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Digital publishing means constant flux: get used to it, hire leaders who can adapt and react

Sometimes the pace of change in publishing can be staggering. It seems not a month goes by without the arrival of a technology or platform that causes permanent disruption to how and where content is presented to end-users and forces executives to (again) fundamentally rethink their digital model.

The other week we met with a senior figure at a major international online publisher to discuss the changing nature of their business. He flagged up the biggest issue almost immediately:

‘The emphasis,’ he said, ‘has changed from driving traffic to our sites to taking our content out to where people are. That requires quite a change of mindset within the business.’

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Culture Secretary wades into ad-blocking debate – but what about the customers?

Barely a month seems to go by without us writing about ad-blocking – if we’re not discussing its rising popularity, or increased use on mobile phones, we’re examining the fear it engenders in digital publishers.

In fact, ad-blocking has been such a prevalent topic, I think Martin’s pretty bored of it! And I was prepared to leave the subject well alone, but then the issue was ratcheted up several notches last week when John Whittingdale, the Culture Secretary, used his speech at the Oxford Media Convention to wade into the debate.

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Happy eighth birthday to… us!

Today marks eight years since MTA opened its doors to an eager media market. Although, as it turned out, the media market in 2008 was not that eager: within weeks, the global economic collapse had gathered pace and there was precious little investment in the industry. Timing has always been my strong point.

Nonetheless, we landed two clients in the first couple of months. The first client, one of the UK’s largest consumer publishers, remains a client today. The second – an international news and data business – led to a multi-year project which saw us recruiting for bureaux around the world (Russia, China, Europe and the US). Strong partnerships like this have been our mainstay ever since.

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Do you really know your audience as well as you think?

The other week I found myself in a meeting with the CEO of a niche B2B publisher, and a senior member of his digital product team. The CEO had spent much of the previous hour bemoaning his declining print revenues, as well as outlining an advertising-driven attempt to go digital that, it’s fair to say, has experienced some pitfalls.

The digital executive (who was new and therefore not involved in the aforementioned digital transition) then began outlining, very articulately, proposals to create a high-value, subscription-driven online service out of the data published every issue in the back of the magazine. The sort of service that, were they to get it right, would generate millions in recurring, secure subscription revenue every year. His CEO interrupted him by slapping down a page of the magazine, showing an ageing executive in a suit, and declaiming “but most of our audience looks like this”.

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Does your business have employee advocates?

It used to be the case that most people would go to work, do their job, and never talk in detail to the outside world about what they were up to. That was for the bosses to worry about.

Well, not any more. The new trend is for employee advocates, where champions from inside a business are encouraged into direct contact with customers to win influence.

Turning employees into trusted brand ambassadors is increasingly seen by firms as a great opportunity, with some even claiming that content shared by staff gets significantly more engagement and is more shared than if it comes through more official channels.

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What can we learn from media changes in the 20 years since I became a headhunter?

In 1996, half the Internet users in the world subscribed to AOL

2016 marks twenty years since I became a headhunter. While that makes me feel incredibly old, it has been a fascinating time to be an observer of the media landscape across the UK and beyond.

When I first started, the internet existed, but was a hard-to-use and limited resource with dial-up access. Email also existed, but not in my office (we relied on faxes). Things were changing, yes; but no-one had really grasped the magnitude of what was about to happen.

If you really want to know how much the media world has changed in the intervening years, imagine saying this back in 1996:

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Me2B, ad-blocking, and the personal information economy

Brands, publishers and media owners are increasingly focused on tailoring content to meet the specific needs of individuals; and fuelling this rush to ever-greater personalisation has been a reliance on access to data – every last search term, web view, and geo-tagged movement helping firms to build a profile against which advertising can be sold.

So what does a consumer get in return for handing over all this information?

Other than being fed messages that advertisers think are relevant, they usually get nothing; but all that could be about to change…

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What major themes dominated this media recruitment blog in 2015?

MTA media headhuntersWith just over a week to go before everyone downs tools and sets off for a well-earned break, it seems a good moment to review the last twelve months to see if any discernible pattern can be established from looking at the subjects we have covered on this blog.

By taking the wholly unscientific route of totting up the topics (essentially, counting repeated use of subject tags) covered in the last year it’s possible to see where our thoughts have been since January. So, which issue has dominated this executive recruitment blog? Of all the topics we have used in the last 12 months, which has been the most prevalent?

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If you’re a media business, is there any real value to your content?

From consumer publishers wrestling with whether or not to install paywalls, to information providers struggling to place a value on their output in a crowded marketplace, the one thing media companies seem to get wrong time and again is pricing. Of course every business is different, and there’s no on-size-fits-all solution, but in almost ten years as a headhunter the issue of how and what to charge the customer has seemed to plague the media market.

