Category Archives: Media & Marketing

The Apprentice

Lord Alan Sugar at Destination Growth '09 So prior to the current series, I’d never watched the Apprentice. The concept reminded me too much of some curious hybrid of actually working and interviewing for a new job through one of those awful milk-round processes where you have to do ludicrous, unrealistic exercises to prove your worth.

Amanda brought me round. As with football and celebrity, and occasionally Eastenders, The Apprentice has become one of those shared frames of popular reference. Everyone has a view on it; everyone gets caught up in the exercises, and for those of us who work in marketing… there’s a thousand lessons of what not to do painted every week.

This week, I have a new phrase for an undifferentiated marketing proposition. The "Every Dog." If anyone tries to pitch me a generic sounding service again, I’m just going to say "No thanks, that’s too every dog." It might even work.

Talking to a colleague today gave me an insight as to why there’s such a strong appeal to the programme. They do seem to find curious, dysfunctional groups of people to collaborate on these projects. The net result is dramatic, exciting, and ludicrous television, in which modestly intelligent people get on so badly that they fail, in many cases, to organise the proverbial piss up in a brewery. Which makes you feel good about your own merits, modest as they may be.

Lord Sugar; thank you for this feel-good television. It’s the best thing I’ve got from you since my Amstrad PC 2286.

Automating churnalism

RobotDanny, a freelancer I’ve worked with over the years, writes sagely on automated journalism – the idea of algorithmic “writers” interpreting standard corporate output (financial statements, press releases etc) and interpreting them automatically:

Narrative Science, a startup in Evanston, Illinois, wants to do just that, with data-intensive stories. Its technology uses natural language algorithms to craft rudimentary news articles about data-intensive subjects, such as sports and financial results.

I find this fascinating as a concept. Of course there are limitations, but given the concerns the industry has about the decline of ‘proper’ journalism – investigative reporting, in-depth analysis – basically anything beyond ‘churnalism’ – and the challenges new media presents in creative storytelling – demanding video, data visualisation and beyond – I hope this concept develops.

In practice, the market for human-written news (even churned) stories will remain, keeping that industry afloat (I think, if they can monetize well enough) – but imagine if a virtual writing assistant helps draw correlations and interesting facts out of a decade worth of financial reports to add some colour to the latest story, or automatically trawls through to get you the aggregate views the Internet has on a product you’ve been sent to test… Would make that industry more efficient and their output more meaningful.

Maybe Public Business should talk to these guys… Although the method of supporting the media is different (investment in training and specific types of journalism vs. creating an algorithmic automator for reporting the news) some of the goals will overlap – in terms of interpreting and presenting data back in a useful way that informs more insightful reporting.

Baby social media management services

Chris (and Tom and Damian) came to visit this weekend, and as is inevitable when {heavy irony} social media gurus {/heavy irony} come together, we brainstormed new business concepts.

Well, maybe not entirely new, but ‘Baby Social Media Management’ seemed a concept worth exploring, so we checked if was available (it wasn’t, already registered to some doting Bavarian dad, apparently) and considered other stratagems for maximising my 7-month-old daughter’s social graph. Knowem seems particularly well named for my daughter’s use…

As part of this discussion, Chris pointed me at this case study – which, needless to say, is dynamic, interactive, synergistic, integrated social media success.

Pink pony integrated marketing campaign ftw

Metro front pages–tech is so mainstream

I love technology as much as the next man – my wife would say considerably more than the next man – but I’ve still been moderately baffled by the editorial decisions that planted not one, but two tech stories on the front page of Metro in recent weeks.

First – the Twitpic story (which seems to have been taken off the Metro website but is still visible in the search). In brief: Twitpic changed its terms of service so that it owned the rights to the pictures its users uploaded. Twitpic is a photo service built to work with Twitter. During the course of the day, as Chris charted so well, Twitpic redacted its changes and reverted to the original ToS. All sorts of bits have since emerged, including a letter Tom received from the Twitpic founders stating that the rights to all photos would be available through a specific photo agency (now gone from Twitpic?). So I totally agree there’s an interesting story here. BUT… front page? Twitter is a service used by a growing minority, but still a minority (I don’t believe the stories that say it has hit the mainstream in any meaningful way)… and Twitpic is used by a subset of those users. Doesn’t strike me as front page news by any stretch of the imagination. Still, let’s call it a slow news day.

