elements in the transformation process will be a breeze in comparison.

About Geoff Tan

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