Paul Mason, the economics editor of Channel 4 News, comes closest to identifying the crux of the problem that faces most media companies in the digital world. In his recent book, PostCapitalism, Mason says that as digital replaces physical media, almost everything is reduced to the same state – that of an information product that can be infinitely distributed and replicated at virtually no cost. Whether you’re talking about an episode of Game of Thrones, the historical worldwide prices of bauxite, or a picture of Kim Kardashian, it doesn’t matter – it’s all information that can be reproduced and shared.

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Amazon throws its weight around in the e-books market – how should publishers respond?

It’s hard to believe that Amazon was founded twenty-one years ago. Since their establishment in 1994, they have diversified into innumerable categories; but it is their impact on book publishing that is interesting to us. Amazon has disrupted the landscape that held solid for many years, and they haven’t done it gently.

Last year, Keith Gessan wrote in Vanity Fair that “all the publishers feel bullied by Amazon, and Amazon, in turn, feels misunderstood.” The implication that Amazon is the unwitting playground bully doesn’t, unfortunately, distract from the fact that they used their size and their far reaching power to the detriment of others by undercutting prices.

This strategy of Amazon’s, which basically cuts out the ‘middle man’ that is the traditional retailer, is having a hugely negative impact on the industry. Last year, while Amazon was busy falling out with Hachette, Steve Dent of Engadget UK wrote that “Amazon grinds suppliers to keep its competitive edge and publishers are no exception.” Amazon argues that it is looking out for the ‘little guy’ by saying that “we will never give up our fight for reasonable e-book prices”, but these protests seem hollow.

Negotiations on prices for e-books have largely failed, and have led to accusations that the company is using that figleaf to cover up its continuing efforts to under-price print books. Alexander Alter of the New York Times reported recently that the “paperback editions of some popular titles, like “The Goldfinch” by Donna Tartt, [were] several dollars cheaper than their digital counterparts.”

Of course, some of the responsibility for this has to be shared with the publishers themselves. Their collective unhappiness about online pricing is reminiscent of the Net Book Agreement dispute from the 1990’s, just as Amazon drew its first breath. And it is arguable that Amazon deserves a larger share of the e-book market because it is chiefly responsible for creating it in the first place with the invention of the Kindle.

As Amazon does not report their sales figures, it is difficult to gather a consensus on just how much e-books are thriving in monetary terms. We do know though, that the e-book market is prosperous and the traditional publisher only has around a third of the market share.

More worrying for publishers – and retailers – is Amazon’s share of the print market, and its pricing policy in that area. Amazon’s second-hand market, in particular, is troublesome; advertised on the same page as new editions, publishers do not get a penny from the sale of used books. One third of a monetisable e-book market is much better than three-quarters of a non-paying second-hand print market.

So perhaps patience with the playground bully is – after all – the best strategy. Despite difficulties arising from the Apple price-fixing case, publishers should focus on getting a better deal from Amazon on the electronic market, and seek to curb their prominence as a print reseller.

How do media firms prepare for an uncertain future?

“There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.”

It is one of the most derided quotes of all time: simultaneously mocked both for its obviousness and its obscurity, Donald Rumsfeld was trying – ham-fistedly – to explain US foreign policy in Iraq. And we know how well that turned out.

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Ad blocking on mobile is small, but growing – experts warn against complacency

With Christmas round the corner, some retail advertisers are raising fears about the effects the rise in ad-blocking could have on their digital operations. But where the focus was once solely on desk and laptop computing, experts are now asking what steps need to be taken to prevent mobile consumption suffering the same fate.

Earlier this month, my colleague Matt looked at the public appetite – or lack of it – for viewing ads online and suggested some of the creative ways publishers are attempting to combat that antipathy.

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Online ads and blocking technology: an opportunity for publishers to get creative

Web users find online advertising annoying, intrusive, often irrelevant, and a drag on browser speed. For those that go online using a mobile, there are also concerns over stealth data consumption and privacy.

It’s for these reasons, according to a recent YouGov survey, that 15% of internet users currently use ad-blocking software and 22% have at one time or another downloaded

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Curating content: how brands can become trusted voices

In 2013, communications strategist Zan McCulloch-Lussier wrote about the overwhelming torrent of content that consumers face.

In the article for charity leaders, published in NTEN Change, he wrote: “48 hours of new video on YouTube. 684,000 pieces of content shared on Facebook. 100,000 tweets. This is just a sample of what happens every minute of every day on social media. Overwhelmed yet? The people you’re trying to talk to certainly are.”

Stats vary: but the challenge for brands to be heard amidst such noise is immense. McColloch-Lussier argues the only way forward is to curate content – on behalf of the audience – so you are seen as a trusted source of information. There is, in his view, no point in shouting louder. The only way to be heard is to become so trusted that your voice can be heard in a whisper.

