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.

But there is something compelling about the quotation for media businesses – and specifically about the notion of known unknowns and unknown unknowns.


Known Unknowns

Many of the CEOs I talk to have a real sense of the known unknowns. Most of them are struggling with transition in one form or another. They might be moving from print to digital, diversifying into events, changing from ad-funded to subscription-funded content production, or coping with the challenge of mobile. If they work in the information space, their clients might be moving to workflow solutions, or changing sales processes from a product to a value-led approach.

These may sound like nuances: but they all require a shift into areas where the skills are not familiar. In most cases there is an existing blueprint, as these businesses can see competitors leading the way, but they may not know how to get there themselves.

In these cases the fix is relatively straightforward. There are people out there they can hire who can help them lead the way. The difficulty for any business which is going through a transition of this kind is how you identify the right people to lead the change. For the uninitiated, a snake-oil salesman can seem convincing.

To ensure you identify the right people knowing how to ask the right questions is important. Obviously (and I would say this) having an expert third party vetting candidates on your behalf is definitely the best solution; but if you prefer to go it alone, good research can help. Ringing people who have done well in other fields and asking them what they look for can be a good path. While your competitors might not be keen to share their tips (although you may be surprised), senior people in analogous, but not competitive, businesses might be happy to talk.


Unknown Unknowns

This, of course, is trickier. How on earth do you prepare your business for the unforeseeable?

No-one knows what the media landscape will look like in ten years. The one thing we can be sure of is it won’t look like it does now.

The comforting thing is that nobody else can be sure either – so your business might not be any more in the dark than most. However, lots of businesses are taking steps to put themselves in the best possible place to predict future customer behaviour.

This is where the skill of really knowing your audience and your potential clients is critical. Understanding what they do with your content, what works for them, and what doesn’t – all this can be vital information. Does your business understand your customers’ working day? Does it know at what point in their leisure time they engage with your content and how they like it delivered? Has it identified future expectations and audiences?

Whether in consumer or B2B, in information or broadcast, these basic tenets of audience understanding are critical. In large part, the way firms gain this understanding is through use of analytics. Of course, the information that comes from analytics can be vital to the future prosperity of a business, but in isolation it is meaningless; it requires interpretation.

In our experience, uncertainty about what the future may look like has fuelled a rising demand for product specialists. Through combining analytics with quantitative and qualitative research, these specialists can build much more than an understanding of just product: they can build a real picture of your markets, the audiences – current and potential – and contribute significantly to guiding the business forward.

But, of course, if you’re looking to hire product specialists of this kind, and if all this interpretation and analysis is a new development for your business, or the area which is to be analysed is new, how do you ensure you hire the right people? Well, a basic technique is to ask specific questions. They can unearth a lot of baloney.

So, for example, ask someone if they can give an example of a product they were responsible for developing. Then ask them how the idea came about (you are looking for the right answer here – that it came from audience data and research, rather than from an internal brainstorm or a flash of inspiration). Then ask them in detail about that research – how it was constructed, its findings, and so on.

With enough follow-up questions, you can often see a candidate’s grip on the story unravel. Remember the old adage: ‘success has many fathers’. Nobody will lay claim to a failure, but lots of people will claim to have been responsible for a successful launch. Of course, a launch is rarely the work of one person – but by pressing people hard, you will quickly find out how central they were to a project.


Known Knowns

Let’s face it – we all love certainty. We’d all love to have businesses that were successful forever and where we knew 100% of the time what the future might bring.

But in a media landscape that is constantly shifting, we all need to take risks sometimes. The only thing we can try to do is minimise that risk by applying good practices.


Martin Tripp

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Martin Tripp Associates is a London-based executive search consultancy. While we are best-known for our work across the mediainformationtechnologycommunications and entertainment sectors, we have also worked with some of the world’s biggest brands on challenging senior positions. Feel free to contact us to discuss any of the issues raised in this blog.