Second: The dramatic front page: “Android phones ‘all leak secrets'” – later retconned/subedited on the web to “Android phones almost all vulnerable to hackers“  – I mean whoah. That’s one heck of a front page. PC Pro blogs explaining why people shouldn’t be concerned (I actually think PC Pro’s view of a world where people know they should not connect to an unsecured wifi network is more than a little naive) – but seriously, this is a) a story that affects a relatively small number of people (despite Android’s increasing user base) and b) in no way front page news. Seriously! If, every time Microsoft patched a flaw on Windows (and there have been more serious and more easily exploited vulnerabilities discovered on Windows XP, I’m sure of it) –> well then, we’d have a front page a month that would at least fit the criterion of relevance to the readership, if not one of the slightest bit of interest.

That said: the superinjunctions story (yeah, that one) did bring Twitter to the focus for the whole country, so those front pages – totally make sense. No confusion there.

On the whole, however, a little confused as to what the Metro editor was thinking here, and would love to know if its a tech agenda, a sense that it’s sexy to pick on web 2.0 companies in a Daily-Mail-sort-of-way, or if that really is how they see their readership; Smartphone wielding, picture sharing, Daily-Mail reading digital natives. Which, looking at the history of front pages on Metro that come up in Google images, might make sense: they feature evem more tech stories including £3 Amazon MP3 albums, “Planet Facebook” and an Android scare story from earlier this year.

Damn, tech is so mainstream.

Internet killed the traditional book store. And the record shop. And the…

There’s a lot of talk amongst our client base of the new business models and innovation possible thanks to the power of the Internet. There’s also a signficant amount of chat about what it means for the pre-web business models – particularly in the media sector.

Look at Waterstone’s, sold last week for a relative pittance. And the share price of the HMV Group – on a persistent downward spiral over the last 12 months – demonstrates how poorly that business has adapted to the Internet age. Contrast that with Amazon or even B&N and you’ll see that real innovation is needed to translate some of those legacy business models to the new delivery platforms we have for media. Amazon is selling more Kindle books than print books – absolutely astonishing. Who would have guessed that things would move this quickly?

B&N, worth around $1bn, as Tom pointed out on Twitter the other day, has managed maintain its valuation where Waterstones et al haven’t. The analysis points out that it has tried to keep on the edge of things with an innovative eBook portfolio in the US. Tom sums it up neatly:

If that’s not an advert for why old media businesses have to aggressively investing in digital platforms, I don’t know what is.

Waterstones’ e-commerce ventures were hopelessly bumbling – first a partnership with Amazon, then its own webstore, and then perhaps a slightly misjudged ebook strategy which I still don’t fully understand today.

I guess, though – that at least they tried. And establishing what insights are needed to drive appropriate customer-centric innovation requires an understanding of customers that goes beyond what they themselves think they need – three years ago when I first got an e-reader, virtually no-one I spoke to was willing to give up the feel of a rustling paperback. We would never have guessed that so many people would be reading everything on Kindle [apps] this soon – but here we are.

The worse thing anyone can do about the Internet is bury your head in the stand. It’s a rolling force for change, whether we like it or not, and is having a dramatic impact on virtually every business I come across – nowhere more dramatically than in the media sector.

My brother talked about the need for smart, digital people in the film and TV industry over on Screen Daily and the apparent dearth of them in his industry. As someone passionate about the media sector here’s hoping that the digital people find their way out of the woodwork and help with the industry in the evolution of its more traditional business models… so there’s not only aggressive investment, but sensible investment in the development of new business models…

Simple language is best

I ran a training session just before I went on sabbatical on various social media bits and pieces, showing people how to use search engines to find key phrases – amongst many other things.

Over the course of the session, which I tried to keep jargon free, I somehow managed to tell people that they should "concatenate their search terms" and use "Boolean search." I was also talking about influence and sentiment analysis, so there was a lot of jargon floating around that I couldn’t seem to avoid.

I think us social media-y types (oh, god, is that what I am?) should have our own translation engines, like the Bank of England. Check it out :

Inflation is likely to pick up to between 4% and 5% in the near term, and to remain well above the 2% target throughout 2011, boosted by the increase in VAT, higher energy and import prices, and some rebuilding of companies’ margins.