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Brand purpose: the next big recruiting tool for corporate business?

MTA media headhuntersSocial responsibility is an increasingly significant issue in the make-up of our leading corporations, but as firms want us to love them for the good they do, how do we assess the quality of their ethical programmes?

Well, that’s where ‘brand purpose’ comes in.

Brand purpose can be a vital tool for companies which are keen to follow through on stated ethical promises, to add meaning to what they do, and to connect with consumers on an emotional level and build trust. It can also be pretty handy when it comes to recruiting new staff; but more of that later.

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Key skills for sales leaders in the business information sector

MTA media headhuntersOne the key characteristics that singles out a high-quality business information firm is an ability to make good sales and, as such, it’s vital for leading businesses in this sector to hire the best possible global sales leaders – but what makes a good head of sales? What skills, experiences and personality traits should a business information firm be looking for when the time comes to appoint a leader for the sales team?

In recent months, we have been involved in several searches on behalf of clients look for global sales leaders. Over the course of those searches, it has become apparent just what it takes to move into one of these positions. So what are the key skills for sales leaders in the business information sector?

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Become a trusted voice: what content marketers can learn from media brands

Among newsstand titles, what do the Daily Mail, The Economist, and The Wall Street Journal have in common with Retail Week, Slimming World, and Garden News?

Well, love them or hate them, they are all titles that have bucked the wider media trend and maintained strong brands and readerships over the last few years. They have become trusted voices by delivering appropriate content in the way their audience demands – across print, digital, social and video media.

So what can content marketers learn from their success?

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Recruiting publishers: the new skills media businesses need

MTA media headhuntersDuring the course of the last few weeks I’ve had many conversations with senior figures across the media sector about how publishing companies are changing. The majority of these conversations have been wide-raging, they have examined print-to-digital transitions, and the recruitment challenges produced by those adjustments.

One conversation with a magazine company stands out, and does so because of a single thing I was told:

“I’m not particularly interested in recruiting publishers any more,” said the senior executive. “I want commercial heads with an entrepreneurial mindset.”

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Your next executive appointment: a social media influencer

It’s all too easy nowadays for marketing messages to be avoided. In such a super-saturated time it seems obvious to say this but, nevertheless, it’s true. Print advertising is growing less effective; ad-blocking software fights against pop-ups and intrusive Google Ads; and YouTube has provided us all with the ultimate get out – the ‘skip ad’ button.

With so many firms throwing digital campaigns in our direction, it’s a wonder any break through and connect with individuals. It’s almost like we need a guide on social media to sift the rubbish on our behalf, tell us what’s stylish, and what to buy. Well, welcome to Influencer Marketing and its cabal of hip, young things waiting to fill us all in on what’s made the cool list.

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Recruitment interviews: why too few meetings is as bad as too many

MTA media headhuntersEvery so often, one of our clients will hit it off spectacularly well with a candidate during the first round of the recruitment process. Sometimes, the client even comes back to us, says they’ve found their perfect candidate, and adds it’s unlikely they’ll need a second round of interviews.

It seems perfectly natural, doesn’t it? If you have limited time – and you think you’ve already identified the person who would be the best fit – then why bother continuing with the process?

Well, let me tell you, no matter how constrained your time scale, the answer from us will always be loud and clear: even if you think you’ve found the right person, continue the recruitment interviews…

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Content marketing: just a hangover – or does it even really exist?

With so many interested parties involved in the conversation over content marketing, it’s understandable how criticisms – and occasional notes about its limitations – can sometimes get swept under the carpet.

So it’s refreshing to see, in recent days, two well-meaning – if not entirely earth-shattering – counter punches.

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The limits of Mark Zuckerberg’s recruitment strategy

Media recruiting: Facebook logoAt the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this year, Mark Zuckerberg made an interesting comment about what he looks for when making important hires.

“I will only hire someone to work directly for me if I would work for that person,” he said. “It’s a pretty good test and I think this rule has served me well.”

To a large extent, it’s obvious that Zuckerberg’s model has served him well. It has helped create one of the most successful and fast-growing businesses in corporate history. And the principle of wanting to work alongside like-minded people, with whom he enjoys working, is a good one. Who wouldn’t want to work that way?

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Talent mobility: the future of recruitment and retention

Shifting demographics, rapidly emerging markets, and new digital technologies have fundamentally reshaped the way the world does business – but if you think change in the last decade has been acute, then the next few years are likely to blow your mind.

The future is set to look ever more different, particularly in the way the global workforce is sourced, organised, and managed. By 2020, PwC predicts that twice as many employees as today will need to be ‘mobile’ within a business to ensure it has the flexibility to react to shifting times.

