BoSacks Speaks Out: Review and thoughts on the Digital Innovator's Summit in Berlin 2016

By Bob Sacks on April 15, 2016

I go to a dozen or more media conferences each year. Many I speak at and others I report on as a media analyst and journalist. I always hope to learn something new or hear different perspectives. I have seen the best and the not so great. Having attended the good and the bad, it is fair to say that I have a broad perspective on the subject of conferences and their worth to the attendees. After all, if there is no real intrinsic value to the "customer", what's the point? 

That being said I recently attended for the fourth time FIPP'S Digital Innovator's Summit (DIS) which is held each year in Berlin.  It is by far one of the best shows I attend each year. I always look forward to it, because I walk away with greater insights into our business then when I arrived. Where some shows are about industrial cheerleading, this show is about practical insights and new media methodologies. This meeting had more than 600 attendees from over 30 countries. Just having the opportunity to meet and chat with these publishers from around the globe is a meaningful experience in and of itself. But there is much more to this event then schmoozing with peers. 

There is nothing at this event that is not near perfect. The organization, the setting, the clever timing of the speakers, and the overall rhythm of the show is smooth, filled with professional insights and enjoyable. I'm not sure how they gather such excellence in presenters, but other organizations could learn a thing or two by observation and replication. I know as I write this that it sounds like hyperbole on my part, but it ain't. I don't lightly travel to Germany for three nights and then quickly return unless there is a strong reward, and here there is.  

 The show started with a presentation by Duncan Edwards, who is president and CEO of Hearst Magazines International. He said that Hearst, which has been in the consumer media business for 125 years, is in the process of an extreme makeover. He said, "We realized we might not be able to make the same money in these disruptive times, but the truth is, there has never been a better time to be in the content business." He continued with the observation, "There are going to be huge audiences that have never been available before." 

Edwards pointed out that as a global content company, they "been selective in how they proceed" and in doing so have achieved 153% growth from 2012 to 2015. Their aim "...is to be the largest lifestyle digital publisher in our chosen markets. In order to achieve that goal much had to change.  It has always started with content. Content is in our DNA and always has been.  But we needed to change the speed of delivery. We needed to change the process and go from months to moments. The challenge is to produce monthly magazines and real time content." 

"We continue to have a real profitable print business.  In 2006, 10 years ago we produced high quality, evergreen print content. Then switch to 2016 and it is high frequency newsy content everywhere. One of the things we've done is that the content we produce belongs to Hearst and not one title or one country.  We share between brands and countries. 20% of our content is shared across all our brands...

Our content is everywhere we can monetize it."  

Edwards said, "We believe the reason for our success is that brands matter, famous brands are equity and they have purpose, a clear and differentiated voice in a cluttered world. Technology, product, content, data, advertising and distribution are all inseparable, so we need to be in control of the whole experience. We have set out to produce a single technologic platform and product team, universal set of templates and a set of ad processes. We know that consumers like advertising in magazines. Our job is to make it the same on the web." 

We heard from another giant American company, which has been around for 124 years, which I thought was pretty amazing and is one year less than Hearst.  Sam Olstein who is the Director of Innovation at General Electric (GE), shared how GE is immersing itself in a communication revolution and experimenting with content strategies to reach the consumer in new ways.  

Olsein said, "As marketers, we need to make the future happen." He explained that the challenge for GE was how to stay contemporary when they don't touch the consumers directly anymore.  This means "taking GE's passion for science and technology and leveraging new content strategies to show up in unexpected ways and reach a new generation of potential consumers." 

Did you know that over 60 years ago, GE launched a series of comic books to inspire a new generation engineers?  Olstein said that the comic books represent a great historical marketing artifact. So what did they do in the 21st century? GE teamed up with Wattpad, a social network for serialized stories, and invited 6 of its most popular science fiction writers to bring the "Adventures in Science Comic Book" back to life with a modern sensibility. Olstein explained, "We knew that most of the Wattpad community read and wrote on their mobile device, and we wanted to fit our new approach into this existing behavior." And GE did just that. Post launch the comics received nearly 60,000 reads across nine countries. 

Another interesting speaker was Centaur Media's Steve Newbold, who is their Divisional Managing Director. Centaur Media is a BtoB powerhouse which has 50 brands in their bullpen. Newbold said Centaur Media's 50 brands were once completely silo-ed, and that has changed. In that respect he sounded much like Duncan Edwards of Hearst. 

Newbold said, "Our ambition, which is a big change for us, was to use digital technology and events to transform the business into a multiplatform content and insight business. We stepped back and listened to our customer base and only then went about rebuilding the business quickly and reliably.  We relaunched 9 magazines, launched 6 new annual events, and created 3 new subscription products. We are now getting half our revenue by using data and reaching out to individuals." 

Newbold said, "Our teams measure and track brand engagement. The average yield of our market reports has tripled and registered readers are up 300%. We asked the simple question: What does our market want? And then we adapted to it. It is about narrowly focused content to paying readers." Newbold went on, "Instead of cost per thousand, we proceed as cost per user when speaking to advertisers." 

In the DIS conference we also heard from Torry Pederson, the CEO and editor of Schibsted. Schibsted, for those who don't know as I didn't, is an international media group with 6,900 employees in 29 countries. Pederson said Schibsted has 62% of its revenue coming from digital, and they are a global leader in classifieds. Their approach is to develop world class media outlets and new online services. He went on to say, "Everything must be scalable on a global basis." That is very close to what we heard from Hearst. So, as you can see, there are media patterns developing here from different companies with very similar global strategies.  

Pederson went on to say something quite interesting, "If you give the legacy side of the business the upper hand, business will just be too slow . . . Traditional paths deliver the same story to an 80-year-old as is delivered to a 20-year-old.  That is wrong and doesn't work." He wants to create engaging stories for the consumer with simplicity. He suggested that we must curate content to reach the consumer in the right way, at the right time and place. 

Pederson asked an intriguing question: "What if you had your own editor? What if you could read, listen or hear as you wish to in real time? What if it was just like talking to Siri?" He offered that you should be able to talk and ask your news operation questions and get answers.

Pederson said "You have to make a lot of mistakes to finally get it right," which sounds similar to Hearst's David Carey, who said, if we are going to fail in a new project, we want to fail fast. 

I could go on and on to review this event as I have pages and pages of notes. Each speaker had and shared great insights, not only in their own businesses, but also how their ideas could be used elsewhere in other companies. Pretty clearly where once digital terrorized traditional publishers, they are now embracing the process and making sizable profits where not too long ago none existed.  There is no turning back the clock of information distribution, formally known as publishing. We now curate content and revenue on a global basis with greater ease and grace than ever before. And this is still just the beginning. 

Here is a link to a FIPP reporter's synopsis of the entire event including topics like the list below: 

How G+J combats ad blocking and improves user satisfaction

NatGeo's brand's innovation

Strategies to combat ad blocking and increase ad effectiveness

How Time Inc. innovates with tech to ignite current and new business

Refinery29 VP on understanding the millennial mindset

Lessons on driving digital businesses

Virtual reality's time has arrived

Buzzfeed's Ben Kreimer on new tools for spatial storytelling


By Bob Sacks| April 15, 2016

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Bob Sacks

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