Which means:

You will continue to be squeezed in the next couple of months by the government, overseas governments and companies.

Otherwise we might as well just be doing this.

(As an aside – I love that the CItyWire piece, in addition to clever writing, included a bit of clever coding. That principle – of creative storytelling in new ways, whether through interpretation or presentation of information and analysis – is one of the key things that will keep people passionate about traditional media venues, IMHO).

Six skills today’s PR professional needs to have

One in a sporadic series of work-related posts. I’ve been thinking about some of these for a while, and a couple of them in particular sparked the idea for a post. What do you think? These are in no particular order…

1. Polymath tendencies. I think a good consultant is able to shift with the winds, being as interested in mechanical engineering one day as social anthropology or fiscal policy the next. Being able to understand the drivers behind major political, social, economic and technological trend is a key skill in helping clients meet the media agenda and too many people come into careers without even the curiosity to help them evolve to a state of general interestedness in the world. If you can step into the shoes of a psychologist, information architect, one of your client’s customers – whatever it may be – it will provide an additional lens through which you can see campaign ideas, and provide another basis of insight on which you can build your ideas.

2. Hyperconnectivity. By this I mean that you are able to connect yourself into different information and social streams with deft facility – coping with dialogues on multiple channels, and absorbing information at a quick pace. It’ll help you cope with the burgeoning requirement of enterprise to keep tabs and engage with social media conversation, it’ll support your ability to engage with hyperconnected media contacts, it’ll let you be on the edge of what’s happening.

3. Numeracy (and visual thinking). I’ve talked about data before, and the ridiculous accessibility of it – more than most people can understand or make use of. A PR’s job, in its simplest sense, is in crafting and communicating stories for and with its clients. Telling these stories increasingly requires a ludicrous amount of context and capturing this context in visual representations is a vital part of contemporary journalism and blogging. Everyone loves a good infographic – can you tell a story in pictures as readily as you can in words? Note that I don’t mean that you need to be a statistician, or a designer – just equipped enough to do some basic number crunching so that you can build the story – and think visually enough to brief a graphic designer to create what you want.

4. Literacy. I’ve met in equal number over the years – of PRs who treat the English language like an bat, crushing messages into as short a space as possible – and those that throw flowery turns of phrase into every other sentence. Good PR writing is jargon free, to the point, well-referenced, in context and over all else – concise.

5. Confidence. Whilst it may be possible to be a mild-mannered Clark Kent in the world of media (and I’m doubtful about that), PR calls for a strong temperament – you have to be able to consult (either into the business or to clients) which by definition may require taking a contrary view, you have to be able to deal with investigative journalists, you’ll probably have to deal with a crisis or two – all of this requires a steady hand and an occasionally loud voice. Not to mention confidence goes hand-in-hand with having no fear of the phone.

6. Ethics. It may be out of fashion for some, but at our agency – and in my own moral framework – it’s important to maintain certain boundaries. I’m not going to mention the obvious example here – if you’re in the industry you’ll know the current showcase example of dubious professional practice.

Have I missed any? Tell me in the comments.

Journalism for ethical business

A friend of mine, Damian, has founded a not-for-profit initiative with some of his journalist and ethically minded peers which launches in a couple of weeks time. I hope you’ll help spread the word and support the launch event.

In a nutshell, from the the website of "Public Business":

The financial crisis showed the need for more serious, dedicated reporting on business actions. We are a small, independent and collaborative non-profit, supporting original journalism looking into the wider economic, environmental and social implications of business – from the causes of the next crisis to the impact of business on climate change.

I’m all for this. The world of media is one of finding information, interpreting it and communicating it with useful context. Increased regulation has resulted in increased corporate reporting – but drawing this data to the attention of the general public is increasingly left to ‘churnalists’ – people that recycle press releases. (Another post will follow soon on what journalists and PRs need to be equipped to do to visualise and interpret this data)…

Despite the fact that my business involves (amongst other things) sending out these press releases I firmly believe that the media has the potential to serve a vital public role – as I mentioned in my recent post on the Sarawak Report – to provide a forum for discussion of important social issues. Where in Malaysia the issue is political, in much of the west its a commercial issue – news media cannot justify the expense of true investigative business journalism (we still find the money to do scoops on celebrities…) – so I hope and wish Damian and co the best in getting this one off the ground and funding some valuable reporting work.