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Pearson made the right choice in selling the Financial Times

There has been much hand-wringing about the sale of The Financial Times to Japanese media firm Nikkei. But the deal makes a lot of sense and – in many ways – is the least worst option for the newspaper and its associated publishing interests.

The FT Group has, for some time, been an anomaly in Pearson’s portfolio. In the heady days of multi-interest conglomerates – when Pearson also owned Alton Towers and Madam Tussaud’s – there was no reason why the newspaper and a range of magazines could not be incorporated into a portfolio of interests. But in the years under Marjorie Scardino, and more recently under John Fallon, Pearson has become increasingly focused on a singular vision: to become the largest global educational publisher.

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The five most desired skills when recruiting B2B product marketers

MTA media headhuntersMarketing B2B products can be a highly-specialised affair and, as a result, finding senior leaders in the sector can be a challenge. The knowledge required to become an effective senior B2B marketer can take years to develop; this is particularly true in the business information space where, over the past 18 months, many clients have asked us to help find them top-class product marketing leaders.

Having worked on a number of similar projects recently it has become clear to us at Martin Tripp Associates that there’s an identifiable set of skills that are highly desirable at present. So, if you’re thinking of undertaking a process to appoint a senior b2B marketer, or looking to move into a senior product marketing role, it might be worth bearing in mind the five key attributes we have identified when recruiting product marketers for our clients:

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Digital difficulties mean print still dominates consumer publishing revenues

The consumer publishing sector is expected to see continued strong growth of its digital income over the course of the next five years. However, money from print will continue to form the bulk of revenues, according to research published this month.

Ovum’s Digital Consumer Publishing Forecast said that by 2020 just 24 per cent of overall revenue in the consumer publishing sector will come from digital – currently it’s at 14 per cent – with the remainder generated through print titles.

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Why you should recruit executives who are better than you…

In his 2011 AdWeek memoir on David Ogilvy, the advertising legend, Kenneth Roman tells the following story:

“At one board meeting, he [Ogilvy] gave directors sets of Russian nesting matryoshka dolls. Inside the largest doll a smaller one, then a smaller one, and so forth. Inside the smallest doll there was a slip of paper:

“If we hire people who are smaller than we are, we will become a company of dwarfs. If we hire people who are bigger than we are, we will become a company of giants.

“Hire people who are better than you are. And pay them more than you if necessary.”

It is a great guiding principle. The smart manager hires the best team and revels in its success – a success which reflects well on all of them; everybody wins. The less smart manager hires down, the team struggles to meet targets, and the manager ends up blaming team members; nobody wins.

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Four People Analytics tools and organisations to aid executive recruitment

MTA media headhuntersEstimates suggest paying staff can constitute anything up to 60% of a firm’s revenue, yet when we hire members of our senior team, rarely does the process become technical or subjected to scientific rigour. More often than not, gut-feeling can be the determining factor. Well, all that could be about to change.

Welcome to the world of People Analytics – where firms apply theories associated with the collection and analysis of Big Data to their workforces.

People Analytics is the move to help firms understand their employees better; to know what drives them, what causes demotivation, and to examine how that could change the criteria on which hiring choices are made.

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Native advertising: it’s not just readers that need to know what’s an ad and what’s editorial

As media headhunters it’s common for our conversations with senior editorial and commercial people – at old and new media businesses alike – to regularly address the challenges they face in offering new and compelling solutions to advertisers.

These conversations often revolve around how a publisher can use the editorial skills they have in-house, and a reputation for producing high-quality content, in commercial ways that won’t alienate the readership or damage a relationship that, in some cases, has been built on centuries of editorial rigour.

So how do they do that? Well, it isn’t easy.

A recent editorial candidate told me at their (established) news organisation, they have clear boundaries to maintain the traditional gap between editorial and commercial. But this ‘traditional’ gap is no longer the case everywhere, and some of the UK’s most distinguished media businesses are peering directly into it in the hope of finding new sources of revenue.

Increasingly, media organisations are becoming more relaxed around the separation of editorial and commercial activity and redefining how existing boundaries can work. Under the umbrella of ‘native advertising’, the old lines between editorial and commercial are changing.

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The limits of recruiting executives through your personal network

Every week I talk to dozens of media business leaders about how they recruit senior executives. I ask them what the changing nature of business means for their hiring policies, what their recruitment challenges and pain points tend to be, and I also ask about the measures they take when they’re recruiting executives – the advertising they use, the contingency agencies taken on, and the headhunters they engage.

When I ask these questions I frequently hear the same answer repeated back to me:

‘Oh,’ the business leader will say. ‘I just recruit through my own network’.

The remark is usually qualified with: ‘we know everyone in the market anyway’.

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