Business development team at FT bridges many departments

By Jodie Hopperton


Los Angeles, California, United States


Is there a new role emerging between product and commercial? 

The FT hired someone two years ago to productise and commercialise “mini brands,” or topic verticals, within the company. Effectively, this means looking at opportunities within the company where products or new businesses can be spun out from existing assets for commercial gain. 

Revenue generating roles are the holy grail, so I wanted to dig a little deeper into this new business development team. Luckily Caitlin Clarke, the person recruited for the role and now heading the small team, is a former colleague from The New York Times, so I asked her to share a little more about her role. 

Where do you sit within the organisation structure? And who do you work with?

Clarke: My team (the business development team) sits on the commercial side of the business, specifically within our subscription function. That said, our work touches many parts of the company — from product to editorial to advertising — and a key part of our value is having a strong understanding of the full breadth of the business’ activities so that we can spot opportunity. 

Structurally, the team is comprised of a combination of what I call “bridge roles” — these are individuals who oversee commercial growth across key content formats like audio and our topic verticals — and roles dedicated to discovering and incubating new revenue streams.

The “bridge” roles work very closely with the newsroom. It’s their responsibility to know the editorial pipeline and to translate that to the rest of the business, therefore aligning both our internal and go-to-market approach to these content formats.

For roles dedicated to developing new revenue streams, the stakeholder group varies a lot depending on the make-up of the new venture — particularly how it’s monetised, if it is content led or not, and if it requires significant product and technology investment.

The goal, though, is for the business development team to provide the strategic stewardship that gets the right people in the room and the right information in front of them in order to breathe life into new ideas. 

How do you start identifying where there may be opportunities? 

Clarke: Ideas come either from within the team or from the broader business. So far, it’s been pretty organic. We’ll either be asked to look at an opportunity for a certain stakeholder group, or we’ll put forward our own focus areas where we feel the FT has a natural right to play based on its audience and brand. 

In addition, a key part of the team’s remit is to be constantly looking at the market — both our competitor set and adjacent industries — and thinking about how growth trends could be applied to the FT. We always aim to support any new idea with background and context around what others are doing in the space and what the FT unique selling point would be.

Do you spin out actual new products, or are you thinking about commercialising existing products?

Clarke: We do both, but we’re primarily focused on new products or lines of business. 

A good example is FT Talent, which is a hackathon style event for the under-30 audience. The mission of FT Talent ties up to a broader company objective around engaging younger audiences, so from the start there was a clear impetus for developing a new business that pursues this goal. However, we wanted to validate the idea quickly and in a structured way rather than burdening existing sales teams with an immature product. So we’re incubating it within the business development team.

The FT isn’t just a media brand, it’s an institution. How do you navigate that when you are trying new things that could be viewed as “risky”?

Clarke: It can definitely be tricky. Reputational risk is something we have to think a lot about when it comes to putting out MVPs into the market with the FT’s name on it. 

To mitigate the risk, and to bring people on board internally, we’ve built a clear framework around which we assess whether or not we pursue a new venture — which we really try and stick to. This takes into account brand alignment, target audience, route to market, and unit economics — and forces us to think hard about why we want to do something and what we’ll learn. Then, I think we try and phase our work with clear KPIs and deliverables at every step. 

That incremental approach to growth — and clear communication around it — helps ease people's minds.

You seem to be very involved at the beginning of a product lifecycle. Do you/will you continue to run this within your team or do you see your team as incubation, handing over to another team once they have reached a certain maturity? 

Clarke: I primarily see us as incubation. The premise is that we build something until it reaches certain KPIs and then transfer successful businesses to relevant internal teams or spin them out to new business units. 

We try to keep the business development team light, agile, and able to work across multiple different types of businesses and projects rather than building up a skill set of specialists. The premise is that the FT has a wealth of potential from within its existing audience, brand, and distribution channels to develop successful new businesses, but they need the space to be tested and validated before being integrated into the core business.

Caitlin presented How to commercialise new products at last December's Product Initiative master class. You can find out more about her and her experience here.

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About Jodie Hopperton

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