The event launches the initative, and there’s a parallel one in New York for American readers – like the Public Business Facebook page for more details. I can’t make either unfortunately but Damian will be at the London one, hosting with his usual manic aplomb.

Why do ratings matter for the BBC?

A lot of the protest around the Outcasts cancellation I’ve read in the comments has been around the ratings question. As a public service broadcaster, why do ratings matter?

Put simply, ratings are a way of the BBC verifying that it is spending the license fee in the viewers’ interests. If it is committing a large spend to a TV programme, it needs to be sure that it is proportionate to the interest in the show. Bearing in mind that an hour of even a simple soap opera can cost in excess of £100k, and these, rightly or wrongly, receive millions and millions of viewers, the higher cost of creating a Sci-Fi drama series presumably proportionate support (although obviously it’s not as simple as “as many viewers as Eastenders” or it’d never get made). In addition, although this is a secondary concern, a highly rated programme can be a source of revenue for the BBC via BBC Worldwide (which made £1bn last year, pittance against the operating costs of the BBC but not too shabby).

There’s more on this question on Quora for interested people.

However, I think the BBC has ignored the long tail a bit with Outcasts. If you look at my exchange with an independent TV producer on Quora here you’ll see that iPlayer ratings do indeed count – independent production companies are remunerated in part on performance there – but it looks like the decision to cancel Outcasts was taken before iPlayer data came into play. This is presumably because the viewer numbers were far too low for a mid-week prime-time programme, irrespective of iPlayer views, but without access to the iPlayer viewer numbers its difficult to know if they’ve been properly thoughtful about this.

Incidentally, I wrote to both the BBC and show producers Kudos TV to put some commenter questions to them. Sadly, the BBC has ignored me (presumably because I am not a journalist) and Kudos sent me an ironic individual reply saying they wouldn’t reply to emails individually.

Sarawak wikileaks story and the Malaysian media

So, whilst we were visiting Malaysia what could have been a major media story broke. Activist blog Sarawak Report, which campaigns on environmental issues in Malaysia’s Eastern states, published a wikileaks style dump of data showing supposed “land grabs” – places where the chief minister of the state, amongst others, took land or benefits from the sale/development of land – much of it primary rainforest – for themselves.

If you think of the UK where the Telegraph’s report on ministerial expenses exposed small-scale corruption – duck ponds, travel, houses and the like – this story should have been immense. This is (at least potentially) the systematic destruction of the rainforest for massive personal gain. If the story is libellous, then the campaign sould have been investigated and discredited in the media. At least, that’s what you’d expect.

Instead, the major Malaysian newspapers have been almost completely silent on the story, with the exception of a few luke-warm stories reporting Government investigations into Radio Free Sarawak, a radio station campaigning on the Sarawak Report “allegations” and challenging corruption in the region, championed by Gordon Brown’s sister in law, Clare Rewcastle Brown.

The only outlet to cover the story was (paywall) MalaysiaKini, an online publication with a history of taking on the controversial and a few of whose reporters have paid the price for it – detained under the always-to-be-feared ‘ISA’ – Internal Security Act – which bascially grants the power to the government to do whatever it wants to whoever it wants. Thankfully Malaysian bloggers are now actively covering the story and hopefully awareness will break and something will happen, but somehow I’m doubtful. The papers probably exist in a combination of fear of the ISA and pressure from their political overlords – many of the Malaysian newspapers either are owned by or have strong affiliations with Malaysian political parties. Ref, Wikipedia, which adds this:

The national media are largely controlled by the government and by political parties in the Barisan Nasional/National Front ruling coalition and the opposition has little access to the media. The print media are controlled by the Government through the requirement of obtaining annual publication licences under the Printing and Presses Act. In 2007, a government agency — the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission — issued a directive to all private television and radio stations to refrain from broadcasting speeches made by opposition leaders.

It’s not surprising, as Malaysia persistently does poorly in global press-freedoms surveys, but it is depressing. This is why when I tell people I come from Malaysia, and they say “oh, that’s a beautiful place,” I sigh and say something non-committal. It’s difficult to think of a place as beautiful when its rotten to the core.