On Change

Reading the signs

By Norbert Specker/October 2003 - Change, we have found, often comes from the fringes of our organisation. A particular disguise is change brought to us by people who want to sell us on a new business concept.

It is one of the great running jokes of established companies that they are always the first to be offered an outstanding new revenue concept — a tradition that started long before IBM was offered the PC on a plate. And these established companies are invariably the last to adapt to the market realities when those concepts and products have found their way to the consumer — usually without their support.

You will be the first to learn about the best
We can simplify that and say: Due to its position and leverage power, the leading newspaper in any market will have the first right of refusal for every clever, money-making, consumer-fascinating, advertiser-binding concept that comes out of this market place.
Unfortunately this simplified statement holds also true. The leading newspaper in a market is the surest to miss those opportunities.

Why is that? Is it because the decision-making process in most places still punishes the brave and encourages the keeper of the status quo? There is that, but often it is more complex than this.

Who will the bearer of gifts address?
The discussion was triggered by the request of David Wolfe who, in doing research for the cover story of this month’s magazine, wanted to know if European newspapers had any particular strategy to in going after non-traditional revenue sources. The position of business development manager is not a position that comes naturally to the newspaper industry. There is, in most cases, no obvious calling address for the bearer of great commercial promises and no solid evaluation process (I am wildly, however, interested if your newspaper is different).

The path can be summed up thus: If you know the most likely person within a company to listen to a new — even proven — concept, then you have the chance to make it to the presentation level.
If this person is very secure in his or her position, intimately acquainted with the internal politics, and the concept does not touch the department of an enemy, there is the chance that the business idea is presented at a bigger table.
If then, by chance, no uneasiness arises, nobody shouts, “we did something similar 15 years ago and it does not work,” negotiations might result.
In total, this is generally an unstructured and exceedingly random procedure.

Missing boats
One of my more telling personal examples stems from early 1996, when I discovered for myself the potential of e-Bay, still in its baby garage state, and negotiated a deal with Jeff Skoll and Pierre Omidyar to introduce them to the European market. Short of influence, contacts and money, I approached my best bet — an executive at the biggest newspaper in Switzerland to partner so we could finance a first step (around US$40,000) as a licensee and create the publicity to make it work in this traditional test market.

If the story would have gone differently than stories like that usually go, you would know about it. The newspaper would probably not be so worried about the current meager advertising market — and I would most likely be playing “boule” in a little village on the Mediterranean. Could you bring me another Pastis please?

Create a perceptive filter
That newspaper is also your newspaper. The bearer of gifts is often not recognised. An important element for a culture of change is to sharpen the instruments and the sensibility with which the scores of people and their ideas, concepts and business proposals who try get into your front door, are assessed and processed.

An innovative newspaper is not necessarily the newspaper that has the most brilliant people who come up with the greatest ideas. It really needs only one true recogniser of valid proposals — regardless of where they come from — to be successful in a changing world. Now think about the job description of such a person!

Better still it is to make certain a solid evaluation process is in place, a uniform entry point, and a valid company policy. Unlike the evaluation processes of the Internet boom years, the goal should only differ in that it is not relevant if there is an exit strategy — only if there is a benefit for your company.


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Norbert Specker is the founder of Interactive Publishing GmbH, a service and intervention company dedicated to support the newspaper publishing industry. The column was first published in the October 2003 issue of the INMA Idea Magazine

 



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